Vaibhav Kaushik, an engineering graduate from the prestigious BITS Pilani, launched India’s first fuel aggregator start-up, Nawgati, in 2019. Incubated and backed by BITS Pilani and India’s Ministry of Electronics and IT, the start-up uses the existing CCTV and dispenser infrastructure at fuel stations to manage congestion and waiting time of vehicles at pumps.
“The idea for the venture was sparked during a chat with a cab driver in Noida. Drivers usually have to wait long hours in queues at gas stations as they are unaware of the real-time queue status at other stations,” says the 25-year old entrepreneur.
Using a scalable and efficient congestion management software Aaveg, Nawgati, which has recently raised more than $500,000 from investors — is able to aggregate vehicles, automatically detect queues and streamline the fuelling process.
“We are an early stage, revenue generating start-up with presence at around 100 fuel stations across India, and we plan to roll out our offering to more than 15,000 fuel pumps in the next two years,” he says.
Kaushik is not alone in walking the path of entrepreneurship while still in college. In India, there are many examples of young graduates and researchers leveraging university resources to launch inspiring ventures.
“University days are very low risk yet full of opportunities. We have nothing to lose while experimenting with our ideas. My experience of launching Nawgati along with other co-founders, Aalaap Nair and Aryan Sisodia, was excellent as I got the opportunity to work on an idea that I was truly passionate about,” says Kaushik, adding, “We have a 12-member team working at Nawgati, and we are on track to provide direct and indirect employment to hundreds of Indians in the coming years.”
Stimulating employment growth
As India surpasses China to become the world’s most populous nation this year, prioritising entrepreneurship is the key to creating jobs and unlocking future growth opportunities. Whether it is a venture providing access to education to a remote community, a tech enterprise developing breakthrough innovations to help companies pivot and scale, or a start-up creating faster and affordable solutions to diagnose a critical health problem, entrepreneurs — no matter how small or large the initiative — have the potential to significantly shape the future of India, change the way people live, and play an instrumental role in finding solutions to some of the critical challenges concerning the society.
Like most global academic hubs, India’s research-intensive universities are playing a crucial role in driving the entrepreneurial ecosystem. They are actively engaged in providing a conducive environment that supports the transformation of innovative ideas into breakthrough business opportunities.
“Today’s students are smart and risk takers. They are not just looking for a job to settle down but are ready to explore other avenues, and entrepreneurship is one such area. Being active socially and politically, students tend to easily identify existing problems in the society and with their agility, they come up with innovative solutions to address them,” says Sanket Goel, Professor-in-Charge, Centre for Innovation, Incubation and Entrepreneurship (CIIE) at BITS Pilani Hyderabad campus. “With the right set of mentoring and supporting network from institutions, these ideas can turn into successful businesses.”
Entrepreneurship education is also given a significant importance in supporting India’s ambitions to become an innovation hub. Universities are working proactively to foster a strong entrepreneurial culture where creative thinking is nurtured, ensuring that students can pursue entrepreneurship as both a career path as well as a way a life.
“Youth today are aware of the advantages of entrepreneurship as a career. While institutions of higher learning are introducing entrepreneurship in their curricula, there should be more emphasis on workshops and conclaves that orient this target group to the discipline of entrepreneurship,” suggests Dr Sunil Shukla, Director General at Entrepreneurship Development Institute of India (EDII) in Ahmedabad, which promotes entrepreneurship through education, training, applied research and institution-building.
A conducive ecosystem and thrust on entrepreneur-friendly policies have begun to play a big role in ensuring that youth and others opt for entrepreneurship as a career.
Besides stimulating innovation in a university setting, India has taken proactive steps to integrate entrepreneurship education into secondary curricula and prepare learners earlier on for a life of entrepreneurial self-employment while they are still at school. To instil self-confidence, problem-solving competence and innovation among school students, India’s Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) introduced a course on entrepreneurship in grades XI and XII.
“Like any other subject, entrepreneurship is also a dynamic and practical field, which requires a certain level of familiarisation and orientation to stay on top of the latest trends. EDII has updated the curriculum and developed textbooks for CBSE’s entrepreneurship course. We also work closely with other regulatory bodies to impact school entrepreneurship and conduct orientation workshops for teachers and principals to advance the initiative,” says Dr Shukla.
Charting a path towards innovation
With the world around us changing faster than ever, entrepreneurship is considered a critical growth engine for a dynamic economy. Realising its potential, Indian government has turned its focus on start-ups to exploit new opportunities, create employment and find answers to critical technological, environmental, and societal challenges that are redefining the global order.
Policies have been updated and various targeted support programmes have been initiated to help young entrepreneurs take their ideas forward. India today boasts over 69,000 start-ups recognised by the central government’s Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade (DPIIT) generating over 750,000 jobs.
Meanwhile, the government has rolled out the Startup India Initiative with the objective of supporting entrepreneurs, building a robust ecosystem and transforming India into a country of job creators instead of job seekers.
“A conducive ecosystem and thrust on entrepreneur-friendly policies have begun to play a big role in ensuring that youth and others opt for entrepreneurship as a career. However, there’s a need to strengthen formal entrepreneurship education and widely promote skill-based and domain-specific learning for better results. We also need to focus on inclusive entrepreneurship, and curate programmes based on the requirements of various sections of the society as well as the emerging needs at the domestic and international levels.” says Dr Shukla.
