46th Rajagiri Round Table Conference
Churning out graduates in a variety of subjects can't be the ultimate 'dharma' of the contemporary campus, as unemployment mounts year after year. Campus produces degree holders, but does it promote entrepreneurship, a demand for which has been ever on the rise?
The start-up trend has developed into a parallel culture in modern times. The Government of India has launched a Start-Up Mission. Similar initiatives have come up in many other countries across the world. The start-up culture calls for development of critical skills for creative and entrepreneurial thinking and higher grades of resilience. While contemporary education system struggles to keep pace with such world-wide trends, the students, parents and teachers need to familiarize with them and prepare themselves for a start-up revolution.
Is the campus endowed with necessary infrastructure to sow the seeds of entrepreneurship among a zestful generation? Are the teachers equipped to play the role of mentors for budding entrepreneurs? Can the campus convert itself into a crucible of experimental entrepreneurships?
The 46th Rajagiri Round Table Conference held at the Rajagiri School of Engineering and Technology discussed the topic, ‘The call of entrepreneurship: waiting for a start-up revolution’.
The following subject experts/resource persons initiated the discussion:
1.. Mr.Shivdas B.Menon, past president, TiE (The Indus Entrepreneurs) Kerala, and past Chairman, CII (Confederation of Indian Industry) -Southern Region ;
2. Mr.Prasad Balakrishnan Nair, Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Maker Village, Kalamassery, Kochi;
3. Ms.Enfa Rose George, student-entrepreneur (co-founder of Pehia Foundation).
Excerpts from the programme:
When I started a company in 1987, after having worked in two British organisations, the situation was different from the current scenario. Today you have start up village, startups and a lot of people to help you. Those days no such support system was there. It took almost 6 months to get sales tax registration. Kerala is different now. We can do a lot of things and entrepreneurship is possible.
Some of the students have startup ideas. One can imagine and have dreams, but before you start an enterprise, try to have a clear understanding about the project. For this, it is worthwhile to have interaction with those who have failed in similar projects .
Mortality is very high in startups. How can we bring down the mortality level?. It is easy to discuss over a cup of coffee and say, let’s start a business partnership. Always there is one person who says “let’s start a business”. I would suggest that if someone wants to launch a venture, first work for a company for a year or two, because the person commits all sorts of mistakes there. I did work till the age of 45. During that period, I had committed many mistakes though I was a successful manager, which gave me self-confidence that I would do well in business too.
Nowadays funding is very easy. Venture capital and other sources are available. When the government or the bank provides funds, please understand that it is not your money. Be very careful in spending it. Alternatively, your own money generally means your parents would have earned the money. Bear in mind that when you are young, you tend to spend more money.
Take the case of partnerships. In the beginning itself, one has to define the roles meant for each partner. It should be so because it might be difficult to assign tasks at a later stage. Again, the clauses of partnership must be made available in writing. Later, the problem could start when the venture starts making profit. The problem would start when the bank balance grows. Suppose one partner wants to exit. Then you will have to pay compensation. One peculiar problem I found in some of the startup companies is that the problems start when one of the partners get married. One should have a clear-cut idea as to whether spouse should come to the company or not.
My company had started with Rs.2.75 lakh in 1987. After having left a good job, I had to struggle. I faced a lot of problems. But I knew that low technology won’t be helpful. A new product developed in my lab, set up on a modest scale, in an old ‘nalukettu’. The achievement could be attributed to my innovative mind. I knew that I would have to develop something new. It was around that time that I had an opportunity to go to UK and meet my former employer. The idea of producing a new agricultural input, a material of significant use in UK, was spawned during that visit. It was supposed to be a substitute for the natural ‘peat available there. That substitute was developed in my lab. It is a branded product now, being exported to 27 countries. The lesson is this: Don’t ignore even the small things; keep your eyes and ears open; try to understand the market. When somebody told me that the substitute would work well in UK, I focused on it and succeeded in developing the product.
Mr.Prasad Balakrishnan Nair
If you examine the environment that had been available for entrepreneurs belonging to the previous generation, it could be seen that people used to consider those who started enterprises as prodigals. The situation was not confined to Kerala alone; it was the same in the country as a whole. Later, the country witnessed the evolution of a vibrant startup system in place such as Bangalore and Hyderabad. Kerala also belatedly got up with that. Now the focus is on shifting the startups to Tier-two cities such as Kochi. A lot of things are happening in Kerala now.
Let us have a look at the evolvement of a startup ecosystem in Kerala and that of other places. In Bangalore, there was no proactive intervention from the government initially. Industry had come and set up ventures there. But in Kerala, we have had to create a startup eco system. We need a curation from the government for the industry to create a vibrant ecosystem. That is the role which Maker Village is playing. We are only a facilitator.
