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Startup Village and the Dream of a Silicon Coast

By March 4, 2014Article

Sentinel is a free mobile security app that can send an alert to your family and friends even if your phone is destroyed by an attacker. The app can send an SOS text message with your location and tracking information even if you are not connected to the Internet. You don’t even have to manually trigger the app.   

Imagine the potential of this product in a country where, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, a woman is raped every 20 minutes. So it was not much of a surprise when Sentinel won a UN Award for one of the best apps for women in the world. But what does surprise many users is that this app was created by a bunch of college students, who now run a startup called MindHelix. 

They are not the only young Indians that have received accolades globally for technological innovation. Recently, a robotics company called RHL Vision was voted one of the top 15 startups in the world at TechCrunch CES Hardware Battlefield 2014 in Las Vegas. Their latest product, Fin, is a wearable Bluetooth gadget in the shape of a ring. It allows you to control smartphones, TVs and car radios with mere swipes and taps. RHL Vision’s 23-year-old CEO Rohildev will be the youngest speaker at the Mobile World Conference in Spain this year and will hobnob with tech celebrities such as Mark Zuckerberg and Virginia Rometty. 

Both these companies are a part of Startup Village, the most exciting mobile-Internet incubator that’s off the block in India and located in the southern Indian state of Kerala. 

Startup Village aims to launch 1,000 startups over the next decade and encourage college students to create cutting-edge technology startups. 

For people who don’t know about Kerala, it’s the state at the southern tip of India that has 100 percent literacy, 100 percent tele-density, a high female-to-male ratio, low infant mortality and life expectancy at par with New York. In other words, demographically, Kerala mirrors the United States with about one-seventieth the cash. However, the state never had entrepreneurs and most people migrated to the Middle East to such an extent that today foreign remittances into Kerala is over US$10 billion. 

Startup Village is associated with more than 500 companies today. This is an impressive record for an incubator that will turn two years old in April 2014. But the vision behind the incubator is much bigger: the next Skype or Facebook is widely expected to come out of a college campus in India. 

Startup Village provides early-stage companies with office space, technology services, funding, around-the-clock mentoring, industry contacts, accounting and patent support. All incubated startups also get business services from partners such as Amazon Web Services, Microsoft and BlackBerry at a heavily discounted price. 

In a nutshell, Startup Village is much more than just an ordinary business incubator. It is fast becoming India’s number one destination for early-stage companies and is changing the whole product startup ecosystem in the country.   

India, Asia’s third largest economy, also happens to be one of the hardest places to start a business. According to the World Bank, India ranks 179th in the world in terms of the ease of doing business. Everything from getting construction permits to tax rules is stacked against first-generation entrepreneurs. College students have to run from pillar to post just to open a bank account. In addition, business incubators in India are mostly housed in government universities and, unlike the U.S., the industry-institute interaction is very weak. Most simply give office space to entrepreneurs and provide little support when it comes to mentoring, funding or patents. 

Startup Village, on the other hand, is India’s first business incubator jointly funded by the public and the private sector. Not only does it have tremendous support from the government of India and government of Kerala, but it also has extremely influential people from the tech industry on its advisory panel. Pranav Mistry, the inventor of SixthSense, recently joined us as an adviser. Kris Gopalakrishnan, the co-founder of Infosys and one of the most successful IT entrepreneurs from India, is the chief mentor. (Here you can see the entire list of partners and mentors with Startup Village.) 

Historically, in India, the information technology services revolution, led by industry giants such as Infosys, focused on providing services at a cheaper cost than the West. The next stage is widely expected to be all about inventions and product startups. But to make that happen, fundamental problems with the Indian education system need to be fixed. Most of the global technology giants of today, such as Google and Facebook, were started in college dorms. For India to become a future technology and business hub, students will have to take the lead. 

But India’s current education system encourages rote learning instead of out-of-the-box thinking. Students are encouraged to find a safe job with a multinational company instead of creating the next Google or Yahoo. Startup Village’s goal is to change that mindset and create an ecosystem where it’s possible to build, break and innovate. 

The incubator, in association with the Kerala government has also launched a series of initiatives to promote innovation and entrepreneurship among school and college students. For instance, Fab Labs from MIT will be established in the campus in Kochi so that students can use best-in-class technology to create cutting-edge hardware product designs. Additionally, 10,000 Raspberry Pi devices will be given to school students from 8th to 12th grade so that they learn the basics of coding at a very young age. 

The Kerala Government, in association with Startup Village, has also decided to set up Entrepreneurship Development Clubs in colleges across the state to give students a taste of running a company while they are still studying. The incubator will provide mentoring and technology assistance in all these initiatives. 

In 2013, the incubator launched a pilot program called SVSquare (Startup Village to Silicon Valley) to select some of the most promising innovators from across the state and take them on an all-expenses-paid trip to the United States. Five students were handpicked and taken to California in December 2013 in an event supported by the Jadeja Motwani Foundation. The plan is to take 10 times that number in 2014, and the hope is that the leading lights of Silicon Valley will help our students realize that they can, and they should, aim for the stars. The dream to build a world-class startup ecosystem in India is taking its first baby steps. 

Sanjay Vijayakumar is co-founder and CEO of MobME Wireless and chairman of Startup Village. India Today rated Sanjay as one of the 37 Indians driving the future of the country. He is also a Rajeev Motwani Fellow instituted in the memory of late Stanford Professor Rajeev Motwani, mentor to Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and has been selected by World Economic Forum as a Global Shaper for making significant contribution to the community. 

Diksha Madhok looks after community engagement at Startup Village. She maintains the Startup Village blog, which showcases stories on startups, technology and entrepreneurship. Diksha is passionate about promoting technology entrepreneurship among women in India. Before Joining Startup Village, Diksha worked as a multimedia journalist at Reuters in New Delhi. 







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