Manish Singhal, Founding Partner of pi Ventures, is a veteran of 24 years in building hardware and software IP-oriented product companies, early stage investing, valuations, deal structuring and strategy advisory across different sectors. Pi Ventures, which he founded in January 2016, is focused on investing in machine learning, artificial intelligence, and IoT-based startups out of India.
Manish has a keen interest in technology and has been active in the startup ecosystem of India for several years. He co-founded LetsVenture.com and helped it become the foremost marketplace for startups and early-stage investors in India (enabled 15 startups raise their rounds) within a short span of time.
Before LetsVenture, he was the India Country Manager for Sling Media Inc, a Silicon Valley-based consumer electronic startup. He built the R&D and product team in India from scratch and led it to a successful acquisition to EchoStar Inc in the US for $380 million.
On July 19th, Manish took time to answer questions from YourStory readers in our weekly section, ‘Conversations at YourStory’. Here are some of the highlights from his session.
Hardware vs software startups and the funding mismatch
On being asked why hardware startups in India have historically been getting the cold shoulder from VCs, Manish remarked that hardware startups are tough investments as they consume capex to get the product going. They also take long time to perfect the product. He explained,
Overall, they tend to grow slowly. Hardware startups typically face capital challenge and lack of quality and consistent manufacturing. However, if you are solving a real problem where hardware is an essential part of the solution, there are ways to overcome these challenges.
'Solve a real problem and solve it like nobody else'
Manish is also a keen mentor of startups and said that he loves working with them as an advisor and an angel investor. He has conducted many workshops in different parts of India to guide entrepreneurs how to raise funds and also investors who want to learn how to invest funds.
Manish pointed out that he has an open-door policy for mentoring and spends his time guiding startups via Microsoft Accelerator, NeN network, and other startups that reach out to him directly. He is also a founder-mentor for an initiative titled Women Entrepreneur Quest—an annual event for recognising and rewarding women entrepreneurs in India.
One piece of advice for budding entrepreneurs that Manish shared was—
Solve a real problem and solve it like nobody else.
Is AI the ‘next big thing’?
Manish believes that we are actually in the middle of a big technological development—artificial intelligence is becoming real and he believes that we will see a lot of interesting applications using AI in the coming years.
He also commented that IoT and machine learning go hand in hand. IoT typically converts a physical signal into a digital signal and then one needs ML or AI to make sense of all the data getting generated. We have ample opportunities in all sectors—healthcare, logistics, energy, etc. He said,
I am very excited about healthcare, especially from perspective of application of AI . Logistics, Cybersecurity, fintech, energy, etc., are some other interesting areas.
Manish noted that data science knowledge is about learning AI. He added that one’s formal education background doesn’t really matter, but “what does matter is what you know and how well you know…. Do lots of projects and online courses. Coursera has a very good course on ML by Andrew Ng.”
Apart from healthcare, Manish finds sectors such as cyber security, fintech, and logistics interesting. Addressing the security risks involved in going digital and leveraging IoT, Manish commented, “Security risk will increase with every digital transition. IoT is no different. There is an opportunity to build a great startup to tackle this area!”
Looking back, looking ahead
Talking about his past work of building LetsVenture, Manish shared that his experience there had been very critical. He learned several things in detail — understanding startups, understanding term sheets, understanding downstream funding, understanding investor expectations, understanding founders. He remarked,
The list is endless... Overall, it gave me a fairly rounded view on how investments are made and nurtured.
Talking about the impact AI will have on jobs in India, Manish believes that repeatable jobs are likely to get impacted. IoT can also reduce the number of people required to maintain an infrastructure. So, folks will need to reskill and move to other things in due course.
Some miscellaneous questions and thoughts on what VCs look for
a)Biggest limitations that AI startups face in India?
“Lack of good quality data and talent could be one. Although I must say that all AI startups need to put more attention on their AI architectures and validation frameworks to really do a good job. That is one area we often find with gaps.”
b)Tips for entrepreneurs to find the ever-elusive work-life balance
Manish remarked that entrepreneurs need to accept the fact there is nothing called work-life balance while running a startup. One should instead focus on building a good support network to go through the hard times. He said, “Sometimes co-founders do a good job for each other on that front.”
c)Key character traits Manish(Pi venture's) looks for in an entrepreneur?
Patient Passion is something I look for. Building a startup takes a lot of grind.
He believes that persistence and the ability to continue building a business in the face of pressure is a precious skill to have. Apart from that, he generally looks for thinking process, ability to sell, ability to execute, and team skills.
Website- Pi Ventures