It takes a village to raise a technology startup

Startup Village 2

Silicon Valley, the Hollywood for entrepreneurs, is an inspiration to cities and countries all over the world. Every country worth its proverbial tech salt, has tried to recreate valley-esque surroundings for startup companies to flourish. Some have succeeded and a vast majority of them have failed. India, arguably has its own Silicon Valley in Bengaluru, and yet one would be hard pressed to name at least five technology product born in “namma-bengaluru” that have truly created a global impact.

In a survey done by YourStory, Bengaluru and Mumbai feature prominently as places where one would likely start up a technology business. Kerala hardly figures in any list of startup related accolades in India. But in the past few months, every now and then a story pops up either on TV or in the print media, about a “Startup Village” initiative in Kochi. Either they have very good PR chops or their work has resonated with among aspiring Malayali entrepreneurs or probably both, and we set to find out.

Startup Village is a part-government, part-privately-funded initiative that supports technology startup companies in the telecom and Internet sectors and provides an ecosystem for them to grow. Situated in Kinfra high tech park in Kalamaserry, it houses over hundreds of startups and companies such as Blackberry and Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB).

What struck me initially when I looked at the profile of the management team of Startup Village was that, it is run completely by young people. People with qualifications and experience to get a fat paycheque from a corporate company in the big metros, but instead chose to stay on in Kochi to pursue the loftier goal of creating an entrepreneurial environment from scratch.

I had a lengthy chat with Sijo Kuruvilla George, CEO of the incubator, to understand what it is that makes Startup Village tick.

The genesis of Startup Village is tied closely to the story of a Kerala startup, MobMe. In 2005, a few students from College of Engineering, Trivandrum (CET) in the pursuit to make some extra cash, banded together and started selling prepaid cards and recharge coupons for cellphones. It slowly evolved into providing SMS marketing services for brands and a turning point for the company was when Mammootty enlisted MobMe to promote his movie, Rajamanikyam, through mobile phones. Fortunately for them, the movie turned out to be a blockbuster. MobMe in its current shape and form is a Mobile Value Added Services (VAS) provider and is on its way to IPO.

Through the founding of MobMe, Sijo, who was one of the founders; learnt a lot of lessons the hard way. But one major learning was how important it is to have an environment that supports entrepreneurs, encourages ideas, and provides access to people who’ve built successful technology companies – in short, a startup ecosystem.

One of the most lauded attributes of Silicon Valley is serendipity. It provides an environment that encourages and leads to chance meetings with an investor, a fellow entrepreneur or a potential business partner that can potentially change the course of the company. It is a happy coincidence that Startup Village began in serendipitous circumstances.

One fine day, Sanjay Vijayakumar, Chairman of Startup Village and CEO of MobMe, had an unscheduled meeting with the head of Department of Science and Technology (DST), Harkesh Mittal, whose goal was to have 1000 startup incubators all over India. During their conversation, Mittal mentioned that one of the challenges facing the incubator model in India was the scant participation from private-sector companies.

Startup Village 1

While brainstorming, Mittal came up with an idea of public-private partnership (PPP) model to scale the incubator infrastructure in India. A few weeks later, a 5 crore proposal was sent to the Government of India, and two years later, India’s first PPP incubator was established in Kochi.

Officially incorporated as India Telecom Hub, Startup Village also serves as an experiment to scale the PPP model all across India.

Along with the Central Government, the Kerala State Government is also supporting this initiative through policies and infrastructure help, the most notable being providing Startup Village with a 10,000 sq ft facility at subsidized prices.

However, government backing and cheap real-estate are not enough to create a startup ecosystem. Sijo feels that, fundamentally, there are 4 key blocks to building it: infrastructure, policies, funding and accelerator programmes.

Infrastructure includes affordable office space, with reliable power and high speed Internet connectivity. Such options are hard to come by and it is a huge barrier to setting up a company. Startup Village provides these facilities for companies under its programme and now the Kerala government has mandated a 10 acre property to be defined as an “Innovation Zone”, which will house startup incubators focused on other verticals. There is also a proposal for a 1GB network connectivity within this campus.

Policies play another key role to sustain this. Currently, India ranks in the lower rungs in the list of countries that are most friendly to businesses. Yet, Sijo believes that baby steps are being taken by the government to support entrepreneurship. One such policy in Kerala is providing 20% attendance and 4% grace marks to students doing a startup in any government recognized incubator. Another very interesting initiative in the works, is for students to take electives in Coursera, a massive online open courses provider, and get university credits for it. Considering that the computer engineering curriculum in most universities are antiquated and don’t keep up with changing technology landscape, Coursera teaches and exposes students to new technologies and programming languages out there.

Funding is another important aspect. Sijo mentions that, early stage capital is extremely hard to come by and there is no culture of angel investing in India. In order to fill this funding gap, Startup Village is looking at setting up a $10 million fund. But more than the money, Sijo is looking to create a network of high net-worth individuals who understand technology startups and are willing to help them succeed.

Accelerator programmes help jumpstart the process of starting up a venture and often partnerships with large corporations play a crucial role in it. Startup Village currently has partnerships with Blackberry and KSEB to set up innovation zones within their premises, to help with cross pollination of ideas between startups and these large players as well as help startups that are looking at developing products for these companies which might lead to partnership opportunities in the future.

As part of the accelerator programme, a lot of work has gone into building a people network of successful startup people. Kris Gopalakrishnan, founder of Infosys, is pioneering this effort for Startup Village. At the time of writing, they have over a hundred people in this network, and they have committed to mentoring and advising companies in the Startup Village programme. Along with the people network, Startup Village also provides free legal and tax consultation for its companies.

So now that we have the fundamental components lined up to build an ecosystem, what about the foundation of this structure — startup companies? Are there enough people in Kerala venturing out of their comfort zone, saying no to being a cog in a corporate machine and starting technology ventures? Going by hundreds of applications Startup Village receives every month, Sijo feels that there are a lot of aspiring entrepreneurs out there, looking for avenues to test and iterate on their ideas. The team at Startup Village are ramping up their plans at a rapid pace, achieving the 5 year plan in just a year and putting up a second proposal to scale their activities. They are currently supporting 300 teams, out of which more than 150 teams are run by college students.

Just one year and six months into its journey, Startup Village is a startup in itself. Sijo is honest in admitting that they are still in the midst of figuring many things out, but seemingly espouses the startup philosophy of “Move fast and break things”.

I am writing this story within 10 miles of Google, Apple and Yahoo headquarters and yet after talking to Sijo and a few informal chats with Malayali entrepreneurs, I can’t help but feel a great sense of optimism over Kochi’s shot at becoming a startup hub to reckon with. Who knows – perhaps the next Google might emerge from this coastal city.

Sneha Menon BioSneha Menon is a tech enthusiast, movie buff and an aspiring ukulele player. Follow her @snehamenon

Photo credits: Startup Village Facebook page

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