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Creating a culture of innovation

One of the common measures of a trend is to see how often it gets talked about in public forums and spaces. By that yardstick, entrepreneurship is clearly hot. India has four or five dedicated online destinations, multiple television shows and every major business newspaper providing consistent coverage to entrepreneurs. In a clear instance of a rising tide raising all boats, student entrepreneurs are in turn generating greater interest in both the mainstream media and within the online community.

As Laura Parkin, co-founder of National Entrepreneurship Network (NEN), pointed out in this column last year, it was not too long ago that finding a student entrepreneur was a rarity. Over the last eight years that NEN has been working on campuses across India, student entrepreneurs have become far more common. In the past three years, as the Tata First Dot powered by NEN has picked up steam, we’ve seen the number of participating start-ups triple from under 150 to over 400 this year. The hard work of the entire network—the NEN Trust, institute leadership, faculty, volunteers from the ecosystem and, of course, the students—is what has brought about this enormous change.

If we dig a little deeper, we find several interesting macro trends. For instance, Indore and Jaipur—both cities where the NEN institute networks are strong—have not only produced far more student entrepreneurs compared with the previous years but are in the same league as bigger cities such as Bangalore, Chennai and Mumbai. These five cities have produced more participants this year than the total number last year. Similarly, Coimbatore, Mysore and Pune, other smaller cities where the network is strong, round off the top 10, with Kolkata, the National Capital Region and Hyderabad.

The value of a platform such as the First Dot student showcase is both in the inspiration it provides aspiring entrepreneurs as well as the leg-up it gives the students who’ve embarked on the journey.

“First Dot was a real turnaround for our company, with respect to marketing,” says Bhupesh Sharma, founder of Breson, which started as a student enterprise. “It also gave my company a kind of status which made the investors we approach for financing take the project idea more seriously.” Similarly, everyone learns from the sharing and mentoring that start-ups participate in.

Talking of the lessons learned while interacting with industry leaders during First Dot, the founders of Vadyka, purveyors of jute bags and accessories, say, “We realized that most start-ups face similar problems. However, different contexts demand different approaches. We learnt how to tackle the problems we are facing as a business.” What remain largely unchanged are the kinds of businesses students tend to start. They are very much centred on the needs they perceive, around books and education, food and beverage, clothing and gift items, and information technology and web design services. In other words, businesses where their skills or hobbies can be easily applied and needs around their own colleges and communities, with low entry barriers and capital needs.

This has the advantage of getting the students started with business and, most importantly, arming them with the practice of need identification, customer engagement, product development and delivery, sales and marketing, not to mention fund-raising and management.

The hands-on skills thus acquired would be invaluable and can be leveraged with their existing or subsequent new businesses that these young people may start. Several companies from last year, many of which ended up in the final 25, offer the glimmer of hope that, as the ecosystem matures, start-ups with greater innovation and inherent capability to scale will emerge out of our campuses. Breson, winner of the Tata First Dot Judge’s Choice Awards 2012, develops and manufactures windmills. The company relies on innovative engineering design to make the windmills more efficient.

Similarly, Novo Informatics, a life sciences research and development company, founded by Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi graduates, is focused on cutting down the cost and time in delivering drugs to the market. Innovation, of course, doesn’t happen in isolation and often is a direct result of two or more disciplines intersecting. While occasionally lucky accidents happen, a systemic approach and culture are needed to innovate consistently.

NEN is working with the department of science and technology and the other stakeholders to help create such a culture of innovation-driven entrepreneurship in engineering campuses across India. Innovation need not be confined to just technology firms and can begin to appear in business models, distribution channels, packaging or pricing. With more students founding start-ups, I expect we’ll see more such innovation from the intersection of various disciplines. Keeping with this spirit, several of the companies nominated in this year’s First Dot competition offer their share of innovation.

From TuberCure, which offers antibodies for tuberculosis, to BioVision that’s making a bio-syringe using bio-plastic from potato starch, to Zumbl that’s trying to mainstream how strangers with similar interests that are publicly visible can chat anonymously and are categorized using semantic algorithms.

From agriculture through biotech, food and beverage and info-tech all the way to training and consulting, this year’s collection of start-ups promises the widest variety of student ventures. In nearly every forum where start-ups are discussed, questions are raised about India’s Dell Inc., Facebook Inc., Google Inc. or Yahoo Inc., all of which had their origins on campuses. It is likely that they have already got a start on one of our campuses and it is only a matter of time before you and I hear about them. So hold on to your hats! Srikrishna is a Mint columnist and executive director of NEN. Mint is a strategic partner of NEN, which hosts the TATA First Dot.

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