Quietly but surely, non-resident unicorns are making their presence felt

(From left): Kabir Barday, co-founder and chief executive officer, OneTrust; Chakri Gottemukkala, chief executive officer and co-founder, o9Solutions; and Mohit Aron, co-founder and chief executive officer, Cohesity.
(From left): Kabir Barday, co-founder and chief executive officer, OneTrust; Chakri Gottemukkala, chief executive officer and co-founder, o9Solutions; and Mohit Aron, co-founder and chief executive officer, Cohesity.


  • Founded and run by those with Indian roots, many non-resident unicorns have a significant local presence.
  • As many of these NRUs become key players in the fast-growing technology landscape, they will represent a new breed of multinational corporations built for the 21st century digital era

NEW DELHI : In India, Kabir Barday’s name doesn’t ring a bell. Barday’s startup OneTrust, which focuses on data privacy and security, doesn’t quite feature in India’s unicorn list.

That is understandable. Born and brought up in the US, Barday is a first-generation entrepreneur, whose Atlanta-based company has been a trailblazer. Founded in 2016, OneTrust has over 1,200 employees and was valued at $5 billion plus in its last fund-raising round in December 2020. The fast-growing startup builds digital tools that give companies a clearer view of their user data, while also enabling compliance on privacy laws.

Although Barday and his company aren’t Indian, India lurks in both his and his company’s DNA. Consider the art of hustling and his entrepreneurial streaks. “When my dad came here (the US) in the 1980s from Pune, he started delivering newspapers to earn some money on the side," he says.

A few years later, Barday senior quit his software developer’s job to turn entrepreneur, opening a chain of gas stations and restaurants. “I grew up in that environment. The expectation always was that you don’t work for someone, but yourself," he says.

Barday and OneTrust are an interesting new breed in India’s startup landscape. Let’s just call them NRUs—or non-resident unicorns, a spin on NRIs. NRUs are startups that have their headquarters outside India, have at least one Indian founder (or one with Indian roots) and a significant research and development (R&D) presence in the country.

“Some of our best and most important products have been built by the team in India. We are here for the country’s top talent," Barday says. And the company is now thinking big and beyond the engineering centre in India. “India is passing some of the toughest privacy laws in the world. As a result, it is also among our top strategic markets today," he says.

Not surprisingly, OneTrust’s top executives and engineers, including the chief executive officer and chief technology officer, used to travel to and from India fairly frequently until the pandemic struck. Now, as the digitization wave creates strong tailwinds, the company plans to double its engineering team in India even as it eyes robust business growth this year.

In India’s closely followed and growing club of unicorns, NRUs like OneTrust may not get a mention, but they are an interesting and important new category that India must take note of.

Straddling two worlds

Working closely with the consultancy firm Zinnov, Mint scanned the global landscape of unicorn startups to identify NRUs. Of the total 496 global unicorns, at least 53 of them with headquarters outside India have a significant presence within the country through global innovation centres (GICs). Of these, as many as 23 have one or more founders with Indian roots. “At least 14 of these 23 unicorns set up their India centre alongside their US headquarters. They had a presence here (India) very early in their growth curve. Those are the ones that make it to the list," says Atit Danak, principal and head, Zinnov CoNXT.

All the NRUs in Zinnov’s list are business-to-business (B2B) startups with 93% of them being based in the US; their median age is nine years and they have earned the unicorn status over a period of six years, on an average.

The journey of the NRUs marks the emergence of a new breed of entrepreneurs—with some India connect—who make headlines in the fast-growing digital world.

Building on India’s rich legacy of information technology (IT) outsourcing and global captive centres, these NRUs are taking India a step forward in its technology landscape.

“(The) IT industry built a lot of domain capabilities around how US multinational corporations work. Now NRUs such as Automation Anywhere (a software firm based in California) are tapping into that talent base to develop products and platforms for the world," says Pari Natarajan, chief executive officer of consultancy firm Zinnov.

True, many of these “Indian" founders may not strictly be Indian. But they do have Indian DNA in their genes. For example, Barday is a first-generation Indian American. Sanjay Beri, the chief executive officer of cloud-native security solutions company Netskope, is a first-generation Indian Canadian and co-founders Krishna Narayanswami and Ravi Ithai grew up in India. The four co-founders of Automation Anywhere, a robotic process automation firm, are all Indians who moved to the US either for education or to build their careers.

With Indian roots and global connect, these entrepreneurs often straddle two worlds, deftly leveraging their knowledge to build globally competitive companies in the digital era.

While many of the NRUs have a substantial workforce in India, their approach is starkly different from the first-generation IT outsourcing services firms such as Infosys, Wipro and Cognizant, which tend to hire techies by the thousands. The NRUs are also distinct from the home-grown SaaS (software as a service) companies such as Freshworks and Uniphore that grew up in India and shifted their headquarters to the US as they grew in size and ambition.

NRUs might shape future trends in two distinct ways. One, the definition of what is an Indian startup will get fuzzier as more Indian startups—eyeing global capital and markets—take a dispassionate view on where to locate their headquarters. This migration will accelerate as firms shift to the US much earlier in the growth curve. “With entrepreneurs like Girish (Mathrubootham of Freshworks), the playbook for migration is well articulated. We expect hundreds if not thousands of SaaS startups to become migratory birds," says Umesh Sachdev, co-founder, Uniphore, an Indian startup that shifted its headquarters to the US in 2015.

