IIT-Madras all set to score a centum

TAMASWATI GHOSH, CEO, IITM Incubation Cell

The premier institute is quietly marching towards incubating 100 start-ups

It has been a steady progress towards a landmark, not a case of nervous nineties. And, it is just one short of a quiet, no-frills century.

Wonder what this is all about? Well, IIT-Madras is all set to cross the landmark of incubating 100 start-ups in the three incubators it has – IIT-M Incubation Cell, Rural Technology and Business Incubator (RTBI) and Bio-incubator. It will soon add a fourth incubator, one focussed on medical technology.

It is a matter of time before the 100th venture is admitted for incubation; the screening committee cleared the 99{+t}{+h} just last week. In a month, the IIT gets anywhere between five and 15 applications for incubation, not all of which are sent to the committee consisting of faculty, alumni and those with domain expertise, for approval, according to Tamaswati Ghosh, CEO, IITM Incubation Cell.

Ghosh, a doctorate in bio-physics from Imperial College, London, worked with start-ups in Kenya for a while, before shifting base to Chennai and joining the IIT-M Incubation Cell as its head, when it started in 2013.

IIT Madras incubates ventures from across the board, with all of them being technology start-ups. Many of them are in core engineering sectors, quite a few in manufacturing and others that are building products. It also has start-ups in the medical devices space, education, agriculture, social media and cloud computing, according to her.

The IIT-M Incubation Cell, structured as a not-for-profit company, is an umbrella body as far as the start-up ecosystem at IIT-Madras is concerned; it coordinates various activities involving faculty, alumni-turned-mentors, industry, alumni who want to become entrepreneurs and student-entrepreneurs. It also ensures that policies are uniform across incubators, takes care of all legal formalities and the common support services provided by the incubation cell.

Open for all

The incubation system is open not just for students and alumni of IIT-Madras, others too can apply, but “we do insist on identifying the value add that you would get from the ecosystem,” says Ghosh. This means a faculty member will be associated with the venture right from the start in some kind of advisory role or the venture needs to use IIT-M’s resources for its initial product development. That link up with IIT-M has to be established right at the beginning, she adds. The Incubation Cell gets funding from among others, the Department of Science and Technology and, now from companies, which are allowed to fund incubators located within academic institutions as part of their corporate social responsibility spend. This money is used to give seed funding ranging from ₹5 lakh to ₹ 50 lakh, for start-ups, depending on the stage they are in, for a nominal stake in the ventures. The StartUp Fund, a corpus created by alumni, is also available.

What are the changes that have happened in the three years that the Incubation Cell has been functional? The most significant development, she says, is that there have been a lot of spin-outs from the various research laboratories in IITM into business ventures. These may be ideas that the students were working on while part of their course, with supervision of the faculty. This includes companies such as Ather Energy and Planys Technologies.

“This is a huge change in the last three years, that research is getting translated into commercial products,” she says. Thanks to this, faculty involvement in the start-ups is also increasing. Policies and perspectives have changed, facilitating this.

The ecosystem is pretty well linked up now compared to what it was before; that is one of the roles the Incubation Cell has played, linking the various bodies, says Ghosh. There is greater industry participation, in nurturing the ecosystem. For instance, MM Murugappan, Vice-Chairman of the Chennai-based Murugappa group, is one of the industrialists who spends time with the start-ups.

Companies, says Ghosh, want to be more engaged with the ecosystem. They want to participate and mentor start-ups. “We are talking with various groups on holding hackathons, workshops, take up problem statements from the industry and throw them to the start-ups and the student population,” she adds.

Strong research focus

IIT-Madras has had a strong research focus for quite some time, but over the last few years, thanks to more ventures getting started with faculty participation, there have been more instances of products ready to go-to-market. Academia is accepting commercialisation of their research work. Alumni who have worked in industry for a few years are coming back to the institute to start off ventures on their own, renewing their ties with their alma mater.

Thanks to all these developments, the buzz on campus has also changed. Instead of the talk being to which US university the graduates were headed or which large company they were joining, it is now focussed on which start-up they are joining or which venture they are starting off themselves. “We have the cream of IIT thinking in that direction. The whole mindset has changed so quickly and incredibly,” says Ghosh.

With this kind of a momentum, it is not just a century, even a double or even a triple century seems certain.

Published on May 02, 2016

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