Innovative ecosystem is key for entrepreneurship
Surya Rao heads the incubator at BITS Pilani Hyderabad campus, and is actively engaged in the innovation ecosystem in the Hyderabad region, as well as in the broad BITS Pilani ecosystem across the three Indian campuses- Hyderabad- AP, Pilani- Rajasthan and Zuarinagar- Goa.
He brings a unique perspective to incubation, leveraging his rich industry as well as academic technology transfer experience. Surya is well networked within Indian and US technology and VC/angel circles, in addition to the world-wide BITS alumni network. As an incubation head he stresses on idea validation with future customers, on building strong technology barriers to competition and crucially, on landing that first paying customer. He is well supported by the BITS ecosystem in terms of scientific expertise, sophisticated equipment and a vibrant and entrepreneurial-minded student population.
After his education in Biotechnology from the University of Mysore, he started his career at Shantha Biotech, Hyderabad in R&D to develop human healthcare products. He then moved to the USA, when he first attended graduate school at the University of Texas, Austin leading to a Masters degree in microbiology, followed by an MBA from the University of Georgia, Athens. He then had a brief stint at IBM in management consulting in Seattle. His last job in the US was in technology commercialization at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He served as Licensing Officer in the Office of Commercial Ventures and Intellectual Property for three years, where he commercialized technologies developed in the disciplines of microbiology, computer science and mechanical engineering. He moved back to India in 2010, as Vice President, Technology Licensing at IKP Knowledge Park, Hyderabad. His responsibilities included liaising with research institutions towards identifying technologies with commercial benefit, and several other initiatives.
Q.According to a NASSCOM report, out of 1.5 technical graduates, only 25% are employable by the industry. What are the reasons for this situation? Can startups grow into alternative means of employment?
BITS students relatively don't have a problem of unemployability compared to tier-2 and tier-3 colleges, which suffers from this problem. This is because of lack of conceptual basics and skill set required to start working from day one in the companies. Employability increases drastically if some of the following steps are taken-
- Industry exposure like Practice school or internship shall be provided to all the students.
- The curriculum has to be updated very frequently in every two or three years, to match industry demands.
- Companies require analysis and application skills; whatever learning they do in class or lab has to be applied and analyzed. So, there should an emphasis on advanced skills in education.
- Also universities have to come forward to include industry in framing curricula.
Q. What are the important aspects one has to remember to plan start-up?
- Idea validation is the first thing -mapping ideas to unmet problems is very important.
- Startups need well rounded teams to carry out their plans. Founding teams have to have a clear understanding of their respective roles and expectations. This should be captured in an agreement.
- It is important to have trusted mentors (or incubators!) who can see pitfalls before they come and course-correct as necessary.
Q. There has been a growing trend for startups than regular IT jobs, what are the main reasons for this major shift?There is a problem throughout the country. Mechanical, chemical and other domain engineers (other than CS) are opting for IT jobs as they pay well. But over a period of time, job satisfaction goes down rapidly. Start-ups provide the flexibility to work out on an idea that appeals to the founder. For some, startups are ways to express themselves.
Q. What is motive behind IT Companies hiring Bio-technologists, civil engineers other than Computer science engineers ?
Any engineering student knows that getting his/her coding skills strong would result in a high paying IT job. It's just supply and demand. Companies look for candidates who match their short term or long term requirements; the option rests with students (and parents!).
Q. Gap between Industry and academia is growing by the day. In this situation, how students can come up and mark their presence in this global competition?
BITS has a concept called Practice School, which has been successfully running from 30 to 40 years. Before a student graduates, he/she is supposed to spend 8 months in a company, 2 months in practice school-1 and 6 months in practice school-2. By the time the student comes out with a degree, he will be aware of what companies' culture is and what sort of skill set companies expect from students.
I think other universities should also come up with such concepts, which would lay strong foundations for students' careers. In cases where colleges don't have such programmes, students have to find internships in some good companies, thus enable themselves to compete with the rest.
Another way is to design course curricula in consultation with industry, obviously along with major inputs from academicians. This would ensure that skills important to industry are incorporated in engineering courses.
Q. What are the key qualities a student has to work up on, to become a successful entrepreneur?
It's a debatable issue. One school of thought says entrepreneurs are born and may be 1-2% of the people can be successful entrepreneurs. Idea validation can be taught, but it is not clear if entrepreneurship can be taught, as at a basic level it is a very up down journey which calls for determination and a great tolerance of ambiguity.
Successful startups are the exception rather than the rule. For this to happen they will have many setbacks, product failures, customer rejections, etc. Please refer above answer for a continuation.
Q. What are the most common problems faced by the startups and how do they over come?
- First problem is Idea validation, when you don't know what problem you are addressing then you have little chance of success
- Focus: You have to concentrate on one or two projects at one time. Better to move on to other projects after completing the first one. Taking on too many tasks leads to lack of focus and high burn-rates.
- Team management: Unlike a big company startups can stagnate if one or two key people leave. Founders' and key employees' expectations have to be managed carefully and clearly.
Q. What are significant areas, which upcoming startups can look at so as to have bright future?
WearableTech, Internet of Things and 3D printing are some billion dollar business areas. Some low risk and evergreen options like healthcare, restaurants and education would be good to try.
Q. Please brief us about the vision and objectives of the incubator at BITS?
We approach innovation and startups from an ecosystem point of view. An innovation ecosystem comprises of many factors that combine to create a favorable environment where startups can thrive. Following are some of the features that an ideal entrepreneurship ecosystem shall have -
- Strong research and innovation culture where new technologies are developed in academic and research institutions.
- Students and skilled work force who are aware of cutting edge technologies.
- You need people to fund high-risk early stage projects, typically angels and VCs
- Incubators - to take ahead such projects as startups.
- Passionate and unselfish mentor network that advises startups.
- These features form an ideal ecosystem for entrepreneurship. We, at BITS, are trying to offer most of those facets - Research Orientation, Skill Development, Idea Validation, and Mentorship.
Q. Finally what is your message to the candidates aspiring to start new startups…?
- Don't copy ideas, be passion driven, build a personal relation with a problem which is what will help in building a sustainable product.
- Validate ideas by talking to your potential customers.
- When you start product development keep talking to customers and involve them in the product development cycle, so as to not have any surprises later.
- Treat your team well and maintain focus.
Our start-ups shall look beyond small problems such as pizza delivery and grocery delivery kind of things. Indeed they have to work on larger problems which can grow into billions of dollars worth businesses.
-Interviewed by D.Sai Charan, Content Developer, Sakshi Education Desk