Giving Wings To Innovation & Startups Dare To Dream, Dream To Dare

Ramanan Ramanathan,Mission Director

Ramanan Ramanathan

Mission Director

The world is undergoing a dramatic reshuffling in its economic order. The most innovative nation will emerge as the winner. While India is also in this race, innovation-fuelled ecosystem is still at its very nascent stage. In the Global Innovation Index 2019, our country ranked 52nd. Though we jumped five spots from 2018, we still have a long way to go. But despite being the youngest nation of the world, why do we lack in innovation?

It is because innovation-based ecosystem is absent in the ground level. School, colleges and universities still believe in the rote learning method, and our students are first introduced to innovation when they enter IITs or an entrepreneur cell or incubation centre. Grooming ideas and nurturing them since childhood is the only solution. Just like corporates, schools too need to provide a platform to their students to experiment and fail.

Ramanan Ramanathan, Mission Director, Atal Innovation Mission (AIM) too seconds my thought. Being the director of AIM, Ramanan has been instrumental in driving an innovation-based ecosystem right from the school level through to becoming an entrepreneur. I discussed with him more to know more about the contribution of AIM in enabling `innovation' ecosystem within the country and its contribution towards empowering women entrepreneurs in the nation.

What according to you is the definition of `Innovation' in today's context?
Let me go back to the need of innovation and entrepreneurship in India. As you rightly pointed out that India has not been at the forefront of innovation and entrepreneurship. But since the last couple of years, the Government of India has been taking tremendous interest and there is a very good reason for it. Indians have excelled wherever they have gone; engineers, scientists, doctors, philosophers, artists, you name it and we are there.

But whenever they have access to an innovative eco-system which enables them to realize their full potential, especial the creative side, they rise to the highest level. Our best examples are Satya Nadela, Sunder Pichai, and many more who are ruling the global multinational organizations. Clearly, it's the ecosystem that makes the whole difference. Our government and corporates have realized this gap across various levels. We know that a major chunk of our graduates are unemployable, but unless you create an innovative mindset and a culture of innovation, and familiarize people that innovation is all about looking at a problem which has not been solved or can be solved using better methods, we cannot inculcate a problem solving and innovative mindset. So the very first step to innovation is identifying the problem.

You very rightly said that. But how is AIM helping India achieve this mission of innovation?
India is a beautiful country and the demographic dividend we have is a great pride. About 65 percent of our population is less than 35 years of age and we have 1.4 mil-lion schools and 10,500 engineering institutions, 39,000 colleges and 150 million students entering into the work in the next five years. So how are we going to harness this useful energy with the purpose of driving economic growth of the country with a socio-economic point of view is of our prime importance. But unless you create a nation of job creators rather than job seekers, you are not going to create a positive impact on 1.3 billion people of our country.

To do that, we need people to embrace innovation and wear entrepreneurship hat to take up challenge heads on. The existing companies alone will not be able to feed the influx of 150 million students entering the job market, and you don't want the demographic dividend to become demographic nightmare. So considering all these points, GoI said `how do we drive innovation and entrepreneur- ship across the country'. And hence AIM was formed with two purposes ­ creating innovative mindset right from the school level, and having a job creator attitude. The result will be a student who knows the challenges and opportunities of the industry when they enter it. This will also help boost our startup ecosystem.

How do we achieve this? Through our five initiatives ­ Atal Tinkering Labs (ATL), Atal Tinkering Marathon (ATM), Atal Community Innovation Centre (ACIC), Atal Incubators and Atal New Challenges. We have launched thousands of ATL across the country, which are dedicated innovation work spaces. Under this, we give a grant of Rs.20 lakh to the select schools over a period of five years to set up state-of-the-art labs, 3D printer, robotics, IoT devices, miniature devices, augmented virtual reality, do-it-yourself kit and more. The young students from grade six to 12 get exposed to new technologies through do-it-yourself kit which is a plug and play kit. While you quickly learn, you have an element of fun too. We do not impose any marks or grades. Students just come and create innovation, and we recognize those innovative talents while schools reward them. It is hear that students start applying their education concepts in real life to solve problems they see around them.

