By Aditi Bhutoria Asst. Professor, Public Policy and Management Group Indian Institute of Management Calcutta.
Indian tech startups raised a record $14.5 billion in 2019 beating their previous best, according to research by Tracxn. This year, however, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a slump and shifted the growth trajectory of the startup industry. Any global crisis tends to reset consumer habits and the current health predicament is no different. While norms like social distancing are likely to influence socio-economic and psychological wellbeing, digital classrooms and work-from-home are changing the way we learn and execute. Similarly, emissions have fallen as lockdowns have curtailed commercial activity and industries grind to a halt. Exposure to the possibilities of a cleaner environment may eventually alter the value consumers attach to ecologically friendly solutions in everyday life. The COVID-19 spread has also magnified the need for social innovations for catering to the most affected and most vulnerable sections of society. Overall, in the coming quarters, the winners and losers in the startup space are not going to be drawn on lines of larger versus smaller but on their capacity to adapt, conserve costs, and invest in product differentiation. The focus will be on fundamentals and the core start-up principle of ‘addressing real customer needs.’ This edition’s coverage of clean-tech startup incubatees like Cleanergy and Synergy and article on social entrepreneurship tells a story of resilience. It brings much-needed hope and optimism by showcasing how the startup community is coming up with finer, more sophisticated, and customized solutions for people and the environment amidst a crisis. Indian startups are striving to stay strong and yet be useful and perhaps there’s a lesson in that for all of us! Happy reading.
The significant problems affecting solid waste management are unscientific treatment, improper collection of waste, and ethical issues. This, in turn, leads to hazards like environmental degradation, water pollution, soil pollution, and air pollution – eventually affecting the lives of people around the globe. It is estimated that urban municipal solid waste generation will increase from 64 million tonnes annually to 165 million tonnes by 2030.
Cleanergy is a startup with an innovative and affordable solution to mitigate waste management issues in urban and rural areas. With various components including modular biogas plants and composting, they successfully develop customized solutions for customers. Swachhgas is the startup’s unique modular biogas plant, which is highly efficient, odorless, and safe. The core idea of the startup is to start the process of waste disposal at the source.
Cleanergy is supported by Vigyan Ashram, a center of Indian Institute Of Education (IIE) Pune, empowering rural youths for the last 20 years through specially designed programs and a unique teaching methodology of “learning while doing.”
Not only does this startup take complete responsibility to ensure that the waste disposal system works regularly, but it also trains its clients and offers flexible payment options to them. Cleanergy also sets up a cloud-based monitoring system that helps them detect any process imbalance in the plant. The team analyses the key inputs daily, as well as assesses the plant’s performance, which allows the startup to guide the plant operator and to take preventive measures at an early stage, avoiding a system breakdown.
With six plants installed across Maharashtra and Telangana now, Cleanergy is ready to expand to other states like West Bengal, Odisha, and Bihar, and to go international with orders in Nigeria and Nepal
In India, the Diesel combustion exhaust is a source of atmospheric soot and fine particles, which is a component of the air pollution implicated in human cancer, heart and lung damage, and mental functioning. Researchers estimate that, nationwide, tens of thousands of people die prematurely each year as a result of particulate pollution. A solution to this is Biodiesel, a form of diesel fuel derived from plants or animals, consisting of long-chain fatty acid esters and safer than petroleum diesel because it is less combustible.
IIMCIP incubatee Synergy Teletech developed its own fuel – Synergy Green Diesel, a revolutionary distilled grade Biodiesel extracted from Acid Oils, Palm Oil, etc. It can be used as an environment-friendly, cheaper alternative to regular diesel in existing Diesel engines.
At present, the startup is serving around 60 B2B customers, which include MSMEs, Bulk Transporters, Residents Welfare Association (RWAs), Construction sites, and other industrial consumers based out of Faridabad and Gurgaon. They are looking to penetrate all significant industrial hubs of the country, such as Noida, Ghaziabad, Bhiwadi, and New Delhi.
Their core idea is to provide free delivery services of Synergy Green Diesel to consumers. They are also considering tie-ups with NGOs, Village Panchayats, and Farmers for direct purchase of non-edible grade oil seeds/crude oil/ used cooking oil and establish a collection channel and supply chain. Synergy Teletech also has an auto receipt generator and Geo-fencing mechanisms to get real-time data syncing to services.
After bagging the prestigious “Energy Business of the Year 2017 Award”, the Company was also recognized by the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP). With FillNow® service, the company claims prompt on-site delivery of fuel, and their tagline rightly says, “Fuel Delivered. Anywhere.”
