Innovation for all: the 10th annual Villgro Unconvention features panels, pitches, and prizes for social entrepreneurs

Alignment of ecosystems is urgently needed to tackle India’s massive economic and social problems, and encouraging signs are emerging as social enterprises rise to the occasion.

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The 10th annual edition of Villgro’s Unconvention has kicked off this week in Bengaluru (see our coverage of last year’s edition here). Established in 2001, social enterprise incubator Villgro works with early-stage, for-profit businesses that have an impact on the lives of the poor in India.

Key issues addressed this year are scaling strategies to make innovations accessible to a billion-plus people, strengthening customer empathy, channel approaches, capital structuring models, and learning from failure. The event includes a mentoring clinic, CSR roundtable, investor speed dating, and breakout sessions in four tracks: education, health, energy and agri-business.

Awards and prizes

Winners of the iPitch competition for social enterprises were announced, with prizes ranging from Rs 25 lakh to $100,000 (Rs 70 lakh). Healthcare sector winners are BeAble Health, Flex Motive Technologies, and Ameliorate BioTech. Lal10 is the winner in the livelihood generation category, while the agritech winners are Oscillo Machines, Kritsnam Technologies, and Farms2Fork.

The government’s Startup India initiative announced that nominations are open for startup awards in 35 categories (for a Rs 5 lakh prize per winning startup). There will also be awards for best incubator (Rs 15 lakh) and best accelerator (Rs 15 lakh).

To catalyse the potential $50 billion market in energy solutions for Indian micro-enterprises, the Powering Livelihoods initiative was announced by Arunabha Ghosh, CEO, Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW). In partnership with Villgro, the initiative will assist energy entrepreneurs with working capital, talent, IP and tech infrastructure. The ultimate impacts are at the level of end user (income), enterprise (revenue), and ecosystem (favourable policy, support from financiers and investors).

Over the past 19 years, Villgro has supported 279 emerging companies, raised Rs 1,796 million, and impacted 20 million lives, according to R Ramaraj, Senior Advisor, Elevar Equity. Villgro also runs the INVENT programme in low-income states of India, and incubated 140 social enterprises last year, impacting two million lives.

The entrepreneurial journey calls for support in different phases: discovery, incubation (MVP), and mentoring (GTM). “Unconvention inspires, iPitch discovers, Villgro incubates, and Menterra invests,” according to Paul Basil, Founder and CEO, Villgro.

Scale strategies

A panel moderated by PR Ganapathy, Regional Director-India, Stanford Seed, offered scale tips from experts such as Mohua Mukherjee, Former Senior Energy Specialist, The World Bank; Sharad Sharma, Co-founder, iSPIRT; Abhishek Sen, Founder and CEO, Biosense; and Bindu Ananth, CEO, Dvara Trust (IMFR).

They dwelt on success factors such as affordable products, low borrowing rates, financiers with local and domain knowledge, lending models based on cash flow, and focusing on new digital building blocks.

Aadhaar, e-Sign, UPI, Account Aggregator, and HealthStack could catapult India to the cutting edge of identity, data, and transaction infrastructure. Other notable examples from emerging economies are the use of mobile phone payments to drive solar energy solutions in East Africa.

However, social innovators generally do not think about cash management, and hence need to consciously increase their financial acumen in terms of mastering instruments like grants, soft/hard loans, local/foreign equity money, social impact bonds, and rupee-denominated debt. Understanding domain and financial knowledge is leading to a new breed of financiers, which in turn will lower the market entry and scale barriers for social entrepreneurs.

Interesting historical patterns were identified, such as how the games and profiles of players changed with shorter formats of cricket matches, the rise of astro-turf in hockey, and the use of mats instead of mud-pits in wrestling. So also the rise of digital building blocks will play to the strengths of players with the right additive mindsets, as seen in the way Google emerged as the first player to leverage UPI, rather than a domestic Indian company.

A panel moderated by Shama Karkal, CEO, Swasti Health Catalyst, offered insights on customer focus by Michael Foley, CEO, Foley Designs; Shobhini Mukerji, Executive Director, Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL); and Chitra Ravi, Founder & CEO, Chrysalis.

Data analysis and qualitative frameworks can reveal insights on why development and technology initiatives succeeded, or failed. This applies to sectors ranging from energy to education, and beyond.

With a focus on empathy, disciplines like design offer valuable insights into the lives and aspirations of consumers, and can enable acceptance and scalability of solutions. In fact, design should be leading technology in many instances, across phases from start to finish (see YourStory’s d.Zen section for more resources on design). More dialogue and collaboration are also needed between design, technology, business, social, and policy communities.

Case studies

Villgro’s annual Impact Report provides a wealth of profiles of social innovators, challenges addressed, solutions developed, and geographical reach. Other examples were also addressed at Unconvention 2019.

Thanks to Villgro support, healthcare startup BioSense Technologies, which offers non-invasive tests for anemia, was able to raise $4 million. It developed seven innovative products in seven years, and impacted four million people. It was eventually acquired by Tulip Diagnostics.

Passion, compassion, and relationships are key for success of social enterprises, according to K. Chaudhary, Chairman and Managing Director, Jaipur Rugs. Over the past four decades, the company has grown to span five states, 600 villages, and 7,000 looms – producing 500,000 handcrafted rugs a year.

Its women weavers Bimla Devi and Manju Devi have won prestigious international design awards as well, such as German Design Award, Kyoorius, IF, and Dezeen. The “rural courtyards” of India are now producing exquisite goods desired by global consumers.

“Going deeper to one’s core makes it harder for others to copy you,” Chaudhary advised, explaining the company’s strategy to stick to hand-knots and not machine techniques. This has helped succeed in the luxury market.

“We sell stories, we sell experiences, not just rugs,” he explained. Good relationships with employees has helped reduce defects, delays and wastage.

In addition to these debates and discussion in the conference halls, there were concrete examples of social innovation at work in the exhibition area. In this photo essay, we feature some of the social entrepreneurs and ecosystem players from Ameliorate Biotech, BoreCharger, Aveti Learning, PeriFerry, NeoMotion, Ffem Soil Health, Cultyvate, Farm Harvest, Janitri, Ignis, Startup India, Lal10, My70, BeAble, Kritsnam Technologies, and SpiceRoute.

Now, what have you done today to find a real big challenge that needs to be urgently addressed, and unleash your passion and creativity to solve it?

Got a creative photograph to share? Email us at!

See also the YourStory pocketbook ‘Proverbs and Quotes for Entrepreneurs: A World of Inspiration for Startups,’ accessible as apps for Apple and Android devices.


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