India’s technology industry - or any other of its industries, for that matter - has had no campus entrepreneurial success stories to celebrate.
That’s probably because India’s education system is rigid, and the idea of diverting academics to work on startups seems risky and unthinkable. So the possibility of producing an Indian college drop-out Mark Zuckerberg or a Steve Jobs any time soon seems remote.
So Deepak Ravindran is an exception in India. Ravindran and three of his classmates dropped out of engineering school to launch Innoz, whose product is a search engine for mobile phones.
It was a daring move for the friends who come from typical Indian middle-class families. In India’s socio-cultural ethos, education is all important and a college degree is viewed as a passport to a better career, a better life.
Despite the apparent risks involved, a few years after they left engineering school to set up their company Ravindran and his co-founders have come out ahead. Their company has been validated in the form of venture-capital funding.
Now, Ravindran wants to replicate his triumph by supporting a campus technology startup incubator project called Startup Village in Cochin, south-west of Bangalore.
Startup Village’s objective
Startup Village has a bold objective. It wants to incubate 1,000 student startups, mainly product companies, in the next five years. It hopes to help produce India’s first billion-dollar technology company founded by college students within the decade. On college sites, the project advertises itself with the slogan, “Are your dreams for sale?”
Ravindran, whose success has made him something of a star on Indian campuses, believes the Indian mindset has to change, not just among students but among parents and teachers. India needs job-creators and not just job-seekers. “Why does India only worship Bollywood and cricket stars? Why not entrepreneurs?” Ravindran asks.
A campus incubator project for product companies is apparently unprecedented, despite the country having a $100bn outsourcing industry renowned for its software skills. Technology brand names and product companies are surprisingly scarce for a population with so much technical talent.
The incubator is India’s first public-private collaboration. The initial idea came from a group of individuals but the infrastructure and funding are being provided by the local government.
As incubators go, it offers the usual benefits: chosen students will get managerial assistance, patent facilities and angel funding, besides telecoms and office infrastructure. Of the hundreds of applicants, 97 student projects have been selected to take part and a few are already under way.
Array of mentors
For student entrepreneurs, other add-ons make Startup Village unusual and attractive. The project has an impressive array of mentors including Kris Gopalakrishnan, co-founder and co-chairman of Infosys, and MindTree CEO Krishnakumar Natarajan.
Inside its glass and chrome building, which stands tall in its tropical setting, a portrait of Gopalakrishnan comes with a message: “We started Infosys in a room about this size; it’s your turn now.”
The idea has caught fire with colleges in the south-western state of Kerala. Through a Facebook campaign, thousands petitioned the local government to formulate a student entrepreneurship policy.
For a change, the government responded quickly: chosen students would get an attendance waiver of 20 per cent and a four per cent additional grade weighting for pursuing entrepreneurship.
“That is very radical, very brave. For the first time, a local government in India is helping create a vibrant student entrepreneurial ecosystem,” says Sasha Mirchandani, Mumbai-based CEO of venture capital firm Kae Capital, and a mentor to the project.
Silicon Valley model
The student incubator project borrows heavily from Silicon Valley. For one, the project wants to convert the region where it is situated into India’s Silicon Coast. The project itself is modelled on Silicon Valley’s seed accelerator Y Combinator, which supports budding digital entrepreneurs.
Engineering student Vivek Mohan’s RGB Ideas, a startup that is developing gesture-based apps, is among the first to begin work at Startup Village. “The families of 95 percent of engineering students in India push them into choosing the safe option, a job,” says Mohan, aged 20. Government backing and big-name mentors may spur more students down this untrodden path, he says.
Change is coming but slowly, says K Srikrishna, executive director of the National Entrepreneurship Network (NEN) run by the Wadhwani Foundation, which devotes considerable resources to grooming campus entrepreneurs.
NEN’s annual Student Startup Showcase illustrates the change. Two years ago, 140 student entrepreneurs participated. Last year, that number grew to 202. The upcoming showcase in January in Bangalore will be much bigger, says Srikrishna. “India is not yet saying, ‘Entrepreneurship is hot, entrepreneurs are cool’ but we are moving in the right direction.”
Excitement about startups is building among ambitious young people in a country where every second citizen is aged 25 years or below. They see entrepreneurship as a gateway to fame and fortune. That could lead a more liberal, dynamic face for India’s inflexible education system.
However, it may be too soon to forecast the rise of college drop-out entrepreneurs. “We have not reached that level of maverick yet. We need some student success stories first,” says venture capitalist Mirchandani.