[Startup Hatch] BITS Pilani’s Technology Business Incubator spurs 30 startups

This article is part of a series called Startup Hatch, about incubators and accelerators in the startup ecosystem. We have covered IIIT B, VITTBI and tech incubators from Baku, Azerbaijan

Arya KumarThe Centre for Entrepreneurial Leadership at BITS Pilani is aimed at creating leaders through entrepreneurial thinking. To fulfil its mandate, CEL has taken up many projects and initiatives to foster the spirit of entrepreneurship on campus and bridge the gap between industry and the academic curriculum. The idea for CEL was seeded by the BITSAA Centre for Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital (CEVC). The concerted efforts of the students, alumni and faculty resulted in the Centre being set up within a short span of 6 months and going on to incubate a wide range of startups. Arya Kumar, Dean SWD & Chief Entrepreneurship Development & IPR Unit at BITS, joins us in this exclusive interview on the startup support activities at CEL, the startups in the pipeline, and comparisons between the incubator ecosystems of the US, India and China.

YS: What was the founding vision of your incubator, and how is it supported?

A: The Birla Institute of Technology & Science (BITS), Pilani is an all-India institute for higher education. Over the years, BITS has provided the highest quality technical education to students from all over India admitted on the basis of merit. Its graduates may be found throughout the world in all areas of engineering, science and finance. BITS symbolises the maturing of Indian technical ability and “can-do” entrepreneurial spirit, especially as derived from the private sector.

BITS Pilani has been continuously making efforts in building an environment of promoting creativity, inventiveness and innovation among the students through various programmes linking students to industry, R&D labs and other academic institutes in India and abroad. BITS Pilani has an extensive linkage with industry on a continuous basis as a part of its Practice School Programme.

The Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS), Pilani in association with the Department of Science and Technology (DST), Government of India, has established a Technology Business Incubator (TBI) with a vision to “to inspire BITSians to play a prominent role in leading diverse entrepreneurial activities in the country and make a significant contribution in global entrepreneurial innovation.”

Technology Business Incubator is an umbrella for promotion of entrepreneurship at BITS Pilani. TBI administers a business incubator which provides support for promotion of technology driven entrepreneurship. The aim is to provide support system to come out with high-tech high-impact ventures.

In 2003, BITS joined hands with Wadhwani Foundation to found the National Entrepreneurship Network (NEN) triggering off the development of an integrated approach to entrepreneurship development. The large, diverse and highly motivated student body continued its initiatives with the help of its alumni and faculty advisors to organise entrepreneurs’ talks (which have now become institutionalised), entrepreneurship simulation games, business plan competitions and an internship program with entrepreneurial companies. CEL which started with 20 student members now has hundreds of them involved in its activities.

YS: How many companies did you start off with, and which ones do you have now?

A: TBI, BITS Pilani, initially started with one startup in year 2005. Since then, a total of 22 startups have incubated out of which 17 startups have graduated till now. The IP being created by them is mainly patents and copyrights. Some of the examples of companies incubated/incubating are as follows:

Pilani Campus

Startup Ventures Launched:

