'There are very specific bottlenecks in the Indian startup sector that need to be resolved.'

In conversation with Sijo Kuruvilla George, the Executive Director of ADIF, about his role at ADIF, the Indus Valley ecosystem, and more.

When Sijo Kuruvilla George started his first venture while in high school in Calicut – buying books and then lending them out at a nominal fee of about Rs 5 each – he wasn’t even familiar with the term ‘entrepreneurship.’

From there, he went on to gain a wealth of experience as an entrepreneur. He was a part of the founding team at MobME, one of India’s most exciting and innovative mobile internet companies, right after completing his undergraduate studies at the College of Engineering in Trivandrum in 2005.

Post his one year of management studies at the Great Lakes Institute of Management in Chennai, he joined Startup Village, India’s first PPP Technology Business Incubator, as the founding CEO in 2012 – at a time when Kerala wasn’t known as the land of entrepreneurship.

Just two years from then, Startup Village had over 10,000 applications coming in. They had over 1000 startups who were part of their various programs, 250+ student teams, and 147+ teams that were physically incubated there. Moreover, the work done by Startup Village became a catalyst for Kerala to release a startup policy for the state.

Today, he was appointed the Executive Director of the Alliance of Digital India Foundation (ADIF) to set the strategic roadmap for the organisation. At its core, ADIF aims to bring together founders and startups that are vested in the success of Digital India, and as the ED, George will help drive this collaboration and lead the alliance.

Here we talk to Sijo about his entrepreneurial journey, the importance of entrepreneurship in India, the challenges facing the Indus Valley ecosystem, and more.

How did you become associated with ADIF?

ADIF was created in October 2020, and upon learning about the organization, I was curious and excited about its scope and the impact it could have on the startup ecosystem. I continued to follow the developments, and incidentally, Ritesh Malik – one of the founding members of ADIF – reached out to me for this role. Ritesh and I have known each other from Startup Village days. As an angel investor, his first 10 checks happened to be to companies that are a part of Startup Village.

Sairee Chahal’s association also played a role, I have also known her for a while and why I took this leap of faith. My conversation with the founding team began around November/December and it was only around March that I took the decision to come on board.

What will you be bringing to the table?

What I’ll really be able to bring to the table is a lot of energy and enthusiasm, and a lot of optimism for the sector. 

All of us associated with ADIF have been beneficiaries of the startup ecosystem, so we are extremely bullish about the promise this sector holds for the country. But all of us equally believe that we have only scratched the surface and there's a lot more to come. And all of us equally feel responsible to continue to contribute and give back to the ecosystem.

What are your responsibilities at ADIF?

I think my biggest role is to set the strategic roadmap for the organisation. What we really have at this point is the intent and the recognition of the need to contribute to developing the Indian startup ecosystem. 

The roadmap of how we should go about creating this hasn’t been put in place as yet, and that is one of the primary responsibilities that I have taken on. Further, I’ll be rallying around the key players in the ecosystem – right from the unicorn founders to all others in the ecosystem – jointly developing a roadmap.

At this point, building that alliance together and giving a voice to the startups in the ecosystem will be my biggest mandate.

I'm super excited about what ADIF could really contribute to the ecosystem and what the organisation can transform itself into. 

What is ADIF’s central mission?

Over the last 10-15 years, I've been involved in the startup sector in various capacities and have personally seen the evolution of the startup journey. A lot of developments are happening that signal the early signs of maturity. Now some of the founders or key employees have started making wealth or startup assets, and they, in turn, have become angel investors – a critical inflexion point for any startup ecosystem.

If you go by numbers, there are over 50 unicorns in the country and we are currently the third-largest ecosystem in the world. Now that we have cracked the first part of the puzzle and gotten the numbers in place, we at ADIF have a brilliant opportunity to catapult it into one of the best startup ecosystems in the world.

How we make India into one of the best startup ecosystems in the world is our central mission.

Furthermore, traditionally we have had access to Silicon Valley literature, but the way Indian founders have driven their startups has been based on a very different playbook – this literature is more suited to the Indian or any emerging startup ecosystem. We have created a lot of knowledge among ourselves on how to look at an alternate model of entrepreneurship and wealth creation. At ADIF, we will compile this knowledge and take it to our young entrepreneurs.

Also, if we have to craft one of the best ecosystems, favourable policies will play a crucial role. That’s also where ADIF will be focusing on.

