To meet Sijo Kuruvilla George and his team, and see the facility they have created for bright youngsters with great tech ideas at the Startup Village in Kochi, is like ingesting a huge dose of oxygen, optimism, hope and cheer — all in a heady mix. The enthusiasm of the young CEO, all of 29 years, is infectious as he talks about the dreams of “young kids hacking away at their machines; that’s how product companies start!”

He and seven other young professionals have created 5,000 sq ft of cheerful space in lush-green environs. Appropriately named Startup Village, this incubator for young entrepreneurs was set up in April with a corpus fund of Rs 5 crore — Rs 2.5 crore of this is a grant from the Department of Science and Technology (DST), and the other half is from MobMe, a company that George had earlier co-founded with his basketball teammates at engineering college in Thiruvananthapuram.

MobMe story

Having “been there and done it all”, George understands the dilemma and bewilderment of youngsters — most of them college students — who are brimming with “crazy ideas”, but find little sympathy or support at college or home. “When you are a nobody with just an idea, who writes the first cheque of Rs 5-10 lakh? Nobody,” he smiles, adding, “We (MobMe) were fortunate to get an angel investor when we were still in college. And we want to help others get such help.”

In a telling comment on our education system, he says, “We know nothing much happens in college. We’ve been through four years of engineering — it is just paid vacation in the first year. The second year you want to reform the world; by third year, you say abhi toh kuch honeywala nahi hei [nothing is going to happen now], so let’s get a job, a life.”

When the company kicked off, “I was the oldie, and the only one who had graduated. Sanjay (Vijaykumar, CEO of MobMe and Chairman of the incubator) was still in college; and running a company when in college is considered a bit of a crime. Teachers ask you, ‘Are you here to study or run a company?’”

Basketball gave them attendance and got them out of boring classes to do interesting things. They have now convinced the Kerala government that college kids who get into a DST-approved incubator like Startup Village should get attendance waiver, like NCC cadets, as they create both jobs and wealth.

With help from some professors — “we did not understand technology or coding” — they jumped in. Their initial yearly target was Rs 3 lakh, but a mentor at the Trivandrum Technopark (MobMe was the first student initiative to be incubated here) said they should aim for Rs 1 crore. “After a lot of debate we said we’ll do Rs 10 lakh.”

That was six years ago. Today it is a Rs 25-crore company with 150 employees, and George has left it to co-found another enterprise — a not-for-profit entity. Their angel investor, an NRI, wrote a cheque for Rs 80 lakh for the students’ startup in 2006. “He later told us: ‘I didn’t understand a word of what you said, but I saw my youth in you guys and wanted you to do well’.”

Colourful, cheerful

We walk around the facility, which is divided into zones with bright colours. There is an open, free area with colourful beanbags, tables and chairs, some gizmos, gadgets and tech-tools, including shiny cars that can be driven by BlackBerry phones. Backpacks lay strewn around the place. A couple of youngsters were slouched on beanbags, others bent over laptops, furiously clicking away. Most of them are students — many come around 6 p.m. after college, work till 3 a.m., and crash out here till 6 a.m., as no transport is available. That day, 70 youngsters were absorbed in doing different things.

George introduces us to Rohil Dev, a young geek working on gesture technology. “He said, ‘What I created nobody understood, so I came here’.” He explains how he could do things, such as change a song on the laptop, by moving his fingers in front of the screen. “The Web camera on his laptop captures his movements and does things. Dev has done this entirely on his own,” says George.

So Dev was given space, technical infrastructure and the environment to take his ideas forward. Now he is building a mobile game which is sensor-based. “We talk about touch, but now it is movement. He’s just graduated, been here for a month, and not yet decided on the product.”

That very morning, another young man walked into the Village, along with a girl. “When they write in the air with their finger, the computer senses the characters… so they are taking to the next level what the movement guy has done,” says George.


