New Delhi: Owned by Rajya Sabha MP and Essel Group Chairman Subhash Chandra, the Subhash Chandra Foundation launched ‘Esselerator’ programme to identify and mentor entrepreneurs looking for a start-up in the Media Tech, EdTech and Advanced Tech.

The program is designed to provide an opportunity to the entrepreneurs to build innovative products and solutions in the fast-revolving Media and Entertainment space. The program enables early and growth stage start-ups to build POC to win commercial contracts and equity investment from Essel Group.

Siddharth Balakrishna, Chief Strategy and Innovation head at Essel group, answers a few queries regarding Esselerator so that entrepreneurs have a better understanding of the programme.

Here are excerpts of Q&A with Mr. Balakrishna

How do you think Incubators as an ecosystem enabler has evolved in the last decade in India?

The incubator and accelerator pool has definitely expanded. As per NASSCOM Zinnov India Start-up Landscape report there are 210+ active accelerators and incubators in the country today. Growing at just above 10% year on year. We have seen a strong and increasing corporate interest in engaging with start-ups through structured programs like incubators/accelerators. Additionally, we are witnessing more thematic programs being launched alongside generic programs.

What led you to enter the incubation segment?

It was our promoter, Mr Amit Goenka’s brainchild. Many sectors within the country are seeing a revolution of sorts, all these promising start-ups need is experience on how to take it big. We saw an opportunity to nurture the start-up ecosystem and solve business problems too. For us this is a long-term initiative and it is important that we create value in a sustainable and scalable manner. As Essel group, we also feel its our responsibility to help start-ups generate revenue, test their solutions/products and grow this eco-system.

Tell us a bit about your core team. What do you look for in the individuals selected to mentor the startups?

Mr Amit Goenka (CEO – Zee5) & Promoter is the brain child behind Esselerator. Under his guidance, Mr Sidharth Balakrishna (Group Strategy & Innovation Head @ Essel group & acting Head of Subhash Chandra Foundation) will be heading Esselerator. He comes with diverse experience across sectors and has actively worked in the start-up eco-system and emerging technologies which will play a crucial catalytic role for this program; he mentors start-ups in the US and Israel as well including through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT, Boston)’s IDEAS program. Sanmesh Kalyanpur (Lead- Esselerator) will be assisting Sidharth on all activities related to Esselerator and entreprenuership initiatives. The beauty about esselerator is that the start-up would be dealing directly with the main stakeholder for the specific issue they will be addressing. Example, a start-up focusing on improving video quality of OTT platform will directly be teaming with our Video ops and delivery team.

What makes you different from other incubators in this space?

The beauty about ‘Esselerator’ is that the start-up would be dealing directly with the main stakeholder for the specific issue they will be addressing. Example, a start-up focusing on improving video quality of OTT platform will directly be teaming with our Video ops and delivery team.

Through our cohort 1 experience, we learnt that start-ups want to work on specific result oriented solutions. We want the start-ups to have a meaningful 8 weeks with us, where they are given an existing case and an environment where they can collaborate with our Business Units directly and deliver results. So post 8 weeks of working directly with us, we have the pitch round where the start-ups will talk about their experience and results. Basis that, we also explore funding rounds.

How do you think the role played by incubators have changed over the years?

We do see programs talking more about outcomes than just input elements like – # of applications or # of events. There seems to be an emerging focus, across the board, on the real impact made on odds of success.

According to you, how will future of incubation will look like in the coming years?

It will become more narrower and deeper in terms of sectoral focus and start-up maturity focus. We will notice incubators and accelerators focusing on building their own “unique selling point” by tapping into their inherent capabilities/differentiators and then adding resources to service their target segment of start-ups. Much like we advise start-ups on identifiying target customer segment and within that the addressable share.

We may also see greater collaboration between incubators and accelerators run by corporates and academia. This will help forge stronger links between the two- something that has been missing in our country so far.

India has more than 100+ start-up incubators at present, yet 90% of startups are said to get failed at an early stage. Where do you think the gap lies?

Failure rate of start-ups, globally, is not really different. Having said that, in India we certainly should focus on improving odds of start-up success in absolute terms and not just relative to other ecosystems. From a accelerator or incubator perspective, we believe key challenge is the lack of experience program managers equipped with right tools and frameworks. Program managers are critical success factor in any program – here we are including not just the implementation team but also the leadership. It is a problem we need to fix as independent stakeholders and also as an ecosystem.

What are the key trends and challenges you observed while incubating startups at the grass-root level?

Biggest challenge would be absence of trained/experienced program managers and lack of proper toolkits/frameworks for them to deploy; as well as people who can get the start-ups to scale up. Another challenge has been the traditional weak link between industry and academia in India. I have been trying to address that through holding sessions and MDP programs at various instititues including the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) so that students understand the practical aspects of business a lot better.

Not everyone understands the basics and principles of accelerator/incubator. The Key trend, we are glad to note, is on programs trying to create their own unique position in the ecosystem. The output in an accelerator and incubator is heavily governed by quality of input – much like universities, schools and colleges. To attract best start-ups the programs need to have clear value proposition and positioning. This is becoming a central and commonly discussed topic in the ecosystem now.

Do you think incubators with sector specific focus have greater start-up success ratio in comparison to others? If yes/no, why?

Most definitely. You can build capabilities which make material impact on odds of success for a start-up. Lot of these capabilities take time to build and compound – so yes, sector focus and start-up maturity focus helps. One cannot learn business techniques in an engineering college easily. You need the right environment, coaches, mentors, peers, tools etc.

What is your view about the current state of start-up ecosystem in India?

It has matured significantly in past 3 years. The funding crunch in 2016-17, according to us, pushed founders, investors and ecosystem enablers to ask tough questions and take remedial action. We have a long way to go. But we are in the right direction. We have some world-class work happening at early stage. On an average, we are witnessing more start-ups with stronger founders going after real-world problems.

In your view, how does the future of startups in India look like?

Very positive. We have the talent, market and positive ecosystem. If all of us, in our role as independent stakeholder, contribute towards building the ecosystem – we can really leapfrog as a country.