In this blog, departing T-Hub CEO Ravi Narayan shares his insights on building and sustaining Telangana, and India, as a global hub for innovation. Under his leadership, T-Hub’s Startup Innovation, Corporate Innovation and Ecosystem Innovation units were rebuilt and are continually creating value beyond what is normally possible.
According to him, creating a vibrant and dynamic innovation ecosystem doesn’t occur by happenstance. It requires vision, foresight, planning and strategy.
Here’s what he had to say.
T-Hub, a memorable journey
Recollecting the beginning of his journey at T-Hub, Narayan shares with us, “When I was on my way out from Microsoft, it was evident to me that my network and experiences as an entrepreneur, investor and mentor, would aid me in building a viable ecosystem in India. I was definitely looking forward to being a part of T-Hub because it was creating a robust ecosystem in Telangana. ”
He adds, “Eventually, I also got to lead TSIC during the pandemic. This experience became a critical component in helping me understand how an innovation ecosystem should be built.”
Looking back at his experience of shaping T-Hub through these years Narayan says, “I don’t look at building an innovation ecosystem in bits and pieces. I took a holistic approach by providing leadership to all the stakeholders who are a part of T-Hub. I received the help of my colleagues across departments and this made building our innovation ecosystem an extremely fulfilling experience as everybody was aligned to the common goal of making Telangana a successful innovation ecosystem for India.”
He recollects, “I gathered experience on creating a vision, plan and strategy for T-Hub over time. TSIC was a unique experience, which opened my eyes to the completely new area of grassroots innovation, government innovation and school innovation. This exposure gave me an opportunity to build a holistic narrative for Telangana, which we put together when we worked on creating a State Startup Ranking (SSR) framework. The framework presented an opportunity to tell a larger story as well as to create systemic processes—from ensuring how organisations collaborated with each other to how the government directly partners with startups to how to invite more mentors and angel investors into the system. Gradually, we achieved a systemic transformation of Telangana into a robust innovation ecosystem.”
Catapulting Telangana to the global ecosystem Innovation
In 2021, Telangana received a fillip in the recent Global Startup Ecosystem Report in parameters such as ecosystem performance and ecosystem affordable talent. It resonated with Narayan’s belief that innovation can only thrive in a vibrant and startup-friendly environment, which is nurtured by three factors. First, the infrastructural network of incubators, technology parks and other innovation zones should be robust enough to attract established entrepreneurs to contribute their expertise as committed mentors. Second, if a culture of innovation must be sustained, entrepreneurs shouldn’t gravitate toward only those problems that have a clear business model or a commercial angle. “We need more and more people who are passionate about solving social and structural issues, such as the eradication of hunger, poverty, or illiteracy, in a much larger way,” he says. “Such entrepreneurs also have to be mindful and build this on business constructs so that there is a clear set of processes or outcomes along the way. That kind of rigour has to be there to build any kind of social or business enterprise,” he adds. Third, entrepreneurship should be acknowledged as a viable career path—only then can a culture of innovation be fostered. “Entrepreneurs are people who are doing something new, unprecedented and relevant,” says Narayan. “We have come a long way from the stigma related to startups and need to approach entrepreneurship almost like a career path,” he tells us.
T-Hub has also catapulted Telangana to the global innovation ecosystem. “T-Hub is a crucial partner for a lot of the incubators, accelerators and investors and has taken it upon itself to create a capacity of the ecosystem, all the way from helping incubators by enhancing their capabilities to building their curriculum and programs, and bringing in more and more mentors and investors into the ecosystem at large,” says Narayan. “No organisation besides T-Hub in the world has worked on capacity building at this level, while also working with startups and helping other incubators to get to the next level of their capabilities,” he avers.
Helping startup innovation thrive in Telangana
There is a new synergy now driving startup innovation in Telangana. “We are creating a synergy between what other incubators in the ecosystem are doing vis-a-vis the work we do,” explains Narayan. “We have moved further downstream to work with later stage startups so that we bring in mentors, investors and other support that is not usually available to such startups,” he tells us.
Further, unlike other ecosystems, T-Hub doesn’t waste precious ecosystem resources on the same startups. Narayan elaborates, “We have established a complementary situation where startups do the early-stage work. Whenever we identify startups that come out much more strongly and deserving of more support, they reach out to T-Hub and apply to our programs. This paves the way for a more vibrant ecosystem.”
During Narayan’s tenure, the focus was on taking startups to the next level in the ecosystem. “Mostly, what happens in a startup ecosystem is that startups believe that once they raise money from a VC, they don’t need further support—and this is a flaw,” says Narayan. “In my view, they will need more help than before since they would have investors sitting at the door, they would need to handle larger organisations and reach out to diverse customers. Therefore, they need more mentoring at this stage to help them scale in the later stages of growth when things become more complex and there are higher stakes in the journey.”
Narayan adds that by supporting startups through their entire lifecycle, T-Hub is also serving the Telangana ecosystem by ensuring that these startups don’t leave the state. He says, “In several instances, when startups come to the later, more complex part of their growth, their tendency is to leave Telangana and move on. At T-Hub we strive to continue to support them even in the later stages, ensuring the startups would continue to thrive in Telangana for the long haul.”
