Silicon Bridge: how Z Nation Lab accelerator has nurtured over 50 startups across India and Silicon Valley

19th Apr 2018
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Z Nation Lab co-founder Neha Jain describes the selection process, support for accelerated startups, profiles of the startup cohorts, and recommendations on promoting entrepreneurship across India.

[This article is part of the YourStory series Startup Hatch, about incubators, accelerators, makerspaces and co-working spaces in the startup ecosystem. See earlier profiles of initiatives at IIT BombayIIM Bangalore, BITS PilaniNCLTata Elxsi, AxilorNIDIIIT-BangaloreIIIT-HyderabadVellore Institute of TechnologyPSG CoimbatoreWorkbench ProjectsMakers AsylumAppy Hours, Turning Ideas, NetApp Excellerator, Pitney Bowes Accelerator, TechStars, Indigram Labs, WeWork, Ashoka Innovators, and Startup Leadership Programme.]

Neha Jain is a Co-founder of Z Nation Lab. She has 10+ years of entrepreneurial experience, and recently led a successful exit from a home decor venture. She was earlier VP for startup venture investments at Zsolt Capital, and graduated from Mumbai University.

Neha has conceptualised and conducted a flagship event for startups called Khoj in partnership with premier educational institutes like IITs, IIMs, ISB, GIT, and IIIT across India. She has been working actively to develop cross-border relationships and build a global startup ecosystem.

She is part of the international delegate team of the Startup Asia Berlin by GIZ and the Government of Germany, delegate of the Young Innovation Delegation to Israel (by Israel Embassy), program curator for women empowerment by Skill India and Global Entrepreneur Summit (GES), brand ambassador for the World Startup Expo, Department of Trade and Industry (Philippines), and ASEAN Slingshot delegation (with the government of Indonesia).

Neha speaks to us on the US-India model of the accelerator, challenges and opportunities for entrepreneurs in India, profiles of the startup cohorts, and partnership recommendations on promoting entrepreneurship across the country.

 YourStory: What was the founding vision of your accelerator, and how is it supported?

Neha Jain: Z Nation Lab was founded with a vision to empower entrepreneurs with 360-degree support in capital, technical/strategic expertise, and networks.

We are headquartered in Silicon Valley and have high-quality mentors, subject matter experts, and experienced professionals on board. We have created a global community that offers an environment for innovation to thrive and for startups to scale up globally.

YS: What would you say are the top opportunities for Indian entrepreneurs?

NJ: This is the best time to be an entrepreneur in India and one can achieve big. They can explore opportunities in the connected economy by being agile and pivoting fast. Indian problems associated with the large Indian population give scope to unique solutions that can be adapted to the rest of the world also.

YS: What are the key challenges faced by startups in India, and how can you help bridge the gap?

NJ: Acceptance of and support for innovation: Most industry and large corporates have still not or are only in the process of accepting innovation as a key to growth. We are not seeing much support from such entities to budding entrepreneurs and new ideas, which is key to a healthy startup ecosystem in any country. Moreover, large corporates are the actual facilitator of successful exits for founders by acquisition, which is also not matured in India as compared to the rest of the world.

Creation of sustainable ideas: India has seen a host of startups that are based on original ideas from different countries (e.g. Ola) and therefore always have a risk of failure in the Indian market or failure against existing scaled-up startups at the global level. Hence, such Indian startups face the challenge of acceptability from the Indian market for new products, services or tech as compared to other countries.

Government and ecosystem support: Though the Indian government is working on a host of initiatives to support startups and budding entrepreneurs, it has still not reached that same level of support that startups get in other countries. More changes are required on the regulatory front. Further, the overall ecosystem in India in terms of high quality mentoring and good angel investor support is still developing. 

At Z Nation Lab, we are trying to bridge these gaps by conducting and running Corporate Innovation Programmes. Our growth strategy for startups amongst other parameters is also exit. As a global accelerator we provide our startups with validation of their idea and business model from a global as well as Indian perspective.

We also provide mentoring, funding and other assistance to startups in further fundraising. We are connected to Startup India, NITI Aayog, and other government initiatives through which we are trying our best to contribute to changes in regulatory frameworks for startups. We were also part of “Champions of Change”, a PMO-led NITI Aayog initiative. 

YS: What are the unique challenges for social entrepreneurs as compared to tech or business enterprises?

