IIT Madras Incubation Cell sees increase in faculty joining startups

Photo: Shutterstock
There is an increasing interest among the academic faculty members to join the startups, especially those which are connected to the incubation cells of the institutes. 

Five years back, about 15 IIT Madras (IITM) faculty members were involved in startups as founders or advisor/minority shareholders or mentors. It has grown up to over 60 faculty members directly involved in startups incubated at IIT Madras.

Roughly 33 per cent of the total portfolio of 150 deep-tech startups established at IITM Incubation Cell have IITM faculty members as founders or are involved as minority shareholders, said Tamaswati Ghosh, CEO of the Incubation Cell. Involvement of faculty in startups at IITM is one of the highest in the country, claims IITMIC (IIT Madras Incubation Cell).

"IITM has set a benchmark for translational research, which is very much evident in the growing number of spin-out companies from research labs & centres of excellence. Participation of faculty in startups at IITM is one of the highest in the country," she said.

One of the reasons is the changing perspective on the research in academia, said A Thillai Rajan, Professor in the Department of Management Studies at IIT Madras, who has been publishing reports related to the seed, venture capital and private equity funding in the Indian startup ecosystem for several years. 

"While the career growth in teaching practice is still linked to the research works that the faculty does, and rightly so, engagement with translational research and its implementation in startups is increasingly accepted in the system," said Rajan, who in May, this year, announced launch of his startup YNOS Venture Engine CC Private Limited incubated at IIT Madras Incubation Cell. It aims to help startups growing and attracting funds using data analytics and machine learning.

The research activities and being part of a startup as a mentor or director are not two opposing work operations. Especially in deep-tech segments, a startup could be the translational part of the research that is being conducted in the institution. Establishing an enterprise is also not that difficult as earlier but at present, it paves way for more teachers to be part of startups.

While there is also a view that having a faculty as part of the startup, either as a director or mentor, it would help the startups from these university-led incubation cells attract investment or industry customer easily and it is not the only factor that attracts them, experts say.

While it cannot be a generalised view considering the varying nature of startups, some engineering, knowledge or technology intensive startups that involve solving complex problems with deep expertise required, faculty members as promoters and/or technical advisors gain a stronger technical footing, with product development aligned with the needs of the industry, said Tamaswati Ghosh. 

Most of the companies in the IITMIC are working on niche and high tech areas, with products/solutions at least Technology Readiness Level 3-4 at the time of incubation. Hence, proof of concept (POC) and demonstration to industry (for pilot validation) can be faster.

The presence of faculty members in the startup team even as minority stakeholders can give confidence to funding bodies or agencies in the technology, even when the go-to-market is extended due to the more intensive technology translation cycles such Startups undertake, says the IITMIC. 

Active participation of faculty members also gives the startups access to technology and product mentorship in the early stage when other sources are yet to match up. 

Faculty members with strong agency and industry interactions in their own research are able to bring those connections to the startups which can then take the engagement forward with a natural referral guiding process.

Close to 37 per cent of the 150 incubatees in the IITMIC are external entrepreneurs but they all work on technology innovations. 

"We incubate around 30-40 new companies every year on an average. Of the 150 cos, about 40-46 have graduated. There would be about 82-84 cos in the incubator. The graduated companies continue to be in the Research Par," Ghosh explained.