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India's next software giants may come from Startup Village
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 05 - 12 - 2012

Employees stand outside the Startup Village in Kinfra High Tech Park in the southern Indian city of Kochi in October. Startup Village wants to help engineers develop 1,000 Internet and mobile companies in the next 10 years. — Reuters
Diksha Madhok
KOCHI, India — Kris Gopalakrishnan, co-founder of Indian information technology giant Infosys, stares out from a wall-to-wall poster in a modern office building near Kochi, in the southern state of Kerala.
A caption reads: “We started Infosys in a room about this size; it's your turn now.”
His message is directed at aspiring entrepreneurs, who dream of creating the next billion-dollar tech giant, at Startup Village — a state-of-the-art glass and steel edifice tucked in a green corner of the port city.
But even three decades after Infosys, India's second-largest software service provider, was founded by middle-class engineers, the country has failed to create an enabling environment for first-generation entrepreneurs.
Startup Village wants to break the logjam by helping engineers develop 1,000 Internet and mobile companies in the next 10 years. It provides its members with office space, guidance and a chance to hobnob with the stars of the tech industry, including Gopalakrishnan, the project's chief mentor.
Indian-born entrepreneurs have been enormously successful in the United States, where they have the highest number of tech startups by any immigrant group. But India has not been able to build itself a community like Silicon Valley where there is easy access to equity, a pool of creative talent and first-world infrastructure.
“We were alone. We had no idea how to make a company, how to sell it ... We tried, failed, tried, failed,” said Kallidil Kalidasan, a 23-year-old member who started a mobile app venture in Kerala two years ago and could not find a single investor.
He is now one of the entrepreneurs at Startup Village, and is working on a product that could help the government detect illegal abortions in a country plagued by female feticide.
The seven-month-old Startup Village provides would-be entrepreneurs with workspace at rents about a tenth of anywhere else in Kochi, computers, a high-speed Internet connection, legal and intellectual property services and access to high-profile investors.
The village is still to be completed, but 68 people, would-be entrepreneurs and their teams, have already taken up two buildings at the site.
Spread over 100,000 sq ft (9,250 sq m) — equivalent to 20 basketball courts — Startup Village will be completed in 2014. India has 120 other incubators, but they are mostly housed in academic institutions and have not drawn a strong network of advisers from the private sector.
Startup Village, the first such institution to be jointly funded by the government and private sector, has Gopalakrishnan as its chief promoter and has collaborations with companies such as BlackBerry maker Research in Motion and IBM.
“One, the goal of this initiative is to create new companies and create jobs. Second, this will create new solutions and products,” Gopalakrishnan told Reuters in an e-mail interview.
He is excited about creating an ecosystem for entrepreneurs in his home state, Kerala, which is famous for its tropical coastline and backwaters.
The Village team says it chose Kerala because costs are lower than in New Delhi or Mumbai and it has 150 engineering colleges that can provide startup enthusiasts.
But for some, Startup Village will not work because it does not provide the right environment for a budding tech startup.
“What does an entrepreneur need besides money? They need strong support in terms of advice,” said Mukund Mohan, who has founded and sold three Silicon Valley startups and is CEO-in-residence at the Microsoft Accelerator.
The institution helps startups in Bangalore, the city most associated with India's software industry that is about 550 km (340 miles) north of Kochi.
The newer startups in Bangalore or Kerala are eyeing products, not services. Many bring ideas catering to the booming market of domestic online shoppers, like Flipkart, the nation's most heavily financed e-commerce company. But financial backers for such ventures are few and far between.
Startup Village aims to pluck innovators from college campuses, and bring them into the fold after evaluating their business ideas. Many of its in-house entrepreneurs are in their mid-twenties.
But critics are skeptical if Startup Village would be able to launch the next Infosys in India — or even be successful in its goal of incubating 1,000 online companies.
“I will be thrilled if they do even a quarter of that number ... But do I think they will do more than 100? No.” said Mohan. “I mean I hope they succeed. But hope is not a strategy, hope is only a prayer.” — Reuters

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