How IITs are seeding next gen entrepreneurs

Entrepreneurship seems to be the current flavour of the IITs campus.

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By Punita Sabharwal

Entrepreneur India

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Even movies have taken inspiration from the IIT culture. Making headway in real life have been the stories of entrepreneurs having larger than life images. Whether it is Snapdeal, Flipkart, Ola or Zomato, people behind these unicorns have been trained at IIT. IITians are leading the pack in the technology start-up space.

While being a student, everyone has that one big question of how to go about being an entrepreneur. To answer this, IITs are gearing themselves to the demands of today's Gen-Y, who is looking at entrepreneurs as their role models. A decade back, there was a rush for corporate jobs after that we saw lots of students launching their ventures with faculty or alumni. Of late, we have seen students joining startups.

Now, we are seeing students joining an incubator team to contribute to the ecosystem. IITs have made a great impact on their mindset. Last three years saw major activity – specific courses for various departments. As per a recent survey by IIT Bombay's in-house publication Insight, one in four students from the graduating batch of 2014 sees himself as an entrepreneur after five years.

Entrepreneurship seems to be the current flavour of the campus. Whether it is IIT Bombay or IIT–Delhi, one if five students has worked in a startup in one way or the other. So what makes start-ups sizzle? Is it alumni, faculty or ideas that give them a high? A look at the hostel will tell you how it is buzzing with entrepreneurship. For its B Plan competition, IIT Bombay got almost 7,200 entries, which went through two-three stages of shortlisting after which the top 10 did the final pitching.

Talking about his experience at IIT Delhi, Ishan Jindal, who runs a start-up called Safely Home, an automatic accident detection application, says, "At IIT, there are a couple of events like IIT Innovation Awards, where alumni come and you show your product to them. If they like it, they will help you out." In the 2015-16 QS World University Rankings, IIT Delhi has made great progress with a 179th ranking this year, making its place in the only two institutes in the Top 200 list from India.

Graduating Entrepreneurs

If education can build entrepreneurship then IIT Bombay has catched it right.IIT Bombay has specific courses designed for entrepreneurship, which is offered by the School of Management. Recently, it has formed a new entrepreneurship centre at its premises called Desai Sethi Centre for Entrepreneurship. It offers a programme called B.Tech. Minor in Entrepreneurship.

To mkae it on-ground, IIT Bombay started a new course this semester called Proof of Concept (PoC). The PoC centre in the Ignition Lab is the place where students come with ideas. It helps them develop a prototype or some sort of tangible product using facilities available around the campus.

Besides faculty, outside experts act as guides. At the end of the second semester, students make a presentation and show it to the panel of experts comprising Venture Capitalists (VCs) and faculty. If the PoC has some merit, start-ups can follow the venture path. In this, 40-50 per cent of the sessions are taken by experts.

The centre also arranges monthly leadership lectures by leading entrepreneurs. Within a period of one to five years whenever they want, they can opt for the entrepreneurial support offered by the campus.

Divulging details on the increasing focus of the campus on entrepreneurship, Prof. Anand Kusre, Professor, Shailesh J Mehta School of Management, and Professor-in-Charge, Desai Sethi Centre for Entrepreneurship, IIT Bombay, says, "We are starting a new course on technology venture creation in association with Stanford Faculty.

We are still working on regulations and approvals, but for the first time, a Stanford & IIT Bombay joint course is being offered. This will formally be launched in the next semester. We have gone through the courses which they are running and have identified the most successful course at Stanford and that has been adopted by IIT Bombay."

Is this just a buzz for campus entrepreneurs? Prof. Kusre answers this, "For a single entity, it is impossible to bring all this together. We are making entrepreneurs day in and day out. If somebody is interested in creating something, we can support in various ways. The centre's approach is very open and multi-dimensional. The centre is doing everything a student or faculty needs in going entrepreneurial."

Entrepreneurship is intuitive, and you require certain traits but in a country like India first-generation entrepreneurs are not much so there is not a long history. The academic programmes or ecosystem platforms like these definitely help students to realise how they can pursue entrepreneurship.

A Campus That Inspires

Starting a business is a culture which is encouraged by IITs. There is a new policy of IIT which is Deferred Placement Programme. Usually in the final year you sit for jobs, but if you opt for deferred ones, you can sit for jobs next year. You can work on your start-up ideas.

In IIT Bombay students can come back after two years and the campus arranges for their placement. "People have been opting for this option but there has been decrease in the number of students coming back, which seems to be a good sign," informs Poyni Bhatt, COO, SINE, IIT Bombay.

The IIT machinery is self feeding as students are in constant touch with their alumni. They form to be their first mentors and usually when students are looking for funding support or the kind of technology that they want to use or the kind of market that they are trying to explore so usually alumni supports them. Alumni constantly support the students in whatever ventures they come up with.

