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NEN nurtures start-ups at college campuses

For Shaizad, a second-year mechanical engineering student at the Muffakham Jah College of Engineering and Technology, setting off on an entrepreneurial journey to commercialise his invention is the ultimate goal.

Shaizad’s three-member team at the college has designed a 500-ml portable fridge and heater, which can be connected to a laptop through a USB cord or any other power source. Also on the cards is a portable system that could be compatible with cars.

“The device, with five compartments, has the capability of keeping liquids cool or hot, or doing both functions simultaneously. We are planning to come out with prototypes of these products, which will have a selling price of Rs 1,000 and Rs 3,000 for laptops and cars respectively. Our plan is to float a start-up and commercialise our products,” he says.

Shaizad is one of the 70,000 students across 500 campuses in India, whom the National Entrepreneurship Network (NEN) helps set sail every year.

NEN was founded in 2003 by the US-based non-for-profit Wadhwani Foundation, which was floated by billionaire IT entrepreneur Romesh Wadhwani. The primary objective is to create high-performance entrepreneurs and generate jobs, to accelerate India’s economic growth.

“Students in India have tremendous pressures from society against becoming entrepreneurs. Also, the biggest challenge in our country, unlike in the West, is that the more education you have, the less real-world exposure and life skills you get. All of these – how to make revenues, get customers, how to deal with people and managing the supply chain even as you are a student – we do outside of the curriculum,” says K Srikrishna, executive director of NEN.

When NEN goes to a college, it makes sure that the students ‘practise’ entrepreneurship by participating in a series of activities starting from meeting a community entrepreneur to running a campus company. “Everything is experiential-based here, sans any classroom training. It is all about learning by doing,” he adds.

Stating that NEN does not hand-hold students but only ‘nurtures’ them, and that it will not bring money to the table, Srikrishna says that the organisation supports students through its ecosystem of 1,200 trained and certified mentors (faculty), 4,000-strong research bureau, and angel and venture capital firms, as the students float start-ups and start growing.

With founder Romesh Wadhwani — who has led three successful ventures, of which Aspect Development Inc was sold for over $9 billion — being the primary funder, NEN gets 80 per cent of its total budget from either foundations or governments and the remainder from corporates. It spends Rs 6 crore across campuses every year.

Last year, around 202 new start-ups were part of NEN First Dot, the country’s first-ever student start-up showcase event. The organisation expects that 400 student start-ups will be started through its activities this year.

“We currently have 625 member campuses, of which 425 are active. Originally, we were thinking of increasing the number of campuses that we want to work with. But we have changed that strategy and now want to work with the existing campuses and see greater impact from them. However, we will probably increase the number of engineering colleges, from the present 150 to 200 this year,” Srikrishna says.

Various industry bodies like the National Association of Software and Services Companies (Nasscom) and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) estimate that around 2,500 start-ups are created in India each year.

“The government, however, has a different definition for SMEs and start-ups. What NEN is talking about is people with higher education. A year from today, NEN will come out with an annual study on professional entrepreneurship,” Srikrishna adds.

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