The Indian government has recognised 41,061 startups as of December 23, 2020, according to the Economic Survey 2020-21. The country houses 38 unicorns, 200+ accelerators and incubators, 1,450+ active investors and a huge network of mentors and platforms helping startups grow and scale.
However, there is still a dearth of platforms that make all resources accessible at one place, for startups and investors that invest primarily at the idea stage.
Wadhwani Foundation aims to change that.
Launched in 2000, the Bengaluru-based global not-for-profit organisation aims to become a catalyst with its initiative, Wadhwani Venture Fastrack (VFT).
The foundation aims to accelerate economic development in emerging economies by driving job creation through “large-scale initiatives in entrepreneurship, small business growth, innovation, and skilling”.
Wadhwani Venture Fastrack is one such initiative.
Started in 2019, the structured programme aims to fast-track and scale global startups by enhancing the potential of incubators/accelerators in India with training and support. It has launched a programme to ‘certify’ incubators/accelerators, based on their ability to successfully support startups using the Wadwani VFT platform. It aims to provide onboarded startups with all the necessary resources to survive and scale, including mentorship and networking opportunities.
“We need 360-degree attention to catalyse change in our society. Initiatives are needed in various areas of skilling, SME support, startup support, entrepreneurship education, and funding to help move the needle. Wadhwani Venture Fastrack is one such programme,” said Ajay Batra, Executive Vice President at WVF.
Ajay started his professional career with Citibank, Wall St, NY, and returned to India to start a series of ventures in consulting, technology, and education. He also worked with the Azim Premji Foundation for a few years. Over the last few years, he has been an active angel investor and startup mentor. Before joining the Wadhwani Foundation, he set up and operated a startup incubator, the Bennett Hatchery, for The Times of India group.
He joined Wadhwani VFT in August 2020 and believes that incubators/accelerators are strong catalysts in the movement to scale India’s startup ecosystem.
“To achieve scale, there is a need to empower and enable incubators/accelerators to produce superlative startups in terms of enhanced revenues/profits, funds raised, jobs created, and more,” he says.
Within two years of launch, Wadhwani VFT has earned support from a wide array of more than 80 partners, funders, and investors. As many as 30+ incubators/ accelerators from regions such as Asia, Africa, Latin America, and MENA claim a 100 percent net promoter score.
The team claims to have built and funded 200+ startups with $20 billion market capitalisation, including Flytta, LogisticsNow, MobCast, Zappyhire, PickMyWork, and Mojro, among others.
Tackling key gaps and challenges in the ecosystem
Wadhwani Venture Fastrack (VFT) is trying to address three types of gaps:
- Ecosystem silos: Improve cross-fertilisation amongst stakeholders through active communities of mentors, investors, and startups.
- Low incubator/accelerator impact: Improve success rates of startups graduating from incubators/accelerators. Develop their capacity and talent to offer timely and value-adding support to startups. Also, help incubators/accelerators become self-sufficient and viable themselves.
- High startup mortality rates: Help build fundamentally sound ventures from the ground-up. Offer just-in-time and relevant mentoring, customer connect, and investor-connect support to startups through technology.
Ajay explains that shifting the mindset of incubators/accelerators management, board, and funders – from being input-driven (e.g. grants received, #startups admitted) to outcome-driven (e.g. revenues generated, jobs created, startup survival rate) is difficult.
“This is an ongoing challenge worldwide as sources of funding for incubators/accelerators dry up and they are asked to fend for themselves, financially,” he adds.
Traditionally, incubators/accelerators have clubbed startups together in cohorts. As a group, various programmes, workshops, and interventions are provided with an opportunity to take 1-1 input as well.
“However, in the virtual (COVID-induced) world, startups want to be recognised for their individual needs and nature. While they want the value of peer learning, they need to feel special and unique in the support provided by incubators/accelerators,” he says.
Plus, traditionally, incubators/accelerators have relied heavily on person-driven mentoring. Given the virtual and just-in-time mode of learning and doing, startups feel that many of their issues can be addressed by referring to lessons of others (case studies) and self-directed tools and templates that keep them moving ahead.
“Individual learning, analytics, and AI-based recommendation engines are the new areas of focus. Wadhwani VFT aims to offer solutions to solve these needs of the ecosystem.”
Selection criteria, tech platform, and more
Since Wadhwani VFT works with both incubators/accelerators and startups, the selection criteria cover various dimensions:
- For incubators/accelerators: Wadhwani VFT works with select institutions that have a minimum team of dedicated professionals to run the show. Typically, this includes a CEO, startup success manager, and a marketing/outreach person. These institutions must also have some experience of supporting startups and at least three years of financial viability/visibility. The team must show commitment to improve and incorporate the platform into their operations.
- For startups: The founder’s commitment to the venture (early or growth-stage) is vital, as is an initial team of at least two co-founders. Also, their product/service/MVP must be validated and well-differentiated in the marketplace, addressing the needs of many (paying) customers. From a behavioural perspective, the founding team must be open to feedback and malleable enough while being true to their mission.
“For early-stage startups, we don’t have any revenue criteria; however, for growth-stage startups, we wish to select ventures with at least a Rs 1 crore in annual revenues,” Ajay says.
Wadhwani Venture Fastrack (VFT) also offers startups with the required toolkit, funding evaluation global networks, and learning assets through its AI-enabled technology platform, without any equity dilution or fees. This also helps incubators/accelerators to guide startups on their launch/growth journey with clarity. The platform enables them to know their strengths, areas of improvement, and progress status in real-time.
“VFT is working to improve startup success rates from the current dismal 10-20 percent by leveraging past learnings and building communities of support for founding teams,” Ajay says.
As part of its offerings, Wadhwani VFT provides incubators with intensive five-day training, helping them to understand their key capabilities, making money, selecting startups, building curriculums to make startups investment-ready among others.
At present, Wadhwani VFT is running a programme called iCrest. In partnership with Atal Innovation Mission and supported by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the AIM iCREST program is a growth hack for incubators as they strive to reach higher levels of success metrics. Through this, the Venture Fastrack team will upskill and train 65+ Atal Incubation Centres and 500+ startups.
Building trust in an Atmanirbhar Bharat
The opportunities for India’s tech startups are immense, and Ajay believes that “Atmanirbhar Bharat” must be lived in letter and spirit. The startups must innovate for India, build in India, and offer to the world while bringing more women and rural youth into the fold of job creation and entrepreneurship.
“India’s chronic and large-scale problems of health, education, environment, and social exclusion must be the focus of innovation in startups. Once Indian startups find viable solutions to these issues, they must actively share them with the rest of the world/emerging nations where similar socio-economic challenges exist,” he says.
Wadhwani VFT aims to work with incubators/accelerators globally to help build their capacity to deliver better startup success rates.
Over the next couple of years, the team hopes to certify over 100 incubators/accelerators across the world. The ultimate aim? To help startups improve their revenues, raise funds – aka “demonstrate success”.
While incubator/accelerator enablement is at the heart of its offerings, Wadhwani Venture Fastrack also supports a small number of startups directly under its Direct-to-Startup programme.
In 2021, they are planning to select and work with about 100 startups to support them in their growth journey and build content and technology innovations that add value – which can then be scaled-up through incubators/accelerators.
“We are also revamping and enhancing our AI-based technology platform to create the ‘go-to-place’ for supporting startups. We plan to make it available to ecosystem stakeholders so that learning, digital mentoring, and e-connections become available to all, 24x7x365,” Ajay says.