IIT-Madras Student Entrepreneurs Interact with DilipVenkatachari, the Silicon Valley Entrepreneur and IIT-M Alumnus
IIT is synonymous with academic excellence and surely a gateway to great jobs and good career. The students are usually the best of the brains in the country. But, there is a revolution brewing inside the campus. Centre for Innovation (CFI), which was inaugurated by the 1981 batch alumni, to help students test their crazy ideas is turning into a seedbed of entrepreneurship. AmrutashMisra, who headed CFI in his student days, is now an entrepreneur running an online book library, a books program for school children, and an online food delivery business. The businesses are rolled under one roof—Life Online. Rohit Reddy, until last year a student and CFI head, is the cofounder of Desto, a web design company. He along with four friends is learning the baby steps of entrepreneurship. KedarKulkarni, through his CFI experiment, now runs Lema Labs, a student company in campus, incubated at C-TIDES. EnbaSekar is soon incubating Phasorz inside C-TIDES. Purushothaman from biotech department has started PuriusNanosystems, a biotech startup focused on diagnostics.
Following a recent tour of Prof. Bhaskar Ramamurthy, Director, IIT-Madras, and Ram Nagarajan, Advisor, Office of Alumni Affairs (OAA), to the United States and Canada to meet with the alumni in different locations, many alumni entrepreneurs are showing interest in helping the in-campus student entrepreneurs. “There are at least five to six start-ups in the campus,” said Ram Nagarajan, adding “We are focusing on leveraging our alumni network to help the institute in entrepreneurship initiatives.” Through this initiative, the successful entrepreneurs will be utilized as mentors and funders of student entrepreneurship dreams. Sometimes available funds are not tapped by students. “We had a Rs. 10 lakh fund for biotech startups but we received only one application,” points out Ram Nagarajan, but his OAA otherwise receives only requests for funds applications from enthusiastic students to test out their crazy ideas.
DilipVenkatachari, CEO of Compass Labs, which is engaged in social media advertising, was invited to interact with Amrutash, Rohit, Kedar, EnbaSekar, and Purushothaman. Dilip is a seasoned executive with stints in McKinsey and now a successful entrepreneur with his third startup Compass Labs. He is actively involved with the Pan-IIT network in the Silicon Valley and active in angel funding networks. Ram Nagarajan and VishyVishwanathan, Executive Director, TiE Chennai, along with Joseph Thomas, consultant with CSIE, were present.
“The number of undergraduate students enrolled in CFI has increased from 10 to 40% and lot of students are ready to launch,” pointed out Ram Nagarajan. “Students find it difficult to convert their product to business,” said Rohit Reddy. The student’s drive lasts till the product is developed and it loses steam rapidly afterwards. “Many students are active in their first and second years but in their third and fourth years lose interest,” added Ram Nagarajan. CFI is dominated by technology students and no student is present from biotech. Different clubs such as Aero Club, FSE Club, and Computer Designs Club function within CFI to help students learn from each other in a particular interest area. FSE is working on F1 races and the team has now travelled to UK to take part in a competition.
While students pointed out that funding and managing business are grey areas, Dilip told them that managing issues other than technology happens on a day-to-day in business, adding “You must want to build a company.” Most of them haven’t written a business plan yet. Dilip saw a lot of opportunities in mentoring the entrepreneurs and quoted an example of government of Singapore sending 100 interns to Silicon Valley every year. These interns are much sought after by Silicon Valley companies and they get to understand what it means to run a business. Another area where the student entrepreneurs lack is knowledge of accounting practices. Dilip also pointed out the importance of networking as crucial to success. He felt that informal groups foster much active partnerships and gives impactful results, quoting example of an informal group Googlers, which he is part of.
VishyVishwanathan saw several avenues through which student entrepreneurs can be helped such as through mentoring. “IIT Alumni Association now has a system where the student can choose a mentor,” he said. But he said many students may not be aware of this and encouraged students to seek mentors from among the alumni network to solve their problems.
Rohit proposed the idea of alumni entrepreneurs spending time with the start-ups to help them solve their problems. Different possibilities and examples were discussed and it seemed that this first set of entrepreneurs graduating from IIT-M will encourage more students to take to entrepreneurship. Although IITians have an academic edge, they are still in the nascent learning curve of entrepreneurship.
—Venkatesh Krishnamoorthy, chief evangelist
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