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'IIT-Madras' focus on deep tech startups has paid off'

'IIT-Madras' focus on deep tech startups has paid off'

  • 16th Jan 2024
  • The Indian Express

Startup mentor at IIT-Madras, Prof Mahesh Panchagnula speaks on the kinds of startups that get incubated at the institute, the impact it has had on society, the opportunities that IIT-Madras affords given its deep tech background and its early lead in India's innovation ecosystem.

IIT Madras incubation cell, India's leading deep-tech startup hub has so far incubated more than 350 startups and they have a total valuation running into billions of dollars. Around 125 patents have also been filed by their startups. Most of these startups are in the health tech, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Virtual Reality, data sciences and the robotics space. Startup mentor at IIT-Madras, Prof Mahesh Panchagnula spoke to on the kinds of startups that get incubated at the institute, the impact it has had on society, the opportunities that IIT-Madras affords given its deep tech background and its early lead in India's innovation ecosystem.

Prof. Mahesh Panchagnula has a B.Tech from IIT Madras and an M.S. and Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from Purdue University with expertise in spray nozzle design and experimental fluid dynamics. He was also the Director and Faculty In-charge, IIT Madras Incubation Cell where he identified and incubated many startups. He was the key part of the innovation ecosystem built at IIT Madras, as an advisor to the Centre For Innovation, as co-ideator of the Nirmaan - pre-incubator, and as a board member of the IIT Madras Incubation Cell. He was also the key driver of bringing the alumni to connect with startups and build the mentorship network for startups. Mahesh Panchagnula is now the Professor of Applied Mechanics

And Dean, Alumni and Corporate Relations at Indian Institute of Technology Madras.

Name some startups incubated/mentored at IIT Madras, which have created a substantial social impact?
You must understand that there are three kinds of startups that get incubated at IIT Madras Incubation Cell. First is the student-led startups which begin perhaps with some help and support from alumni. Second are the startups with active participation of faculty, and which perhaps or mostly arise from their earlier research projects. The third are those who choose IIT Madras for their projects to be incubated given the deep tech background of the institute.

Ather Energy is one such startup which is creating waves in electric vehicle travel in India. When it sold its first electric vehicle, people were skeptical given its price. But now, it has taken off, and most of the work was built and fine tuned at IIT Madras. Making quality electric vehicles and scooters available to people is creating quite an impact.

Hyperverge was one student startup which was showing a lot of promise from Day One. Even as students the team went about trying to solve a problem in the Southern Railway using a video vision system, and trying to do predictive maintenance for the recurring problem of snapping of electric cables, which could also cause accidents.

Hyperverge is now a leading player in the Know your Customer space with more than 90 per cent of the SIM cards being delivered in India, using their tech backend for verification. They have built AI models for real time image and video analysis and are optimised for low bandwidth situations. It is also unique that the founders are saying that all their profits would be plowed back into philanthropy. They are 2014 graduates of IIT Madras, and it is rare to find such maturity and commitment for social impact.

After all, there are two kinds of startups. One those which directly create impact through the work they do, and those which want to create impact through philanthropy.

Can you name a few of your startups which you think are on the journey to create a significant social impact.
Tan90 is one such startup. It has an interesting concept of revolutionising indoor farming, with a mixture of indoor farming and hydroponics which are aesthetically designed, so that it leads to effective use of any space for indoor farming. Now, it is catering to the increasing demand for cold chain solutions in various parts of rural India, and is trying to replace traditional cooling methods like ice and dry ice with cost effective passive coolants. They are now looking at cooling as a service (CAAS) to revolutionise small business operations.

The second set of startups work in the oil and gas industry, like Detect Technologies and Xyma which is changing the way companies manage their assets, and looking at ways of scheduling shutdowns, and compressing the shutdowns as and when necessary and enabling such shutdowns in a short period of time, rather than the earlier extended shutdowns.

