At a time when global interest in automation and robotics gains pace and technology giants like Google and Amazon are launching a slew of futuristic initiatives, an exciting, early-stage venture fund is set to invest exclusively in startups focused on AI, ML and IoT.
Founded in 2016 by entrepreneurs Manish Singhal and Umakant Soni, pi Ventures’ focus on backing ventures that solve problems in healthcare, logistics, retail, FinTech and enterprise sectors is bang on time, discovers Sandhya Mendonca. As India rapidly becomes an integral part of the digital revolution, the much-needed shift from service-led to product-based economy can gain momentum with adequate support to product-led startups.
Where venture funds usually choose to diversify their portfolios with a mix of consumer, internet and software investments, this company differs in its approach, making it one of the few early-stage funds investing in the steadily emerging segment of deep-technology enterprises.
Singhal’s journey from technologist to entrepreneur is an interesting one. Graduating from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur in 1992, for the next 18 years, he was constantly working on some form of technology and developing products. Right from coding to debugging and even helping get the product to market, Singhal has always had a taste for entrepreneurship. In 2005, he was part of a Silicon Valley startup, Sling Media Inc, where he was Country Head for India. During his time there, he worked on a product called SlingBox that would let people watch their favourite home channels from anywhere in the world. With over 70 patents registered for this product alone, it turned out to be a huge success, with units still being sold, 14 years down the line. During his time there, he built the company’s R&D and product team in India, leading it to get successfully acquired by Echostar Inc, for $380 million.
Active in the Indian startup ecosystem for quite some years, he co-founded LetsVenture.com, which quickly went on to become the leading marketplace for early stage investors and startups in India. Soon, Singhal went on to mentor startups, even investing in some of them. During this time, he noticed that the early-stage investment scene wasn’t a mature one in India and came to the realisation that one can either be an entrepreneur or an investor. With his experience, Singhal chose to create a fund to help deep tech startups and so, pi Ventures came into being; “Pi represents the mathematical basis of the technology that is the focus of the startups we invest in.”
Accordingly, the applied AI-focussed fund plans to invest in 18-20 startups in the health-tech, logistics, retail, FinTech and enterprise sectors over the next three-four years, with a significant percentage of its funds allocated for possible follow-on rounds. In 2018, the fund announced the final close of its first fund at Rs. 225 crore, exceeding its initial target of Rs. 195 crore by 17%.
The fund is always on the lookout for entrepreneurs who are passionate about leveraging applied AI to differentiate their technological products. It prefers companies that are utilising various types of data to make better and improved decisions about machine and self-learning. Another important criterion is whether the entrepreneurs the firm seeks to support are considering taking their product to a global stage, even if incubated in India.
Singhal points out that since he and his co-founder Soni were originally entrepreneurs, they have a good understanding of product technology. “We’re in a position to comprehensively grasp what the companies we choose to work with, are going through.”
Among the innovative enterprises the fund has backed so far, are three healthcare startups, SigTuple, Niramai and Ten3T, along with Zenatix, which lies in the arena of energy-efficiency.
Innovation is not just sought by the firm among entrepreneurs; it takes place within the company too. Launched recently, chAI is a unique community-building effort in the field of AI. As a move to bring together entrepreneurs involved in this technology, it has provided a boost to technology ecosystem in IT capital Bengaluru.
And the focus on India’s IT capital is simply because, “some things happen naturally. Bengaluru has been a hub for innovation in India, and here people are constantly pushing boundaries. There is a constant stream of innovation here. In fact, more than 60% of the innovative entrepreneurs we meet, are based out of Bengaluru”, says Singhal.
Going forward, the company’s outlook is bullish on healthcare; with a population of one billion people, India has a shortage of highly-skilled health professionals, and lacks advanced medical technology. This makes pi Ventures positive about investing in startups that leverage innovative technologies for healthcare.