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India taps mentors to foster startups

Students chat while walking on the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay campus.

MUMBAI   The Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, one of the premier institutions of science and technology in the country, is located to the east of Powai Lake in northern Mumbai.

     The IIT Bombay campus, set amid evergreen trees, is home to the Society for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, a technology and business incubator. These days, 28 startups are using the facility's budget-friendly rooms and research labs to try to make their dreams come true.

     "This device will be able to produce 32 Braille characters via Bluetooth from a smartphone," said Shyam Shah, co-founder of Innovision, while displaying a small, keyboardlike device.

THE POWER OF IMAGINATION   "We want to offer this machine at $300 to $500, about one-fifth of the current model," Shah said. It allows blind people to communicate naturally with other people on social media in real time. 

Dinesh Sain holds a prototype of a drone that he hopes to control via the Internet.

     Shah graduated from IIT Bombay in 2014 and entered SINE in June of 2015. The first prototype of their Braille machine will be ready in February, he said.

     Another startup at SINE, CareNx, led by Shantanu Pathak, offers medical services via smartphones. Dinesh Sain at Drona Aviation wants to create a program that allows drones to be controlled via the Internet, meaning that someone in Tokyo would be able to fly one in Mumbai. Coin Mobile Technologies is developing a secure app that allows people to make payments through mobile devices. Swapnil Kulkarni, co-founder of Coin, entered a renowned financial institution after graduation, but quit in 2014 to pursue his dream to offer easy settlement services for small shops. 

Shyam Shah, right, and Surabhi Srivastava, co-founders of Innovision, show off their electronic Braille device.

     Yasvardhan Banthia, a business associate at SINE, said, "We have had 78 startups here and 36 of them graduated funded by angels or venture capitals so far."

     IIT is known as a treasure-trove of human resources for world-class information technology companies. In November last year, Google made a job offer with an annual salary package totaling about 20 million rupees ($300,000) to a final-year computer science student at IIT Kharagpur, another school in the IIT group. That is the most compensation Google has offered to a student to date. 

     IIT students have no shortage of tech and science talent, but creating a new company without any business experience carries much risk. They may need some help, and now people are popping up to shepherd them along the way. 

A HELPING HAND   Vikram Gupta is one. Gupta is founder and managing partner of IvyCap Ventures Advisors, a venture capital fund that has close links with the worldwide IIT alumni network.

Vikram Gupta is behind several initiatives that actively support IIT graduates.

     There are 18 IITs in India, but intercommunication among them is scarce, aside from their alumni institutions overseas. In 2011, Gupta proposed creating alumni groups to help young IIT graduates set up shop. However, many former students saw these as purely social institutions and were reluctant at first to utilize them. 

     Gupta then came up with the idea of creating an organization with a special fund and a pool of mentors. IIT Alumni Trust provided 20% of the money to set up IvyCap Ventures Trust Fund. One-fourth of profits from IvyCap Ventures Trust Fund go to Alumni Trust in what Gupta calls a "give-back" system. Mentors also receive 1% stakes in every company that is part of the fund, irrespective of success or failure. "By making a give-back system to the Alumni Trust, now 18 IITs are under the one umbrella," Gupta said.

     Gupta also created a new institution called IvyCamp, which connects various parties in the startup world. In the summer of 2015, IvyCamp went online and Gupta said, "Through IvyCamp, we have created an online marketplace for startups, investors and mentors that can share information at a glance." He added, "With support from IIT mentors, the ratio of success for startups which I am involved with is more than 50%, much higher than the average ratio of 30%."

     Now based in Mumbai, Gupta is a graduate of IIT Delhi. Many people who visit his office are not just from IIT Bombay, but from other IITs, such as Kharagpur, as well. 

     IvyCap is now aiming to expand its funds, and "we expect investments from other countries such as Japan," Gupta said.

     Last December, IvyCamp and SINE IIT Bombay established an official partnership. With alumni assistance, Shah's low-priced Braille device may make it to the market in the near future.

     Nikkei and Pioneers, a Vienna-based company that gives promising entrepreneurs the means to realize their ideas, will host Pioneers Asia, a startup event in Tokyo on March 23. 

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