BITS academic ecosystem works very well to instil entrepreneurial mindset in the students. One highlight is that no minimum attendance is required to take any course exam.
Goel from BITS Pilani, which has produced 13 unicorns and one decacorn in India, suggests a three-pronged approach to promote student entrepreneurship at the institutional level — infrastructure and labs; mentoring and workshops; and formal education.
“BITS academic ecosystem works very well to instil entrepreneurial mindset in the students. One highlight is that no minimum attendance is required to take any course exam. This helps students to spare good amount of time to work on various projects from the first year while juggling the demanding academic rigour. Additionally, as interns and fellows, students take part in various activities, including non-academic that train them in management and administrative roles,” says Goel.
BITS Pilani also offers a full credit-based course, New Venture Creation (NVC), allowing students to form teams and go through instruction, assignments, mentoring from start-up founders and VCs.
Former student of BITS Pilani and Co-founder of the biotech firm Cleome Innovations, Sohan Dudala credits the university for mobilising growth of student-led ventures. “The R&D, innovation, and entrepreneurship ecosystem at BITS Pilani has a huge role to make our entrepreneurship experience conducive,” he says.
Addressing global and social challenges
The 28-year old entrepreneur, along with two professors, launched Cleome Innovations in 2021 that develops robust and affordable diagnostic devices and solutions. “Having been closely associated with academic R&D at multiple stages of my higher education, I realised that there is a huge gap in the translation of academic technologies to commercial products. Although the potential of social benefit of these technologies is high, they largely remain concealed in the process due to varying goals of the academia and industries,” says Dudala, who recently completed his Doctoral studies in Bio-MEMS.
The start-up has secured its first significant funding last year from BIRAC Biotechnology Ignition Grant scheme and is working towards the development of the beta prototype of a PCR diagnostics device and other bio-sensing technologies.
“Diverse, accessible, and affordable R&D facilities at the university enables technology-intensive start-ups like Cleome, to optimise resources in the most efficient
way. Access to the global alumni network also helps researchers take their breakthrough ideas forward,” Dudala says.
Similarly, Chennai-based SSN Incubation Foundation (SSN iFound), the incubation and innovation wing supported by SSN College of Engineering, is accelerating on-campus entrepreneurial activities in Tamil Nadu with its state-of-the-art tinkering lab, 24×7 innovation platform and centres of excellence.
“We provide access to mentorship and capital, and help entrepreneurs with marketing, financing, and legal issues. We help connect start-ups to potential investors and customers,” says Chandran Krishnan, Chief Executive Officer at SSN iFound.
“We also give them access to networking and collaboration opportunities with other entrepreneurs that help start-ups gain valuable insights and learn from each other. Furthermore, we connect entrepreneurs with potential partners helping them grow and scale their business.”
Meanwhile, IIT Madras Incubation Cell (IITMIC), which aims to achieve 1,000 incubations by 2030, has partnered with SSN iFound to develop an entrepreneurial ecosystem.
“This partnership will go a long way in strengthening the entrepreneurial ecosystem in our institution and the region. It will create a platform for our students, faculty, and entrepreneurs to access resources, guidance and support from IITMIC. We will get access to IITMIC’s R&D, industry connections, and the network of mentors and investors.”
While several developments have started reducing the barriers to entrepreneurship in India, some challenges still remain.
The government has been creating a supportive ecosystem that encourages collaboration and encourages start-ups to take risks and develop new technologies.
Krishnan points out that securing finance to propel a venture forward is a big challenge for student entrepreneurs. “Despite the launch of several funding schemes by the central and state government departments to support businesses in the initial stages, many entrepreneurs still struggle to raise necessary financial resources at later stages for scaling their businesses.” Difficulty in hiring and retaining talent and navigating India’s complex legal systems are other challenges concerning start-ups.
“The government has been creating a supportive ecosystem that encourages collaboration and encourages start-ups to take risks and develop new technologies. We are confident that these issues will fade away in the near future,” Krishnan adds.
Finance for start-ups
To help students move beyond grants and raise funds to scale, Richa Bajpai has established Campus Fund, a pioneering venture that invests exclusively in student-led start-ups.
Run by full-time students, Campus Fund has financed 12 student-led start-ups across different sectors, from space tech and digital services to legal and health tech, since the launch of the first edition of the fund in 2020. “We are very selective in our process. Out of the start-ups that we see, we end up investing in 0.5 per cent of them. But once we invest, we do everything possible to support our portfolio companies,” says Bajpai.
A little push in the right direction would go a long way to promote entrepreneurship at the university level.
Campus Fund looks at three critical elements before investing in a start-up — market in which the start-up is being built along with headwinds and tailwinds of the sector; the passion, resilience and vision of the founders; and the approach of the founders in building the product or solution.
While India’s start-up sector is moving in the right direction, more can be achieved in terms of policies, regulations, administrative measures, funding, knowledge transfer and support to help student entrepreneurs start a business and stimulate its growth.
“It’s great to see institutes like BITS Pilani and Indian School of Business (ISB), are giving time off to students to pursue entrepreneurship. The Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) are allowing student entrepreneurs to come back to the placement cell 2-3 years later and seek help, if their start-ups don’t succeed. A little push in the right direction would go a long way to promote entrepreneurship at the university level,” says Bajpai ●