NJ: Funding: Social enterprises and startups do not have a clear revenue model and scalability is also not defined, hence they overall do not gain investor confidence for returns, which leads to a challenge in fundraising.

Building a strong team: Some social entrepreneurs find it difficult to find and retain the right talent and workforce as the aspirations of social entrepreneurs and its workforce may not match on commercial parameters.

Sustainability: It is very hard for social entrepreneurs to create a sustainable business and at the same time remain true to the vision and mission. Sometimes these unique challenges also affect the mentality of such entrepreneurs and they get stuck between the business value and social value of the venture.

YS: What are the selection criteria for startups in your accelerator?

NJ: Through initiatives like Khoj, Corporate Innovation Showcases, and participation in eco-system events, we select startups for pre-accelerator bootcamp batches. From these batches, we eventually select startups for acceleration as our portfolio companies. The major selection criteria include the idea, business model, founder/team background, competitive landscape, scalability, and traction.

YS: Which startups have graduated from your accelerator so far? 

NJ: Z Nation Lab conducts pre-accelerator bootcamp/cohort wherein we invite a batch of startups for mentoring sessions on different themes along with some pitch coaching. These bootcamps/cohorts also act as a validation for us, and we eventually select a few startups from the batch as our portfolio companies. Till date, we have conducted five such bootcamps/cohorts and close to 50 startups have graduated from them.

The startups in the bootcamp have included Predictly, ActiveBuildings, Avyantra, Dheeyanta, Connexis, Anaxee, Mutterfly, Flicksys, Ubox, Chain to Bollywood, Sendfast, Alivemeter, CampusMall, Spontie, Mashinga, Cyrrup, Pharmez, Forbinary, Agrobazar, Drona Aviation, Ayukrt, Shash, Gradufund, Rupeevest, MustAid, Companyon, Kakcho, PieWorks, HungryTripper, Spacifii and Accelo.

YS: Which enterprises are currently being accelerated? 

NJ: We have an extensive portfolio of diverse startups; here are some examples:

Smatsocial (founded by Santosh Thota) has developed an AI-driven social media marketing automation tool to help businesses in brand awareness, lead generation, web traffic from social media using content recommendation, auto response to comments, and so on. Businesses use SmatSocial and save close to 70 percent of their cost and around 100 man hours per month.

Scoutmytrip (founded by Deepak Ananth and Vineet Rajan) is a roadtrip planner and community platform with a map interface. Travellers can interact and avail the services of a vast network of travel experts or ‘scouts’. It helps plan your journey and rely on real-time experiences from users, not out-dated data.

GetParking (founded by Sachin Naik, Sumeet Gupta and Ashwin Hegde) is a smart parking platform for Parkers (who “use” the parking space), Providers (who "own" or "manage" the parking space) and Others (ancillary service/product providers, traffic police). They can solve their parking and traffic problems and help them make or save more money, improve security, reduce violations, improve customer experience and raise the overall quality of life for all citizens. They use smartphones, cloud, IoT, computer vision, and machine learning.

Halobee (founded by Prabhav Srivastava and Avinash Gupta) is a platform to help brands in malls reach out to highly relevant mall-going customers by increasing discoverability of products and offers. Its progressive web app helps visitors in their buying decisions, simultaneously learning about consumer buying behaviour and adding the element of relevance to the offline retail industry.

Onnbikes (founded by Namit Jain and Shanky Munoth) is an app-based unified platform for renting and leasing of two-wheelers by end consumers and companies. Options include hourly to yearly usage.

TOCH (founded by Saket Dandotia and Alok Patil) is an AI blockchain-enabled video discovery platform. It detects people and objects inside any video content and auto tags it with e-commerce products and information to create an immersive experience. It uses video distribution; blockchain helps ensure transparency in budgets set for advertisements.

Primeauth (founded by PBS Subhash and Kaushik Bharadwaj) is a cyber-security startup solving the problem of weak authentication systems. The flagship product is Truefactor authentication, a unique authentication framework with parts powered by blockchain and machine learning.

Intelitaap (founded by Sunny Harisinghani and Aniruddha Nanivadekar) enables retailers to analyse consumer behaviour in stores to help them improve consumer experience. Data is used by retailers to derive smart solutions to keep the customers engaged.

Picostone (founded by Virang Jhaveri and Niket Sarvaiya) is a home automation startup developing and providing retrofittable and affordable solutions to improve home living.

