The ecosystem for hardware startups in India is a challenging space for an entrepreneur, owing to huge capital investments, need for high-end facilities, longer research periods and the problem of scaling up. While software startups do easily get funded, hardware entrepreneurs face the tougher task of convincing venture capitalists to give them a chance.
Chipmaker Intel Corp aimed to change the outlook towards hardware startups with its launch of the Intel India Maker Lab three years ago, which has till date nurtured and launched close to 20 products from startups and plans to deploy 20 more into the market in the near future. The company has also collaborated with IIT-Bombay and the Department of Science and Technology for a one-year hardware startup accelerator programme called the Plugin, which is coming up.
In an interview with TechCircle, Jitendra Chaddah, senior director, operations and strategy, Intel India, sheds light on how the Indian ecosystem’s thought process needs to change with regards to pushing hardware startups further and how the company plans to take these players forward.
Chaddah also talks on the challenges that a hardware entrepreneur faces and the procedure by which startups can obtain help from the Plugin programme. Edited excerpts:
How has Intel helped the hardware startup ecosystem in India?
For a long time, the company has been closely working with academia to ensure there is a resource of developers and designers, we work towards getting the right curriculum established, and also engage in research work with professors. We also work with schools to ensure that STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education is embedded right from the initial stages. Intel has worked with 10 schools and has helped close to 10,000 students over the past three years.
The Intel India Maker Lab is connected to the ecosystem built over 20 years. Maker Lab is a continuation of that ecosystem. Three years back, we realised there was a need to handhold system and hardware startups because they were not getting enough support as compared to software-based startups.
We had a good talent pool and wanted to ensure that the hardware startup ecosystem was as vibrant as the software ecosystem. Intel decided to select some promising hardware-based ideas and provide them with multiple levels of support.
What does the Maker Lab provide for startups?
The Maker Lab provides the infrastructure and the startups have access to Intel lab’s equipment. The biggest advantage is that they get mentored and get in touch with the best hardware engineering talent in the industry while getting connected to a rich ecosystem including global connections from China and Taiwan.
Maker Lab now has connections with other accelerators and the VC (venture capital) community. The upcoming Plugin programme is a collaboration among Intel, the Department of Science and Technology and IIT-Bombay. Based on the competencies the startups provide, they will receive the required support to take their solutions forward.
Nasscom (National Association of Software and Services Companies), TiE (non-profit organisation) are also a part of the bigger ecosystem. We are building and ensuring that a vibrant hardware ecosystem is developed in India.
The collaborations with these startups also help to get insights into what is happening in terms of technology ideation in the ecosystem.
Mentoring helps the startups but the mentor also gains knowledge about newer technologies.
What are the pain points for hardware startups in the initial stages? What is the ecosystem’s view on them?
The biggest problem is that the community does not clearly understand the difference between building a pure software-based solution and a hardware product. There is a difference in the type of support, capital investment, and the time duration which these two ecosystems require. Making the ecosystem understand these nuances and differences is the biggest challenge.
The quantum of funding, time to market and upscaling is a big challenge. You need access to latest technology and expert view. Finding the right mentor would be a top priority.
In the hardware space, even if you have built a prototype, in terms of scaling up the product you have to find the right manufacturing ODM (original design manufacturer). India might be a bit tougher to manufacture as compared to a few other parts of the world. The challenge is to decide if you will work with the Indian ecosystem or take a leap and launch in an external ecosystem.
Any specific verticals that are seeing a lot of traction in terms of product startups? Can you mention a couple of case studies?
Medical devices in healthcare, automation in manufacturing, retail industry solutions, agritech solutions and the automotive industry currently have a lot of traction for hardware products.
All of the startups we work with are interesting and promising. A few interesting ones are below.
AsquaredIOT is a startup which takes soundwaves and tries to detect the status of a particular piece of machinery. Through sound detection, an analysis can be done if the machine is working normally or if there is an underlying issue. It is a sound-based AI/ML (artificial intelligence/machine learning) solution that holds potential.
Another example is DeepSight AI Labs, a startup that applies deep learning to computer vision and image processing to analyse real-time videos and extract relevant information. The solution helps to meet compliance, safety and surveillance requirements across domains such as manufacturing, retail, and banking.
Acceleron Labs uses Intel Xeon processors for their server-in-a-box solution. They provide a lot of networking capabilities at a much cheaper rate than the competition. Acceleron works with a lot of Intel engineers and mentors to build the right networking and edge-based solution. It is cost-effective and has functionalities that could be useful in local ecosystems. These solutions are already deployed in the market today.
More than 20 startups have seen the light of day through the Intel programme in 2018…
More than 60 startups have been selected by the Intel Maker Lab programme over the past three years. It is a concentrated effort where we focus on a few key startups based on their potential impact for solving problems. We still support the alumni as they are open to interact with the mentors and use the Intel R&D (research and development) labs. Close to 20 of the products from these startups are ready to be deployed into the market, while another 20 have already been launched.
How can budding hardware entrepreneurs get in touch with Intel?
In the beginning, the entrepreneur could have a great idea but it needs to be turned into a feasible solution that can be launched in the market. Some kind of business and financial acumen has to be created. The programme management has to be accurate and well-planned. We make sure some type of training is done on the startups to push them forward.
Every year, we ask for applications on ideas, the only restriction being that it has to have a hardware and software combination. An esteemed selection committee consisting of industry experts, academics and Intel seniors chose close to 20 startups that will be trained and mentored for the year.
We don’t tinker with their ideation but we try to give them business acumen, financial management and programme management training to help them move forwards. The training programme helps them create the next level of prototyping or solution and they are provided with funding in three phases, depending on the progress of the solutions. It is a nine-month journey with extended support for close to 18 months. At the end of it all, it is connecting the product idea to the ecosystem, venture capitalists and other players who can help scale the company.