What IITs and Others Can Learn from BITS Pilani’s Successful Startup Machine
At the heart of India’s new wave of startups, lies a uniting factor: their Alma Mater. As keen observers of India’s startup ecosystem, it is impossible for us to miss that the Birla Institute of Technology and Science in Pilani, Rajasthan, has been churning out entrepreneurs, quite a lot more than others.
Some of the newest startups from BITS Pilani include GharPay, Zivame & Exotel. Founders of redBus, the bus ticketing business which sold to Naspers for $138 mn, trace their roots to the deemed university now headed by top industrialist Kumar Mangalam Birla.
Although many Indian colleges pay lip service to entrepreneurship (cells), very few actually do something about it. Campuses that have strong entrepreneurial culture can be of a big boost to the economy. Take for example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The total revenues of all active companies founded by MIT graduates will cross $2 trillion- that’s more than India’s gross domestic product (GDP)!
Over the past 5 years there has been a rise in both the number as well as the maturity of the startups coming out of the Rajasthan based college. One of the entrepreneurship programs in the university is looking at over 100 startups in its pipeline! This pretty much unheard of in other institutions.
Inspite of not being an “Indian Institute of Technology”, BITS Pilani has been able to build and sustain a brand of its own. The culture and mentorship shared by the alumni and the new batch of students is one that seems to have a strong connect with alumnis and has sustained through a very long time.
What’s the secret? Well, a great mix of freedom and the right attitude to entrepreneurship.
“Unlike IITs, BITS is not always about education, but also about all round development and better exposure. The people also come with strong analytical background, to add to this development, there is strong peer pressure and competition.” [Shivakumar Ganesan, BITSian & Co-Founder of Exotel]
redBus, one of the most recent Internet success stories in India was founded by BITS graduates Phanindra Sama, Sudhakar Pasupunuri and Charan Padmaraju. Preetish Nijhawan the co-founder of Nasdaq listed Akamai technology, Sabir Bhatia of Hotmail and Manoj Saxena of Webify are all from BITS. Gullu Mirchandani of Onida, Gagan Chaddha of Value First and Rajesh Hukku who sold iFlex to Oracle for $900 mn are also BITS.
“I think it has something to do with flexible systems at BITS Pilani that leads to a lot of people experimenting with their true passions and interests,” says Aditya Rao who studied at the 84 year old institution.
Giving Back to School
An advantage BITS has over other universities is that there have been quite a few rockstar entrepreneurs from the college who are keen to give it back to their Alma Mater. Most of these entrepreneurs are young and have kept a strong connect with the institution. Another important factor is that the groundwork for entrepreneurship is inculcated from the first year of college itself.
“To sum up The IIT brand as it stands today is much greater than any engineering college but if you want to develop management,leadership qualities in yourself, BITS is the best place in INDIA.” [Quora User]
What other colleges should learn from BITS
1. Make entrepreneurship a part of the process.
To help startups and entrepreneurs, the institute has been running a series of programs. One such program is the New Venture Creation (NVC) course. In this course,held across all the three campuses, BITSian students sign-up as teams and build a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). The lecturers in this course include investors, entrepreneurs and professors. Startups such as Framebench and Tunepatrol have come out of this program.
2. Support student entrepreneurship activities.
The universities annual startup event Conquest, organized by the Centre for Entrepreneurial Leadership, has evolved from a b-plan competition to accelerating registered and operational companies. Some notable winners of this platform include Gharpay, Vita Beans, iViz security.
3. Have a strong alumni culture & network.
Successful entrepreneurs from BITs also regularly visit the campus and talk to the students. This gives them access to mentors, ideas and funding. BITS2startup, a startup focused platform which has over 2000 members.
Something only BITS has…In-House Angels
The Spark Angel program helps startups from BITS to connect with angels and other investors. The program was initiated after seeing the need for a formal platform for BITSian startups, with traction, to connect and get invested by BITSian entrepreneurs, investors and senior corporates. The program ensures that there is continuous interaction between the angel group and the startups during the entire process. The group is not restricted to BITSians (select non-BITSian are also allowed into the network).
The BITS Spark group has over 60 angels on board looks at funding, between $50,000 to $250,000. Some notables such as Raju Reddy of Sierra Atlantic and Sundi Natarajan of the Indian Angel Network are part of the program. The program works closely with some seed investors such as Blume, IAN, The Hatch, Aegis Incubator, BITS TBI etc.
They have a strong base of BITSian volunteers who help run the process, come with experience in VC, operations and product development at startups and management consulting. It has also introduced a mentorship component to the Spark application process to help the startups prepare their initial pitches as well as refine their story.
To be selected by the group, the startup needs to have a BITS as well as an Indian connection. In the beginning only India registered companies were allowed, but over the last few rounds, they have been actively considering companies which might be registered anywhere in the world, but do have India as one of their core markets. The startups with some kind of traction to be selected and should be pretty much out of their idea stage.
Upcoming companies by BITS graduates such as Exotel and Tabtor have been funded by the program and three more are being evaluated.
The BITS group has recently launched their website www.bitsspark.org, which will help them get across easily to a larger audience. Rao says that when he faced issues raising funds, veterans at Bits Spark angel group like Sundi Natarajan and Raju Reddy were of great help. Reddy is an investor at Gharpay and many other startups.
“He wrote a $100,000 cheque for us after a 30 minute meeting,” says Abhishek Nayak, the co-founder of Gharpay . Nayak’s first customer was redBus, whose founder Phanidra Sama is from BITS and has named his company Pilani Soft Lab.
With the support of Pilani, hiring interns and employees also becomes easier.
Last but not the least…A lesson to all institutions especially IITs
For a student BITS gives freedom to explore and choose what interests them, unlike many other colleges that are unduly strict about attendance.
“I am not good with classes.. I cannot be involved in the class unless the teacher is extremely good and the subject extremely tough.. in all other cases .. I simply do not have the concentration .. ergo – BITS .. I had 0 attendance in almost all my courses in 1st semester.. I learn better when I take the time and do things my own way. Not possible at all in IIT.” [Quora user]
Update: This is NOT a Comparison
To those who are talking about bias of the article etc, my 2 cents : you haven’t read thru the piece.
This is NOT about the Bits Pilani brand (vs. IITs), but how alumni and students are creating a positive impact and bringing the change INSTEAD of expecting the college to drive the change, which is what most of the other colleges are all about.
After all, how many engg. college’ early stage entrepreneurs/alumnis are part of these groups of ‘let’s do early stage investments’ in our own college students. Either the circle gets bigger (i.e. if I am an early stage investor, let me invest irrespective of the college brand) OR the decision gets postponed (ah! will do a grand grant of $5mn after 30 years).
BITS Pilani has managed to find a balance and there surely is something to learn from (the art of giving when you have earned very little).
What are your thoughts?