The Telegraph
| Thursday, December 26, 2013 |


Ready, steady, go!

Students across the country are turning ideas into ventures and colleges are providing them with resources to help them with their startups, finds Kavitha Shanmugam

  • Cubito team members at work

If you are acquainted with Dilton Doiley, you'll know about the robots that the nerdy character in Archie Comics often conjures up. Kedar Kulkarni has gone a step ahead of that. The metallurgy and material science student from IIT Madras now runs a company which teaches robotics.

The idea was nurtured at the IIT's workshop centre, where Kulkarni and his classmates tinkered for hours into the night to develop products. They ended up registering a company called Lema Labs. Soon they were providing consultation on automation solutions to corporate offices and a pre-designed co-curricular programme on robotics for college students.

Like Kulkarni, a great many students across India are turning ideas into ventures. And colleges are providing them with resources to help them with their startups. Kulkarni is grateful for the encouragement that IIT's entrepreneurship cell (then called CTides and now incubation centre) gave him. Kulkarni, 24, is now the sole head of Lema Labs, which provides consulting services to industries such as the southern railways. Its two-year robotics course Kaizen (which their physics professor T.S. Natrajan helped them design) is taught in 10 leading engineering colleges in Chennai.

The IIT Madras Incubation Cell, started in March this year, seeks to promote entrepreneurship in students. They provide help in the form of office space, seed funding, training and mentoring. Students have to submit their proposals which go through two rounds of screening. Those who are not in IIT can also send their proposals but have to meet certain criteria.

The cell has taken the Lema Labs project under its wing and picked up six per cent equity in the company. Kulkarni also got a soft loan of Rs 5 lakh from the alumni corpus fund of $1 million.

Not every student startup has such a smooth take-off. Funding has been a problem for BITS Pilani alumnus Rohin Kumar, the founder CEO of the Delhi-based MyTi Technotronics Pvt. Ltd. Kumar's invention is a notebook tablet MyTi (pic right), which was officially launched in BITS Pilani in October. Notes written on paper can simultaneously appear on the tablet, which costs Rs 15,000.

Kumar, 26, has spent nearly Rs 10 lakh to develop prototypes of the product and Rs 1 lakh for a patent. Until he receives the funds sanctioned in June through the BITS Pilani technology business incubator he cannot manufacture the product. "But I cannot let go now," says the son of a single parent. "I survive by borrowing funds from friends and delivering guest lectures."

  • Lema Labs teaches robotics

Pranay Agrawal's experience is more positive. His "share cab" business model, which he experimented with while studying at BITS Pilani Goa, is now functioning as a full blown business in Bangalore. Started just six months ago, his company Cubito has a dedicated cab fleet of 60 vehicles. He has a subscription model where office-goers and students sign up five days a week for 30 days to use his shared cab service.

Agrawal, 22, got initial help from an angel investor and is confident of getting funds from venture capitalists. Like most student entrepreneurs, he is driven by the need to "make a difference and to stand out". Passionate about physics and fluid mechanics, he got interested in technology-based business models after joining college, inspired by old students' success stories such as Red Bus — an online bus ticket service.

He praises the leg up given by the BITS Pilani incubator cell in Goa from where he managed a pilot run of his "share cab" business model in July 2012. The cell gave him Rs 10,000 a month, office space, unlimited Internet access and a conference room. With the help of a professor, Agrawal devised an algorithm which helps him run the service efficiently, taking into account the number of customers, their destinations and the maximum number of people who can share a cab. "This gave me confidence to experiment with our business model in the real world," says Agrawal, who turned down a lucrative job in a Swedish chemical company for the startup. "There was pressure from my parents. But I asked them to give me this chance since I am just 22," he exclaims.

It is always a toss-up between a steady income and the uncertainty of a new business. Before good ideas actually take off, they seem like castles in the air. Who would have thought Facebook, ebay or Google — which began as student startups — would be such successes?

In India, too, similar success stories are now being scripted by the young. Take the case of — a restaurant guide — which a group of IIT students started as a website called Inspired by such tales, young graduates are focusing on different kinds of startups.

Take Tanuj Kalia, 23, an NUJS Calcutta alumnus. He worked for a Chennai-based online legal solutions company for six months after his graduation, but went back to an online startup which he created with his friends when he was in his third year. Their venture, a website called Lawctopus, recorded an intern's experiences and carried other material on law school events, information on competitive programmes and career advice. He now runs the three-year old website on his own and claims the site gets 50,000 new visitors a month. Income comes from the percentage he gets for the clicks visitors make on online courses. What eggs him on is the "feel good" factor. He enjoys answering anxious parents' queries on courses and internships.

Others have started businesses that they feel can address social concerns. Manisha Mohan, a third-year automobile engineering student at SRM University, Tamil Nadu, was disturbed by the rape and murder of a Delhi physiotherapist in December, 2012.

She came up with the idea of an electric brassiere which gives a shock to someone who touches it. "I wanted a solution for something I felt strongly about," she says. "I want men to be punished on the spot. The shocks from the bra will not cause major damage but enough to make them realise what they are doing is wrong," says Manisha.

For the shock-giving bra, which is fitted with electronic equipment which the wearer can switch on or off, Manisha was helped by her university, which started entrepreneurship cells for every department two years ago. Anuradha Parakkal, director, student affairs, SRM University, says the university helps students draw up a roadmap to reach their goals and helps them in product detailing, managing accounts and so on.

The entrepreneur is now in the midst of research to refine the product. "I do not want to die unknown," she says.

Tips on becoming an entrepreneur

Tap your institution's alumni network and make old students your mentors

Start up as early as possible and don't cave in to parental or peer pressure to earn big bucks

Don't delay as it will be tough to start something later when you will have more responsibilities

Ask if you really want to do this

Do not give up when you meet with resistance