Dressed in casual faded jeans and T-shirts, 27-year-olds Shishir Kumar Gupta and Vishal Chandra are not atypical chief executives of high-tech start-ups. What makes them different is that their companies have been incubated at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi.
For years, the IITs at Chennai and Mumbai have been more visible examples of entrepreneurship. IIT Madras, for instance, has sprouted one of India’s most talked-about start-up groups, Tenet, from its electrical engineering and computer science departments with a range of products spanning wireless communications to low-cost automatic teller machines.
Mechartés Researchers Pvt. Ltd, founded by Shishir Kumar Gupta (extreme left) is one of the start-ups incubated by IIT Delhi
At IIT Bombay, a more recent entrant to entrepreneurship incubation, start-ups such as Webaroo, primed by Silicon Valley millionaires Rakesh Mathur and Beerud Seth, too, have had their share of the spotlight.
Webaroo offers consumers shrunk chunks of the Internet stored on hard disks oreven mobile devices allowing users access to the Webeven when offline, say, on a flight.
It’s IIT Delhi’s turn now, where Gupta’s Mechartés Researchers Pvt. Ltd, which optimizes ventilation and air circulation services in buildings and readies designs to make them shockproof in the event of an earthquake, and VirtualWire Technologies Pvt. Ltd, a wireless data company that Chandra leads, are attracting attention to an in-house tech incubation programme.
Both are part of what is called a Technology Business Incubation Unit at IIT Delhi.
The programme, running since 1999, typically allows young entrepreneurs to draw on the technical expertise at the IIT, research facilities and space, Internet, phone, fax and other facilities at subsidized costs for three years.
Also on offer is financial backing in the form of a seed loan of Rs15 lakh at a nominal 4% interest. In return, the institute requires a technology-based product or service that has the backing of a professor and a 5% equity stake.
At Mechartés, which uses its software to design air circulation systems in urban settings, Gupta’s team specializes in optimally placing fans and cooling systems to reduce costs and ensure air quality and human comfort.
The company is close to signing a joint venture agreement with Swedish ventilation company Systemair AB to take its services global. Other services offered include vibration and shock isolation technologies that prevent damage to tall buildings and bridges in, say, an earthquake or a bomb attack.
Revenues are not big at two-year-old Mechartés (it had revenues of Rs35 lakh in the year ended March), but its targets are ambitious. “This fiscal, we are expecting revenues of Rs1.25 crore,” says Gupta, who gave up an admission at the Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow, to start Mechartés after working in the auto industry for two years.
Chandra’s VirtualWire Technologies, which moved out of the IIT Delhi incubation programme, until this year had been focused on services for clients including the Indian Army, Shyam Telecom Ltd and state-owned Bharat Electronics Ltd, some of which work resulted in patents for its customers. Now, it wants to own such intellectual property.
A 30-member team at VirtualWire is gearing up for a September 2008 launch of its first so-called ultra-wide bandchip for short-range wireless applications for personal computers and laptops, which will, for instance, help stream video from a video player to a television set without cables.
The prototype will be ready for venture firms by the year-end; Chandra plans to present it as proof of concept ahead of a venture funding of up to $10 million (Rs39.6 crore) in April.
VirtualWire is the second successful start-up from IIT Delhi after Kritikal Solutions Pvt. Ltd, a firm into computer vision and image processing.
“Success begets success,” says K.K. Roy, technical and administrative manager of the incubation programme at the institute.
Occupancy at the incubation unit picked up after the success of Kritikal Solutions, which moved out of the unit in 2005. The programme has incubated 19 firms to date and currently hosts eight start-ups.
IIT Madras, which has seen some 20 companies emerge from its portals, sees the Mechartés and VirtualWire examples the beginning of a bigger trend.
“This is the right approach. These (incubation) units will see some very successful companies in years to come, but they require a combination of both technology and business,” says Ashok Jhunjhunwala, professor of the department of electrical engineering, at IIT Madras, on email.