Different teams of four-five students are formed who identify the problems from the 17 sustainable goals and find solutions to fix them. Till date we have selected over 14,000 schools across the country covering 660 districts out of 733 in the country. 5,000 of these 14,000 schools have fully operational ATL.

On the one hand, Atal Incubators fosters world-class startups by nurturing entrepreneurs & startups at University & Institutional levels, while Atal New India Challenges foster product innovation and creation of startups/MSME industries having national socio-economic impact.

How do you select the schools, Ramanan? And what about the schools who do not qualify for ATL? How do they get access to ATL?
We do not pick any school, but schools have to apply for it. To apply, they should meet our minimum criteria ­ internet connectivity, physics, chemistry & math labs, an ATL in charge, and minimum 500 students. This ensures that the ATL doesn't just become an ornament for the school, rather emerges as an active, vibrant hub for innovation and student participation. Today we have close to two and a half million students exposed to all the latest technologies, which we as students never had access to while studying.

Coming to your next question about the schools who do
not qualify. Our model is that the schools having ATL need to share the facility with eight-10 surrounding schools of the area.

But how do you stimulate innovation culture? I mean you need to throw challenges beyond their imagination to inculcate this habit.

Yes, very true! And that is why we have launched whole lot of challenges for the children at various levels. We encourage schools and the dedicated ATL in charge to launch challenges mostly based on problems surrounding them. This encourages group thinking, creative thinking, team work which is a 21st century skill, critical thinking, and design thinking. We have also created various online modules for students to directly access them, and even teachers can use them for teaching.

At the national level, we run ATM, which stimulate the way children respond to the challenges we give them. Out of the students participating, we select top 200 innovative teams and expose them to higher level of innovation called Student Innovation Programs, which we run with our partners like IBM, Google, Microsoft, and others who have volunteered to run this program in their centres. Even several of our incubation centres too run this pro-gram so that students get higher exposure to what goes from innovation to actual product creation. The crème dula crème of these innovations will go through a Student Entrepreneurship Program.

But unless you create a nation of job creators rather than job seekers, you are not going to create a positive impact on 1.3 billion people of our country

As these programs are for school students, we organize them during vacation, and after school hours where they get the chance to convert their product into actual marketable products. We can proudly say that out of all our ATLs, we have got 16 startups from the school itself and their products are even available on the big e-Commerce platforms.

We have also established a process and brought a new dimension of student innovation exchange program between the countries. Our collaboration with SIRIUS (Russia's Educational Centre), who run a program for highly talented students, is one of them where our 25 students went to Russia for five-six weeks to do joint co-innovation. We have similar collaboration with Singapore, and such programs.

That is really great! AIM also works towards creating a startup culture. Can you highlight more on this?
We have launched world-class incubators at university level to foster world-class startups. Our government provides a grant of up to Rs.10 crore to the applicant, who could be from the universities, research institutions, private sectors or venture capital firms. The idea is that each incubation centre will foster 20-25 startups every two years.

Out of our 102 incubators launched, 70 are fully operational and more than 1500 startups have started operating through these centres. Our incubators provide crucial support like venture capital, mentoring, business planning, strategy, HR or even access to a lab support during various valleys of death that the startups experience during its lifecycle. This helps students to continue their innovation gravity even after completing their school and exercise the option of starting his own company. This will also change the job seeker attitude to job creator as it will spark their imagination and the fire in their belly.

“Aim is strongly working towards creating a self-reliant nation while also creating solutions for the rest of the world”

The government has identified 100 smart cities and we can make them the hub of innovation and job creation. We can establish two-three incubation centres in each of these cities which can foster startups. But we also need to make sure that the incubation centres are well run by experienced CEOs and have good expertise. To ensure this, we run Incubator Capacity Building program to upskill the people who run these centres and know what it means to run an incubator, how to run it and a startup, how to identify good startups, how do you ensure that you connect with the venture capital community and how do you expose the startups to business planning strategies. This is also a part of AIM beyond offering grants.