Detect Technologies has built sensors to monitor pipeline thickness changes in real time, and these operate even up to temperatures of 300 degrees celsius. It has also built industrial use drones for automated visual and thermal inspection of industries.

SarvamAI is another startup which is going to have a huge impact in the future. They are doing some remarkable work. The work came out of AI4BHARAT, and now they are ready to translate text to text in any Indian language. It is now being used by the Supreme Court of India for translating their judgments in various languages. Bhashini is the government programme, and SarvamAI is part of this ecosystem. Their vision is for voice-to-voice translation in 22 Indian languages. This would be a kind of a middle layer for a lot of Indian language tech in the future, and for the large number of applications which we hope would be built in this space. This tech is maturing on a weekly basis, and it would make a great difference.

GalaxEye is another startup of ours which is building the world's first multi-sensor imaging satellite. These satellites will enable governments and industries to perform advanced state-of-the-art geospatial analyses. It brings all-time, all-weather imagery from space, even during night time and cloud cover. These image datasets will unlock opportunities and lead to a large number of applications downstream.

The next set of startups are in the training and education space, essentially building finishing schools for students looking to upgrade their data science or AI skills. There are 2-3 startups from IIT M and GITAA is one such venture. It started off with providing these courses, but they have customised it for clients across the spectrum. It plays into the strength of IIT Madras with its deep tech knowledge. A lot of engineers are not yet employer-ready and GITAA fills in the space.

Any startup which you think is a very long bet, but could prove to be a gamechanger in the impact space?
Well, I would say it is Agnikul Cosmos. They have a grand vision and it takes time to see it off the ground. Agnikul Cosmos is building launch vehicles capable of taking micro and nanosatellites to Low Earth Orbit, on-demand. They are looking at designing and building a product that makes the earth-to-space journey simple, quick and affordable.

Agnikul would take time, and requires deep pockets. The idea that we could put a Rover on the moon at 1/30 cost of NASA is great. Afterall, it is an Indian way of doing things. But in some technologies, we need not be the low-cost player every time. We might need to position ourselves differently. We need groups of individuals who are passionate about the space and investors with deep patient capital.

Can you name a startup in the impact space, which was ahead of its time, and had to be dropped?
There were a couple of startups incubated at IIT Madras in the EdgeAI space. For Machine Learning or AI, there has to be a CPU cluster somewhere and for implementation of say a service like face recognition, it needs to go to a server and get authenticated. The challenge is whether such an operation could be done in the machine or in this case the camera itself. This would resolve the challenge of places with low-network connectivity and would increase speed of identification or recognition. It is like having substantial computing power in the camera. Some startups had tried to get into this space in 2015 but could not succeed. Perhaps, it was a bit ahead of its time in terms of computability requirements. Except for some failures like this, IIT Madras has deep tech B2B startups, and most of them find their way around and are successful.

What has been your learning from incubating/mentoring these social startups?
What we find missing in India are startups by people who have worked for a period of 10-15 years in the industry and then with their expertise and knowledge do a startup. This cohort of people are into startups in the US and they have a deeper world view and industry experience. They are also able to raise funds with ease. But, this segment is missing in India. We are not sure why this is the case and how we could bring them in.

We have also not had startups at IIT Madras which wanted to build platforms, or marketplaces. We are not sure what the reason is. It might be because they need a humongous amount of capital, they are consumer facing, and their success depends on a variety of factors outside of founder competence or funding. We are not sure.

What do you think has been your impact on the innovation ecosystem in India?
Very early on, when incubation was not formalised, informal incubation was going on in IIT Madras, and since we were one of early players in the segment, we had a role to play in suggesting the policy and rule book for developing the incubation ecosystem in india.

In IIT Madras, every startup has an alumni mentor to make connections. Apart from this, there is a pipeline of initiatives like Nirmaan, which is a pre-incubator, and there is the Gopalakrishnan- Deshpande Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship which helps startups make their business connections and there is the incubator itself. If you go through this process, you are sure to succeed. Our focus on deep tech startups has paid off.