Entrepreneurship and Incubation

Rajendra Mishra School of Engineering Entrepreneurship (RMSoEE), founded at IIT Kharagpur in 2010, aims to incubate the start-ups from the student community by getting them the infrastructure and technical expertise to develop their product and business plan while guiding them through the route from lab to market. We talked to Prof. Mrigank Sharad, a faculty member from RMSoEE, about the entrepreneurial landscape available for the students, how their values and demands transformed during the pandemic, and how a student should proceed towards fully running a business with a good thrust in the right direction.

Prof. Sharad is an alumnus of KGP, graduating with a Dual Degree from ECE Dept. in 2010 and later went for Ph.D. in Purdue University in the interdisciplinary areas of microelectronics and VLSI. Returning to KGP as a faculty in ECE Dept. in 2015, he beautifully taught many courses that are still remembered and written about by the students from different branches who attended those (especially Analog Electronics). He co-founded an AI-IoT-based Agri-business startup called AgNext while at KGP and later became a faculty at RMSoEE. He is an expert on VLSI and has conducted courses on the topic providing a viable technical launchpad and ‘state-of-the-art problem statements’ where students can contribute.

1) The pandemic has made people think and analyze things differently. How can this help in startups and entrepreneurship opportunities?

The pandemic has exposed several gaps in the industrial landscape of India, and those are the regions where the entrepreneurs need to identify the problems and build sustainable and efficient solutions. Various sectors such as transportation, manufacturing, nutrition, medical technology, etc., weren’t propelling enough to handle the pandemic without drastic upscaling.  During the lockdown, agriculture was one of the only sectors allowed to function continuously, showing that it has always catered to the country’s essential needs. Yet, the condition of farmers has been catastrophically poor at the national level. Efficient fintech and agri-tech startups can potentially transform the picture completely. The fact that the essential medical devices, chemicals, electronics, etc., used either directly by the consumer or several industries are imported, have retarded the nation’s response towards covid. These mainly stem from inhomogeneity in resources across the country, highlighting the space of entrepreneurial opportunities.

2) Many economic analysts and political thinkers are seeing India replacing China as the global manufacturing hub for the big players due to the constant efforts of our government in the past years and international diplomatic scenarios. This future is indeed very lucrative as far as jobs are considered but does it hamper the space for Indian startups?

The big players aren’t usually interested in the region-specific problems that start-ups could tackle. The areas like agri-tech, security, robotics, healthcare, etc., have very diverse requirements from other industries like consumer electronics, software, or finance. This entire network can’t be dominated or captured by the big players like Apple, who might just manufacture mobile phones, laptops, etc., in India. A person or a group having an innovative idea that would potentially work for the Indian demographic will not face hindrance from the big players since they would be the first movers in their particular sector. Also, one should not always view the big players as competitors; for example, if a start-up builds a radically new electronic healthcare technology, it can partner up with the likes of GE to advance the business. 

3) Apart from all the mentorship, specifically in planning a business and executing a startup, Rajendra Mishra School of Engineering Entrepreneurship has lab facilities in diverse areas like analytics, mechatronics, energy, and biotech. And as you mentioned earlier, the landscape that has yet been underexplored in India while having revolutionary potential is thriving on diversity. So is our student community coming up with solutions that adhere to technological diversity?

Currently, the students are mostly coming up with software-based solutions, which is good if it solves some unexplored or unattended problem. But if they are just proposing a “me too” solution in an already crowded market, that will be tough. To shift the needle, we would need to provide students with more exposure, training, and induction to familiarize them with the opportunities and space of problem statements in the unexplored sectors. Also, in the name of diversity, students shouldn’t delve for solutions without assessing their future. In the B-Plan seminars/competitions, we see students come up with some reasonable non-trivial solutions but with many flaws in the business model. More rigorous B-Plan courses are needed where the students are properly trained to quantitatively assess their idea in an extended timeframe and strategize properly according to their solution.

4) As you mentioned, there is a need for diversification and advancement in idea generation space by the undergrad. But it is difficult to see how your school alone can inculcate that in the UG community. So in your suggestion, what can be done at the institute level to bring that up?

From a bird’s-eye view, more involved and collaborative participation of all the institute stakeholders is required. Diversification indeed requires a deep knowledge base in the relevant technical domains, which the research scholars and the faculty are most likely to have since a significant percentage of research groups in KGP are working on topics pertinent to product development and not theoretical sciences. The undergrads mainly target those areas where they can get results and some quantifiable success without spending years building a knowledge base, which is an efficient route at that level. In KGP, there is a cultural lack of healthy communication and knowledge transfer between the undergraduates and the research scholars.

5) Recently, RMSoEE organized an incubation program for startups. Do any of the startups aim to fill the void created by the ban of Chinese apps?

Several startups are working on different android applications, but they are not targeting the replacement of Chinese apps. Further, it is not possible for an undergraduate with limited exposure and experience to the market’s demands to replicate an already existing application with several sophisticated features. Moreover, there are areas such as Edtech, Agri-business, Fintech, Digital recruitment solution, Digital aggregation platforms, IoT-based solutions for security, etc., on which students are building apps.

6) What are the other activities conducted by RMSoEE to promote start-up culture in KGP in this lockdown period? 

We have a student group called Headstart; through this group, we organize several lecture series, hackathons, case study and B-Plan competitions, and mentorship programs to refine the ideas brought up. Around July 2020, RMSoEE started the course “Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Post-COVID Scenario,” which was attended by more than 3000 students from across the country. Over 300 plans were submitted in a pitch competition organized afterward, out of which 25-30 were selected, and those teams got mentorship under “The Wadhwani Foundation” to refine their ideas. Apart from these, we are networking with universities abroad and startups from India. Our main objective is to expose students to different spaces of problems, provide them with infrastructure and expertise to develop their product, and, most importantly, guide them through the route from lab to market.

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