Actofit Wearables (founded by Pratik Saraogi) creates products in the field of health, fitness and sports to make advanced analytics available to everyday people. It guides its users through their gym and fitness journey with a digital centralised personal fitness platform.

Clinivantage Healthcare Technologies (founded by Dinesh Samudra, Abhay Chopada and Nilesh Jain) enables safe, efficient, transparent, proactive, and affordable healthcare through use of technology and innovation. Its founders have been in the healthcare domain and healthcare IT for more than 25 years.

Hotify (founded by Ramesh Kumar and Ankur Garg) provides AI and ML consulting services in strategy, feature engineering, solution architecture, partner selection, and project management. It also helps global businesses in AI internalisation and adoption.

Predikly (founded by Sunil Ranka, Sunil Bodke and Sachin Niravane) delivers customised data analytics that improves RoI on data. Its results-oriented analytics and consulting provide actionable business insights, using platforms and applications.

Please Sound Horn (founded by Amit Teja, Krishna Teja and Sarthak Reddy) is an online platform to book trucks and heavy equipment. It also provides supply chain analytics and management to companies and organisations with logistic needs.

Photoexpress (founded by Santosh Shitole) is a chain of retail stores across India which addresses photo printing needs and services. The organised retail format helps to digitalise the entire process.

Indoinvesting (founded by Kushal Rastogi and Parthesh Shah) provides an online platform that helps users in investing their money. It profiles customers based on their needs and risk appetite, and uses an AI-based solution to suggest a portfolio. The portfolios involve mutual funds and trading strategies that are directly executed at the connected brokerage account.

Kaptivo (founded by Nic Lawrence) is a digitised physical dry-erase board for recording. With over 50 million installed worldwide, whiteboards are immediate, convenient and flexible tools that enrich discussions and improve productivity. Dry-erase boards are a time-tested tool for visual communication in the classroom, boardroom and office.

YS: What is the background of the managers of your accelerator?

NJ: At Z Nation Lab, we have a diverse group of people who bring different technical skillsets and a global network that is of great help to entrepreneurs. Here are some of our key stakeholders.

Anup Mehta has spent over a decade running successful ventures in real estate, healthcare and finance. Anup has successfully led an enterprise with net worth of $150 million overlooking various verticals. He has a management degree from SPJMR and is on the mentor board of more than 10 startups. He is well-connected with HNI angel investors and is a member of various angel networks.

Sunil Ranka is one of the 19 people in the world recognised as an Oracle ACE. He has vast experience in BI, AI, ML, and Big Data working with Oracle and Cisco in Silicon Valley.

Nilesh Jain has an MS in Computer Science from Carnegie Mellon University and an MBA in Finance from University of Pittsburgh. With over 20+ years of entrepreneurial and operational experience, he has personally invested in over 30 startups and is also a Mentor of Change at Atal Innovation Mission.

The board members of Z Nation Lab include Amit Jain (15+ years of consulting experience in PwC, KPMG, Grant Thornton and Citibank; executive education from Harvard Business School and Stanford University), Salil Pradhan (Venture Partner, Draper Nexus Ventures; MS from Northeastern University and B.E. from University of Pune), and Pushpmitra Das (Venture Partner, Z Nation Lab).

The Z Nation Lab team includes Shashank Randev (Director, Z Nation Lab India; founding member, VCCEdge), Mihir Vora (chartered accountant, previously at KPMG), Vinayak Shrivastav (venture strategy head), and Shivika Bansal (handling Z Nation Labs startup programmes).

YS: What support and services do startups receive in your accelerator?

NJ: Startup members at Z Nation Lab benefit from office hours with a network of mentors, participation in programmes and events organised by Z Nation Lab and its partners across the globe, presentations at demo-days, pitch counselling, legal and tech consulting, and connects to Fortune 500 companies.

Z Nation Lab selectively invests seed capital in startups graduating from its pre-accelerator bootcamp programme. Startups also get access to thousands of dollars in credit from our ecosystem partners like Amazon, Microsoft, Google, IBM, PayTM, Sendpulse, MailChimp, and others to help them scale up.

YS: What equity do you charge in your startups? 

NJ: Based on the nature, needs, stage, and acceleration assistance provided to a startup, Z Nation Lab charges equity in the range of two to five percent. We have kept this flexible as we know that each startup and founder is different and unique, and hence our acceleration efforts will also differ in each case. This equity stake is over and above any stake that we acquire against the funding that we provide at an agreed-upon valuation.

