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IIT-Madras: Nurturing a range of start-up ideas, from farming to space tech

Topics IIT Madras | start- ups

Former Isro chairman A S Kiran Kumar visiting Agnikul, a start-up at IIT Madras Research Park that is developing a small rocket
Back in 2012, Tarun Mehta and Swapnil Jain were classmates at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IIT-M), one of the oldest IITs in India. After a brief corporate stint, when both decided to take a plunge into entrepreneurship, they turned to their alma mater. Thanks to the initial support by the seniors, faculty members and professors, Mehta and Jain today run Ather Energy, a successful smart electric scooter company in India.      

Stellapps is another example of a successful IIT-M-incubated start-up. It has developed solutions that optimise the agricultural supply chain across milk production, milk procurement, cold chain, animal insurance, and farmer payments.

Uniphore, an artificial intelligence (AI)-based natural language processing company that was incubated out of IIT-M, is going places today, having been backed by a battery of investors such as March Capital, Chiratae Ventures, Sistema Asia, and even former Cisco chairman John Chambers and Infosys co-founder Kris Gopalakrishnan. Three years ago, its co-founder and CEO, Umesh Sachdev, figured in Time Magazine's list of "10 millennials who are changing the world". 

Starting from addressing the common man's daily issues in areas like agriculture, infrastructure, housing, water, pollution and transportation to working on innovations in space technology, IIT-M incubated start-ups are out to make a big difference in a host of areas. The premier engineering institute arguably has positioned itself at the forefront of product innovation in the country.

So far, the premier engineering institute has incubated around 200 start-ups ideas and teams, of which 73 are operating as successful enterprises. These firms have raised Rs 1,620 crore through angel and venture funding with a cumulative valuation of around Rs 6,000 crore, according to certain estimates. In 2018-19, the cumulative revenue of these start-ups stood at around Rs 293 crore while they have created around 3,000 jobs and filed over 100 patents. 

Set up in 2010 by IIT-M and its alumni, IIT Madras Research Park brings together industry, academia and students to nurture innovation and support the students in their entrepreneurial journey. 

Covering 1.2 million sq ft, the park, which is located next to the institute, supports promotion of R&D by the institute in partnership with industry, along the lines of research parks at Stanford University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Harvard University. IIT-M Research Park also houses the IIT-M Incubation Cell (IITMIC), which was set up in 2013.

“Today, the best minds of the country are either working in start-ups or are leading some, and IIT Madras has by far has the best start-up ecosystem. Every enterprise coming out of here is totally unique,” says Prof Ashok Jhunjhunwala, Co-Chairman, IITMIC and IITMRP. Unlike a corporate, working with a start-up provides a unique opportunity to learn from scratch, he says. “Two years of learning in a start-up is equivalent to 10 years (of learning) in a corporate."

The IITM Incubation Cell expects to nurture 60-100 new deep-tech start-ups in the near future, offering innovative and disruptive solutions in critical domains such as sustainable low-cost housing, artificial intelligence/machine learning, augmented reality/virtual reality, robotics and Internet of Things, nanotechnology, water and sanitation, air quality, batteries, smart mobility and EVs, among others.

There is also an increasing interest from the institute's faculty members to support these firms as advisors, mentors, investors and even as founders. Six to seven years back, about 15 IIT-M faculty members were involved with these start-ups in some form or other, the number of which has now gone up to 60. 

“In 2018, roughly 33 per cent of the total portfolio of 150 deep-tech start-ups incubated at IITM Incubation Centre have IIT-M faculty members as founders or as minority shareholders,” said Tamaswati Ghosh, Chief Executive Officer, IIT Madras Incubation Cell. Besides bringing domain knowledge and mentorship, the presence of faculty members in start-ups even as minority stakeholders booss the confidence of the investors betting on these enterprises. 

For undergraduate students of IIT-M, the institute has set up a sort of pre-incubator called ‘Nirmaan’ where the students get small grants to test their ideas while still studying. Around 12-15 out of the 80-odd start-up teams it supported in the past four years have now entered the incubation stage and some have started raising funds, according to Satyanarayanan Seshadri, assistant professor, IIT-M and faculty advisor for Nirmaan.

Nirmaan also offers seed capital as a grant through alumni and CSR funding. It has mentors from the alumni, who work voluntarily guiding the start-ups. 

So far, Nirmaan has supported around 80 teams of which 30-35 might have moved out after graduation. It has now set a target to incubate 100 start-ups by 2021. 

Some of the successful start-ups that have been incubated through ‘Nirmaan’ include Tan90, which is developing a portable cold storage that runs off-grid with zero-carbon emission. The firm has raised a small funding at a valuation of around Rs 7-8 crore. Other start-ups that have successfully graduated at Nirmaan include Melvano, an intelligence social network for entrance exams; Involve, a peer-to-peer learning company; e-bike company DbyT Dynamics, and agritech firm Digital Flora.

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