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How startups changed Thiruvananthapuram

(Left) Martijn Van Der Spek, founder of Sparkling Apps, lives in Thiruvananthapuram. Compared to Bengaluru or Chennai, the city is cleaner, he said. (Right) Ofori, a nightclub in the city, is fully packed almost every evening.  (Photo: Vivek R Nair/Mint )
(Left) Martijn Van Der Spek, founder of Sparkling Apps, lives in Thiruvananthapuram. Compared to Bengaluru or Chennai, the city is cleaner, he said. (Right) Ofori, a nightclub in the city, is fully packed almost every evening. (Photo: Vivek R Nair/Mint )

Summary

  • The city’s growing tech ecosystem is creating jobs while redefining its physical and cultural landscape
  • Thiruvananthapuram has undergone a remarkable transformation as a hub for entrepreneurship. The city is home to 3,500 startups, according to estimates

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM : More than 30 years ago, Martijn Van Der Spek arrived in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala’s capital city, for a short stint as a student from The Netherlands. He came back again as an employee of a Dutch company 22 years ago, drawn by the promise of the Technopark, a large technology park that started in 1995. The park has now expanded to accommodate more than 200 companies and employs a large portion of the IT workforce in Kerala.

Spek, meanwhile, founded his own company in the city in 2011. The company, Sparkling Apps, develops apps and websites.

His journey, from being a foreign student to a successful entrepreneur, mirrors the city’s evolution. When he was a student, he grappled with being seen as an eccentric foreigner wherever he went. His Dutch surname was a challenge for the locals to pronounce. He missed his European friends and faced the challenge of importing necessary goods.

Now, three minutes from his house, he can be sitting in a nice bar chatting with his friends, or in an IMAX theatre, enjoying the latest Hollywood film, or in a giant mall, where he has access to a wider range of global products.

His biggest pride? Recounting his daughter’s experiences at a plush Thiruvananthapuram school. She engages with a multicultural society, interacting with peers from Spain, Japan, Korea, and many students from the US. The school provides her cutting-edge exposure, with offerings like 3D printing and artificial intelligence. She even enjoyed the experience of attending a prom night a few weeks ago, showcasing the city’s evolving culture.

The experience signifies a quiet revolution. Amid the towering coconut trees and sun-drenched landscapes, Thiruvananthapuram has undergone a remarkable transformation, emerging as a hub for innovation and entrepreneurship in recent years. The startup bug has spread to many smaller Indian cities but Thiruvananthapuram was one of the earliest in the tier-2 space to catch it. From Coimbatore to Jaipur, from Visakhapatnam to Ahmedabad, tier-2 cities are now nurturing startups that have the potential to make a national impact. It is not only bringing economic growth and job creation, but if Thiruvananthapuram is any indicator, is also redefining their physical and cultural landscape.

Busy corridor

Thiruvananthapuram, which is otherwise known for its natural beauty and government-centric economy, today hosts an officially estimated 3,500 startups. With a track record of successful exits and a growing number of startups attracting funding, the city is increasingly seen as a promising investment destination, said Robin Alex Panicker, partner at Unicorn India Ventures, a venture capital (VC) fund.

Unicorn was one of the early investors in Genrobotic Innovations, which developed a sewer-cleaning robot, Bandicoot. These robots are now deployed in 17 Indian states. The likes of Anand Mahindra, the chairman of Mahindra Group, and Rajan Anandan, the managing director of Sequoia Capital India, have invested in the company.

Kerala attracted about $250 million in startup investments in 2022. According to Panicker, a large portion of this capital went to startups based in Thiruvananthapuram, demonstrating investor confidence and interest in the region. This infusion of capital has fuelled innovation, infrastructure development and job creation.

“The startups here have a unique advantage. They combine technological expertise with a deep understanding of local challenges, creating solutions that have a broader societal impact," he said.

The city was once considered a quiet town with limited commercial activity, while Kochi took the spotlight as Kerala’s commercial hub. What was pivotal to the change is perhaps the government establishing the special economic zone (Technopark) and a nodal agency called the Kerala Startup Mission in the first decade of this millennium.

The long stretch that spans from the Technopark to the city’s airport has now become a clear IT-startup corridor. It has nearly run out of office space and is extending beyond to the neighbouring town of Attingal.

There is a big queue of hundred plus companies asking for space in the two large complexes of Technopark, which total about 300 acres. A third complex, another 100 acres, is yet to open. But it has nearly been fully leased out.

International financial services provider Allianz Group alone has leased 4.63 lakh sq ft in the third building—it became one of the largest single office lease transactions booked in the country in 2022. The Kerala Startup Mission, on the other hand, was recently recognized as one of the best emerging startup ecosystems in the world by a Sweden-based association.

In recent years, the startup ecosystem has witnessed a significant shift. The focus has expanded beyond motivation to providing tangible support and mentoring. Chief executive officers (CEOs) and industry veterans have taken an interest in developing the ecosystem.

Sreekumar V, the Kerala head of Tata Elxsi, a major midcap IT firm, and the secretary of industry body GTech (abbreviated for Group of Technology Companies), explained this interest through a recent incident.

He is part of a WhatsApp group that has many CEOs. Someone posted an invite for an investment summit in the US, one that promised to connect startups with opportunities in the US market. But, a business visa to the US isn’t easy these days—the average waiting period is reportedly a year or more.

