Asar Dhandala is just 19 but already an entrepreneur. Just one year into his gaming start-up, he has produced four video games.
Of these, two are available on all three mobile operating systems—Microsoft Corp.’s Windows Phone, Apple Inc.’s iOS and Google Inc.’s Android.
Dhandala attributes his success to the help he received as a “student partner” of Microsoft when he was in his first year in college. The programme helps students get access to, and experiment with, software.
“They (Microsoft) give you around Rs.15 lakh worth of software to build the tech start-up,” said Hyderabad-based Dhandala, adding the company also “connects you to right people for further guidance” to understand other aspects of building a start-up such as marketing and fund-raising.
Microsoft allows the entrepreneurs to release all the apps they develop on the Windows platform for free.
One of Dhandala’s video games earned him Rs.60,000.
Microsoft also trained Sangeetha Sukramani, a school teacher in Delhi, to integrate technology into the classroom. According to Sukramani, the company has created a network for lakhs of teachers in India and abroad to share their learning, teaching and exchange ideas.
Microsoft runs several such programmes. They range from training students and teachers in schools, to helping colleges set up innovation centres, helping youngsters start companies and even assisting late stage start-ups to scale up.
“We have four types of targets—students, developers, IT professionals and start-ups,” said Joseph Landes, general manager, developer and platform evangelism at Microsoft India. “Students are the IT professionals of tomorrow. So, from a Microsoft point of view, it’s an incredibly broad and deep ecosystem,” he added.
The company partners with educational institutions and universities to achieve its objectives.
Indore-based Oriental University is one of 43 institutions where Microsoft has set up innovation centres to help students toy with new ideas and come up with workable solutions. Microsoft plans to have 75 such innovation centres across India by the end of this year.
According to Dhruva Ghai, dean technology and engineering at Oriental University, “It’s like an incubation centre”. Ghai said his students experiment on different business models that they are interested in and have successfully developed over 50 apps and games within a year. “The best part is (that) there is Microsoft hand-holding in terms of software and business guidance.”
GL Bajaj Institute of Technology and Management in Greater Noida, too, has a Microsoft innovation centre, which is open even to outside students and young start-ups. By the time they complete studies, students “have an entrepreneurial mindset and experience to work in any innovative environment,” said Pankaj Agarwal, the institute’s vice-chairman.
The company also has a programme called Microsoft Virtual Academy which provides hundreds of hours of learning and teaching for free. IT professionals, developers, students and start-ups can make use of it as an open source learning platform.
As part of its EdVantage programme, Microsoft signs agreements with colleges and universities, which assure the company of providing “Microsoft certification” courses. Institutions have to purchase around 300 vouchers for various Microsoft certifications for Rs.10,000 each.
Oriental University has already certified some 300 students in Microsoft certification, professor Ghai said, adding even though they have to pay the company in advance, the cost of such courses is subsidized for partners.
Besides, Microsoft connects students to companies with the help of myfootinthedoor.com, a career portal.
“Students can apply and get matched to the job posted by various companies. Microsoft promises that it will help connect 250 students for internship and 100 for jobs every year,” said Ghai, however, adding it does not mean guaranteed jobs.
The potential is huge. The Indian education market is forecast to be worth Rs.5.9 trillion in 2014-15 as against Rs.3.33 trillion in 2011-12, according to India Ratings and Research Pvt. Ltd, a part of the Fitch Group.
“Education and start-ups both are promising areas. For the start-up community, Microsoft has two strategic objectives—first, as many independent software vendors (ISVs) are coming up, Microsoft is keen to partner with them so that they develop products on Windows platform. Second, this community in itself is a market for Microsoft for its mobility and cloud platforms,” said Jaideep Mehta, vice-president and country general manager at International Data Corp. India.
Though education is one of the fastest-growing sectors, traditionally, it has not been heavy in terms of IT consumption, he said. “But, since the last two years, we have seen the IT consumption growing in the sector, as schools and institutions have started using mobile platforms for learning and teaching,” Mehta said.
According to Mehta, the education sector is again a market for Microsoft, through which it can proliferate its mobile platform.
Vishal Tripathi, principal research analyst at Gartner Inc., too, believes the education sector has been one of the most under-penetrated sectors in terms of technology consumption, and focusing on this sector, will help technology companies create future clients.
