How Key Startup Stakeholders Can Bolster Innovation in Indian Universities: A Blueprint for the Future

There are several compelling reasons why leading academic institutions in India, such as Ashoka University, IIM- Ahmedabad and BITS Pilani, have launched Entrepreneur-in Residence programs.  Such initiatives expose students to real-world expertise shared by professional entrepreneurs, enhance in-house research and help students engage with entrepreneurs to build new innovations. Such programs fuel knowledge economies and promote a network of collaboration between the academia and other stakeholders, including the government, corporates and startups.

That India is climbing the innovation ladder is evidenced by its ranking in the Global Innovation Index. Currently at the 52nd position among 129 countries ranked by a World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) survey, India has been recognised for its ‘quality of universities and scientific publications’.

Increasingly, startups have been in focus for partnering with universities, resulting in a synergistic two-way flow of ideas. Let’s look at how startups become a value proposition for academia and create an impact on the entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Idea incubators

There is never a dull day on Indian campuses such as the IITs. These institutions lead India’s innovation growth story through incubation cells that use cutting-edge technology to find innovative solutions to varied problems. It’s no wonder that startups are flocking to universities in droves to create sustainable and impactful solutions.

On-campus incubators and seed programs help to sustain the pace of innovation within academia and are breeding grounds for disruptive new ideas. This trend is largely driven by innovative startups that leverage the infrastructure and resources offered by the university system. In return, startups identify talent within the student community and impart skill and training to prepare millennials for the job market. Incubators also assist startups to refine their business processes, achieve customer satisfaction and effectively showcase ideas at conferences and other co-branding platforms.

IITM, the incubation cell of IIT Madras, has incubated 200 DeepTech startups since its launch in 2013, filed over 100 patents and generated over 3000 jobs for the economy. The incubator enjoys a strong partnership with the industry and helps fledgling startups to scale. Backed by IITM, startup founders have translated their ideas into successful ventures in areas such as FinTech, Nanotechnology, AgriTech and Edtech. Planys and Uniphore are among the startups incubated here.

The incubation cell at the TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences), Mumbai, is unique for supporting social entrepreneurship. For example, Krishi Naturals  that promotes organic farming, was incubated at TISS. Bunkaar Textiles is another social enterprise from TISS that promotes weavers’ welfare in the handloom sector. 

Thus, when vibrant academic incubators connect startups with students, it results in an influential network of stakeholders in the larger community and ecosystem. 

Hackathons and other innovative solutions 

Hackathons not only drive business innovation through a creative format, but also identify fresh talents that enable the launch of new startups.

For example, along the lines of MIT and Stanford, the Startup India Yatra platform aims to hold hackathons in universities across the Northeast. With the objective to foster a spirit of innovation and coding in India’s non-metropolitan cities, and particularly in the Northeast, such competitive events seek to find innovative solutions to specific problems in a short span of time. 

To further illustrate the point, Mercari, a Japanese Unicorn startup, was able to hire engineers from India’s premier universities by hosting a hackathon.

Startups are also becoming strategic partners with universities to gain visibility in large-scale startup expos and tech summits. Recently, IIM and IIT Indore hosted i5 Summit, a largescale entrepreneurship expo that saw participation from a host of startups, corporates and the government. The event offered innovative platforms to pitch entrepreneurs’ ideas to potential investors. 

Skilling and Upskilling 

Since India is projected to have the youngest workforce in the world by 2020, startups have a role to play in hiring, training and upskilling the workforce to provide the youth with gainful employment. Several EdTech startups working in the skilling space have also invested time and resources in skilling the student community. For example, NeoStencil is a startup that provides online classes to students for competitive exams such as IAS, IES, GATE, and state PCS.

On the flip side, universities are also skilling the country’s budding entrepreneurs. For example, IIM- Nagpur has incubated women entrepreneurs in the past in collaboration with NSRCEL, IIM Bangalore, and supported by Department of Science and Technology (DST) and Goldman Sachs. The women startup founders were taught entrepreneurial skill sets to grow their business. 

IIT-Bombay is poised to set up five world-class labs and launch specialised skill-based courses to enhance student engagement in research areas.

A blueprint for the future

In order to make the startup-academia collaboration work in the long-term, it is important that best practices are ushered in to build a robust innovation framework. First, the government must do its bit to subsidise research laboratories, allocate generous budgets to build technology parks, offer tax incentives to the industry and ensure intellectual property rights to inventors. Further, since most Indian universities are low on R&D funding, the government needs to increase its allocations to enable academics to engage in advanced research activities.

In the current scenario, the Modi government’s Make in India and Skill India programs are aimed at fostering innovation by enhancing skill development and eliminating bureaucratic hurdles and redundant laws and regulations. To sustain the momentum of such initiatives, the government must work closely with all players in the ecosystem to create a climate for innovation. 

Second, startups should offer internship opportunities to students as it would be a win-win situation. While interns will benefit from the real-world practical experience and mentoring gained at startups, the latter can utilise fresh talent from universities to stay lean and scale rapidly. Internships are valuable tools to skill and upskill youngsters at little cost to the company.

Third, along with established corporates, startups should also encourage innovation in university labs by launching cohort programs equipped with structured mentoring and networking opportunities. Such platforms will unlock unprecedented opportunities for next-generation innovators.

Fourth, and finally, the onus also rests on universities to create startups. For example, National University of Singapore has pledged $18.1 million over five years to launch 250 startups. Indian universities, too, should spearhead such initiatives to identify the young innovators on their campuses. This will enable the student community to easily connect with the industry to transform their ideas into fully operational startup entities that contribute to the nation’s economic growth.

In conclusion, if India wants the next Google to emanate from its labs, it must invest in student entrepreneurship and actively collaborate with industry partners to become an innovation hub. Only then can our universities truly become entrepreneurial powerhouses.

We at T-Hub help startups gain access to better technology, talent, business networks and funding. Be a part of T-Hub Community. Join us here.