Nearly 70 percent of our population lives in non-tier-I cities and rural areas. We have over 600,000 villages and 733 districts out of which 115 are aspirational districts as they are still backward in terms of many parameters. We can bring a change to these districts only if our innovation reaches across all these villages. Hence we established ACIC and launched 24 centres as of now with plans to add 180 more community innovation centre across the country. ACIC will take our innovations to every corner of the country for community benefit.

Despite India being a startup nation, we see a huge gap between the number of male and female founders. Women are still uncomfortable wearing the entrepreneurial hat due to the huge discrepancies they face. How is AIM working towards eliminating any such gap?

That is true! India just has 13 percent women entrepreneurs. To bridge the gap, we need to take several measures, one of them being increasing enrollment of girls in schools and ensuring they complete their studies. Hence 70 percent of AIM Labs are established either in girls school or co-ed as we want to have special thrust on enabling girls to have access to highest levels of education. We feel proud to see that among the top 100 winners of Atal Tinkering Marathon, 33 percent are girls. It's an amazing find for us that girls have great ability to work in groups, ask the most relevant questions, are very communicative and detailed-oriented. Moving a step further, we also ensure that all the ATL in charge are led by women teachers as we want them to become the agents of change.

On the other hand, we encourage women-led incubators, and startups in our ecosystem. When setting incubation centres, the in charge needs to commit to encourage women-led startups and entrepreneurs. Thanks to this, we have over 500 women-led startups to be set up in AIM Incubators in just last two years.

What role is NITI Aayog playing in empowering women entrepreneurs?
NITI Aayog has established Women Entrepreneurship Platform (WEP) which encourages four categories of people to join the platform ­ budding women entrepreneurs & women-led startups, existing women-led startups and incubators, venture capitalists & investment firms interested in supporting women-led startpus, and international organizations like UN Global Compact & World Bank. Such combination of experts makes it an information exchange platform between budding entrepreneurs who want support and companies who are looking for solutions.

Also, almost every ministry of GoI have many schemes for women entrepreneurs. One of them being a challenge launched by My Gov only for women entrepreneurs for COVID-19 related services. Whoever wins will get a grant from the government for creating this idea into a proper product and the ministry will have the first right to purchase these products.

Is AIM joining hands with GoI in the COVID-19 solution search?
Yes. When GoI taskforce was searching for startup solutions, we identified and created a section under Startup India to encourage startups in preventive, assistive or curative solutions for COVID-19 to register their applications from which we will select few and support them in every aspect. We already have received 1500+ startup solutions including mask, ventilator, test kits, sanitizing solutions, health & hygiene solutions, contact tracing solutions, IoT or touchless devices and much more. We have shortlisted 100 solutions and are providing support they require including financial, manufacturing, supply chain management, regulatory and others. In partnership with FICCI, NASSCOM, CII and other corporate bodies, we run demo days for them to provide support to these short-listed startups.

On the other hand, COVID-19 has thrown open a huge opportunity for the startup world, and digital will be the one driving from front. Hence many startups have pivoted their solutions to post-COVID-19 world where a strong integration of digital technologies with solutions will be the answer.

How is AIM working with GoI towards Aatma Nirbhar Bharat?
The vision of AIM will be aligned to Aatma Nirbhar Bharat ­ the vision of our Prime Minister. He beautifully defined the five pillars for this ­ democratic dividend, infrastructure, demand, technology integration, and socio-economic growth.

To achieve this, we need social innovation along with economic growth as without addressing the societal challenges, it is worthless increasing the digital or the economic devices. AIM is strongly working towards creating a self-reliant nation while also creating solutions for the rest of the world.

This is a watershed moment in the history of our country where the power of the startup community is being realized by one and all. And hence the entire ecosystem has come together to realize the great need of innovation and entrepreneurship capabilities and to support startups. I think it is the right time for the startups to dare to dream and dream to dare.