The institutional funding of Kerala Startup Mission (KSUM) stood at approximately $9.5 mn in 2014 shortly after it was roped in as an ecosystem builder by raising it to policy level. In the years that followed, the startup ecosystem saw an incline on its funding and growth graph. Fast forward to the present, KSUM under the leadership of its CEO Dr. Saji Gopinath and his core team, is preparing for a global take-off.
Winning the Top Performer tag in an annual States’ Startup Ranking 2018 exercise, Dr. Saji Gopinath, CEO, Kerala Startup Mission (KSUM) reflects on the journey and what lies ahead for the startup incubator ecosystem
Dr. Gopinath, his team and KSUM-incubated companies are basking in the glory of being tagged ‘Top Performer of the Year’, as conferred by the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP). Dr. Gopinath believes that considering the scale and depth of operations of the Startup Mission, the achievement is just a start. He along with Ashok Panjikaran, Manager, Business Development; Riyas Mohammed, Director, Funding; Mary Thomas, Manager, Finance; Sreekumaran Nair, Secretary and Registrar; and Tom Thomas, Project Director, Operations are gearing up for broader global play. Indeed for KSUM, 2019 already seems like a good start with the launch of an Integrated Startup Complex at Technology Innovation Zone (TIZ) in Kalamassery, which is the largest of its kind in India with 1.8 lakh sq. ft. space. The complex will house several incubators of which one will be exclusively for cancer research. The Bengaluru-based Biomedical Research, Innovation and Commercialisation in Cancer (BRIC) will lead the operations of the incubator, focussing on developing solutions for cancer care.
The Integrated Startup Complex will also have centres of excellence (CoE) by industry giants like UNITY and CERA. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – the world’s largest charity organisation has already funded Rs.50 lakh towards the incubator for cancer research by BRIC. The Foundation has promised BRIC a grant of $1 mn on conditional basis. KSUM also has plans to diversify operations by roping in more incubators in various parts of Kerala. KSUM’s Malabar Innovation (Mi) Zone in Kannur will be opened soon. Mi Zone, a 23,000 sq. ft. incubator facility, has been set up along with Kerala Clays and Ceramics Products Ltd., which has created the necessary infrastructure. Two to three months down the line, another startup innovation centre is due for launch in Palakkad which will be managed by KSUM and infrastructure has been offered by a government polytechnic institute. This year KSUM will establish new centers in Thrissur, Idukki and Kottayam. “We hope that by the end of this year, KSUM will have its presence in eight districts besides Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram,” said Dr. Gopinath.
MILESTONES IN 2018
A major achievement in 2018 revolved around angel investors funding 11 companies through KSUM. On an average, each of the companies received about Rs. 1-1.5 crore from the investors. On a larger scale, the whole startup ecosystem in Kerala grossed nearly Rs. 270 crore from investors. KSUM is also striving to increase the volume of fund of funds (FoFs) investments. “We hope to bring close to Rs. 1000 crore to Kerala through FoFs. That means, Rs.1000 crore will be made accessible for the startups here,” Dr. Gopinath said.
Last year KSUM also joined hands with Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) for setting up Mobile 10X, an incubator at Cyberpark in Kozhikode. Also, BioNest and Maker Village in Kochi were also able to make significant strides in the last year. “Where once there were just two companies, Maker Village now has more than 65 companies and close to 25 companies have started operations at BioNest,” he said. According to KSUM, many companies have relocated to Kerala and multiple companies specialising in space technology are also making the move. KSUM has signed an MoU with the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) to start an electronics accelerator facility. KSUM hopes to participate in the setting up of a Nanospace Park in Thiruvananthapuram with Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). To be set up in 20 acres of land, the park will house startups that manufacture space technology components. STADE (Space Technology Application Development Ecosystem) at KINFRA Film and Video Park, Thiruvananthapuram is another novel venture under the aegis of KSUM which intends to host startups involved in R&D by compiling data from space. “STADE will be launched by the end of February,” he said.
However, it will be another six to seven months before the Nanospace Park project materialises. “An infrastructure facility has to be developed in association with ISRO first,” Dr. Gopinath said.