Two, as many of these NRUs rise up in the global charts and become key players in the fast-growing technology landscape, they will represent a new breed of multinational corporations (MNCs) built for the 21st century digital era. Their organizational construct and decision-making tree will offer clues about what tomorrow’s MNCs might look like.

The roll call

Most of the NRUs have largely been under the radar in India. There is San Jose-based Automation Anywhere in the cutting-edge area of artificial intelligence (AI)-based robotic process automation. It was founded in 2003 by four Indian-origin founders, turned unicorn in 2018, and was last valued at $6.8 billion in 2019.

With almost 50% of its workforce in India, the company has three offices in the country—Bengaluru, Vadodara and Mumbai. In 2018, the bootstrapped company raised $550 million in series A funding from major league investors like Goldman Sachs and Softbank Vision Fund and hasn’t looked back since.

Then, there is the $3 billion startup Netskope with four co-founders, three of whom have Indian roots. Of its 1,100 employees, at least 25% are in India. Its India research and development (R&D) centre constitutes the core of what Netskope does. Many of its key products have been built from scratch in India. For instance, Netskope’s API security product was developed in India and today, it contributes to 30-40% of the firm’s global revenue, says Alok Kothari, managing director, Netskope India.

San Jose-based Innovium develops semiconductor solutions to address the biggest networking challenges facing enterprises. It has two founders with Indian roots and at least 23% of its staff is based in India. Both its co-founders—Rajiv Khemani and Puneet Agarwal—grew up in India and studied at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi before moving to the US.

“I first helped set up an India centre in 2003 when I was at Cavium," says serial entrepreneur Khemani, who is onto his third startup now. “Why India? The world is moving to the cloud. We wanted to pick a place where there is cutting edge talent in these areas… Also, roots and familiarity matter," says Khemani.

Mohit Aron grew up in Chandigarh, studied at IIT Delhi and by 2000, he was working for Google in Silicon Valley. “Google is a phenomenal teacher. It teaches you how to build scalable systems," says Aron, who is the co-founder of Cohesity that helps enterprises manage their hyper-converged infrastructure. The company counts Amazon among its investors and got valued at $3.7 billion in March. “Our CTO (chief technology officer) works out of the India office. The team here is second to none," says Aron.

A new breed of MNCs

So, in what way are the NRUs different? Let’s start with the reasons as to why they are in India. Many of these entrepreneurs are seasoned professionals trained at high-performance companies in the US and know how to build world-class products and teams, says Sumant Mandal, co-founder of March Capital, a venture capital firm that invests in breakthrough technology companies around the globe. With their Indian roots, they understand the domestic landscape as well. “As entrepreneurs, they are leveraging their India connect well," he says.

OneTrust’s Barday adds: “Strictly, it isn’t about saving costs but the quality of talent. In the SaaS space, engineering talent is at a premium. That is our biggest constraint." If one builds centres of excellence in India to create globally competitive products, it is easier to hire top talent in the country. “For a startup, speed is very critical. You can scale at higher velocity by building in both India and the US," says Barday.

For a long time now, the US has dominated the enterprise product market. With the pay-per-use model lowering usage threshold, the growing SaaS wave and the rise of China and Asia, the landscape may be shifting. “In the future, this could be the reverse phenomena of Indian startups going to the US for the market," says Netskope’s Kothari.

Many NRUs say India is emerging as an important market already. Khemani says Innovium recently hired a sales head in India. London-based Rishi Khosla, co-founder of fintech OakNorth, agrees. “In 2019, the RBI (Reserve Bank of India) allowed fintechs to test their innovations in a restricted ecosystem. This boosted India’s global reach and attraction among global unicorns. This has had a positive impact." The fintech landscape in India is expanding with businesses cropping up in areas like payment applications, insurance, personal finance management and alternative lending, Khosla says further.

Chakri Gottemukkala is the chief executive officer and co-founder of o9Solutions, a provider of cloud and AI-based supply chain planning and analytics that the firm calls the digital brain of the enterprise. India, as a market, is opening up for them with clients like Asian Paints, Aditya Birla Group and the Tata group. “We see India as a pretty big growth driver as companies look for digital transformation," he says.

All of this has some interesting implications. “When startups set up an India centre early, their decision tree looks very different," says Kothari of Netskope. For a mature startup in the US, setting up an India centre later is often merely about augmenting its R&D backbone. “You are not at the tree root. Being present in India from day 1 means you are deeply involved in architecting the product," he says.

How the work gets farmed out globally, the level of decision-making, freedom accorded and the pedigree of talent they hire are all very different for NRUs. Also, as the market in India grows and NRUs build their sales and marketing functions, growth opportunities for the India team will brighten. For example, Cohesity’s chief technical officer is based in Bangalore. “Being 12 hours away, India can also help cater to other Asian markets. It gives us a strategic advantage," says Aron.

NRUs are, thus, providing key insights into what MNCs of the future might look like. In the 20th century, MNCs were largely headquarters-driven with subsidiaries like India operating as satellite operations. As MNCs began setting up the captives in India, they set up parallel operations in the country. Sales and marketing outfits reported into their regional offices while the captives took orders from the headquarter. Often, marketing and R&D teams in India then worked in relative silos, reporting to their respective counterparts in the US.

With technology at the heart of their operations and India playing a critical role in product development, NRUs might look at the subcontinent very differently. “We are investing here not just for India but also for other markets like South East Asia and the Middle East. India will be the core hub for the region," says Gottemukkala of o9Solutions.

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