Innovation Hub India

INDIA

Seeding a head start

“A startup is a vehicle, and the entrepreneurs’ motivation is very important to give it a shape. It need not be driven by capital alone, the matrix could be the impact on society or a means for financial independence to the entrepreneur”, says Bala Girisaballa, who has a 360 degree perception of the system. Having worked with Oracle in the US where he built a CRM product line, he founded two startups in India, and has worked with Yahoo and Microsoft in the Indian innovation ecosystems before taking up the role of President, Techstars India.
Techstars is investing USD $120,000 in these 10 companies that were chosen for its first accelerator in Bengaluru in Feb 2019: Ambee, Dcoder, Instacar, Leucine, Liquid Diamonds, Nira, Odoc, Redwing, Rephrase & Unifize.

What’s common among Uber, PillPack and DigitalOcean? They are all success stories that grew out of a seed accelerator which has debuted in Bengaluru to groom the next big star.

As the capital of emerging market startups, India is attracting global incubators and accelerators which are hoping to nurture the next big unicorn here. Among the top names striding into the arena is Techstars, the 13-year-old seed accelerator headquartered in Colorado.

Techstars believes that ecosystems can be built anywhere, in any city and it wants to be a facilitator in growing that particular ecosystem. It runs accelerators in over 30 cities in the US and 20 other countries, and has mentored over 1,700 companies worldwide. Its storied successes include Uber, PillPack (recently acquired by Amazon for a billion dollars), DigitalOcean, SendGrid, DataRobot, Zipline, Outreach, ClassPass, SalesLoft, FullContact, Zagster, Plated, Degreed, Distil Networks, SkillJar and Occipital.

Now 10 companies, chosen from several hundred applicants from 30 countries, are chasing their dream of success at Techstars’ first accelerator in Bengaluru headed by Ray Newal. This is the company’s first ever programme in India, and Bala Girisaballa, Techstars’ India head tells Sandhya Mendonca, “We are looking for innovation which is unique to this market. We wanted to come here and look at how startups are solving problems for the billion people in the emerging markets as compared to solving them for the developed markets.”

Founded in 2006, on the premise that startups need funding even before they figure out their model, at the ‘zero to VC level’ Techstars has a unique approach. While it invests seed money and takes equity like other VCs, it acts like a co-founder rather than a board member. ‘The idea’, says Bala, “is to stand next to the founder and support all the way through.” Its mentorship programme is for three months but the association is for life.

Techstars has four verticals in India, which sometimes intersect. Apart from the accelerator programme, it facilitates symbiotic association between corporates and startups. “We work with corporates in their own innovation journey. A corporate could have a problem that it wants to solve and is looking for a startup which provides the solution. We help in curating it by coaching and setting up such programmes.

Techstars also works with governments in building entrepreneurial ecosystems. The contours of entrepreneurship change subtly as you move towards smaller towns, he notes, pointing to the shift in the Karnataka government’s Elevate programme to cities outside the capital.

The company’s fourth vertical is an offering specifically to its alumni of 1700 companies across the world. Many of them are growing and find it difficult to hire engineers in their locations. Techstars supports them in providing engineering talent from India who will act like an extended part of their teams and help build their products.

The focus of the Techstar accelerator programme in Bengaluru is on addressing emerging market problems with technologies such as AI, IoT, blockchain, robotic and data analytics.

“India produces three million graduates every year. There are not going to be industries or companies creating tens and thousands of jobs. We have to create opportunities where people find livelihood for themselves and create livelihood for people around them. You don’t have to become the next unicorn. You don’t even have to become a national player, you can just create an impact. Micro entrepreneurship and sustainable business are the nuances to be embraced.” Techstars is doing just that.