Every first Sunday of the month, Chennai hosts the OpenCoffee Club meet—a casual gathering where entrepreneurs can get ‘start-up self-help’ over coffee. At the October forum, Rajat Bhadani, founder of BloggingSaurus, met Vamsee Kanakala, who started programming services company Viamentis Technologies Pvt. Ltd, and a match was made. Two weeks later, they were working out of Bhadani’s office to share costs and a work culture that welcomed all-nighters.
Brainstorming session: Entrepreneurs at an OpenCoffee Club meet at Chennai’s hip café, Amethyst, to discuss how to build ideas into thriving businesses.
The OpenCoffee Club forum was the most recent addition to Chennai’s rapidly growing events list for entrepreneurs. And it well represents the type of innovation hub that this city is striving to become: a proactive community with a more approachable vibe (than, say, Bangalore). Many say it is the place for garage start-ups, a term used for young start-ups that start with very basic facilities. Kolkata-born Bhadani, for example, returned from abroad last year to start a business. He was choosing between Chennai and Pune. He now shares his office with six others—five of whom are not from Chennai. UAE-born serial entrepreneur Vijay Anand, who chose to live in Chennai to get involved in its entrepreneurial environment, argues: “If a (Silicon) valley is coming up, it is either Chennai or Pune.” This city has cheaper rent, people who don’t job hop and a community geared towards the real freshman entrepreneur.”
In 2007, that community grew 10-fold when a group of entrepreneurs, who had formed the not-for-profit Knowledge Foundation in 2006, designed and executed unique events that attracted attention and put Chennai on the map as a force in India’s growing entrepreneurial ecosystem.
The year kicked off in January when Anand started technology-focused business showcase Proto.in, which has likely been the biggest event of its kind to emerge in India. The last event drew 350 attendees and the next (on Friday and Saturday) is likely to see more than 500 and will be sponsored by Google Inc. In February, local entrepreneur Kiruba Shankar held WikiCamp, which was a discussion about websites that allow anyone to contribute and was attended by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. In June, he put on PodWorks, where people talked about podcasts (audio or visual programmes that are consumed on the Internet or portable devices). And then in October he had a SearchCamp, which brought together entrepreneurs interested in Internet search engines. All three events saw an average of 300 attendees, with many others participating through interactive media.
There were other meets, too, across the year but these were the ones that were unique to Chennai or were the first to influence other cities. Proto will go national from July and travel city to city.
The OpenCoffee forum has caught on in Bangalore and Mumbai. In 2007, an entrepreneur could attend a minimum of one major event a month in Chennai compared with two in all of 2006. Yet, it might be 2008 that could actually make the city a centre of innovation in India.
Ashok Jhunjhunwala, who heads the Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai’s start-up incubator TeNeT (telecommunications and computer networking) group, plans to erect three university buildings totalling 1 million sq. ft. This park would bring together, as Jhunjhunwala says, “industry, faculty and youngsters who don’t know that it can’t be done” by 2010. The facility would be the home of joint research projects, policy initiatives, incubation and teaching. The first building is expected to be up by mid-2008 barring any government hurdles, and according to Anand, who works at TeNet, the space for corporate offices has been filled by the likes of Intel Corp. and Texas Instruments Inc.
Yet, even with these resources, it would still be unlikely that Chennai could quickly become India’s “Silicon Valley”. Bangalore continues to be the headquarter of choice for India’s and the world’s pioneering companies as well as venture capital (VC) firms. In addition, VC funds have only reached a handful of the city’s firms in the last couple of years.
Chennai-born entrepreneur Siddharta Govindaraj, who started the OpenCoffee Club, says, “I would still say Bangalore is in front.”
Yet, he and others say that change has just begun and the results will be seen in years to come. “In terms of ground-level support, a community type of thing like sharing an office and that kind of stuff, that happens here and not in Bangalore,” he adds.