In April this year, I got selected to become part of Kerala Startup Mission’s Technology Innovation Fellowship program (TIFP). Out of many who applied, twenty were selected from across Kerala.
We were the Third bath of fellows to join startup mission, since its inception. I applied for the program as I wanted to learn more about the startup ecosystem and to be around like-minded people. The opportunity that was before me was enormous.
When I tell people what my job at KSUM is, most of them have difficulty understanding it. In some ways, our jobs may be under defined, it’s not like a regular 9-5 job. But if I were to boil it down, my job would be to connect people. We are the liaison to the Government.
We joined on the 24th April for our week long induction program. The program was set to orient us in the direction KSUM was heading. We had talk sessions with a lot of people from varied backgrounds and also visited IEDCs in various colleges across Kerala. What follows is an account of the things I have learned from my interactions and the challenges we face in creating a Startup Ecosystem.
1. We can ease up on Evangelisation of Entrepreneurship.
Thanks to a lot of media coverage and sites like YourStory, most students have some idea what Entrepreneurship is. Now our main focus is not to spread the idea of startups but to try and bring as many people from the startup world together so that they can interact among themselves and share their knowledge and experience.
What the students need is a role model, someone they can look up to, someone they can relate with. They want to see that an ordinary guy like them can get into the startup world and be successful. Examples like Facebook and Apple have become cliched, and students can’t relate to them. We need stories of ordinary people like you and me, who are running their companies. We want to know what drives them, and what keeps them up at night.
Stories inspire people, and interactions help them relate to that person. Our aim as fellows would be to use our reach and bring together as many people as we can find in the startup ecosystem. We will accomplish this through, conferences, talk sessions, webinars and all means necessary.
Entrepreneurship has become a common word in our society these days, but few people really know what it means. Entrepreneurship is not about starting some unicorn company and moving to America. It’s about solving real world problems and making people’s lives better.
2. How to follow up on Programs/Workshops
We talked with a lot of IEDC nodal officers in many colleges across the state—and in some form or the other—I heard this common concern. There is no follow up on programs/workshops conducted for students. This seems to be a core problem. We can conduct as many workshops as we like, but if the students don’t follow up them, then is would all be for nothing.
Usually what happens is that the students participate in some Workshop/ Hackathons and over the course of the programme, they learn something about a new technology. But once it’s over, very few people follow-up on what they learn. Most of the programmes conducted for students have no follow-up mechanism.
In some cases, students come for certificates which they can put on their resumes, It’s really sad. This, I fear is the institutionalised mindset, that has been ingrained into students. That, whatever you do as a student, is to get a job in some good company.
Our challenge would be to break this tradition, put some more effort into creating programmes for students, which has some kind of follow-up mechanism. One or two-day workshops are good for spreading awareness, but they are not what we need in the long run.
We need a systematic programme, that addresses an individual’s needs and follows up on their work. Sounds a lot like a school doesn’t it? Which brings me to my next point.
3. How to bring the spirit of Entrepreneurship into
the curriculum Children’s lives.
I read in a book that, our educational system — in its entirety — was designed over a century ago to turn out educated and compliant factory workers. The more I look around, the more it seems to be true. There are certain things that our school system is good for, like teaching discipline, encouraging competition etc.
But our educational system has struggled to keep up with the changes in time. As any Darwinian would agree, It is not the fittest that survive, but the one most adaptable to change. Our educational system has a lot of inertia. It has been rolling for quite some time that, we cannot easily stop it or change its direction.
Taking that into consideration, what we want to do it is augment it. Slowly build a new system on top of the existing one until it completely replaces it. Easy to say, but very hard to do.
This point came across when we were talking with the previous batch of fellows. Our aim is not to make everyone start their own company. It might sound like a noble quest, but not an ideal one. Our aim is to make students ready to enter the startup ecosystem. What does this mean?
To enter into the corporate world, you need qualifications, but to enter the startup world, you need Skills. This is where it all boils down to. Students need skills. I doubt that many colleges provide students with skills they need to survive in the current economy. This should be our primary focus for now.
Students can learn their college curriculum, but they should also be given time to explore, to try different things and pick up new skills. So the question is how do we do that? How do we give enough time for students to pursue such skills, while still going through the rigours of formal education?
One answer would be to create an environment of competition. From my experience, I can tell that the students who take part in Workshops/Hackathons work really hard to win. They learn new things and learn to apply them to solve a problem. This is something we can tap into.
