This MIT graduate helps startups from Tier 2 cities and beyond get access to investors, mentors, and more

Manush Labs is a social impact accelerator that wants to foster an inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystem by empowering innovators and startups from Tier 2 and beyond with access to funding, mentoring, and network building.
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Around half of India’s startups are from Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities, the Economic Surveys of 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 show. In fact, the number of startups from beyond the metros has grown significantly in the recent past as innovators from these regions set out to solve very unique India-specific problems. Still, despite their calibre, the majority of these startups face a common set of challenges to sustain and scale. These include limited access to mentors, funding, investors, networking opportunities, and guidance on go-to-market strategies. 

Enter Manush Labs, a social impact accelerator that wants to foster an inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystem by empowering India’s innovators and entrepreneurs from Tier 2 cities and beyond to build sustainable businesses and scalable solutions and businesses through access to funding, mentoring, and network building within the innovation ecosystem. 

Piyush Verma, Founder of Manush Labs

Founded by Piyush Verma, a Tata Fellow and graduate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA, Manush Labs is on a mission to bridge the gap between the international entrepreneurship and investor community and entrepreneurs of India. It aims to do this by exposing innovators and entrepreneurs from across the country to global experts through a series of programmes and services designed to foster an inclusive entrepreneurship culture pan-India. 

These programmes – including Manush Labs’ flagship accelerator programme Sustainability Accelerator: Food and Agriculture Challenge 2020 – empowers entrepreneurs by integrating design thinking, creative capacity building, systems thinking, and collaborative problem-solving.   

“India has one of the largest market sizes but the most successful startups come out of a handful of cities. Structured support needs to be distributed evenly so that the majority of the population contributes to the ecosystem. While the government is pumping a lot of money to create incubation programmes and infrastructure across the country, we are far behind in terms of successfully operationalising them. With Manush Labs, our goal is to bring the much-necessary momentum to the ecosystem,” Piyush tells YourStory.

Driving forward this momentum is a team of Harvard University and MIT alumni, social entrepreneurs, and volunteers, including Professor Ashwin Gopinath of MIT, Kumari Yukta, Niharika Gupta, and many more, who work remotely from the US and India. They are supported by several national and international programmes, including MIT Sandbox and Harvard I Labs, and powered by the MIT Innovation Initiative, MIT Venture Mentoring Service, Social Alpha, and The Nudge Foundation, among others. 

Manush Labs Founder Piyush Verma with Chintan Vaishnav, Mission Director of NITI Aayog's Atal Innovation Mission and Chief Advisor of Manush Labs, Professor PV Madhusudhan Rao, Professor of Mechanical Engineering and HoD of Design Department at IIT Delhi, and Aseem Saini, a design researcher at Manush Labs, with some startups of the first cohort.

Manush Labs first cohort

For its first programme, Sustainability Accelerator 2020, Manush Labs onboarded more than 60 mentors from 11 countries from organisations like Google, Facebook, MIT, Harvard, and more, while partnering with leading organisations such as Gates Foundation, Social Alpha, Kaplan Foundation, and Acumen, among others. Their investor sessions and first demo day saw the participation of around 100 investors from around the world. 

Earlier this year, Piyush and his team concluded Manush Labs’ first accelerator programme of 25 startups from across India. They included entrepreneurs from more than 30 towns and cities across the country, all of whom benefited from the investor access and know-how shared on how to raise funds, get market access, practice user research, and strengthen their go-to-market strategies. 

Bhuwaneswar-based Masala Market Founder Kajal Sathapathy, who was part of Manush Labs’ first cohort, says the three-month-long programme helped Masala Market identify a growth opportunity that they were earlier not able to see.

Kajal says, “I think the Manush Labs programme has been one of the best experiences I have had in my life. I haven’t met so many interesting people during such a short programme before. I really admire the way Piyush and his team, who were working virtually from all over the world, so successfully executed this programme. It helped us identify a sector that was right in front of our eyes but we were not able to see earlier.” 

Agri-biotech startup GreenPod Labs, which was also part of the same cohort, saw a similar benefit.

Greenpod Labs Founder Deepak Rajmohan says,

“In our discussions with the mentors, we were exposed to some new use cases that we had not identified earlier. Those use cases were very interesting for us and based on them we've made a few changes to our internal product development. We also had a lot of ideas and bottlenecks in our minds, but had not structured them well in the document. The various interactions during the programme made us realise the importance of documentation, and doing this has had a pivotal impact on our business.” 

Piyush Verma, Founder of Manush Labs

Through its first cohort – which includes startups like Bariflo Labs that provides AI-IoT-driven smart tech solutions for aquafarmers, Kisan India, India’s first online agriculture marketplace, and SAAF Energy, a next-gen decentralised cleantech company – Manush Labs has indirectly impacted the lives of more than 9,000 people and reduced several hundred tons of greenhouse gas emissions, says IIT-Delhi alumnus Piyush, who found inspiration from the robust entrepreneurship culture he saw at MIT and Harvard.

Through its first programme, Manush Labs has enabled 359 investor connections, conducted close to 300 one-on-one mentor hours, and organised dozens of workshops and expert sessions.

At its recently concluded first graduation day – for which billionaire philanthropist Gururaj Desh Deshpande was the chief guest – 25 startups graduated from the programme. 

Graduation day at Manush Labs' Sustainability Accelerator: Food and Agriculture Challenge, where billionaire philanthropist Gururaj Desh Deshpande was the chief guest

Lauding Manush Labs for bringing together these entrepreneurs from across India and connecting them with mentors, venture capitalists, and investors, Gururaj Desh Deshpande said,

“It’s amazing that you started just a year ago and you've been able to curate such a great group of entrepreneurs and help them get to this point. As entrepreneurs, it's thousands of bridges that we need to cross and we don't really know what all those bridges are. You've done a fantastic job of giving these entrepreneurs the opportunity and resources to actually pick the right bridges and cross them.” 

Indeed, for 29-year-old Piyush and his team, this is only just the beginning. There’s more to be done in Manush Labs’ mission to combat social inequities and transform whole societies by empowering humane entrepreneurial ventures and innovations that go beyond business profitability. 

As Piyush says,

“In the coming years, our goal is to create a vibrant and inclusive community of entrepreneurs in India. We are on a mission to support individuals who are trying to combat humanity's most pressing challenges and create sustainable social impact.” 
Edited by Teja Lele Desai

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