The previous President of EDC Raunak, got help from Snapdeal founders on how to go about it. The Entrepreneurship Cell, which is a student-run body at IITs, actually came out in support of entrepreneurs. Students are required to work from day one to take forward the entrepreneurial ecosystem. E-cells are bodies started by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurship Development Cell (EDC) captures the interest of the students. It is all about student community. "Every element of entrepreneurship is happening at IIT – putting students in real life situations or providing them funding support to create the prototype," says Bhatt.

Ankur Bhama, President, EDC, IIT Delhi, says, "We have a coworking space right here at IIT Delhi in front of the main gate it is called Investopad. Start-ups will be able to work over there and we will give them mentorship. E-cell has partnered with them. The tie-up will continue for a couple of years. This initiative has been taken by the e-cell team. We have a flagship event, which is a start-up showcase.

We also have a festival called e-summit. We are also a student body developing ideas at the moment running our own start-ups. We have matrix partners, LEAD Angel Network, and private angels as well. They come and invest in IIT-Delhi start-ups."

The Innovation Labs

IITs are today considered to be the biggest entrepreneur churning machine with incubators in place. While dealing with start-ups day in and day out, they can easily provide solutions to problems commonly faced by start-ups. Owing to the IIT branding and a strong faculty and alumni, a great network is established with outside experts. SINE is a technology and business incubator at IIT Bombay.

Although a lot of entrepreneurial activities happen in the campus, SINE is on the venture creation side of entrepreneurship. They get access to mentoring and business experts, besides some seed funding which is given on a case-to-case basis.

A company stays in the incubator for three years. Be it a student, faculty or alumni, anyone can be incubated at SINE. Whether it is IIT Bombay or IIT Delhi all focus on having more and more product based companies to build on IP (Intellectual Property).

To be incubated at IIT, one of the team members should be from IIT. Of late, there has been a trend of faculty launching their own startups. Typically, teaming up happens between PG students and faculty, especially when they work on a project; so they have the understanding to further the whole project.

"We also help students partner with external sources as faculty works on the technological and research sides. In over 22 ventures, faculty members have been involved. In all, we had 75 companies, out of those 25 companies have got faculty involvement. Nearly 65 per cent of the ventures have been successful. Moreover, undergrads start on their own ventures without faculty involvement," says Poyni.

Dr Anil Wali, MD, Foundation for Innovation and Technology Transfer (FITT), IIT Delhi, says, "We have a technology business incubation, which was set up in 1999-2000. So it's not just confined to IIT Delhi. It's an informal way of incubating companies here.

Otherwise students get support from alumni and faculty. We do it formally once they pass out of IIT Delhi. We look at their business proposals. Almost 50 start-ups have been incubated – 11-12 are presently residents, around 33 companies have made an exit and close to 20 are graduating – which means they are in commercialisation.

We take 5 per cent equity for which they get advice, coaching, get into venture space." In incubator, there is not a single batch at one time. Society for Innovation & Entrepreneurship (SINE) can incubate 17 companies at a time; currently it has 20 companies as they are putting two companies in a single company module. Last year it incubated 10 companies.

"Down the line, we plan to have 50 companies incubated at one point of time," informs Bhatt. Out of these, 71 companies incubated in all, 12 companies have folded up, while 20 of them are still here, the rest are doing well in the market. So, there is an almost 60 per cent success ratio.

Although a lot of products see a good start at times, they are not able to build it further or scale it up. According to Prof. Kusre, "If students are building a product or an app, we arrange an expert for them who will help them in development process."

Talking about the kind of companies, they want and don't want, Poyni says, "Lots of companies in market aggregation don't require SINE. They are just clones getting generated, so not much of innovation is there. If you look at the incubator, they are like hardcore engineering, which require long-gestation period and the chances of failure are very high."

The incubator doesn't play a role in valuation game rather it focuses on sustainable business. Since funding is not available to them at early stage, SINE arranges some funding for them. For each company, there is a different approach on how to take it forward depending on its domain.

Business transformation

The aim is to catch ideas at an early stage to provide the necessary environment for further growth. How incubators can actually transform a business can be understood via this example. When Idea Forge came to SINE, rone was not their original idea; they were working on a hand-held device to charge electronic gadgets especially for rural deployment. It was a social venture then; SINE liked the team and incubated them. But over a period of time, they

realised going forward there was limited market as new gadgets would come and make it obsolete. For gadgets, they had an investor as well. So for pivoting, it was not only SINE which had invested. One of their R&D people was an electronic geek, who was experimenting on drones.

For indigenisation they got into drone business. They developed it further at SINE. A mentor from a similar space came in. Then they got into partnership with DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation). People have confidence in working with IIT students. SINE played an important role in connecting them with DRDO. Once they became partners, they also got funds.

Punita Sabharwal

Deputy Editor, Entrepreneur India Magazine

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