  • Corpus Labs – software solutions in inventory management, health services
  • Habits – concept that promotes the culture of reading
  • Bridle Information and Technology Solutions – schoolmate product and developing other mobile application based products
  • redBus – an online travel portal catering to bus ticket reservations
  • Open Source Pilani – rural 30-seater BPO provides high quality low cost back office services
  • Mobile Medics – mobile clinics to villagers, won Global Social Venture Competition in 2007
  • Sanat  Technologies – development of modules of data storage appliances attached to network
  • QA Infotech – development of online test case manager and dashboard tool for reporting test results
  • Veta Beans Neural Solutions – provides neuropsychology solutions in HR domain. Won Conquest 2008 and Eureka 2008 Business Plan competitions.
  • E Special Softech – CRM space providing solutions based on open source technologies
  • My Steps Ahead- online structured modules and instructional material to improve employability
  • NextGen PMS - performing feasibility studies for organisations to assess their earning potential in carbon credits.
  • Toss-Card – product to help people keep their contacts always up-to-date
  • Anaya Media (Framebench now) – (founder Rohit Agrawal) – to provide software development and consultancy solutions for the media and entertainment industry. Awards: youngest team amongst 35 teams chosen in The Power of Ideas contest 2010 (prize money: Rs 5 lakh) prize money.
  • Innovese(Yo!Captcha now) – (founder Ankit Gupta) – provide IT solutions for all needs, expertise in website development, software development, web-applications, graphic design, identity design and other business solutions
  • Grey Orange – (founder Samay Kohli) – developing a robotics-based curriculum in collaboration with ROBOTIS Inc for school students; to increase their interest in STEM related courses in CBSE/ICSE Schools. AcYut 3 wins a bronze medal at Robogames 2k9, San Francisco.
  • Parivartan – (founder Saurav Neel Patyal) – gets the dynamism and energy of youth to the development of villages and engages initiatives at the grass root level by treating the community where it works in as equal partners in progress.  Team won Goldman Sachs Leadership Award.
  • V K Industries – (founder J P Soni) – development of automatic contrivance system products using embedded system design technology
  • Apna Technologies & Solutions - design, develop & build a hand-held unit with intelligence to measure vibration and perform vibration analysis. Tri axial MEMS accelerometers are to be used to make the marine industry more efficient.

Companies Incubating:

  • Sharp Edge – providing a technology platform for engineering students which integrates the traditional chalk & talk method with smart classrooms based on cognitive learning. Pen Tablets, i-pads and other gadgets are used as per the institute’s discretion.
  • Tune Patrol – a social music discovery platform to promote independent music artists. With Tune Patrol artists will be able to upload their songs onto the site and let listeners explore and buy their songs in an engaging game-like experience.
  • SMARTEC – changes the manual identification system prevalent in the education sector today with a digitalised system.
  • KNOWLEDGE ASHRAM – develops an adaptive learning environment for all where authors, teachers, students and learners can interact, socialise, collaborate to create, share, publish, learn and explore.
  • PhotoWalker – one-stop solution bridging the existing gaps in photography via its website, phone app and offline models. The technology will help people in all the 3 stages of photography – pre, during and post.
  • Mi-Ti – an innovative sleek design with close to natural approach for typing & writing on a tablet or on paper.
  • TEEVRA CYCLES - customised human-powered vehicle to cater to the need of eco-friendly and efficient mode of private transportation
  • CDS Solutions - developing an e-solutions content delivery model.
  • Phod Phad - bringing the college experience online more freedom and choice.

Pilani Campus

YS: What is the profile of the managers of your incubator?

A: A team consisting of professors in economics and finance, and an associate professor (engineering) are currently managing the TBI along with involvement of other faculty members from different disciplines. The whole team is actively involved in creating an ecosystem conducive for promotion of entrepreneurship in an integrated manner. The whole effort revolves around identifying students and working professionals who would be in a position to take up dedicated entrepreneurial activities across all disciplines.

YS: What would you say are the Top Three opportunities for Indian start-ups?

A: The three key opportunities for Indian start-ups are:

  • Emerging economy with the highest proportion of the population in the 20-40 years’ age group, which provides great market opportunities in varied areas.
  • Ecosystem to facilitate startups is very favourable as evident from government schemes to encourage technology business incubators and provide seed funding support cum other tax benefits to incubate companies.
  • A great potential exists to promote technology driven entrepreneurial ventures as an outcome of entrepreneurship development linked to research and development endeavours in the institute/university system.

Bits Logo

YS: What are the key challenges faced by start-ups in India, and how can you help bridge the gap?

A: The first and foremost challenge lies in inspiring and motivating students to take entrepreneurship as career option and thereafter nurturing them to execute their ideas in reality i.e. practicing entrepreneurship. Our CEL organises a wide variety of programmes on campus to motivate and inspire students to take entrepreneurship as career option.

The second challenge lies in providing good mentoring to startups and networking them with potential industrial clients and business partners. We extend this facility by active involvement of our alumni in entrepreneurship development activities.

