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Innovation ecosystems: how to tap the rise of makerspaces, incubators, accelerators and co-working spaces

Madanmohan Rao
7th Apr 2018
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The disruptive rise of the global startup movement and the power of the digital GAFAM giants (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft) are causing traditional industry leaders to search for new approaches to innovation.

Traditional top-down models of innovation driven by corporate research and development (R&D) labs are now being augmented by a new model of ecosystem innovation, with four innovative components. Innovation needs to be more market-focused and agile, based on active and immersive customer involvement. Iterative prototyping and high-speed innovation call for new kinds of players for partnerships.

Makerspaces, incubators, accelerators and co-working spaces are now the new frontiers of innovation and co-creation. Exemplary initiatives of these players from academia, industry and the social sector will be examined in this article.

Makerspaces are unique in creating an environment to play, learn, test and grow ideas. Incubators are springing up in engineering, management, design and government institutes, to help innovators commercialise technology. Accelerators at the national and global level engage with startups and drive them to scale stage via corporate customer connects. Co-working spaces create fertile breeding grounds for co-creation between startups and corporates.

Makerspaces

New materials, manufacturing tools, and supply chain techniques can reduce the supply-demand gap and improve distribution and procurement. Makerspaces or tinkering labs with 3D printers, laser cutters and other tools are the new “micro-factories” and petri-dishes of innovation.

Consumers today are transformed into prosumers who want meaningful brand conversations and personalised solutions. The rise of the ‘horizontal economy’ includes the maker movement of tinkerers, collective buying sites, P2P sharing platforms, and crowdfunding hubs.

Examples include manufacturing workspaces for customers in ADEO retail outlets; 3D printing services of ShapeWays; rise of FabLabs and TechShops; spread of Arduino and Raspberry Pi; and crowdfunding platforms KickStarter and Indiegogo who promote the ‘middle class Medici.’

In India, Makers Asylum has a strong community of trainers and mentors who share their skills through regular workshops, tool training, and meetups on topics like design thinking, wood working, CAD modelling, architecture, and rapid prototyping. Artists, doctors, architects, musicians, designers, bankers, social scientists, and engineers, all fit into the Asylum member profile.

The Mumbai team managers include mechanical, electronics, and automobile engineers and an industrial and interactions designer. There is a well-balanced representation of both technology and design.

Workbench Projects (WP) is a Bengaluru-based makerspace, located at the Halasuru Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation station. Its initiatives in ‘responsible innovation’ include the ‘Girls Gone Tech’ programme for schoolgirls. WP has partnered with the CMR Institute of Technology (CMRIT), an engineering college in Bengaluru, and provides a digital fabrication facility as well as patent filing advice.

It offers workshops on sustainable tech, and has curated the Enable Makeathon along with the International Committee of the Red Cross and Association for People with Disability. As a recognised FabLab by Fab Foundation, Massachusetts, in 2015 WP hosted the very first Mini Maker Faire in India in association with NASSCOM.

IKP-EDEN is a combination of an incubator, co-working space and makerspace based in Bengaluru. Its partners include IBM, Amazon, Becton Dickinson, Medtronic, Bosch, PubNub, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, USAID, DFID, ICRC (Red Cross), Department of Science and Technology, the Department of Biotechnology, and the Government of India.

Incubators

Incubators help founders move from the concept to prototype stage (whereas accelerators typically take working products to scale stage). Incubators in academic and research institutes usually look for an opportunity for faculty and students to engage the startups in projects.

For example, the incubator at IIIT-Bangalore gives support to each incubated unit in the form of workspaces with connectivity, and access to institute facilities like library, meeting rooms and labs.

Startups at these incubators can get students to work as interns, who can be hired after they graduate. The faculty provides consulting and mentorship services in preparation of business plans, proposal appraisal, and prototype development. Founders also get advice on IPR and legal advice, networking within the industry, and documentation for legal and tax compliance.