Two months ago, who would have imagined that the world would change so muchso soon! People who had entered into the New Year with aspirations for the economy and ambitions to excel are now worried about retaining their jobs or paying the salaries. None of us must have ever imagined witnessing a pandemic for real. And even with a pandemic, it was hard to imagine the economic impact it was about to create.
The unleashing of Covid-19 has forced mankind to stay indoors, which, in turn, has restricted a gamut of economic activities. With around 100 countries closing their national borders over the last one month, global supply chains are disrupted, paralyzing international trade.
According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the trade impact of Covid-19 for India could be about approximately $348 million. Needless to say, this brings home a bleak prospect for millions of workers in the country.
Although Covid-19 has been evenhanded in its impact, one may still spot the group surviving on daily labor as being most susceptible to adversities. The protracting days of lockdown have jeopardized livelihoods of the construction workers, stonemasons, plumbers, electricians, small traders, barbers, tailors, cobblers, hawkers, rickshaw and cart pullers, auto and taxi drivers, weavers and artisans, landless agricultural laborers, and many others.
Cases of reverse migration of the daily wage earners from Delhi and Mumbai during the lockdown scream of their fear and desperation to save from starvation due to crippling livelihoods. The story of a migrant worker in Delhi walking 500km on foot with his five-year-old son on his shoulders, back to his village, has recently made news. His story represents the misery of millions of migrant workers in India. They have been anxiously looking for an opportunity to go back to their villages while being stranded in cities without jobs or money.
The plight of landless agricultural labour is no less distressing. According to the Pocket Book of Agricultural Statistics of 2017, 54.9% of the agricultural workforce in India are agricultural laborers. While harvesting and sowing tasks remain suspended, this group remains jobless and has no immediate assurance of any rural employment guarantee scheme.
The virus has also unleashed severe chaos in the startup world, majorly toppling down travel & tourism, leisure and hospitality, automobile, and luxury goods sectors. Amid this declining trajectory, it’s heartening to see startups rising to the cause rather than giving up. Some have been resilient enough not just to serve their customers, but others as well.
Swiggy has collaborated with Milaap to run a drive for delivering food to the daily wage earners from restaurant partners. In a way, the initiative has also helped the restaurant staff to earn a living in these times.
PhonePe has partnered with Bajaj Allianz General Insurance to launch Corona Care – a coronavirus hospitalization insurance policy for Rs. 156, with an insurance cover of Rs. 50,000. Paytm CEO and founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma has announced Rs. 5 crores for Indian innovators developing curative solutions to the corona virus. The company has also tied up with Lifebuoy and Yuvraj Singh’s YouWeCan Foundation, appealing to the people to contribute an amount on the Paytm app for enabling the distribution of Lifebuoy hygiene products among the vulnerable lot communities.
IIM Calcutta incubatees have also responded to the crisis. DriverShaab from Kolkata, has been inspiring livelihoods for drivers by introducing car and driver services for employee transportation and essential service deliveries in several cities in India. They have collaborated with Zoom and Revv Car for the same. The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the need for social innovations for tending to the most affected and most vulnerable sections during the crisis. Social innovators and entrepreneurs up their game when the rest fail. This is more relevant in the current situation as the health and economic impacts hit the marginalized, vulnerable, and the BoP sections the hardest. The fact that the Singapore-based DBS Foundation has announced a grant funding of up to SGD 250,000 each for the winning social enterprises from Asia, speaks volumes about the earnest role of a social entrepreneur. “In the current scenario triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, we understand that social enterprises need holistic support to scale further. We hope that the initiative will allow entrepreneurs to pursue their goals and build innovative business models that tackle key social and environmental challenges,” elucidates Shoma Narayanan, Executive Director- Strategic Marketing & Communications, DBS Foundation. While the COVID-19 crisis has made life difficult for startups in terms of shrinking cash flows, the one effective crisis navigation tactic that has emerged loud and clear is pivoting the business model.
Zomato has made a smart move by partnering with online grocery startups like BigBasket and Grofers to facilitate the delivery of grocery orders. The same formula applies to social enterprises as well. Everytable, a Los-Angeles-based healthy food chain, has started a COVID-19 helpline to facilitate home delivery of healthy and affordable meals to senior centers and homeless shelters. Mexico-based, Extensio, providing agronomic advice to farmers via a mobile app, is now pushing public health advice and critical information through its app. Back home in the IIMCIP cohort, handloom and handicraft oriented social startups like Greenwear and Brahmaputra Fables are enabling rural women and indigenous weavers to make masks. The cloud-based platform for the training healthcare workforce, Bodhi Health Education, has collated pandemic-focused training resources for hospital chain workers in India.
In these troubled times, especially for the BoP sections of society, social entrepreneurs could be their hopes to pull up from depression. The reverse migrationmay take more time to inverse than one can expect. But, this could also be an opportunity to even out the sectoral concentration of economic development, rolling it over the 600,000 villages in the country. Perhaps, the village-bound labor force could be employed in the village based agro-industries by adopting Late Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam’s Provision of Urban Amenities to Rural Areas (PURA) strategy. This would enable urban infrastructure and services to reach the rural hubs for creating economic opportunities beyond cities. Social startups have an opportunity to play a pivotal role here. And when an agritech startup-like DeHaat, an IIMCIP graduate, raises a Series A funding of $12 million for successfully offering end-to-end services to farmers like distribution of superior agricultural inputs, AI-based customized farm advisory, financial service access, and market linkages for selling farm produce, it demonstrates that the process has already begun. To conclude, in the words of the Milkman of India, Dr. Verghese Kurien, “India’s place in the sun would come from the partnership between the wisdom of its rural people and skill of its professionals.”
Tata Social Enterprise Challenge (TSEC) is a joint initiative of the Tata group and Indian Institute of Management Calcutta (IIMC). TSEC endeavours to find India’s most promising early-stage social enterprises, and create an ecosystem for social entrepreneurship – encouraging sustainable, scalable and measurable social impact.
A significant initiative that inspires youth to take up Social Entrepreneurship as a career option is the Thinking Social seminar series. These seminars organised at various academic institutes across the country aim at increasing awareness about large scale social challenges that the country faces today and the role of social enterprises in solving them using innovation and technology. These seminars took place in five different institutions – Rabindranath Tagore University, Bhopal, National Institute of Technology, Patna, Birla Institute of Management Technology, Greater Noida, Derbi Foundation, Bengaluru and SP Pune University, Pune. Out of 22 participants that were shortlisted in these seminars, 10 qualified for the finale of TSEC, which took place on January 4 on the campus of IIM Calcutta this year.
This year, Trestle Labs, Padcare, Aerobiosys and Greenick were the top four startups amongst 455 shortlisted applications from 12 states across the country. Bagging the first prize, Gujarat based Trestle Labs is focused on making technology products which make the world’s resources user inclusive. Their voice enabled document scanner and reader aap Kibo helps blind people to read documents and images in various languages using a simple smartphone. Padcare Labs from Maharashtra, is an innovation driven company solving the unmet need of menstrual waste management. Telangana-based Aerobiosys, a startup building solutions to address problems in conventional ventilators for patients in critical and acute care and Greenikk from Kerala making 100% biodegradable straws from stalks of papaya plants, were also among the top four. These promising social ventures won prize money of Rs. 2.5 lakhs, Rs. 2 lakhs and Rs. 1.5 lakhs, respectively. The finalists also got an opportunity to pitch their startup ideas in front of some of India’s largest Venture Capitalists for seed funding. Moreover, they also got a chance to get incubated at IIM Calcutta Innovation Park with 3 weeks of guided support from mentors.
The 8th year of TSEC also witnessed a versatile panel comprising Mr. Amit Alex – Country Director Upaya Ventures, Mr. Neelkantha Krishnan – Managing Partner Ankur Capitals, Mr. Ganesh Neelam – Executive Director Social Alpha, Dr. Abhay Jere – CIO at MHRD Innovation Cell, Mr. Nagaraja Prakasam – Partner Acumen Ventures, Mr. Atul Agarwal – Senior VP Corporate Brand & Marketing Tata Services and Dr. Subhrangshu Sanyal, CEO, IIMCIP along with the moderator Prof. Chandradeep Mitra.
Tata Social Enterprise Challenge has successfully been encouraging many budding entrepreneurs to grow with a vision and create positive sustainable social impact. 15% of the 455 proposals received this year were from women entrepreneurs from across India. These proposals covered various sectors with the top three being agriculture, food and dairy (34%); technology and development (20%) and education and skills development (22%).
The spread of COVID-19 has affected almost all spheres of human life and has led to a significant change in the economic realm of the country. While we navigate through the current lockdown and battle with this unforeseen crisis, we have developed a series of TSEC webinars to guide the startup ecosystem on relevant contemporary topics. Eminent panelists will focus on key priority areas for startups to discuss pragmatic measures and actions to help plan and respond to the pandemic that is affecting businesses and the society across the globe. We intend to make these webinars interactive and versatile, to serve startups across different social sectors.