Qualcomm Ventures, the $1 billion venture capital arm of global tech giant Qualcomm, is more optimistic than ever on India’s technology-driven startup ecosystem, say top executives at the firm.
In a conversation with YourStory, Quinn Li, senior vice president and global head of Qualcomm Ventures, and Varsha Tagare, senior director and head of Qualcomm Ventures India, say they are bullish on Indian startups using emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) to build global solutions in different sectors ranging from defence to transportation, to dairy, among others.
The US chipmaker’s VC arm – which invests in emerging technologies such as AI, IoT, and robotics – is now looking to bet big on Indian startups developing AI-led applications that run on end devices such as smartphones through its recently launched $100 million global AI-focused fund.
In November, Qualcomm Ventures launched its AI-dedicated fund to invest in startups developing on-device AI that run on devices like smartphones, instead of on the cloud.
India’s homegrown startups are today building on-device AI applications and other technology-driven solutions that have global implications, says Quinn, who oversees a global team that invests in key mobile technologies such as 5G, AI, IoT, automotive, and networking to expand Qualcomm’s ecosystem and drive innovation.
Qualcomm Ventures, which has a portfolio of more than 150 companies across seven regions, invests in early-stage companies focusing on areas that Qualcomm has a demonstrated technical expertise. These areas include IoT, mobile, AI, automotive, and networking.
At a global level, the VC typically invests in around 15 startups per year globally across seven markets: the US, China, India, Israel, UK, Latin America, and South Korea.
Qualcomm Ventures: driving AI-driven innovation forward
In India, Qualcomm Ventures – which backs healthtech firm Portea, office commute automation startup MoveInSync, agri-marketing platform Ninjacart, and sales enablement company MindTickle, among others – has been in talks to invest in several Indian startups using AI through its AI-dedicated fund.
As part of its AI fund, Qualcomm Ventures had said it will make investments in the range of $1 million to $10 million in companies making on-device AI ubiquitous.
“We see companies in India not just addressing the Indian market, but either southeast Asia, the Middle East or the US. That’s what we see. And so, the use case of technology led solutions being built expands beyond India,” Quinn says.
“Earlier, agritech was not looked upon as a sector by most investors but the fact that technology has the power to transform sectors is becoming more and more evident because the sensors are becoming very cheap and some of that is being powered by companies like us."
Qualcomm Ventures-backed dairy technology startup Stellapps, which leverages IoT, analytics, and big data across its platform to improve dairy farmer income, is one such example of a startup that uses IoT to provide transparency as well as efficiency across the milk value chain, from production to supply chain to payments.
For Stellapps, in addition to India, the company is now set to grow in Southeast Asia too, says Quinn.
“Indian entrepreneurs are getting really smart about India, Southeast Asia and the US. Entrepreneurs are spending time in these markets constantly to learn about the market from the get-go,” says Varsha, who heads Qualcomm Ventures India, which counts Stellapps among some of its more recent investments in India.
Qualcomm Ventures has also invested in Indian drone startup IdeaForge, known for developing India’s first unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), hyper-local delivery start-up ShadowFax, and digital payments platform BonusHub.
India’s ‘big enough’
And yet, thanks to the sheer size of and opportunity in the domestic market, Indian startups do not necessarily have to move to the Silicon Valley or to other markets to grow, say Quinn and Varsha.
This means that solving a specific, local problem in areas like fintech or transportation, offers huge potential for startups in India to emerge as disruptors or large players in those sectors, they add.
For example, venerable Indian names like cab-aggregator Ola and fintech giant Paytm – which are the two most highly valued startups in India – have grown rapidly over the past few years simply by tapping the large domestic market. Says Varsha,
“We have a very specific need in the Indian market for micro mobility. A company that can execute well in the micro-mobility space could become a large company serving the domestic market. It is possible to develop such solutions now because of ubiquitous connectivity and GPS."
Micro-mobility startups that offer micro-mobility transports options such as bicycles, mini-scooters, and e-bikes have sprung up in India, as commuters seek out a more affordable and convenient mode of transport to fight increasing traffic congestion levels and save time.
So, while startups looking to become global players would need to find their customer base elsewhere, they are increasingly realising that India’s 'big enough,' says Varsha.
Returns and radical transparency
Every day, Qualcomm Ventures’ global team talks to different companies, possibly six to seven companies, across different sectors such as financial services and healthcare to stake out interesting investment opportunities.
“Each of the regional teams will have regional discussions because they’re dealing with companies and solving specific real problems, and then we will have the global team involved at the right time for the final decision-making,” says Quinn, who adds that as the top boss, he is looking to install some level of ‘radical transparency’ to steer the team towards achieving a common set of objectives and goals.
And while returns on investment is an obvious goal for a VC firm, for Quinn and his team, the rewards go beyond the financial returns they enjoy.
“I think the most exciting for me is to see the company succeed over a period of time – from the point where you write your first check. It could be a very early stage startup that may barely have any customers yet that point and to see them go through the journey and grow to be a very successful company is a very satisfying journey,” says Quinn.
In addition, being able to witness first-hand all the cutting-edge technology being developed is another bonus, as is the chance to continuously meet and work with passionate entrepreneurs who’re on a mission to tackle some of the most interesting problems in the world, he explains.
And finally, Quinn adds,
“We work for them (entrepreneurs) and we take pride in that, not the other way around. And that, for us, is really the fun part of the journey.”
Disclaimer: Qualcomm Ventures is one of the investors in YourStory