Gijs Spoor (GS), an Ashoka fellow since 2009, founded social business incubator UnLtd Tamil Nadu last year. He has spent 10 years in India and been involved with four companies before, the most famous of them being Zameen Organic. I got an opportunity to visit him at his home in the forest belt section of the Auroville community in Pondicherry. He has lived in Rajasthan and Hyderabad before his latest stop at Pondicherry. With the first batch of UnLtd Tamil Nadu Spoor is helping incubate 10 ventures. In this open-ended interview he spoke about why he went with UnLtd, the model of incubation, the companies being incubated, challenges he faces and what plans he has for 2014.
SS: Tell us about UnLtd and how you got about starting it.
GS: UnLtd Tamil Nadu was started in November 2012. We actually started in the beginning 2012 when we began talking to startups, about what model we should employ. An Auruville hub was one of the ideas, like the Mumbai UnLltd that provides a co-working space, but startups here said that space was not the issue. What they wanted was skills, context, management and contacts. We shifted gears and focused on peer learning and co-learning environment.
SS: What does UnLtd provide?
GS: They give us understanding, support and provide context. Most importantly they provide lot of templates on different things like running a scouting campaign, go about selecting incubatees, peer learning programs, coaching, fund-raising tips and tool kits for social startups.
When I go to Mumbai and see their working culture I am inspired to build a team that has the same values of team work, sincerity, professionalism, empathy, nurturing and nourishing.
SS: How many companies are you incubating at UnLtd Tamil Nadu? Could you tell us about them.
GS: We have nine companies:
1) Tip4change: Works towards transparency in value chains, a two way flow of information which has label information allowing consumer to communicate back to producers. Consumers can tip the producers of these goods and the money goes straight to the producer groups in the TiP database.
2) Heal The Soil: Co-founded by Snehal, they conduct permaculture workshops, and with that income do free trainings in villages on how to grow own organic vegetables. They also provide seeds, help with the design and maintenance of the garden.
3) Amirtha Herbal: It is a herbal medicine company run by women belonging to a self help group that is 30 km from here. Paravathi the leader of the group is a herbalist. Her dad who was a herbal healer, used to send her to village to get herbs, she hated it then, but now that knowledge is gold. Women who used to spend as much as Rs 1000 spent on medicine, now practically pay nothing with herbal solution and it comes with ecological impact.
4) Eco-femme: They make eco-friendly sanitary napkins that are affordable and can be reused. Using a cross-subsidisation model, they distribute some of them free to disadvantaged women and young girls.
5) Wasteless: Founded by a brother and sister duo – who were born in Auroville – called Ribu and Chandrah, Wasteless focuses on waste created in the pre-consumer phase. Take a vegetable peeler, for example, 70 per cent of waste is created while its being made. Chandrah, who has studied pedagogy developed a course called garbology 101 that teaches students resource awareness in 18 schools in the surrounding region.
6) Komali Mediclown Academy: Leveraging clowning and laughter yoga, they use the practice of medical clowning to reduce stress among villagers and also train staff in hospitals.
7) Reap Benefit: They are a social enterprise based out of Bangalore, their motto is to making green a habit by bringing about behaviour change through gamification and other methods.
8) Anvita: They make a hand-spun knitting yarn for home-knitters that is made from organic materials adhering to fair trade practices.
9) Seed to Self: They are an organic fair trade textile company who want to use the language of fashion design to mobilize entire value chain and work towards sustainability.
10) Kalakootam: They provide e-commerce solutions for rural producers by linking them to sites like eBay and Jabong.
SS: What are the services that UnLtd provides?
GS: We provide a one year incubation program with training and support for services like business planning and fundraising. Startups also get financial help. There are two-levels of funding: for fresh startups its Rs 80,000 and for somebody with a track record it can be Rs 2 lakh. The investment is not viewed as equity or debt, the understanding is that they will fund the next generation of entrepreneurs. It is a pay it forward scheme, at present, but we might have to tweak it, it is under redesign currently.
SS: How do you fund your activities?
GS: We got some help from UnLtd India because they fund half the budget for a full year, besides that we did a Indiegogo campaign through which we raised Rs 3.5 lakh. Recently a friend got married in the UK and instead of collecting gifts she listed UnLtd Tamil Nadu as the donor and we got the proceeds from that. I also do consultancy for established social enterprises and teach leadership at Harvard and at the Centre for Social Innovation in New York.
SS: What are your challenges?
GS: We are still figuring out our own business model, we had a couple of interns from France, who doing a study of other social incubators from around the world and their revenue models, they are currently fundraising to go on this trip. Fundraising is major challenge, my initial assumption was that Indian companies have lot of CSR (corporate social responsibility) funds and they will be willing to support innovative social enterprises. But what I’ve found is that they want to buy impact, as in they want to know what the impact is going to be, they don’t understand social entrepreneurship. They are aware of social and entrepreneurship separately. They will give a grant for impact or invest for equity and then ask for returns.
We also need more young people, who will follow passion, but they are busy thinking what will my parents say or too worried about the future. We have six startups to go for next year, there are a few from Kerala, but the uptake is slow outside of Auroville. Currently we work only with interns, there are no permanent staff. Recruiting somebody with commercial, social experience and the ability to coach startups, and be ready to live in Auroville with not that a hefty salary is difficult.
SS: What plans for 2014?
GS: In 2014, our ambition is to have 20 startups and get companies to adopt at least five of these startups. The average cost is Rs 2 lakh per startup. We are also looking at twinning programmes with Indian universities, there are similar programmes in Europe, where we might open networks and connect to student groups all over the world. The plan is also to build case studies by studying startup problems in India and learning from them that could become part of university curriculum.
My dream is to have our own Jagriti Yatra (a 15 day long train journey that traverses 8000 kilometers across the length and breadth of India) in Tamil Nadu in January, 2014.