T-Hub is also funding the ecosystem and supporting startups to scale and flourish. “Under the IT policy, we have been able to provide incentives for startups for their growth, such as offering grants, helping them hire staff and seek reimbursements for patent filing,” says Narayan. “We are also exposing some of our best startups to VCs across the world and have created a fund for startups. While I was able to usher in these changes, the next level of growth for T-Hub requires investing in these startups through the funding mechanism that has been established. Also, in the last few months we have a fund that invests in seed stage startups called T-Fund. ”
Finding the ideal corporate partners in startups
T-Hub’s corporate innovation program under the leadership of Narayan is a unique initiative that most incubators and accelerators don’t offer. “The primary focus for us in this program is the corporations, who are T-Hub’s industry partners. Corporates don’t struggle with innovation as much as they believe that they need to continually evolve in a competitive landscape that becomes tighter and tighter, especially amid the pandemic,” says Narayan.
According to Narayan, the Corporate Innovation program has been a success as corporates are cognisant of the fact that they need to push the limits of innovation by collaborating with startups. They realise startups will bring in elements of innovation, creativity and a sharp competitive edge that is needed for modern-day corporations to survive in the long run.
Again, the benefits of T-Hub’s partnership with corporates have a trickle effect on Hyderabad and Telangana. Corporates recognise the vibrant culture of innovation the state has to offer and are gradually expanding their presence across Telangana. They also acknowledge that Hyderabad offers access to some of the best talents on their campuses, such as IIT and IIIT, as well as access to startups due to T-Hub’s presence as an ecosystem enabler.
The need for a patent system in India
Narayan acknowledges that India has been slow to embrace a culture of patents and Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) as large multinationals in the country never expected people to contribute to their patent pool. However, according to him, things have changed in the recent years. “Of late, a large MNC like IBM is getting a third of its patents from India and recognises the best of Indian talent employed in its labs are capable of creating sophisticated technology and inventions,” says Narayan.
He adds that the average entrepreneur in India is not seeking to apply for patents to protect his competitive advantage as the emphasis is more on executing the idea. “However, things are changing as an increasing number of B2B startups in India view DeepTech as their differentiator, thus, driving the demand for patenting their unique technology and products,” says Narayan. “We have to make the patenting process better understood as people have limited understanding of what patents mean and the business advantage of having patents. “
He points out that Indian patents may not be as valued as US patents and the cost of applying for patents in the US becomes prohibitive for Indian entrepreneurs. Narayan points out that the Telangana State government supports startups by reimbursing the cost of filing and prosecution of patent applications.
“Hopefully, the entire mindset towards patenting will change [in India] and going forward, there will be money available for funding patents,” says Narayan.
The role of strategic public-private collaborations in the recovery phase of the pandemic
The pandemic has exposed the fault lines in the country’s innovation ecosystem. The crisis underscored the need for the public and private sectors to collaborate on solving a variety of problems by leveraging their respective strengths. “While the private sector brings in enormous creativity and innovation, and organised ways of approaching problems, however, the administrative capabilities, the reach into the hinterlands of the country and the ability to mobilise resources in the last mile belongs to the public sector,” says Narayan.
He illustrates this with the example of the Action Covid-19 Team (ACT) launched by startup founders, venture capitalists and independent advisors to encourage innovators offering unique solutions to solve critical issues amid the pandemic. ACT set up an INR 100 Cr grant and worked closely with various state governments, including Telangana, to partner with startups that came up with innovative ideas.
“ACT and T-Hub were able to harness assets, products and know-how from a private sector standpoint,” explains Narayan. “We also witnessed this kind of partnership when we deployed a lot of solutions of startups when they partnered with the Telangana government directly. Being a Public Private Partnership (PPP), we had the ability to scout the Telangana landscape to identify appropriate startups to deploy certain solutions,” he elaborates.
Quality trumps quantity…always
Under Narayan’s leadership, T-Hub has gone beyond being an evangelist for Telangana’s startup ecosystem to successively emerge as a prominent innovation and talent capital in the country. He believes growth has happened alongside, ensuring that the state produced quality startups that would take Telangana to the next level of innovation.
“We were definitely looking at quantity in the beginning when we wanted more startups to be active in Telangana as we wanted to get the whole momentum going to build a startup ecosystem,” says Narayan. “But over a period of time, T-Hub made a conscious effort to ensure that the large number of startups that were operating here had the initial support of the accelerators across the city and state. Around the time, T-Hub started focusing on launching and scaling programs, looking to deepen expertise both on the technology side and the business side. That’s how we made sure that a sturdy innovation ecosystem is built that helps startups thrive in Telangana and get all the support, access and resources they need for their next levels of growth.”
Innovation across borders through collaboration
“While the pandemic has curtailed travel between countries, I have always viewed startups as mini multinationals,” says Narayan. “Today’s startups require global access and are open to the idea of accessing talent from remote locations and markets. Therefore, geography is not a constraint for such startups.”
T-Hub’s collaborations with international startups in countries such as Australia, South Korea, Japan and UK have amplified the process of globalisation. “International startups view India as a viable and large market that is digitally efficient and technologically savvy,” adds Narayan. “While the pandemic has slowed down travel, we continue to get interest from overseas startups since a lot of solutions we offer are through digital mechanisms. In the current times, we provide remote training for these startups. Hopefully, when they are much more capable of traveling, they would be in a better state of preparedness to physically explore the Indian market,” he says.
In conclusion, looking back
Finally, Narayan concludes our conversation with these parting words for Team T-Hub. “You have been phenomenal ecosystem builders, pushing all the boundaries with me. We ventured out on rough, uncharted waters amid the pandemic and have been able to navigate our ship through these unprecedented times. But we have also come out looking like we will continue to be relevant to the ecosystem and build the organisation for global recognition,” he says.