[TechSparks 2020] How Indian entrepreneurs can build startups to change the world

At TechSparks 2020, founders of the Extreme Tech Challenge (XTC) 2020’s four finalist startups from India shared their experiences on building commercially successful startups while solving global challenges.

We live in uncertain times. But these are also times of great hopes and opportunities and some of it is thanks to forward-thinking entrepreneurs determined to change the world for the better. And when it comes to changing the world, startups don’t necessarily have to choose between profit and purpose. 

The key is to ensure their impact is positive while also building a successful business. Doing exactly that are the founders of the Extreme Tech Challenge (XTC) 2020’s four finalist startups from India, who we caught up with at YourStory’s flagship event TechSparks. 

XTC is the world’s largest startup competition for entrepreneurs addressing global challenges. Its goal is to connect game-changing innovators with a network of investors, corporations, and mentors to help them raise capital, launch corporate collaborations, and scale their startups. 

The competition — inspired by the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to shape global development by 2030 — looks for innovators who are working in the following categories: Agtech, Food and Water; Cleantech and Energy; Education; Enabling Technologies; Fintech; Healthcare; Transportation and Smart Cities.

The four founders selected by XTC are Raoul Nanavati, CEO of Navana Tech, a startup that provides B2B conversational AI solutions in vernacular languages for the low-literate demographic to use smartphones; Kristin Kagetsu, Co-founder & CEO of Saathi, a startup that provides a sustainable, end-to-end solution for sanitary protection to women in India with biodegradable and compostable sanitary pads; Rajendra Lora, Co-founder and CEO of Freshokartz, a startup that’s integrating farms, farmers, vendors, traders, and customers on a common platform to structure the agricultural sector; and Swetabh Pathak, Co-founder of Elucidata.io, a startup that uses data science to reduce the time taken to discover life-saving drugs through its AI-enabled platform Polly. The four changemakers spoke about how they overcame the challenges of building high-growth, commercially successful startups while also addressing social issues.

Elucidata’s Swetabh said it was “very hard” to convince the world that a deep tech startup in the biotech space could be built out of India. “If you're doing it for developer tools, for example, today a lot of people would accept it, they would think that's nice,” he said. But the biotech space was a different ballgame since there weren’t as many successful examples as in the developers’ tools space. 

Convincing investors, customers, as well as the team that it can be done, was and is still not “not easy,” but Swetabh and his team were able to do it by staying true to their mission. To entrepreneurs who are looking to create social impact at scale with their startups, he said it is “remarkably hard to stay true to the mission” and entrepreneurs need to be willing to change when they have to.

Kristin Kagetsu, Co-founder & CEO of Saathi at TechSparks 2020

Saathi’s Kristin too faced various hurdles at the start. From being told to outsource manufacturing to being advised that addressing both social and environmental issues at the same time is “too much”, to even being told that nobody would buy her product. But she firmly believed that both the social and environmental impacts are “very important” and keeping those together is key to a better future. 

She said, “Looking ahead, sustainability is also something that I think every business needs to consider when they're starting. So as a startup, you have so much more control over how you develop your business, how you design your business model, how you think about what it is that you're delivering.” 

Focussing on sustainability will not only ensure that we have a better future as a whole but also make sure such businesses are more long lasting, she added. The fact that environmental regulations are likely to get stricter in the future, will only add a fillip to such business models, Kristin explained. 

Navana’s Raoul who had to pivot his business twice said it's critical to be ready to consistently balance realism with idealism. “Be comfortable in that very uncomfortable position, learn to be comfortable with that. If you're ready for that kind of discomfort on a consistent basis for many years, jump in. Start small and then build to scale,” he said.

Echoing the other panellists’ sentiments Raoul said that for any entrepreneur who's trying to create a socially driven startup, the real success is actually sticking to the mission.

He explained, “If your mission is actually to create change you will find that it is way harder than any traditional business because you have to keep foregoing much larger profit driven opportunities in the pursuit of actually creating impact, and that will be the number one challenge that you have and if you can stick to your mission, that is your success. And stay alive, that is your success.”

Freshokartz’s Rajendra, like Kristin, came across many naysayers in the early days, when he started his agritech startup in 2016. There weren’t too many players in the space and he faced a lot of scepticism while approaching investors and even while trying to hire.

But like the others, he too was able to overcome these challenges by staying true to his mission. 

His advice: “Stick with your idea, there will be so many ups and downs. If you really want to build something, you really want to create an impact, you have to be on the ground. And it takes time.”

TechSparks - YourStory's annual flagship event - has been India's largest and most important technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship summit for over a decade, bringing together entrepreneurs, policymakers, technologists, investors, mentors, and business leaders for stories, conversations, collaborations, and connections that matter. As TechSparks 2020 goes all virtual and global in its 11th edition, we want to thank you for the tremendous support we've received from all of you throughout our journey and give a huge shoutout to our sponsors of TechSparks 2020.

Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta