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A Journey into Fostering Startups and Innovation with Somjit Amrit, CEO, IIT Mandi iHub and HCI Foundation

Somjit Amrit, CEO of IIT Mandi iHub and HCI Foundation, as he navigates the crucial role of collaboration in propelling startup success.

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Manisha Sharma
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Somjit Amrit

Somjit Amrit

In the ever-evolving environment of technology and entrepreneurship, the synergy between industry, academia, and government stands as a foundation for driving innovation and driving startup growth. In this dynamic and rapidly evolving environment, advancing innovation is not just an aspiration; it appears as an imperative of social progress.

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Collaborative efforts between industry, academia, and government create a unique ecosystem that drives technological progress and enables startups to emerge. Each component plays a key role by contributing different perspectives, resources, and expertise. Industry brings real-world challenges, academia contributes research and theoretical knowledge, while government provides support and an enabling regulatory environment.

In an exclusive conversation with Ciol during the IIT Mandi iHub and HCI Foundation HIVE conclave, Somjit Amrit, the CEO of IIT Mandi iHub and HCI Foundation, explored the pivotal significance of collaboration in driving the success and growth of the startup ecosystem. The discussion further delved into the hurdles faced by startups, the distinct challenges encountered in academic environments, and the key factors contributing to the sustainable development of startups, encompassing both operational success and considerations for environmental sustainability in today's context.

Ciol- What inspired you to take on a leadership role in fostering startups and innovation?

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Somjit Amrit- I have been immersed in the corporate world for 35 years, and this unique opportunity unexpectedly presented itself. To unravel the story behind this chance, you'll need to delve into my book, "Anecdotally Yours." Hailing from Bangalore, my professional journey has largely been rooted in this city.

Despite my longstanding tenure in Bangalore, a distinctive opportunity arose to enroll in a course at IIT Mandi focused on artificial intelligence from an industry perspective. Seizing this chance, I completed the course in 2022. Subsequently, IIT Mandi recognized the alignment of my corporate background with the CEO role, especially in the context of the government's keen interest in appointing CEOs to drive technology innovation hubs. Given that our organization operates as a Section 8 company, essentially a corporation, it is explicitly mandated that the academy should not spearhead its operations.

Recruiting individuals from the industry for such roles poses challenges, as the academia and industry often operate in distinct realms, resulting in significant movement issues. Despite this, armed with 35 years of industry experience, I decided to venture into this unique opportunity. I wanted to explore the dynamics of having a 360-degree view, and navigating the intersection of government, academia, and industry. This decision reflects my curiosity and eagerness to cap off my career by stepping into a new realm and experiencing the synergies of these diverse elements. In essence, I view it as a lucky chance that aligns with my desire to explore something new in the final stretch of my career.

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Ciol- How crucial is collaboration in the success and growth of the startup ecosystem?

Somjit Amrit- People, I would say that because of the IIT, the prefects of IIT people come to us and they expect mentorship, they expect technical help, they expect research to give them guidelines and other things and that is the reason the start-ups come to IITs. One of the big successes has been the IIT Madras Research Park, which all of you must have heard of. When it was so successful, the other IITs also took up the challenge to make them as successful and IIT Mandi is one of the younger IITs started in 2014. So we also feel that this has to be done and thankfully though we are at a slightly off location, still you will be surprised that our start-ups are from 18 of the 30 odd states in India.

So it is a very good representation we have across the country. So I would say start-ups are coming to us with the expectation that they will get technical support from IIT Mandi and entrepreneurial help in terms of getting the right kind of entrepreneurship help from the start-up. Plus, given that we have the funds that DST has provided us, we can have four variants of start-ups. A start-up can work as an entrepreneur in residence, you must be aware of it. The start-up can work in the prior mode, in ideation mode. The start-up can, these are the two grants, and we don't expect any stake there. Then we get into the seed support system and then we get into the acceleration mode.

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These are the two areas where we take stakes in the start-ups. And again the government's guidelines do not look for a start-up for stakes only. Help them to grow. Therefore we have been given guidelines that not to have a stake of more than 9%. Therefore we limit our stake and limit our risks, yet we invest in that. And because we invest, other venture capitals come because of the validation we bring to the exercise.

Ciol- Apart from these typical challenges that startup face, what are the other challenges that startup faces in an academic environment? How does IIT Mandi address them?

Somjit Amrit- One startling statistic reveals that the faculty does not actively seek entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship, however, has the potential to be embraced by faculty members, possibly as visiting faculty. In India, only 1% of faculty members are involved in startups. In contrast, institutions like MIT or Stanford boast professors who not only engage in startups but often have 2 to 3 ventures each, actively promoting this culture.

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The key question here is whether we can encourage faculty to bring their ideas to the market through startups, leveraging their technical expertise. It's important to note that they may not need to provide funding but can build on the merits of their technical knowledge. Addressing the question of why these startups are not flourishing, it seems that the lack of a conducive environment may be hindering the formation of technology innovations necessary to facilitate such entrepreneurial endeavors.

Ciol- What are the factors contributing to the sustainable growth of startups in today's  Sustainable you mean, sustainable in terms of running it successfully or running it in a sustainable way in the real world of sustainability?

Somjit Amrit- There needs to be sustainable growth. Numerous books and studies have explored this concept. As I mentioned earlier, the initial step is to identify the problem. It is crucial to determine whether the problem is worth solving. How can you ascertain its worthiness? One key factor is the presence of users. I discussed this in my presentation, emphasizing the toothbrush model. If there is a user base and consistent usage, the problem is defined. With a well-defined problem, creating a solution becomes more manageable. However, inadequately defining the problem poses a significant challenge.

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We are actively addressing this issue because researchers typically aim to publish papers and patents, often overlooking the product's market presence. Conversely, startups focus on creating something people will use, but they may lack a research background. Our objective is to bridge this gap. Success for us, the TIS, lies in uniting these two distinct paths, akin to the convergence point in airline aisles. These independent lines must converge, and it is our responsibility to facilitate that convergence.

Ciol- Could you share a few success stories or notable achievements of startups that have been incubated by IIM?

Somjit Amrit- I believe one of them is lying there. Have you seen the specifications we've developed for the visually impaired? There's a camera present, and if you close your eyes, you'll receive a voice prompt. This innovation allows users to read newspapers, recognize currency notes, withdraw money from ATMs, and perform various tasks independently. It's one of the successful start-ups we've invested in.

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The second venture, as mentioned by both Dr. Akhilesh Gupta and Dr. Behra, involves a yoga mat. In today's health-conscious society, many individuals hire a yoga teacher temporarily but later attempt to practice on their own. The challenge is that without consistent guidance, skills tend to decline over time. To address this, we've developed a yoga mat equipped with 8 sensors, sponsored by Samsung. This mat serves as a personal instructor, providing feedback on your yoga poses.

While I could have brought one mat for everyone, it's worth noting that each mat contains 8 sensors. This innovation has gained significant success, being sold in 18 countries. On platforms like Amazon, approximately 300 units are sold each month. It's priced at $289 in the US and 10,000 rupees in India. The key takeaway here is the user and usage aspect. Considering the widespread practice of yoga, this product aligns with a consistent user base. The toothbrush model of user usage is applicable here – a daily activity with a growing user base.

Ciol- How does IIT Mandi create an environment that fosters startups and innovation?

Somjit Amrit- We face challenges in attracting individuals to our organization. Despite having extensive facilities, convincing people to work in Mandi has proven difficult. While they may visit, we encourage them to stay for at least a week or two, but concerns arise about what they'll do during their stay. Mandi is undoubtedly a pleasant location, yet the logistics of coming and going can be challenging.

However, I assert that if institutions like BITS Pilani and IIT Roorkee can thrive despite not being located in major metropolitan areas, why can't IIT Mandi be successful? Therefore, prospective candidates need not worry. Our standards are as high, if not better than other renowned institutions like BITS Pilani and IIT Roorkee—examples I frequently cite.

We boast exceptional faculty and cutting-edge laboratories. The Technology Innovation Hub is committed to delving into translational research. We excel in formulating problem statements and have no issues with funding or technology. The key is generating problem statements aligned with user needs and usage models.

Ciol- How can government policies better support the growth of start-ups in India?

Somjit Amrit- The implementation of government policy can achieve the desired outcomes, as indicated in the last slide I shared. Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) must be established for researchers and the industry. While DRDO is incentivized to collaborate with IITs, there is a lack of motivation for the industry to engage in research collaborations. As a result, the industry remains indifferent to research outcomes.

For effective progress, a two-way incentivization approach is crucial. Researchers should be informed that translating research is more valuable for promotion than simply publishing papers. Simultaneously, the industry should be informed that collaborating with research initiatives will result in incentives or subsidies. Without these measures, mere discussions will not yield tangible results.

The six KPIs I mentioned must be honored for this system to function effectively. If you require access to my presentation, we can share it with you to provide a detailed understanding of the six KPIs.

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