Start-Ups

How India's angel investors are lifting its startup community to new heights

Angel investment is taking off in India - creating a raft of funding opportunities for the country's entrepreneurs.

On a recent afternoon in Bangalore, founders from 11 startups were invited to a Pitch Day event by Harvard Alumni Angels India. The entrepreneurs presented their business plans in a boardroom-like setting at the Bangalore offices of Silicon Valley Bank.

Seated around the table listening to the pitches was a smattering of angel investors. Presenting their companies were the founders of Metamagics, a startup developing technology innovations to solve commonplace problems in computing, and Tuebora, which helps organizations secure their information assets.  At the end of the few hours, several of the startups had been shortlisted.

India's early-stage ecosystem is revving up, as the event and its outcomes illustrate.

The startups for Pitch Day were picked from 200 business plans received by Harvard Angels, the angel network founded by Ramesh Shah, Raj Chinai and Ravi Gururaj, three Harvard University alumni in Bangalore.  Investors from early-stage angel networks like Mumbai Angels and Indian Angel Network were in attendance.

Later that evening, the guest list at the networking event comprised of entrepreneurs, individual angels, angel networks, early-stage venture capital, lawyers who operate in the startup ecosystem and venture debt providers.

Relative to the Silicon Valley and other more mature entrepreneurial hubs, India has lagged in organized angel investing. A large chunk of early-stage venture funds still come from offshore investors, not domestic sources. Additionally, regulations make early investments and exits cumbersome.

But an increasing number of angel associations and seed-stage venture networks are forming in Bangalore and Mumbai.

The angel ecosystem scene is maturing by the day, said Parag Dhol, managing director of Inventus (India) Advisors, one of the attendees at the networking event. With Indians' net worth growing, many wealthy individuals are turning investors, including many successful entrepreneurs themselves, he said.

Even a few years ago, the angel ecosystem in India was non-existent.  Now, hundreds of angels are registered with the two dominant networks, Indian Angel Network and Mumbai Angels. They are taking risks and funding concept stage and startup companies, even though the risk-taking may not be as aggressive as in the Silicon Valley.

There is a marked uptick in startup activity seeking early-stage funding, said Inventus' Dhol, who provided his company numbers as a proxy measure.

His fund saw 1,095 companies in 2011, nearly double the number of companies it saw in 2008, he said.

These days, angel networks and VC funds in Mumbai and Bangalore are a hearty mix of domestic Indians and Indians born outside the country, particularly those who have returned from the Silicon Valley to boost the investing climate in cities like Bangalore. Many early-stage VCs have at least one Indian American in their team.

In the Silicon Valley, Indian Americans have helped power the startup revolution.  As realization spreads that entrepreneurship is the key to India's continued economic growth, more are returning to their roots. Ravi Trivedi of Srijan Capital is upfront about his return.  Family is a definite draw, said Trivedi, but the fact that investors like him can establish a base and support the startup ecosystem in India is added impetus.

Entrepreneurs also vouch for the surge of opportunities. There has never been a better time to be an entrepreneur in India than now, said Anita Kulkarni-Puranik, founder of Pune-based Metamagics Computing, one of the companies invited to Harvard Angels' Pitch Day. She said: "The ecosystem is bursting with openings for both investors and entrepreneurs."

The early-stage ecosystem is evolving rapidly and investors are beginning to understand the investing space, said Ramesh Kumar Shah, co-founder of Harvard Angels.  Many more Pitch Day events are happening in Bangalore and Mumbai to showcase startups. More angel networks are taking shape.  Activity in the startup ecosystem is getting frenzied.

Returning to that overused comparison, Inventus' Dhol said, "Are we Silicon Valley?  Far from it.  Are we headed in the right direction?  For sure."

About

Saritha Rai is an India-based journalist and commentator who covers technology, business and society from her ringside seat in Bangalore.

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