The third challenge lies in making available timely seed funding support and linkages with the right angel funders and venture capitalists.  We have seed fund grants from the government of India, our alumni and networks of angel funders and VCs to bridge this gap.

YS: What are the selection criteria for startups in your incubator?

A: The proposals are invited and screened by a committee; shortlisted teams are invited to present their proposals to the committee, where they are evaluated on the basis of team strength, skills, commitment, determination, market potential of their product/service, novelty/innovation involved, scalability, and ability to come out with prototype to actual product/service.

YS: What support and services do start-ups receive in your incubator?

A: The support and services provided by TBI include office space, IT equipment, telecom/Internet connection, fax machine, printers, photocopiers, scanners, teleconferencing facilities, meeting rooms and a library.

TBI allows access to other departmental laboratories and other resources of BITS Pilani for  product development. The attempt is to extend due support in an integrated manner at pre-incubation stage. There are facilities to assisting potential entrepreneurs in preparation of business plans by organising workshops and training programmes on entrepreneurship. The Post Admission Process is a single window clearance at TBI to ensure that the starting up of a company in TBI is hassle free.

YS: How would you differentiate from the other incubators in the field?

A: We have worked on creating an ecosystem whereby students in all our three campuses (Pilani, Goa and Hyderabad) are made to work on their idea in a team with dedicated mentoring and guidance from successful entrepreneurs across globe in a structured manner. The courses offered on campus focus on learning by doing and are operated with active support of alumni entrepreneurs and other leading entrepreneurs. A course titled “New Venture Creation” is operated wherein teams identify their ideas in advance and work with mentors and faculty members to come out with a concrete product or service. Participating teams in the course are encouraged to incubate at TBI for further development and scaling up and given opportunity to avail seed grant through government schemes and angel funding.

YS: What would you define as success for your incubator?

A: We define success of our incubator on the basis of number of incubates graduated, successful ventures, employment generation by these startups and their ability to scale up along with continuous innovations.

YS: How do you compare and contrast India’s incubators with those of other countries like USA and China?

A: The fundamental difference lies in maturity of TBI. The strategy of growth backed up by science, technology and innovation was initiated in China in the 1980s, while it was only during the 1990s that India focused on it. As a result of this, number of incubators per 1,000 population is much larger in the US followed with China and least in India.

In China, the majority of incubators are government sponsored, non-profit organisations. However in the US the model is more of private initiative to set up incubators in universities or industry. In India, it is dominated by government support but simultaneously there are incubators backed up by private sector.

Venture capital support system is well developed in the US while not as much in China. In the Indian context too, VC and angel funding support is yet to develop fully. Government funding in the initial stage of a venture by way of seed funding is easily available in India as well as China but not so in the US.

Integration of research efforts to create intellectual property is much stronger in the US followed with China, while it is yet to develop satisfactorily in India. A strong intellectual property creation and commercialisation support exists in the US as well as China while it is not so in India as yet. Investment on R&D has been around 1.7% of GDP in China and just 0.7% in India while in the US it was as high as 2.5% which made a significant difference in innovation and growth backed up by new ventures.

YS: What are your plans for the coming 3-5 years with respect to new start-ups?

A: Increasing number of start-ups incubating, improving infrastructure facilities and increasing visibility of our TBI based on successful ventures. This would automatically inspire students on campus to plunge into the entrepreneurial journey.

YS: What are your recommendations to the startups and entrepreneurs in our audience?

A: Be focused and follow a structured & disciplined effort to develop your idea into products with proper analysis of market need and value proposition. Identify pain points faced by customers and provide innovative solutions in a timely manner that has great value proposition in terms of cost, time and scalability.

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Madanmohan Rao

Madanmohan Rao

Madanmohan Rao is research director at YourStory Media and editor of five book series (http://amzn.to/NpHAoE). His interests include creativity, innovation, knowledge management, and digital media. Madan is also a DJ and writer on world music and jazz. He can be followed on Twitter at @MadanRao