A start-up Conclave, "Educate to Innovate" was organised by the Engineering Staff College of India, Institution of Engineers (India) from 27 to 29 July 2018. I was invited to be a panel speaker at a session on the Theme of ‘Taking Start-ups to Scale’. However, one of the perks that come with being a panel speaker is the opportunity to become a participant in the programme, exactly what I did, and learnt of interesting happenings in this space, as well as the opportunity to meet start-ups, venture capitalists, coaches, and people from the public and private sector working towards promoting entrepreneurship in India.
The Conclave was targeted at the EDP (Entrepreneurship Development) Cells of Engineering Colleges in smaller cities and towns, particularly from North India. AICTE, the regulator of Technical Education in India, with funding from the World Bank is encouraging every Engineering College in India to have an EDP cell, to promote entrepreneurship among Engineering Students. Over 50 colleges were represented in the Conclave by the EDP cell faculty. In addition, around 150 students from various engineering colleges who are exploring the option of becoming entrepreneurs were present.
An interesting feature of the program was the collaboration ESCI has with the John Cabot University of Rome, whose Director Entrepreneurship, Ms Silvia Polino brought to the forum her rich experience in this space and played a key role in steering the event. Italy is in many ways similar to India, and its Industrial and Entrepreneurial capabilities in areas like automobiles design, leather goods and the fashion industry are legendary. ESCI also partnered with the University of Michigan that has built a reputation for promoting entrepreneurship among College students in the US. Dr Matt Gibson, Director Entrepreneurship Department of the University joined the event over Skype.
The key take-aways that I could get from the Conclave were:
EDP Cells at Tier 2 & Tier 3 city Engineering Colleges while providing a platform for encouraging innovative thinking among engineering students, are mostly managed by conventional teaching staff who are not oriented to nurturing the budding entrepreneurs.
The staff hesitate to recommend students from economically weak backgrounds to take the Start-Up way, instead of conventional employment, due to the risks involved, the many unknowns, and the chances of failure.
There was a general consensus that the conventional educational system, that our country largely follows, stifles creativity and curiosity. This needs to change, and the spirit of enquiry and exploration needs be encouraged from the schools itself.
While Government programmes to support and encourage Start-Ups have been launched, there was general agreement that this can only work to kick-start the process and sustainability of the initiatives post the funding period will be a challenge. There is a general concern that in-spite of all the incentives and triggers, there is no significant pipeline or scaling-up that is evident in the Start-Up Eco-system.
One of the nagging questions that stayed with me was whether the logical progression of an innovator establishing a start-up is a standard prescription. I realised that students with a technical bent of mind love working hands-on, on ground reality problems, but may lack the business sense to be successful entrepreneurs. Mr Ram Kumar, an Attorney in IP & Patent Law speaking at the conclave, threw some light on the possibility of patenting one’s innovations & monetizing it. That may be an option to consider.
Another critical gap that was highlighted by several speakers is the absence of adequate & quality mentors for the Start-Up. This is a crying gap as compared to countries like the US, UK & Italy. There are complaints of poor quality and pseudo-mentors who add no value and often exploit budding entrepreneurs.