ROADMAP TO PUT KERALA STARTUPS ON GLOBAL STAGE
KSUM is consistently focussed on linking the State’s startup ecosystem with other parts of the world. At the moment, the Startup Mission is in talks with potential ecosystem partners in Finland and the US. KSUM has signed an MoU with University of Illinois for creating a launch pad for startups in Kerala. “The University of Illinois will support startups that want to expand their operations to the US. We have already signed an MoU for the same. Another round of discussions are going on at present,” Dr. Gopinath revealed. Talks are also progressing with Imperial College, London and University of Tampere in Finland. In a bid to establish business contacts, KSUM ensured its participation in major tech events across the globe like GITEX 2018 and CES 2018. “Several startups which have been incubated by KSUM are capable of going global. So business connect is very important. We were able to do it last year and hope to network more in 2019,” he said.
MARKET-ORIENTED PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT
One of the key problems that startups face is the lukewarm environment in product development despite having a disruptive idea. KSUM has taken this into account as a major chunk of startups incubated under it are hardware-based. Following a global selection process, KSUM has identified brinc – a Hong Kong-based hardware accelerator – to help companies understand the market and develop refined products. brinc also has facilities in Bahrain, Barcelona and the USA. The accelerator will start operations in Kochi in February.
“We expect to see a boost for hardware startups in Kerala with brinc commencing operations in Kochi. It will help companies link global manufacturing majors, helping them to come out with world-class products,” Dr. Gopinath adds. brinc will also invest in prospective companies and adopt startups with products as cohorts. Six months after its adoption, brinc will facilitate the startups in design and manufacture, making their products fit for the global market. KSUM, in association with Altair Engineering, launched a Centre of Excellence (CoE) for Computer Aided Engineering recently in Kochi. Similar discussions are under progress with France-based Dassault Systemes and Nasdaq-listed software company Ansys. “Products developed using high simulation software such as of Ansys have more chances of success,” Dr. Gopinath noted. A first in India, KSUM also plans to launch an incubator focussing on startups in the field of disaster management.
CURRICULUM REVAMP WON'T ADDRESS EMPLOYABILITY
Dr. Gopinath, an enabler who works closely with fresh graduates, does not think remodelling the academic curriculum will work in favour of employability. The lack of employable talent in Kerala has, on and off, been deliberated in industries and academic circles. “I don’t think it is the way out. There is a set pattern for a university which is all the more reason why it cannot be disrupted. What exists is a dichotomy of basics prescribed by universities and application knowledge requirements of the industry,” he said adding that KSUM is leading a path which supplements the existing academic patterns rather than disrupt them. KSUM encourages students and graduates to enter skill-based programs. The Startup Mission’s major training partner is ICT Academy. KSUM was brought to policy level in 2014, making it a direct institution under the government. Expansion came in the form of a four-layer plan comprising evangelisation among tech innovators and colleges, introduction of tech players using trending technologies into the ecosystem, launch of incubation centres in Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi, and provision of FoFs for promising startups.
MORE FUND OF FUNDS (FoFs)
A State Government committee chaired by Dr. K M Abraham IAS (Retd.), CEO, Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board (KIIFB) has recently approved a new FoF. “With more companies applying for FoFs, our ecosystem has proved to be investable. It is a great sign,” Dr. Gopinath said.
ADVICE TO ASPIRING STARTUPS
The CEO also affirmed that the days of frivolous idea pitches are long gone. On the other hand, seasoned ideas and experienced people are coming into the system. He emphasised the importance of understanding the wants of a customer at the outset, adding the importance of hard work apart from the right skill sets and passion.
SPACE STARTUPS EYEING KERALA
Ultimately, there’s nothing like the thrill of successful private aerospace and space technology startups. Exseed Space by Kris Nair joined that elite global league after putting micro HAMSAT into orbit by piggybacking on Elon Musk’s Falcon 9. Although Exseed Space is based out of Mumbai, KSUM is betting big on relocating the company to the Nanospace Park. Same goes for Chennai-based Agnikul which manufactures rockets that can carry a sub 20 tonne payload to orbit. While Agnikul’s relocation to the State capital has been confirmed, KSUM is still in talks with Exseed Space for finalising the move. Dr. Saji confirmed that Germany-based Spacestruts which manufactures struts used in space vehicles is also moving to Thiruvananthapuram.