Inside IIT Madras' deep-tech startup incubator
- 31st May 2021
The Economic Times
With 240 startups valued at Rs 10,500 crore incubated over eight years, IIT Madras is India's hi-tech haven.
Bengaluru: The Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, (IIT Madras) has become the de facto destination for deep-tech research in the country, as innovations in this sphere turn central to building strong economic capability.
The IIT-Madras Incubation Cell has birthed successful deep-tech startups including artificial intelligence firm Uniphore Software Solutions, electric vehicles maker Ather Energy, Internet of Things (IoT) startup Stellapps and space technology firm Agnikul. It is, in fact, quickly emerging as a success story that needs to be fostered and replicated across the country.
In its eight-year history of working with startups, IIT-Madras has incubated 240 startups Of these 25% have raised capital from investors and venture capitalists.
These firms represent Rs 10,500 crore in value, based on their last available funding data, IIT Madras said. Over 10% of these firms are now founded by women entrepreneurs. "If you see what made Silicon Valley what it is today, it's the innovation and the partnership with academia, with a clear intent of commercialising and scaling up
things," said Umesh Sachdev, co-founder and chief executive officer of Uniphore and an alumnus of IIT Madras. "That culture is at a very nascent stage in India, and IIT Madras Research Park is the only place where that cycle is rotating."
The success of IIT Madras is not by chance, but through deliberate design-of keeping the cell within to ensure proximity to faculty and students, said Kris (S) Gopalakrishnan, co-founder of Infosys and an alumnus of IIT Madras. Over 10% of faculty members, representing 76 professors, are involved in building 90 of the startups being incubated at the cell. Nearly 60% of the companies have been founded by faculty, students or alumni, while the rest are handpicked entrepreneurs looking to do research and innovation at the incubation cell.
"We wish to stabilise our growth and make it sustainable, while also emerging as a national hub for deep-tech startups," said Tamaswati Ghosh, CEO of the IIT Madras Incubation Cell. "We envision becoming an aspirational force for young entrepreneurs across the country, as the place to be to build global brands."
Going forward, IIT Madras is looking at innovative research and deploying it for commercial success. It is also thinking of building an ecosystem of backers willing to invest in moonshot projects, since deep-tech startups typically take longer to get to market compared to other startups.
The Cell needs to achieve two objectives, Gopalakrishnan said. "The incubation cell needs to create more successes, because there's nothing like success to enable more people to come forward," Gopalakrishnan, who serves on the Board of Governors at IIT Madras, said. "The second thing is, how can we transfer this knowledge to other institutes, because good people are everywhere."
VayuJal Technologies, incubated at IIT Madras, has developed so-called atmospheric water generators-which make water from air-and commercially deployed them as well.
The devices, which can produce 30 to 2,000 litres of water per day, have been bought by governments, schools and enterprises. It is now looking to serve individual customers directly.
The company has raised Rs 1 crore from Engineers India Ltd., a state-run enterprise. It is now planning to scale operations and improve the energy efficiency of its machines. The devices require just one unit of electricity to produce 3-4 litres of potable water.
"With scale, we'll be able to increase the amount of water produced per unit of electricity to even 6 litres of water," said Ramesh Kumar Soni, co-founder and director of VayuJal Technologies. "This technology can easily be scaled up to produce 5,000-10,000 litres of water per day and that will give us efficiency as well."
In February, Agnikul Cosmos, an upstart incubated out of IIT Madras,
successfully test fired a fully 3D-printed rocket engine. While the aerospace industry has used 3D printing for decades, Agnikul's effort-possibly the world's first-showed a whole new way of using the technology. The 3D-printed rocket engine will soon help carry payloads of 30-300 kg into lo wearth orbit.
Agnikul, one of the leading space technology firms in India, is developing rockets that can hurl small satellites into space at a fraction of the cost and time taken usually. To be sure, several companies have been vying to launch small satellites globally, but the breakthrough of 3D-printed rockets has piqued the interest of investors, customers and competitors.
"In the last couple of months, the progress we've made has built up quite a bit of credibility in the market. We've seen a lot of customers directly approach us because of the technology milestones that we've hit," said Moin SPM, co-founder and chief operating officer of Agnikul.
The company recently closed $11 million in Series A funding, led by Mayfield India. This is expected to help it launch its first rocket before the end of next year.
Quantum cryptography startup QNu Labs is working to provide immunity to enterprises from any future cybersecurity threats-that is, when quantum computers will be able to easily crack today's encryption methods. Sunil Gupta, co-founder and chief executive of IIT Madras incubated startup, likens the work to Covid-19 vaccines.
"Just like how the only way to save the world from Covid-19 is immunisation, quantum computers might come tomorrow and impact the world of security. So, we're in the business of giving enterprises a quantum immunisation, assuring them that they will not get infected, and even if they do, they will be able to recover easily," Gupta said.
The idea is born out of research done in 2016 by long-time IIT Madras professor Anil Prabhakar, along with Gupta, Mark Mathias and Srinivasa Rao Aluri.