So, are more girls coming forward with tech ideas? George admits that of the 211 applications they’ve received, very few are from women — and says social conditioning is the villain. There are signs of change, though. Recently, among a group of engineering students, “the woman was leading the charge and said this was her childhood dream. So things are changing.”

George Paul, Director, Partner Networks, says the company wants to be seen as a “female-friendly incubator. We have a special women entrepreneur cell, and the brightest colours you see here are picked by women! The next step will be to get more women to work in startup companies.”

A core component of the Startup Village, which is a not-for-profit enterprise, is the ‘accelerator’. Every year, 10 promising companies will be put on accelerated programmes, which will give them three months’ capital and close mentoring through icons such as Infosys’s Kris Gopalakrishnan, who is already a patron.

Future plans

George and his team now need more space. Apart from an angel investment fund, money is needed to provide greater access to technology. “Till you saw broadband and video streaming in full flow, could you have imagined an idea called YouTube? You need full exposure to top-class technology to conceive your ideas with full force. Hence, we have experience zones — like the cars driven by BlackBerry. For great innovation to happen you have to kick-start curiosity first.”

In their next project, final-year engineering students will get a box with gadgets, and will have to run through things such as filing a partnership deed, and managing a current account. Having lived the experience, the team knows too well how difficult it is to get the paperwork in place. “After all, these are technocrats and just out of college. They need handholding, a broader worldview, and mentoring.” There are also regular sessions on fund raising, taxes, and so on.

The target for the angel fund is Rs 10 crore. “We want investors who are not looking for 200 per cent return, but want the guy to grow.” Their dream is to graduate 1,000 companies in 10 years. If the Trivandrum Technopark incubator, started in 2006 at a time when such a concept was unknown in Kerala, could graduate 126 companies in five years, “we can do five times that number in half the time,” says George, as the groundwork is already in place.

He is confident his young and energetic team can do it. “After all, isn’t 24-year-old Deepak Ravindran (see box) already investing in companies? And not because he wants multiple returns but he wants to see change. And so do we.”


We don’t judge ideas — when we look back, the idea we had was dumb; it would have never worked. We know that now with so much knowledge about the market. But when we dived in, we learnt how and why it wouldn’t work — and what would work. We wanted to create a small desktop application to send SMSes. That changed, but we’re still keeping that product, as it is close to our hearts. Slowly, we learnt the technology (MobMe provides core network wireless solutions to send SMS).

If you want to become an entrepreneur, be prepared to set aside three to five years to bring the idea to life. Unless you go to the market you won’t know what will work or what won’t, because you’re talking of a product and not a service company. We ask: Is the guy willing to do it; has he the “doing” rather than “debating” skill; is he willing to learn and adapt?

Would anybody have thought Wikipedia would work? That is how crazy ideas are — nobody knows what will work! But the entrepreneur is a resourceful guy; he has vision and can create something out of nothing.

Does an entrepreneur have to be brainy? No, but he should have the talent to execute and implement. And it’s teamwork. Individuals don’t create huge success; it’s always a team, because it brings diverse competences to the table. We give this advice on Day 1: Overturn all hurdles till you find success. So, team dynamics — chalo yaar, let’s bum it out kind of a thing — is important.

Why would we give up high-paying jobs to do this? Because we want to make a contribution. In my peer community, those who took up jobs have quit, and said, ‘We want to do something more’. Take the case of Deepak Ravindran, founder and CEO of Innoz. He is only 24 — he has a 10,000 sq ft office in Bangalore, is clocking Rs 2 crore in revenue a month, going strong and has now turned an investor. He has been named 2011’s MIT Technology Review outstanding innovator under 35. He started Innoz while in engineering college in Kasaragod, Kerala, and wasn’t even able to pay the Technopark incubator rent — about Rs 6,000 a month — for the first three years.

Ravindran is yet to graduate, has 27 papers pending, and his dream is that one day, because of his success, some university will grant him a degree! He invests in startups not because he wants multiple returns on his money, but because he wants to see the system change.