The roster of incubator companies from IIIT-Bangalore includes Radix, Mapunity, Promedik, RIT, Kollabia, Bitsat, Kenapps, Diginoc, Cloud9, Redmed, Chipmonk, Eureka, FreeEnergy, Fields of View, and Hudooku.

The PSG College of Technology in Coimbatore runs a Science & Technology Entrepreneurial Park (PSG-STEP), a technology business incubator facility for over 30 startups. It supports product startups less than two years in age. The business plan is reviewed by a team of experts and the company is selected on the basis of feedback on the techno-commercial aspects. Graduated startups are in diverse fields like VLSI design, telecom portals, mobile games, and agri-platforms.

SINE (Society for Innovation and Entrepreneurship) is a technology business incubator at IIT Bombay. It strives to create an ecosystem within the IIT Bombay community that will lead to the creation of wealth and social value through successful ventures. SINE helps companies in raising funds from investors and also provides seed support.

Its startups are in areas such as energy, audio technology, high-end security and surveillance products, engineering software, environment technologies, and education. Over 20 companies are based on technologies from IIT Bombay.

The Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS), Pilani in association with the Department of Science and Technology (DST), Government of India, established a Technology Business Incubator (TBI); BITS also joined hands with Wadhwani Foundation to found the National Entrepreneurship Network (NEN). There are facilities to assisting potential entrepreneurs in preparation of business plans by organising workshops and training programmes on entrepreneurship. At TBI, the Post Admission Process is a single window clearance to ensure that the starting up of a company is hassle-free.

Vellore Institute of Technology’s Business Incubator (VITTBI) was envisioned as a support system for creation of knowledge-based startups. It provides seed funding (through TDB and DST grants), innovation funding through the TePP programme of DSIR, incubation grants through MSME and technology commercialisation support through TCFA programme of TIFAC, and facilitates raising angel investment through various angel networks. It supports firms in biotech, pharma, food processing and manufacturing sectors.

Some incubators are sector-agnostic, others have preferred sectors for incubation. For example, the incubator at IIIT-Hyderabad is making a transition from being sector agnostic to being sector specific: language technologies, cognitive sciences, and advanced robotics.

Incubators can also be hosted by government R&D labs. The Venture Centre hosted by the CSIR-National Chemical Laboratory, Pune, is the largest science business incubator in India. It has supported over 40 startups and five large companies as resident incubatees, 18 startups as associate-incubatees, and 65 startups as pre-incubatee.

Targeted sectors are affordable healthcare, assisted living and agriculture; clean energy, environment and sustainable resource utilisation/optimisation; and advanced materials for various applications. Support provided includes specialised scientific facilities (Centre for Applications of Mass Spectrometry), mechanical testing services, confocal microscopy services, flow cytometry services, cell proliferation and viability studies.

Incubators can be hosted in technical as well as management institutes. For example, startups in IIM Bangalore’s NSRCEL get incubation facilities as well as the chance to participate in the 30 or more events that NSRCEL organises every year. These events double up as useful networking opportunities. These opportunities are in addition to the standard access to business services and mentoring for support.

NSRCEL also makes an effort to present the work of its startups to the media. This has helped many incubatees get noticed. The IIM Bangalore brand name also helps bring in many leading personalities and entrepreneurs who engage with the incubatees in multiple ways.

The fourth kind of incubator is design-led. For example, the National Design Business Incubator (NDBI) is an initiative of the National Institute of Design, which has been offering design education for over 50 years. It supports startups via IPR/patenting services, branding and web/logo design services, design clinics, innovators grants from DSIR scheme, and exposure at the Design Idea Fair.

Accelerators

Accelerators take early stage startups to growth stage, either in batches called cohorts or whenever the accelerator or startup is ready to scale up. In an accelerator, entrepreneurs go through a structured programme that will help them reach their milestones faster, have continued access to capital based on business traction, get access to dedicated experts to help them launch and scale, and become part of a peer community of entrepreneurs who will help them solve problems rapidly.