QNu labs is working on solutions to bolster cybersecurity using quantum technologies and physics. The company has developed sophisticated hardware and software layers to ensure end-to-end encryption using quantum cryptography. Its first product is a hardware solution that can enable quantumsafe transfer of data over fibre optic cables up to 100 km, and the company is working on other products to expand this range. It is also working on solutions to bring this same level of security to the Cloud and end-point devices such as smartphones, in the next few years.
Flying cars may be the next big thing, even if Tesla Inc. CEO Elon Musk is sceptical about them. Global manufacturing companies such as Airbus, Boeing, Porsche, Hyundai and Rolls Royce are all working on perfecting the technology, though it is not yet certain what form these vehicles will take eventually.
The ePlane Company-a startup based out of IIT Madras-is looking to build a flying taxi capable of carrying two people over 200 km. It has already built a small-scale prototype and is working to test out a larger unmanned aircraft with a payload of 50 kg in the coming months. "We're building flying taxis for door-to-door commute in cities, and while there are several similar efforts across the world, ours is a tech-centric approach. We've developed IP here in Chennai on how to make a taxi like this extremely efficient and this has been proven in computer simulations," said co-founder and CEO Pranjal Mehta. Mehta founded the company in 2019 along with Professor Satya Chakravarthy, who is part of the aerospace engineering department at IIT-Madras. They hope that the first flying taxi will be cheaper than small helicopters, and with advances in autonomous flight, be able to compete with ground-based mobility on cost.
JSP Enviro has developed a technology that uses microbial fuel cells to generate electricity as well as treat wastewater discharged from textile plants.Priyadharshini Mani, the co-founder and director of JSP Enviro, initially started work on environment-friendly solutions, like cleaning lakes and natural water bodies. But the PhD holder soon realised that she was most drawn to microbial fuel cell treatment of textile wastewater-the theme of her doctorate thesis. "There are a lot of companies that do the work, but the current treatment is very expensive, and I felt there needed to be something more sustainable and cost effective," she said. "Right now, especially in textiles, they use zero-liquid discharge which is very energy intensive. Our technology does not require external energy...so it is much more sustainable and uses microorganisms, which makes it a green technology too."
The company, founded in 2019, has received funding from the central
government's Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) scheme. It is looking to run a pilot plant - of a million litres a day - in a textile factory for six months, to test the efficacy of its solution, since it is now restricted to testing wastewater treatment for only 200 litres in a lab setting.
The Covid-19 pandemic has, however, come as a setback for JSP Enviro. "We could have started the pilot by now, but it got delayed. With the lockdown, work is not getting done. Textile companies have been hit hard by Covid-19, so they may even hesitate now. We spoke to them in 2019 and they were very positive, but we might have to re-evaluate our priorities...," Mani said. The company has sought to diversify into treatment of sewage as well as medical waste. "We are adapting because the textile industry has been hit very hard. There is
opportunity in sewage treatment plants because everyone now wants treated water...," she said.
Yaathum Biotech foresaw the need for indigenous diagnostics solutions way back in 2012. Arivan T, co-founder and director of Yaathum, aimed to develop diagnostics solutions in-house and initially focused on RT-PCR kits to detect tuberculosis. "Our initial disease of interest was TB because it was and continues to be one of the most neglected diseases," Arivan said. "We raised funds from BIRAC and have done validation for the TB test kit, which can detect the disease and suggest which drug can work, through a single test within two hours. In the current method, they will have to wait for about six months to know which drug will actually work."
This is significant because there are six different authorised drugs to treat TB and knowing which one will work is critical, as prescriptions minus this information could lead to a patient becoming drug resistant. This creates drug resistant TB, which is then passed on to another person. Of late, the company has been busy developing an RT-PCR kit. After Covid-19, Yaathum Biotech worked overtime to develop the test kit, which has received validation from the Indian Council of Medical Research but has been unable to hit the market as the company lacks approval from the Drugs Controller General of India. It has readied about 100,000 kits but has not been able to go to market since it is in a shared facility at IIT Madras.
Arivan says before the company applies for a DCGI licence, it will need to have a separate facility, which will cost Rs 20 crore. "Even if we sell the kits in the market, it will only be as an R&D kit and not as a diagnostic one, because without a DCGI license, we cannot go to the market as a diagnostic kit," he said. The company needs funding to the tune of $3-$5 million, but venture capitalists are unwilling to chip in that much, he said, adding the company is looking to tap the international market to set up an independent facility.
AI startup HyperVerge began as a student research group in IIT Madras, representing the premier institute in robotics competitions around the world. It then developed into a problem-solving entity for companies like ITC and MRF, as well as the Indian Railways around 2012. This was the stepping stone. The company, founded by five members in 2014, now boasts of top clients across the globe and a team of 125.