The CEOs then reached out to the Startup Mission; and the Mission’s officials, in turn, liaised with the US Consulate. Ultimately, about 18 CEOs from the Technopark got their visas processed without interviews, all in a month.

The incident underlines a camaraderie within the ecosystem. The company heads and senior officials are all a phone call away, stressed Sreekumar.

“When the IT secretary comes into our campuses, or we go to his office, there is no advance appointment needed. Those kinds of barriers have already been removed over the last four or five years," said Sreekumar.

Small vs Big

Genrobotic is the most well-known of new-age startups in the city. But there are plenty of other success stories.

CareStack, a dental practice management software startup, is one of them. The company reportedly raised more than $50 million last year, opened a second office in the US, and announced a strategic tie-up with the Straumann Group, the world’s leading manufacturer of dental implants and devices.

They initially operated exclusively in the city for seven years before expanding to smaller offices in Kochi, Bengaluru, and the US.

The company’s head of operations, Arjun Satheesh, said that smaller cities like Thiruvananthapuram are talent hubs, particularly for services companies. But many migrate to bigger cities. This poses a ‘chicken and egg’ problem: top talent wouldn’t stay because there aren’t many companies compared to the larger metros. And the absence of top-notch talent deterred newer companies from setting up base in smaller cities.

Nonetheless, this cycle has started to break, and the pandemic also helped trigger a shift, he said. “We took it upon ourselves; said we will do this in Kerala. It was a personal mission," said Satheesh.

Of course, there are many advantages of being located in a smaller city. While in bigger ecosystems such as Bengaluru, companies can hire easily, they often have a tougher time controlling cost, or even in retention of top talent, he added.

Martijn, too, stresses on the advantages Thiruvananthapuram offers. Compared to Bengaluru or Chennai, Thiruvananthapuram is cleaner, with well-maintained street signs and fewer trash problems, Martijn pointed out.

One of the unique aspects of Thiruvananthapuram, he added, is that you can reach your office at Technopark or a first-class beachfront property, within 20 minutes from the international airport—not the case in most Indian cities.

“These are the things you notice as an outsider," he said.

Changing landscape

As the startup culture continues to spread, it not only challenges the preconceived notions of where innovation can thrive but also transforms these cities culturally and even architecturally. New neighbourhoods emerge.

Thiruvananthapuram has expanded beyond its epicentre, Kowdiar, which used to be the seat of the erstwhile royal family. This was also the place where the city’s elites would stay. But if the purchase of properties by high-net-worth individuals (HNIs), today, is any indicator, this cohort is moving to the IT corridor side—like Infosys co-founder SD Shibulal who has reportedly bought a house at the west-side of Technopark where an emerging highway overlooks the beach.

Some credit the state government for its futuristic thinking—the Vizhinjam International Transhipment Deepwater Multipurpose Seaport is coming up in the suburbs of the city. In response to the city expanding, the government is building a 49.7 km outer ring road. A six-lane highway is in the works, one that will connect the city better with the rest of Kerala. An elevated highway opened recently to decongest the IT corridor. All cables—electrical utility, telecom, and optical fibre— are being moved to underground ducts.

Martijn Van Der Spek marvels at the progress: “When we were on the highway the other day, near Technopark, it was full. And then I remembered that 18 years ago, when they built the highway, people were laughing because there were only two cars passing through the whole day. Now, instead of two cars, there would be 25,000 cars."

Meanwhile, Thiruvananthapuram is attracting other commercial investments. Two large malls, with its bouquet of restaurants and cafes, recently opened, and there is not enough space to park in both of them during weekends. At least four five-star hotels have opened, too—Hycinth, Marriott Courtyard, O by Tamara and Hyatt Regency.

In October last year, at one five-star hotel, there was a long queue extending all the way to the road—the hotel had decided to host a Halloween party.

Housing is another example. A significant number of luxury apartments have been built at walking distance from the Technopark. Homestays have also come up, sweetened with packages like night meals.

A fully-furnished three-bedroom flat next to the Technopark will probably cost twice or thrice more compared to a few years back. Builders said that they are building new apartments in a minimalist fashion. Traditionally, Malayali houses in the region preferred a wooden furniture-heavy decor. When global automaker Nissan opened offices in Kerala in 2018, breaking a winter of investment since the last multinational invested in the state seven years ago, their Japanese staff wanted to customize even the toilets in the flats.

And there is a community that’s building around all this buzz. Consider Ofori, Kerala’s first nightclub, which came up recently in the city. It is fully packed almost every day. Previously known as the ‘Highness Inn’, it was a local bar aimed at the older population. When millennial entrepreneur Sujit Surendran took over the business from his father in 2022, he renamed it Ofori to sound like ‘Euphoria’, a television show popular among the Generation Z.

Surendran gave the interiors purple and blue mood lights, like in the show; he replaced the menu with Japanese food; he hired an expensive mixologist and a top hotel manager. He also proposed something unheard of in the city— creating exclusivity by charging an admission fee to the club.

Surendran now earns 50 lakh per month.

Things that have not changed in decades are giving way to the new because there is an audience that benefits from fresh experiences. This is true for spiritual places as well.

For decades, an existing gurdwara had restrictions for civilians—located in a military compound, it was open only to military personnel. Now, a new gurudwara is being built. People are celebrating festivals that are not traditionally celebrated in the region, like Holi.

“Back in 2015, my personal policy was to work in Thiruvananthapuram, and if I want to have fun, I’ll go to Bengaluru," said Satheesh. “Now that has changed."

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