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Priya Kapadia on Marico Foundation’s unique approach to fostering innovation

Priya Kapadia on Marico Foundation’s unique approach to fostering innovation
Priya Kapadia

The Marico Innovation Foundation, a non-profit started in 2003 by Harsh Mariwala, founder and chairman of Mumbai-based FMCG giant Marico Ltd, has over the years emerged as one of the leading catalysts for fostering corporate and startup innovation in the country.

Among its various initiatives, the foundation’s innovation awards, a biennial feature, recognize and promote such innovation, especially those that harness technology. Some of the winners from last year’s awards included logistics platform Rivigo, drone maker IdeaForge and IoT-based energy management solutions firm Ecolibrium Energy. 

In an interview with TechCircle, Priya Kapadia, Head, Marico Innovation Foundation (MIF), spoke about the value that the awards bring to established companies and startups, the foundation’s Scale Up programme and why it has never looked at funding the organisations it supports. Edited excerpts:

Since MIF already fosters innovation by mandate, what drove the need to create these awards?

When Harsh (Mariwala) set up MIF, it was driven by a need to create awareness about innovation. We did a lot of workshops, reports, even launched a book to talk about disruptive innovations. By 2006, we started to realize that nobody was allocating resources to and recognizing innovation at a large scale. There was no platform for that purpose. We thought that was unfortunate. So, the awards were set up to identify and showcase innovation. 

The awards are a biennial event and we set them up to identify potential game-changers and big winners. For instance, in 2010, the Akshaya Patra Foundation, which runs school lunch programmes across the country, won in the social innovation category. A year later, Goonj (a non-profit that sources, repairs and recycles discarded household items among the poor) also won in the social category. Bus ticketing platform redBus and low-cost airline Indigo won awards in 2012. 

While these entities were all well established in their own sectors, some of them were not particularly well known back then. Another example is logistics platform Rivigo, which was a winner last year. So, we have the ability to sniff out the next big thing. Some of them may not do so well, but that’s the nature of the beast and some of them become benchmarks. We pick them up so that they get more credibility, more respect and more business. That’s how the showcase or the recognition game plays. That’s the whole philosophy underlying the creation of the MIF Awards.

What led you to carve out a separate category for startups (in 2018)?

About two years ago, the definition of a startup became very clear with the Niti Aayog coming out with the criteria (five years in existence and Rs 25 lakh revenues). Otherwise, even a Flipkart would apply for startup awards and we did not want that to happen with our awards. That is what held us back from introducing a startups category. When we realized that the lines were not blurred anymore, we said, okay, now we can introduce a startup category.

What processes do you employ to get quality applications?

We have a very robust outreach process. We don’t outsource it. Up until now, we’ve probably identified 1,000-1,500 organisations and we will keep researching to ensure that we have more organisations so that we can reach out to them. We have hired sharp kids who want to earn money while going to college. They reach out to those organisations and convince them to apply. So, our process is a very outbound oriented one. We also reach out to our ecosystem and ask for recommendations and referrals. We don’t advertise at all. This is our process for ensuring that we get in quality applications.

How does the selection process work?

This year, we’ve partnered with BCG (Boston Consulting Group), which as a knowledge partner will assess the applications. Last year, we worked with AT Kearney. We normally work with some of the best-in-class minds that help us identify the next big wins. Also, we have a robust jury process. We have separate juries for each category.  This is because a social entrepreneur's problems are very different from that of a regular entrepreneur.

Selected applications are presented to the jury, individually. Then a shortlist is prepared. After that, the knowledge partner, BCG in this case, will go and visit each of the applicants and check whether the innovations are relevant, are they working and so on. They come back and present their findings to the jury and then the shortlist is prepared. We get 500-550 applications, 60 in the first round, 50 in the second round, till there remain eventually 5-6 with us.

There’s no cash reward for the winners. What do the winners gain from these awards?

The big reason why so many organisations apply is the recognition they get on the day of the awards. Unlike other awards, we don't just get somebody to talk about them and then give them an award. We don't give any prize money.

