No Facebook yet, but campus startups thrive in India
Siddhant Jain and Vaibhav Sinha passed out of IIT Delhi last year not just as graduates in chemical engineering but also as the CEO and CTO of an information technology company. They had set up the company, Vodocipher Media Solutions, a year earlier, during their final year, to tackle piracy on video websites.
“We started it as a hobby,” says Sinha. “It was something interesting to work on, so we didn’t feel any pressure on academics.” The chemical engineering students learned IT from online courses.
Their company is part of a rising trend of companies being set up on campuses by students. So far many engineering and management students have been turning entrepreneur on passing out, or soon after. Campus start-ups are making a shift in the entrepreneurial journey by moving it a stage earlier.
This takes the country’s start-up eco-system a step closer to that of the United States, where companies like Facebook were born in a Harvard dorm. Though that degree of startling success has not visited India’s colleges yet, campus start-ups here are making more and more sense, as they have begun to find angel funding and paying customers.
Angels and customers
Vodocipher wouldn’t disclose the amount it raised from angels, but proudly declares that it has 40 clients. However, all those may be overshadowed by the one customer of Detect Technologies, a company formed at the IIT Madras Campus that has developed a system to detect fault in oil pipes.
Its co-founder Daniel Raj David, a fourth year engineering student, isn’t trying to be cool when he says he does not care much how he does in his exams. He actually doesn’t; he thinks he is building the next General Electric, one of the world’s largest conglomerates.
What gives wings to David’s dreams is that his company has just found the first big customer for its system: Reliance Industries. The Goliath of corporate India has completed two trials on it and wants to buy it. Detect is also conducting field tests for a drone and a robot which could find faults in thermal power plants.
The core team of Detect includes Hari Krishnan, a fourth year dual degree student, Karthik R, a final year student, and Krishnan Balasubramaniam, a member of the faculty. The CEO is Tarun Kumar Mishra, who has graduated.
On the same IIT Madras campus, K R Rahul, now a fourth year, noticed that he did not get any loyalty rewards for visiting his favourite restaurants in Chennai. So he started Clozerr, a company that uses sensors — usually installed in restaurants — to interact with smartphones of customers. The sensors, called beacons, connects with smartphones of customers who have the Clozerr app installed, detects their presence when they enter the shop, and gives them loyalty offers.
Rahul took a semester off to work on Clozerr and now runs it as the CEO. The company has a 20-member team, some of whom are his seniors. “Perhaps for the first time in the history of the institute, it allowed a student to take a semester off to set up a company,” says Rahul.
Campus start-ups are not confined to the IITs. Czar Securities, which offers security services for websites, was founded by students of the NIIT University, near Jaipur in Rajastan. Its clients include Microsoft, Yahoo, and Blackberry. “Since the beginning, we had the luxury of making mistakes as we were still in college,” says Shikhil Sharma, the CEO and co-founder.
No edge in academics
Rajendra K Pandey, President at the NIIT University, says there are 11 start-ups active on the campus. “In the last semester the students have to work in the industry. We now let students work in their own companies.”
Tamaswati Ghosh, CEO of the IIT-Madras incubation cell, says she definitely sees an “increasing healthy trend” of students not taking up placements and starting their own ventures. Angels, alumni networks, and faculty are there to help.
For all the start-up talk on campuses, they are yet to give their founders an edge over other students. NIIT University’s Pandey says the academia is largely indifferent, and does not know how to take note of it in the curriculum.
Industry body Confederation of Indian Industry, which every year conducts industry collaboration survey of academic institutions, is not enthused. “The majority of the institutes still focus on bringing companies to their campuses and showing good placement percentages,” says Shalini Sharma, Senior Consultant & Head-Higher Education, CII. “R&D commercialisation is very poor in our higher education institutions. And that is because the majority of the institutions do not have the right kind of experts to guide them.