But the Incubtion Cell at the institute will need to overcome funding hurdles
When Kishore Natarajan and his friends turned down job offers that would pocket them Rs. 60 lakh a year, it was tough convincing their relatives. But for them, it was an easier decision. As students of IIT Madras, Natarajan and his four friends had founded their start-up HyperVerge in late 2013. They developed a low-cost system for Indian Railwaysto inspect overhead lines, from which locomotives draw power.
Success in the project spurred the youngsters, aged between 22 and 24 years, to opt for entrepreneurship over a nine-to-five job. The founders are now working on an image recognition technology for taking photographs and storing them. In their short entrepreneurial journey, “IIT-M’s ecosystem has been critical,” says Natarajan.
HyperVerge is one of the 30 start-ups under the premier institute’s Incubation Cell, which came up in 2013. The Cell formalised an ecosystem that has been brewing in the IIT-M campus for the past three decades. “At least 20 start-ups, such as Desicrew and Midas Communications, came from IIT-M from 1980s to the 1990s. Since 2007, over 70 companies have been incubated”, says Tamaswati Ghosh, In-Charge of the Incubation Cell.
There is a reason for the spurt in start-ups. “Most of the students are now from middle and upper-middle-class families and don’t have financial obligations. So, instead of regular jobs, they can opt to become entrepreneurs,” says Ashok Jhunjhunwala, a Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering. He is also the Co-chairman and Faculty-in-Charge of the Cell.
As the number of start-ups increased, there was a need to build a structure that handholds the young businessmen in their initial years. The most visible aspect of the new ecosystem is the IITM Research Park. The Park hosts 24 of the 30 start-ups and also has R&D labs of leading companies such as Tata Consultancy Services and BHEL.
The start-ups, which get a seed funding of Rs. 5 lakh from the Cell, can lease office space at discounted rates. The fund and the space are critical for a start-up like Ather Energy, which is developing an electric scooter with a battery that is three times smaller and lighter than existing ones.
“We continue to be guided by the faculty and have access to labs in IIT Madras. Also, with the brand of IIT backing us, we can reach out to the alumni,” says Ather co-founder Tarun Mehta. That proved crucial for Ather’s team when an alumnus gave them a start on building a supply chain for the electric scooter.
Separately, the alumni have also been generous. Ather’s first angel investor was an IIT-Madras alumnus. Similarly, when two of Natarajan’s colleagues visited the US to raise funds earlier this year, they got twice the money that they needed, thanks to the alumni network.
The seniors have also come back to the campus. Senthil Nathan passed out of IIT-Madras in 1980 and co-founded two companies before selling them. Now, along with his former IIT classmate SV Ramanan, Nathan has founded RelAgent, which is based in the Research Park. “It is high time that we take IIT-Madras to the standards of Stanford and MIT,” says Nathan.