In the past two years, a lot of changes have happened. The Department of Science and Technology has been conducting an all India examination to find out and encourage talent. In 2018, all the three top winners were from Kerala. This is partly because of curation, effective intervention underway in Kerala, and partly because of the organic changes. But even now, we are facing a lot of problems. One example is that of a startup company making an international product. The company requires about Rs..40 crore funding. A prospective investor said that he would have been ready if the startup was located in Bangalore and not in Kerala. The incident shows that there is a ‘locational disability’ that prevails even now. We have to overcome that. It is a major challenge.
A lot of people ask, what is the best thing (in startups) for Kerala?. We should focus on deep tech. This is not because people talk about deep tech or artificial intelligence or machine learning, but due to our cultural, temperamental and other factors. Our area of opportunity is deep tech. Irrespective of one’s area of activity - agriculture, healthcare or something else - the person should leverage technology and use it effectively. That is the way for startups in Kerala. We must be aware of the space constraints. Considering our competencies, it can be said that we are a creative breed.
The Maker Village is in touch with all ecosystems in the country and outside also. Creativity can be leveraged if one focuses on technology. For instance, there is a product for tapping neera, a neera tapping machine. It is useful in the agri-sector. The startup unit has made use of a little bit of IOT, robotics and other technologies. That is the core competence of the manufacturer. An entrepreneur has come from Sweden just to see the product. He is having business in Malaysia, southeast Asia and Goa. He has tried to develop the same poduct, but failed. The Keralite startup focussed on things along with the conventional electromechanical system, incorporating some technology. Keep your eyes open to technology. Use technology that could be the differentiator.
The answer to the question, what is the way to encourage college students to join the startup ecosystem, is that we should think beyond college students. To enable them, we need others. We have four startups started by four people in the age group of 60 to 65 years. Such experience should be made use of to elevate college students for market study and innovations. We should think beyond college to enable college students to make good entrepreneurs. It is possible for Kerala to have one of the best startup ecosystems or centre of excellence at par with the global centres.
Ms.Enfa Rose George
Unlike most of the prevailing product and technology startups, I have a company whose survival is based on making society better. Maybe we can say, making money by making the society better, which is rather a new concept.
The image that a lot of students have on entrepreneurs is linked to persons such as Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai. When we say something about startups, the image that comes to our mind immediately is that of a big building, a flashy office and other things. But people don’t see the hassles behind it. As for students, what we see is what we perceive. College students generally are tempted to think that it is luxurious to have a startup, especially with innovation grants.
Institutions such as Kerala Startup Mission and TIE Kerala conduct idea pitching, bring in experts and investors from different areas with a view to promoting entrepreneurship, but students see such initiatives as just another way towards making money. The number of students who have a sincere drive for entrepreneurship, out of the pool of people coming for pitching, is too small. The lack of drive could be one of the reasons for high mortality rate among startups. At a Startup Mission programmes, a company which failed five or six times was profiled. I think campus student should be shown that side of startups. People who have run successful startups would tell you that a startup is not about money, but a lot of hardwork. It means a lot of sleepless nights; it’s a lot of management, diplomatic decisions and much more. Students from the campus generally fail to see such efforts.
Do not have a startup with your best friend, because at the age of 18 or 20, the students don’t know what the world is like. Most of the students, especially in private colleges, live in cyber campuses. They have no clue as to what the world wants or how the outside world is. And, they have a small network of friends and family whom they trust completely. Try to be interns at various companies. Internees are expected to mess up things. You get an opportunity to learn many things there. One can make a lot of experiments at those companies which could afford small mistakes. Try to understand how the mechanism works in successful companies; learn from there and gain maturity to go for startups. As long as there are student grants for students, it should be made known that entrepreneurship is not flashy. Students could explore opportunities instead of spending the entire time within the campus. Go out and watch people pitch.
Starting a startup in the campus is very difficult because student-entrepreneurs are considered as outliers and abnormal people. Our education system is not capable of handling outliers. Those who are enthusiastic of launching startups should also follow the prevailing system, without facilitating exemptions. Maybe a policy that accepts outliers would be required.
During the discussion that followed, the students, teachers, entrepreneurs and the expert panel interacted on different issues. One of the questions raised was how to enthuse students into the entrepreneurial world. Mr.Varghese Panthalookaran, professor, RSET, mooted the idea of integrating the basic spirit of entrepreneurship into curriculum so that the teachers could give assignments accordingly. Creative thinking, perseverance, resilience and similar qualities required for entrepreneurs would be on test then. Such stuff should be packed into the curriculum. The changes in curriculum should be done wisely, otherwise, there would be chaos. Entrepreneurial spirit could be integrated through a variety of measures including project-assignments and visits to factories. Academic points are given for participation in entrepreneurial programmes. Academic changes happen slowly and the evolution has been taking place. Inhouse arrangements to promote entrepreneurship are prevalent in several foreign universities at the higher level such as Ph.D., he said. Ms.Enfa expressed the view that the education system could be little more flexible to accommodate the outliers.