For example, Axilor takes a 12 per cent stake in accelerated startups. Its executive team comprises professionals with expertise in technology, investments and sales. They have several years of experience of working with entrepreneurs and early stage startups. Axilor believes that the sectors among the most ripe for entrepreneurial disruption are e-commerce, healthcare and life-sciences, and clean-tech/sustainability.

An accelerator succeeds if its startups thrive, are able to get funding, and can venture out on their own; continued success comes from being seen as attractive for successive waves of startups.

The Tata Elxsi incub@TE initiative is one of India’s first technology products startup incubators from the Indian corporate sector. Tata Elxsi takes an equity stake of 10 percent or more in the startups incubated at incub@TE. Portfolio startups include Big V Telecom, Sismatik Solutions and Street Smart Mobile Technologies.

A growing number of accelerators in India are also founded by global MNCs. For example, the NetApp Excellerator helps startups on the technical and business side to build their products and strategy in such a way that they are scalable and can cater to an enterprise’s needs.

NetApp provides startups with mentoring, access to customers, investor connects, co-working space and a grant of equity-free $15,000. Graduated startups are in the domains of data security, workflow automation, video analytics, and remote services provisioning.

Another example is Pitney Bowes, which launched its accelerator programme in 2014 in partnership with the NASSCOM 10K Startups initiative. The vision of the Pitney Bowes Accelerator Program is to provide best-in-class technology and mentorship to startups that are building new-age digital solutions focused on solving problems for small and medium businesses (SMBs) across the globe. Graduated startups provide drone solutions, AI-based discovery services, chatbots, and cross-border e-commerce.

Shell in India has launched the Shell E4 (Energising and Enabling Energy Entrepreneurs) programme. Startups at the Shell Technology Centre Bengaluru get round-the-clock proximity to Shell subject matter experts and advisors who can help them develop or refine their products. In addition, the startups have access to Shell’s large global partner network. The first batch includes startups in waste management, electric vehicles, IoT and renewables.

A unique model has been developed by international accelerator platform Techstars from the US, with a network of accelerators in Boulder, Boston, Seattle, Chicago, Austin, Cape Town and London. It has announced a joint venture with ANSR to create Techstars India. Its plans for India include a city accelerator in Bengaluru, Startup Weekend bootcamps, corporate engagements, and global R&D talent for startups. Over 1,300 startups have graduated from Techstars.

Co-working spaces

Co-working spaces have emerged as a unique way to bridge the needs of startups as well as corporate workforces, and bring about co-creation synergies between the diverse communities. They offer technological support, fundraising and networking opportunities, mentorship, basic amenities such a stocked pantry, cultural and de-stressing activities, a friendly non-competitive atmosphere, and a sense of community.

Larger players include WeWork, CoWrks, BHive, Bombay Connect, 91 Springboard, Wired Hub, InstaOffice, InvestoPad, Innov8, NUMA, iKeva, and Jaaga. New players in smaller towns include S.PACE, Adited, Jabalpur Coworking, TIIC Gwalior and 36Inc. High-end players include The Mosaic in Mumbai – which includes a luxury resort and spa, a gym, a bar and an office all rolled into one.

The road ahead

In sum, the need for 24x7 innovation calls for hyper-collaboration. Companies need new kinds of ecosystem engagement skills to partner with suppliers, government, hackers, tinkerers and startups, and even competitors.

Good examples here include Renault learning frugal techniques from its Chennai plant to create low-cost Dacias cars for Europe; industrial symbiosis and by-product synergy between large manufacturers like Chaparral Steel and Texas Industries; Pearson’s Catalyst for Education initiative to engage with ten startups a year; and Ford’s TechShop engagement with tinkerers.

Companies need “innovation brokers” who understand the language of the new kinds of creative partners and customers, and become agile in engaging with them and savvy in monetising them.

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