Kids are naturally curious, I love it when I talk with them, you can feel their potential for growth. All it takes is the right environment. I’m suggesting a method where we give real world problems as challenges to students and ask them to solve it. We will extend to them the resources they need.
The point is to make the kids become problem solvers. Once a person goes through such a task, he/she will be well equipped to handle more problems in the future.
I’m working on a method to implement this idea, where we give the governments problems as challenges to students. We will post these challenges for people to solve, and the best ideas to come forward will be given the support they need to implement it. I know there will be a lot of bureaucratic processes to get through before it gets implemented. I feel our government should be more open about its problems, lest they fear that it might be used against them.
4. How to Spread the knowledge of Digital Fabrication
Kerala startup mission has signed an MOU with MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, USA. With their help, KSUM has set up two Fablabs in the state. One in Technopark, Trivandrum and other in KTIZ, Kochi.
Fablabs are a technical prototyping platform that share core capabilities so that people and projects can be shared across them. They started as an outreach programme by MIT and have grown to over 1600 labs around the world. They serve as places where people can go and prototype their ideas and create their own technology.
“Fablabs enable you to do now, that which the personal fabricators of tomorrow can do in the future” — Neil Greshenfeld, Drirector of Center for Bits and Atoms.
I have written a previous article explaining what are fablabs and what you can do with them HERE.
I have been undergoing the fabacademy course for the past 5 months and I have learned a lot from the experience, plus I also got to make some pretty cool stuff along the way. The main thing that I have felt while going through fabacademy is a change in my perspective. No longer am I bound to the — one size fits all — commercial products. I can design and build almost anything. It is truly a great feeling, and you get a certain sense of accomplishment when you create something from scratch. But not many people know of this awesome opportunity they have, and I want to change that.
Our current focus is to bring the art of digital fabrication into Engineering colleges. We are in the process of setting up 20 Mini Fablabs in colleges across the state. They will have the same functionality as ordinary fablabs but in a smaller format. There is also a plan to conduct the fabacademy course as a two-year programme for colleges students. This I believe is a good initiative. Now students get to learn how to apply what they have learned in their curriculum. but still, a challenge remains. How to get students from Arts and Science background interested in Digital Fabrication?
This challenge requires a bit more research to find a suitable method in which we can approach the problem. Fablabs are not just for engineers, it also a place where Artists can come and work as well. Few people know what fablabs are capable of and I intend to change that.
5. How to bring it all together? The Startup Ecosystem
KSUM already has a lot of great initiatives like Learning to code, Startup Bootcamp etc. But what we are aiming for is the formation of a startup ecosystem in Kerala. This is our mission. We need to bring together these independent events and make them part of an ecosystem.
Why do we need an ecosystem? It’s because of a simple index that India lags in, The Ease of Doing Business. We rank 130 on that list. India is a tough economy for starting your business and our aim through the formation of an ecosystem is to reduce the barrier for entry of people into the startup world.
I’m sure a lot of smaller communities are present now, so the challenge would be how to bring them all together? This will be something we will be working on quite a lot.
It is no longer enough that people know about Entrepreneurship, they must be shown a way to it. We need to bring about more interaction between the people inside the startup community and the ones outside. These interactions will help People find role models they can relate with.
Workshops/Hackathons are good for bringing awareness but focus must be given to creating a follow-up mechanism for these kinds of programs for students.
Our aim is not to make everyone start their own company, it is to make them ready to enter the startup ecosystem. To enter into the corporate world, you need qualifications, but to enter the startup world, you need Skills. Hence we need to bring more skill-based programs for students in colleges. We can do that by providing a challenging environment for students so that they can work on improving their skills.
I suggest a way by which, we should let students bring solutions to the government’s problems. Give them challenges to work on and provide them with support, stand back and be surprised.
Digital Fabrication is an art, that can be learned by anyone. I want people to embrace this opportunity and learn to be creators. Be the makers of your own technology. If what you build is good, build them for others as well.
The creation of a startup ecosystem will be the culmination of our efforts. We will work to bring together men and machines to make that happen.
This, I believe is the way forward.
I’m open to suggestions on all that I have shared. I want as many minds to work on this as possible.
I’m grateful to be a part of KSUM’s activities and I hope to accomplish many things. You can reach out to me anytime.
mail me at [email protected]