"In 2014, we raised $1 million in funding and since then, HyperVerge has been on its own revenue," its co-founder and CEO Kedar Kulkarni said. "The company has been profitable and has been growing. A year before Covid-19, we grew 8x...," HyperVerge works with clients such as Airbus, Jio, Vodafone, Larsen and Toubro (L&T), Aditya Birla group, Bajaj group, and most large financial services clients in the country. In Southeast Asia, it works with companies like Grab and the CIMB group. Every time these companies do a know-your-customer (KYC) process or onboard a new customer, they use HyperVerge's solutions. It has done more than 410 million KYCs in India. Its solutions come into play wherever digital onboarding processes displace physical processes - like in creating a bank account or to get a credit card or a SIM card.
"We also help reduce fraud at these companies, especially in lending companies where people assume different kinds of identities and try to run away with not one but 50 loans," said Kulkarni. The company recently signed on State Bank of India (SBI) and is in the process of
ramping up operations with the country's biggest lender. "Almost 30% of Indian banking is done by SBI and it is a household name. It is heartening to know that an SBI customer does not need to leave the house for their banking needs," Kulkarni said.
A host of companies-from food delivery firms to gaming and even pension services providers-have started using its services during the pandemic.
Fabheads Automation has developed India's first 3D printer capable of printing with continuous fibre materials The company focuses on automated manufacturing in the carbon fibre (and other composites) space. Fabheads provides a novel way of handling carbon-fibre material, allowing carbon fibre parts to be fabricated using automation that is both time-saving and economical.
It recently raised Rs 8 crore in a pre-Series A funding round led by Inflection Point Ventures.
Dhinesh Kanagaraj, founder and CEO of Fabheads Automation, who quit ISRO to work on his startup idea, said the funds will be used primarily to take its products to market. "We are already catering to clients on a small scale, but have limitations on the number of clients that we can take on. This investment will help us cater to a significant market in India...," he said. "We are already working on pilots in Asia
and are looking at entering the market by next year." A big drone company is its client, and it is working with shipping maintenance
firms, cycle manufacturers, robotics and even defence companies.
"The market ranges from making a tennis racket to race cars and now even biomedical implants can be made of carbon fibre...," he said. "Wind turbine blades are all completely done by manual processes. This alone is worth $30 billion..." Kanagaraj said about $90 billion worth of components are fabricated across the globe. In India alone it would be around $5 billion, with 70% of that done manually.
"That is what we are looking at automating," he said. The company has, however, taken a hit due to the pandemic. "In the case of hardware and manufacturing startups, strict lockdowns do not help... Revenue has pretty much come to a standstill," Kanagaraj said. "Most of our clients are also people working on hardware, that also impacts us...but after the lockdown last year, we had a rush of orders, and we are expecting a similar rush this time."
Kanagaraj said deep tech is in the early stages in India. There are only eight players in the world that have a product in the market. "These companies come in with big money and access to very good resources...When we go up against these global players, it becomes a bit of a difficulty."
Planys Technologies offers marine robotic solutions, where underwater
structures are inspected by non-humans to prevent unforeseen disasters like bridge collapses, dam bursts and so on. Human divers, used routinely for such inspections, often face hazardous work conditions. There is also inaccurate post-inspection data analysis and non-digital reporting of data when human divers are used.
Planys uses a research-driven approach and disruptive innovations in marine robotics by merging it with unique underwater non-destructive testing (NDT) methods and AI-enabled post-inspection analysis.
The startup is supported by marquee investors like Infosys' Gopalakrishnan, Manipal Group Chairman Ranjan Pai, ONGC Startup Fund and several chapters of the Keiretsu Forum (India and Singapore).
The company was founded by IIT Madras' 2015 batch and faculty from the Centre of Non-Destructive Evaluation, after a set of students initially built several underwater robots out of IIT Madras' tinkering labs as part of their masters' thesis.
"Our unmanned inspection solutions offer capabilities like HD marine
videography, murky water inspection and robotic cleaning," said Tanuj
Jhunjhunwala, co-founder and CEO of Planys Technologies. The company offers clients insights into the health of underwater structures
through NDT, ultrasonic, magnetic and Sonar sensors. "Our safe, digital, and cost-effective solutions have helped asset managers increase their efficiency and help them in keeping public assets safer," Jhunjhunwala said.
Planys has so far inspected over 160 assets across three countries, developed six products and filed close to 20 patents. It recently started operations in Saudi Arabia and the Netherlands and is looking to go deeper into these markets over the next two years. It works with companies in various sectors, including ports, oil and gas, process industries, dams and bridges, and defence.
"More recently, we inspected over 40 bridges for a state highways department, a few crucial railways bridges across different zones and some crucial dams in Rajasthan and Gujarat," Jhunjhunwala said.
The startup has developed a platform for enabling Internet of Underwater things (IoUT) along with chip designer Qualcomm, as part of the Qualcomm India Design Challenge 2020. It has also been selected as one of the startups under the Idex program by the
Defence Innovation Organisation to develop indigenous underwater robotic systems for the Indian Navy.