What was your first foray into startups?

In high school, I used to buy books and lend them out at a nominal fee of Re 1 to Rs 5 per book. That was my first hand at entrepreneurship, and back then I didn’t even know it was called entrepreneurship.

While in college in Trivandrum, I noticed that students were using prepaid coupons for calling. They cost Rs 100 per coupon and if you bought them in bulk, you could get 1-2 free. So on Saturdays I would go to the BSNL office on my bike and pick up 10 coupons at a go. The free ones I kept for my calling, and the rest I used to resell.

With the increase in mobile phones, coupon usage dipped. But then I realised that mobiles also have something called a dealer sim – one that helps you recharge for others. Eventually, that converged into doing a customized sim sort of a program with BPL. We used to get the sim for Rs 30-40 and sell it for Rs 500. That generated reasonable success and money.

That was my first foray into the mobile space.

Then with the help of my college junior, Sanjay Vijayakumar, we moved into mobile marketing campaigns for movies and eventually stumbled into mobile value-added services and started MobME.

At its peak, MobME was clocking about Rs 30 crores in revenue at about more than 50% profit margin. We were consistently rated by NASSCOM as the most innovative company in that particular category.

How did Startup Village come about?

It was actually a project under MobME. We were a student startup at the Technopark incubator Trivandrum, but the place wasn’t designed for students. They gave us office space, but even the subsidized rent – around Rs 8,000 per month – was too high for us.

The gentleman who was heading the initiative there took it upon himself to actually clear things out for us and accommodate us again and again. He further cut down our rent to around Rs 2,000, and even said that we could pay the money later.

A lot of the policies at the incubator were thus changed to enable and support us.

We also started getting a lot of attention in Kerala during that time as young entrepreneurs, which acted as a trigger to inspire a lot of youngsters to set up startups of their own and we helped students fast track their journey. We also helped them in terms of guidance or even access and connect.

In the process, we began advocating that the critical bottlenecks for student startups were access technology and exposure. We even wrote a proposal to the Kerala government to request setting up an Innovation Zone – which is like a technology playground.

After getting connected to the head of the Department of Science & Technology, Harkesh Mittal, who heads the incubation program in the country, we were advised to enter into a public-private partnership. So through a partnership from Technopark and DST, Startup Village was born and I took charge as the founding CEO.

What were some of the highlights while you were at Startup Village?

Highlights were the kind of impact we managed to have on the state – in terms of the cultural impact, changing the outlook towards entrepreneurship and startups in the state and making the sector more accessible and aspirational for the youth.

When we announced the incubator, the applications were barely trickling in – about a 10 per month. But 3-6 months down the line, we started getting 20-30 applications a month.

By 2014, we had around 200-300 applications coming in month on month. So cumulatively, we had more than 10,000 applications coming in. We had more than 1000 startups who were a part of our various programs, 250+ student teams, and 147+ teams were physically incubated with us. The state also came out with a startup policy for the state – we literally helped create that. 

Kerala was the first state to come out with a start-up policy. Now almost every state has that.

We were awarded the best incubator in the country in a span of two years.

What is the importance of entrepreneurship in our country?

Let me wear a more contemporary hat in terms of why entrepreneurs are important. Today, we are an aspirational generation. For the middle-class, entrepreneurship is the way for really taking potential higher in terms of contributing to the country. That is the next logical step for that particular segment of the audience.

Even from a socio-cultural perspective, we keep talking about the demographic dividend of the country, saying that we have the largest youth working population. I think this might become a liability for us if we don't figure out a way to actually create enough jobs and industries to ensure gainful employment.

And there’s another very India-unique phenomenon. A lot of the services are traditionally getting delivered by entrepreneurs in the country. So India is a country where even the basic delivery may need the power of entrepreneurship.

I think the power and the need for entrepreneurship are extremely high and we should keep talking more about the aspirational parts of it.

We are no longer just doing outsourced work. Entrepreneurs are now aspiring to create brands from India. And some of these Indian solutions are also getting to the world as well. The Cowin platform we adopted might be the most suited for more emerging markets. If you look at UPI, it’s an India-unique thing. We are getting to the point where we aspire to be able to provide products or services to the world. 

Amanat Khullar is the Content and Editorial Manager at ADIF.

Join the Alliance of Digital India to become a part of our journey to grow India’s startup ecosystem.