Mr.Sreekumar Raghavan, mediaperson, said a lot of people have succeeded and many others have failed in business. Several people have failed in the dotcom ventures. Being carried away by the trend can happen at any age. What matters is understanding the industry from different angles. Business is not something that you can learn all of a sudden after you leave an educational institution. The ecosystem could be developed at an early age, even at the school level. Entrepreneurship has to come from within. Ms.Enfa recalled that she was encouraged at home to solve own problems arising out of various situations, thus enabling her to have wider perspectives and practical knowledge. Students should try to solve problems when they are confronted with challenging situations rather than looking for someone else to give a ‘spoon-fed’ solution. Maturity in terms of handling situations is a relative term.
Hardwork is behind the success of several ventures, said Mr.Prasad Balakrishnan Nair. The ability to ask questions do matter, Mr.Shivdas Menon said. Even if a person fails in a particular vertical in a venture, he may succeed in another. Being friendly, with a smiling face, can solve a lot of problems, according to him. Mr.Nair pointed out that Kerala has a good future in entrepreneurship as we are really good at asking questions. In this context, Ms.Enfa said successful entrepreneurs could be good managers.
Mr.Vinay. N., student, said people who create problems and find solutions for them might be able to apply the knowledge in managing ventures. Networking and developing bonding could be of immense help. A group and team are different and the realisation of that fact is important for the entrepreneur. He noted that even when a venture faces failure, the entrepreneur learns from it. If you think business is only for making money for yourself, you will fail, Mr.Menon pointed out. There should be transparency in the deals. Creating value for the company is important, he added. Ms.Enfa noted that the success or failure depends on the hardwork and time involved; it varies from person to person.
Mr.Athul Ram, student, said the aspiring entrepreneur should know where he or she stands. It is significant to have proper insights and to give importance to quality. Mr.Prasad Balakrishnan Nair said that a lot of Indian companies are able to beat foreign companies in terms of quality of products manufactured by them. China is a country where products of good quality and poor quality are produced, he said.
Mr.Rijin John, mentor at Incubation Centre, RSET, wanted the students to make use of the ecosystem and funding facility provided by the Startup Mission. The Mission is aware of the fact that the students’ venture may or may not be successful. They want to give the feel of entrepreneurship and the student will gain a lot of experience which will be of immense help in charting out a course of action after graduation, in a field of his or her own choice. In this context, Mr.Prasad Balakrishnan Nair said that funding should be considered only as an enabler for a short period to trigger vibrancy into startup system.
Mr.Nobel John William, representative of Steag Energy India Private Limited, said that market research should be part of the entrepreneurship culture. One needs to study the problem to be solved in the domain of one’s choice. Consumer behaviour and patterns would have to be understood, bearing in mind that the product has to be bought by people. Process efficiency is what matters irrespective of the technologies used. Ms. Enfa said people of different dynamics would be better for a startup rather than a group of the same academic discipline.
Mr.Justin Joy, student, wanted the students to be part of the startup culture by joining the activities of several organisations engaged in the entrepreneurial mission. Ms.Enfa expressed the view that there are several projects and programmes in the entrepreneurial world and it is for the discerning entrepreneur to seize the opportunity. Academics and entrepreneurship are not diametrically opposite; in fact, one complements the other, pointed out Mr.Prasad. Many brilliant entrepreneurs have come from excellent academic institutions, according to him.
In response to a remark made by Mr.Akash U.R, student, on the inadequacies of the education system in encouraging entrepreneurship, Ms.Enfa said the system was improving every day. One of the methodologies in practice at the college is to ask students to study a project and pitch one’s idea. Integration of management principles into the running of a startup could be of much help. Today, the industry is looking for people having knowledge in multiple disciplines, she said.
The entrepreneur should be able to deal with different people and situations appropriately, said Mr.Nobel John. Competition is good for the entrepreneur, added Mr.Shivdas B.Menon. There are plenty of opportunities for the new generation in food and agri-processing, he said. Kerala is consuming about 3000 tonnes of vegetables everyday. Why don’t we meet the demand in Kerala, he asked. Greenhouse facilities and vertical gardening could be adopted. In the case of many entrepreneurs based in Kerala, there is little effort to widen the network beyond the State. Opportunities for startups in value addition are plenty, according to him.
Those who participated in the programme included Veneeth Krishnan, Anandu.K, Hebu Ismail. D, Vishnu Pradeep, Chris Philip, Jojo Joseph, Mathew James, Vandana Nair, Swathika Manu, Swetha Satish, Ansha Fathima, and Ajanas.S.