Perched atop the 18th floor of the Bombay Stock Exhange, here’s how Zone Startups India keeps it buzzing


Constant iteration of programming and regular jiving with the broader ecosystem is a must for managing a successful startup accelerator, and few do it as nimbly as the accelerator perched atop the swanky eighteenth floor of the Bombay Stock Exchange – a place that holds aspirational value for most newbies. Here’s how Zone Startups India, a unique non-cohort based accelerator programme for early-stage startups, keeps it riveting.

The core team at Zone Startups India

Meet the founders

36-year-old Ajay Ramasubramaniam, Director, Zone Startups India, holds an MBA, and has worked as a business development expert across three countries with vastly different cultures and economies - Tanzania, Canada and India.

30-year-old Niranjan Demanna, the Head for the Startup Accelerator Program at Zone Startups India, is an electrical engineer who brings with him a vast experience of operating incubators and mentoring early-stage entrepreneurs. He has worked at organisations like the Sandbox Startups initiative at Deshpande Foundation Hubballi, and the Sardar Patel Technology Business Incubator, which he had helped launch and run from the apex.

31-year-old Sweta Tiwari, the associate Director at Zone Startups India, has had her trysts with the early-stage startup ecosystem for over nine years. She was an investment professional at Mayfield India and is credited with running the TiE-IQ Bootcamp. In fact, she has batted for both teams, having had an entrepreneurial stint in the chocolate industry, where she founded a handmade chocolates and surprise planning company called Chocodesire.

The roots and the branches

Ajay, after his stint in Tanzania, had started working with the Government of Ontario, Canada, focusing on international trade and FDI. He was close to completing five years in that role when the Ryerson opportunity came knocking. They were a client, and while Ajay was working with the President and his office on a business programme in India, Ryerson also had similar plans brewing. They found Ajay to be a fit for their setup, and he was made an offer over breakfast.

Mumbai, being a big city, the financial hub, home to large corporations and a population in excess of 20 million, lacked this ecosystem. And I had been to Ryerson and its incubator programmes in Toronto several times, and had seen the vibe and the community that was built there. With a reference point I could base my decision on, the plunge wasn't difficult. But given that the startup ecosystem was still nascent in 2013 and that there weren't too many programmes like ours, the task was still monumental,” he recounts.

Their positioning was clear from the outset - an accelerator that works with early-stage technology companies that are beyond a proof-of-concept phase and with a full-time founding team, with some exceptions to the rule on occasion.

Ajay Ramasubramaniam at Zone Startups India

ZSI’s take on incubation and acceleration

Their accelerator focuses largely on customer validation, and enabling the first set of customers and access to industry and partners. “Unlike most accelerators, we are a non-cohort based programme, which means that there is an ongoing intake of startups. Once selected, we work with each startup individually, helping set milestones and work towards achieving them. General mentorship barely adds value. Hand-holding efforts need to vary from time to time in the growth life cycle of a startup, and in spite of being a non-cohort model, we became adept at it very early on,” explains Ajay.

They interact with their founders through different modes, such as routine check-ins, peer-to-peer sessions, mentor workshops, community events, industry visits and investor meets. On an average, during the first quarter, they meet the founders at least twice or thrice a week. Speakers and mentors are usually subject matter experts, mid-senior level industry professionals, or successful entrepreneurs who have built ventures from the ground up.

One of the tougher challenges they faced early on was in building a clear-cut differentiated model. “There were a lot of naysayers due to several co-working spaces calling themselves accelerators, and thereby creating a bad reputation for accelerator programmes generally. The tide had shifted to accelerators reverse pitching to startups, as to why they were a good fit, rather than the other way round,” Ajay recounts.

Also, given that most of the accelerators are cohort-based, people had trouble understanding their approach and value adds - mentorship, tech support, industry connect and investor meetings. These were in addition to support on hiring, partnerships and media, and a world-class infrastructure at the iconic Bombay Stock Exchange tower.

What ZSI has been up to

According to Ajay, one of the reasons incubators and accelerators either stagnate or shut down is lack of finances. “Sponsoring and grants can keep you going for a while, and leasing out space can bring in some revenues; however, it won't help cover entire operating costs or profitability. Being iterative and sustainable are key to the success and growth of an incubator or accelerator programme,” he notes.

Among their other initiatives is ‘empoWer’, India's first tech accelerator for women entrepreneurs, which was supported by the Department of Science and Technology, Google, Vodafone, GIZ and Nishith Desai Associates. Fifteen women entrepreneurs were shortlisted for the six-week accelerator programme from among 191 solid applications streaming in from across India.

Also, for the past four years, they have been organising the annual Next BIG Idea Contest, wherein they identify five high-tech, high-potential Indian startups and grant them access to the North American market, via Toronto. The winners spend two weeks at the DMZ, North America's #1 tech business accelerator.

Among the startups that ZSI identified and handheld when they were still fledgling teams are CitrusPay, Vidooly, Konotor, ShieldSquare, Flip Technologies, Baby Chakra and Survelytics.

A solid bottom line

ZSI’s revenues come from corporate innovation programmes that they set up and operate for large corporations. They currently operate accelerators for Barclays and Axis Bank in Mumbai and Bengaluru respectively, and have also done innovation-linked programmes for organisations like Thomson Reuters, HDFC Bank, ICICI Lombard, and Australia Institute of Sports. They even got a recurring grant approved from the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India, thus becoming the only independent accelerator in India to get access to this grant. A bulk of their funding also comes from Ryerson Futures Inc.

“Again, when we used to initially speak about our revenue models in terms of managing corporate accelerators or innovation programmes, the response would always be ‘Why will they come to you?’ We got the practice rolling within ten months of starting operations in India, and that was a big validation for us,” Ajay recounts.

From among the 106 startups they have worked with, 40 received funding, attracting over $35 million in funds. Among these startups are FlexiLoans, BabyChakra, vPhrase, ObiNo, EPoise, Shirsa Labs, Fixy, Dimension NXG, and Blee Tech.

Why it works

They also keep revamping their programme formats regularly. Hackathons, demo days and industry nights help them maintain contact with the industry, while pitching sessions, office hours, community events and open houses are their bids to stay close to the startup and entrepreneurial ecosystem.

“While there are several accelerators in India at present, none of them have an operating model like ours, nor the spread of activities that we undertake. However, it is also unfair to compare any two accelerators, as each one has its own mandate and goals to achieve,” says Ajay.

They are ready to announce the second edition of empoWer and the fifth innings of Next BIG Idea, besides launching two more thematic accelerators focused on digital inclusion and smart city IoT. “We are also pursuing a few more corporate accelerator programme setups and will be able to announce by close of FY16-17,” he reveals before signing off.


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