“This is a way to tap the demography or youth in India in order to engage them with the company. Also, this sector can give technology companies large volumes that can drive future growth,” said Tripathi.
He added that a company like Microsoft has deep pockets, but it is not investing in just any other start-up. “It is primarily looking to invest in innovative start-ups which help solve business problems. The company is making investments from an investor’s or a venture capital’s perspective, so that when they succeed, the company can get mileage out of it.”
“We are a business,” agreed Landes, adding, “at the end of the day, we would like more people to use Microsoft products. Inevitably, if people continue to use Microsoft products, they will at some point buy our products. But they will buy only if they see value in it.”
For instance, the company’s DreamSpark programme, which supports technical education by providing access to Microsoft software for learning, teaching and research purposes, has seen 12 million downloads. Under Microsoft BizSpark, it has supported over 4,000 entry level start-ups in India.
Similarly, the Accelerator programme by Microsoft Ventures is a strategic partner to over 50 promising late-stage start-ups. Apart from the state-of-the-art workspace and access to Microsoft technology and technology mentors, each Accelerator batch goes through a rigorous, intense and structured four-month programme.
Microsoft and industry mentors provide start-ups with hands-on expertise in critical areas like technology architecture, user experience, product road map, business model development and connections with early adapters.
Each start-up pursues three tracks simultaneously—customer development, product development and deepening market traction. The Accelerator team tracks their progress every week, and shares the report with mentors who provide them feedback.
Abhijit Gupta, chief executive of Praxify.com, an integrated healthcare start-up, said though he was “little apprehensive” about associating with Microsoft initially, he “realized that one can gain from several touch points—software, mentors, connects, place to work, solution architecture, access to venture capital funds, etc.”
However, while association with Microsoft builds the credentials of a young company, it’s up to the entrepreneur to leverage the benefit at hand.
“What they are doing is creating a culture of entrepreneurship, embedding entrepreneurial values. (Also) in a way, opening a subtle way to use (their) technology,” Gupta said, adding that though most of his work happens over the iOS platform, “we may use the Windows platform in future if it gains further popularity.”
Mumbai-based Prasad Rajappan, who has joined the Accelerator programme, said more than any help, Microsoft allows each of them to complement and supplement other start-ups in the group.
For example, Rajappan’s human resources (HR) solution company is getting help from Praxify to get clients. “We offer the patient health application and another is trying to give complete HR service to corporate employees. We can help grow each others’ business,” said Rajappan.
Microsoft, he added, also helps them in hiring and connecting with new customers. “What they did is help focus from the product to the customer. Scalability is a key factor…the growth that we got in five months is what we were thinking of getting in 18 months,” Rajappan said.
In the last five months, Microsoft linked Rajappan to around 500 probable clients, of which at least 60 became clients.
The association also helps in raising funds. “Once you are part of the Microsoft (programmes), the due diligence is over for some VC funds and getting funds becomes relatively easier,” Rajappan said.
Ravi Narayan, director, Microsoft Ventures in India, said: “These are innovative business opportunities,” adding it is “adopting an activist approach” in mentoring them. “We can have a strategic alliance in future with these start-ups. When a company comes to us, sometimes, 99% solutions are with us and some of these start-ups can chip in (for the rest 1%)—these are future opportunities. They can be our partners.”
He clarified that Microsoft does not fund Indian starts-ups but “the situation may change soon, and like venture funds, we can start funding quality start-ups”.
Technology companies like Intel Inc., International Business Machines Corp., Adobe Inc. and Cisco Systems Inc. have similar programmes, though none of them are as comprehensive as Microsoft’s.
Intel, the world’s largest chip maker, has a portfolio of programmes ranging from digital access to promoting quality learning and advancing innovation and entrepreneurship among students and teachers.
IBM, through its Career Education Program, partners with colleges and universities to hone students and teachers’ industry-relevant software capabilities.
Adobe Volume Licensing offers subscription options to meet the needs of educators, staff, and students in primary and secondary schools, as well as higher education institutions, according to its official website. It also gives discounts on some education software to the education sector.
Cisco Systems, on its part, promotes the use of technology tools to promote virtual classrooms. According to its website, teachers from nearby cities use tools like projectors, routers and television screens to teach students in remote villages of India.