YS: What kinds of IP are being created by your startups?

NJ: Our portfolio startups are creating IP in the following fields: travel tech, video motion tracking tool, sentiment analysis, heat mapping and sensors, fitness devices, smart parking solution, retail tech, mall management, financial recommendation, smart emoji, voice synthesis, and so on.

YS: How would you differentiate your accelerator from other accelerators in the field? 

NJ: We would classify our key differentiation along the following three broad parameters. 

  1. Z Nation Lab is a global accelerator. We have a physical presence both in India and Silicon Valley, wherein half of the team and mentors are spread across each of the geographies. This helps our accelerated startups get global perspective both in terms of technology and customer outreach. We have also helped some of our accelerated startups to flip the structure so as to enable them to attract investors from Silicon Valley.
  2. We are an exit-driven accelerator with primary focus on acquisitions. The core team of mentors at Z Nation Lab have done 30 exits themselves. The real value we as an accelerator can bring to the founders and investors is through navigating their exit through acquisition. With more than 70+ patents registered with our Mentor Board we bring a strong comfort to the corporates on tech validation for acquisitions.
  3. We have “skin in the game”. Z Nation Lab, as part of its acceleration programme, also provides funding to its portfolio startups to help them scale up faster and assists in raising additional funds through our network of investors.

YS: What would you define as success for your accelerator?

NJ: Over the last two years of operation, we have mentored close to 50 startups through our pre-accelerator bootcamp programmes/cohorts, and out of them selected 24 companies for acceleration. Our team of mentors conduct regular office hours with all these 24 portfolio companies to help them scale up. At Z Nation Lab we define our success if we are able to provide a substantial value creation to our startups and investors by raising subsequent round of funding or an exit through acquisition of at least five startups every year.

Our definition of success is the reflection of our vision and mission, which would be creation of value by assisting and nurturing startups, mentoring startup founders, and eventually creating a connected community of entrepreneurs, investors and corporates. This automatically ensures the acceleration of any startup associated with us.

YS: How do you compare and contrast India’s accelerators with those of other countries like the US and China?

NJ: The accelerator model in India is still evolving and one needs to adapt best practices from around the world. But instead of copying it verbatim, one needs to make it more suitable to the Indian environment.

For example, emphasis needs to be given more on how to pitch to investors and customers where unlike US counterparts, Indian founders lack this skillset. India has a price- and cost-sensitive consumer market, and hence Indian founders need to work a lot on pricing and go to market strategy which may not be required as much in the case of US founders.

In the US, angel investors invest at business model stage as they are matured and technically sound investors. However, in India angel investors only put in funds after traction is achieved by a startup.

YS: What are your plans for the coming three to five years with respect to new startups? 

NJ: We have set a clear target to have 100 portfolio startups in the next three years, 10 Series A Investments, and five exits through acquisitions.

YS: How can better partnerships be forged between accelerators, industry and universities? 

NJ: Past trends show that most entrepreneurs come from prominent tech universities that often have their own incubators. However, we have not seen as many entrepreneurs coming from management universities and many smaller tech universities.

It would be a great initiative if accelerators can rope in industry to hold programmes and run initiatives at such management universities and smaller tech universities. This will nurture entrepreneurship in those students who are concerned about their immediate future by providing the right support, and could lead to creation of a new breed of entrepreneurs with a hybrid skillset.

YS: What are your recommendations for Indian policymakers to make business easier for accelerators, investors, researchers, and startups in India?

NJ: 1. Accelerators: Make recognition of accelerators an easier process and provide tax and regulatory benefits to reduce the hassle of accelerators on investment and acquiring advisory stake or sweat equity in startups. Provide a standard rating system, which could enable the startups to easily choose any particular accelerator over others.

  1. Investors: Though the policymakers are already working towards making investment in startups an easier process, introduction of a special purpose vehicle for early-stage startup equity, and debt financing with minimal compliance would be a great move towards attracting more investment in startups.
  2. Researchers and startups: In the past two years, we have seen many initiatives from policymakers to make business and activity easier and simpler for researchers and startups in India. Many of them have good impact but we need non-ambiguous policies that are well-promoted to the entire ecosystem. This is still lacking due the technical nature of India’s tax and regulatory statutes and regulations.

YS: What are your recommendations or words of inspiration to the startups and entrepreneurs in our audience? 

NJ: Focus on solving just one problem with such precision that you become the best in the world to solve it!

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