Multipurpose drones that do everything from analysing pollution levels to servicing wind turbines; hyperloop pods that take you from Delhi to Mumbai in an hour; super-pigeons that poop soap to clean cities (only the droppings, not the birds, are biochemically modified); and engineered eyes with haptic sensors and cameras that enable the blind to ‘see’. These were some of the amazing inventions showcased at Shaastra, the annual technical festival of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras, held virtually during the second week of January.
The biggest student-run carnival of its kind in India, Shaastra hosts multiple events every year, from interdisciplinary realms such as aeronautics, biotechnology, electronics, law, and engineering design. Workshops and competitions ignite young minds to explore solutions to everything from data science and machine learning to intricate computer programming, engineering tasks and social challenges. International companies and Indian corporations who participate in this digital fair are often the angel investors and venture capitalists who offer entrepreneurs unique opportunities to pitch their ideas that could help launch their startup journey.
This year’s Shaastra coincided with the Startup India Innovation week organised by the Government on India’s Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade from January 10-16 to toast entrepreneurship and startups. With themes ranging from ‘Local to Global’, ‘Nudging the DNA’, ‘Building Champions in Manufacturing and Sustainable Development’, and ‘Technology of the Future’, Shaastra attracted attention from entrepreneurs in sectors such as space, security, enterprise systems, fintech, health and environment. Several ministries and government agencies, including the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Defence (MoD), the Niti Aayog, and the Department of Science and Technology and the Department of Biotechnology supported the programme.
Initiatives such as Shaastra do not merely train the best minds to keep India in the forefront of technological advancement, they also serve as springboards for new-age entrepreneurs. There is no doubt that halls of academe are certainly best suited to host startup incubators, and this is borne out by the fact that most incubators — and they have been increasing exponentially over the last 10 years — are linked to academic institutions such as the IITs.
The Startup Incubation and Innovation Center at IIT Kanpur has a joint collaboration with NTT Data Services to provide affordable primary healthcare services in Uttar Pradesh. AgSpert, an agriculture startup incubated at IIT-Guwahati, uses artificial intelligence (AI) to power its multi-lingual smartphone app that helps farmers improve in-farm productivity. Similarly, IITs like Delhi, Kharagpur, and Mandi, too, have robust collaborative programmes with industry to hand-hold and incubate new startups.
Acknowledging the potential of these institutes as amazing test-beds for innovation and entrepreneurship, and the promise they hold for employment generation and social impact, the government is now helping them with policy tweaks, guidance and funding. Thanks to these interventions, incubators working with the NITI Aayog’s Atal Innovation Mission to provide interactive training for entrepreneurs are coming up with new startup models themselves. Taking a leaf from this notebook, the state-owned Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) has established half a dozen space tech incubation centres in India.
With over 61,000 startups recognised by the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade, India is currently the world's third-largest startup innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem, after the US and China. But the startup landscape in India was not as rosy till the turn of the last decade, and tech startups in particular always had an uphill task in establishing themselves. In fact, until a couple of years ago, the failure rate of tech startups in the subcontinent was estimated to be around 90 percent as most of them could not face the odds posed by the lack of research and funding, and ineffective marketing.
Unstinting support from the government, however, has been steadily changing the scene in the last six years since the launch of its flagship programme, 'Startup India'. The project expressly seeks to empower startups to grow through innovation and design in sectors as diverse as agriculture, manufacturing, healthcare, and education. Facilitating industry-academia partnerships, and incubation through funding and incentives has been key to many startups finding their feet, and delivering remarkable solutions to several challenges facing industry and society.
Against this backdrop, the science and technology parks set up by the Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology (MeitY) have added a new dimension to public sector research, besides providing an enabling environment for budding high-tech startups. The Electropreneur Park at Delhi University, the Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management Kerala’s electronics incubator, and the fabless chip design incubator at IIT, Hyderabad are examples of how MeitY is encouraging entrepreneurship and startups in India.
Now it is time for the government to take the blossoming startup culture to the remotest areas of India so that, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on National Startup Day on January 16, the current decade would be the “techade” of India.
Prakash Chandra is former editor of the Indian Defence Review. He writes on aerospace and strategic affairs.
Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.