We take the six winners and identify a trainer who can train them to speak in a TED-like format, on stage, to an audience which comprises of senior corporate executives, venture capitalists, foundation heads and so on. They present their story in about five minutes. They train for about one or two months with our curator and our trainer. So they present their story in a very gripping, compelling manner.

Normally from there, leads are generated. We cannot stake claim to conversion because that is not our model. We don't go and sell with them, we connect them. The connections they make, the networks they form, that is what is useful to them.

What’s the next step, after the awards?

That brings me to the next programme, the MIF Scale Up programme. It's about four years old. The premise of this programme is that entrepreneurs require scale-up support. Mentoring is a very loose word. Mentoring does not necessarily mean the entrepreneur will scale up. It may mostly mean that the entrepreneur is getting a lot of gyaan. 

What we do in the Scale Up programme is that we identify organisations that may require our practical support. The programme says that if you are facing a challenge, we will identify the right mentor for you. And who are our mentors? Our mentors are our internal Marico members. Within Marico lie a lot of competencies and a lot of intelligence because we hire from the best and we are normally are very selective about who we hire from a Marico standpoint.

How does this in-house support process work?

So MIF has a tie-up with Marico’s human resources team and Marico employees can volunteer for the Scale Up programme. They offer their mentoring free of charge. We offer them mentoring services during work hours. It's not on Saturday or Sunday. The only time it gets postponed is when the mentor is traveling. And Marico considers this mentoring that they do as part of work hours. So, the supervisors align to the fact that you want to give back beyond your work to somebody else. So, that is the mentor programme that we have launched with Marico. I have about a hundred-odd mentors who are waiting in line for projects.

Let's talk about Incredible Devices (the company has developed a catheter reprocessing system that makes catheters suitable for re-use), which was one of our winners. We had a chat with the entrepreneur and realised that he had orders to fulfil but couldn’t because he didn’t have a manufacturing set up. He had been building his machines in the garage. Now, that may work for a prototype. But if you want to sell to a Fortis or a Hinduja, you require having a manufacturing set-up in place. The entrepreneur is based in Chandigarh. We have a plant in Chandigarh. So we had a senior member from the plant there work with Incredible Devices to set up his unit. He moved from creating two units a month to 40 units a month in a span of three-four months.

Is the Scale Up programme free?

We charge a nominal fee of Rs 25,000 for the engagement. It could be a two-year engagement, it does not matter. We just want to charge some money so that we have some skin in the game. During the first two years, we did it free of charge. Then we realised it ain’t working! Some took it seriously and some didn’t. We realised that Rs 25,000, even though it’s a small amount, is enough to make them remember that they need to get the most out of the mentors. Which is amazing! It is what we want.

Could you talk about some of the other companies that have used Scale Up? 

There’s Atomberg Technologies, which makes energy efficient ceiling fans. Then we have NapNap Mats which makes child pacifying products and services. Atomberg, when they came to us, was Rs 4 crore revenue company. They had a B2B product, but now they are looking at B2C. Marico doesn’t have expertise in consumer durables. So we got in a former senior Crompton Greaves executive to work with them.

Has it ever happened that a collaboration with a startup through the foundation has led Marico to contemplate partnering with them to co-create a product? 

That would be a dream for us. I mean, it’s not something that we look out for when we hunt for organisations for our Scale Up programme. But if that is something that happens, it happens. 

Does what MIF do fall somewhere between an incubator and an accelerator or are you something completely different? 

Interesting question. Definitely not an incubator. Incubators take ideas at the paper stage and make sense out of them until the product is launched in some rudimentary form. They also offer some funding. We don’t. Accelerator? Sure. You could identify us an accelerator. But the accelerators that I have seen promise 12-week and 24-week programmes and they hope to change the world. We’ve worked with Atomberg, for instance, for two years. We’ve helped them get 5x online sales because of our intervention. The engagement isn’t time-bound. That’s the difference. We do all this despite not offering funding support. Funding, I’d say, gives you a little more control. But despite the fact that we don’t give funding, the respect that we have from our cohort is very high.

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