Interviewing Rama Kannan

Incubating Incubators

The Webster dictionary defines ‘Incubate’ as “to cause or aid in the development and growth”. The “Incubating Incubators” programme run recently by Villgro as a joint initiative of Ministry of MSME and Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH was precisely that, to aid the development and growth of the 20 Incubators who participated.

When I was invited to be an Advisor in the programme, I was delighted to accept, knowing Villgro’s depth of knowledge and credibility as a highly regarded incubator with over 20 years’ experience; I had also been previously a mentor for Villgro’s INVENT (Innovative ventures and technologies for development) program that identified and supported 4 business incubators to incubate over 150 social businesses in the Low Income States of India. Mohammed Azhar was a Manager for the INVENT and as the Lead for this new programme, I knew he brought in the capability and enthusiasm to make it a success.

So why are Incubators important ?

In terms of demographics, India is the youngest country in the world with an estimated 10–12 million people entering the workforce each year. In addition, the rapidly growing economy is transitioning away from the agricultural sector, traditionally a large employer. Among the biggest challenges facing India is to find employment for this huge number entering workforce every year. The Government cannot provide or create the millions of jobs needed and thus we need job creators! Research indicates that job creation may be best achieved by encouraging the educated to become entrepreneurs and by creating favourable conditions for their enterprises to grow. India also needs innovative ideas and entrepreneurs tackling the problems peculiar to India and other developing nations, that can create jobs, especially in the rural areas and increase economic output. And for these entrepreneurs to flourish, they need someone to guide them in their vulnerable initial years to understand how to start a business, navigate the system and overcome challenges.

Here’s where Incubators can play a crucial role to assist with growing these enterprises to a point where they can scale up and employ more people.

Shankar Kumar, Advisor and a veteran at GIZ knew all of the above only too well. As a service provider in the field of international cooperation for sustainable development, GIZ has been operating in India for decades and engages with commissioning partners, to generate and implement ideas for economic change.

Shankar headed the programme to strengthen the innovation ecosystem for SMEs and worked closely with the Ministry of MSME. He mentioned how SMEs are the backbone of the German economy (not large corporates!) and how they contributed the majority to the country’s GDP and Exports and he believed India could emulate that. He had organised various programmes over the past few years to promote start up ecosystem for SMEs in various ways: Promoted Industry – Academia collaborations; Helped to strengthen Industry Associations in Tier 1 and 2 towns; Conducted live business projects with students in various universities; Developed knowledge materials and connected local industries with international organisations and learn best practices; Helped establish tool rooms and Incubators in non- metros.

GIZ also ran various workshops to build the capacity of Incubators, on design thinking, on fund raise etc but these were piecemeal approaches and found wanting. This led to the genesis of the programme Incubating Incubators: The idea was to organise a structured programme towards incubation, understanding of the standard processes and some essential frameworks, tools & templates that would help incubator staff operate the incubation program effectively. The objective would be to build/enhance capacities of the incubation personnel (heads, managers and associates) by incorporating learnings from advanced ecosystems.

Villgro was chosen as implementation partner after rigorous scrutiny of the applications to RFP – He found their proposal was not a routine one of holding workshops but offered more practical on-the-ground learning. He also knew of their history: Paul Basil had founded Villgro 20 years back and it is the largest social incubator in the world – Working with over 315 startups, it has perfected their incubation technique and attuned it to the needs of the innovative early-stage companies. Villgro also believes in sharing their experiences and knowledge with as many others as possible and has trained numerous other incubators in their model as customized in form of Incubation Playbook. Today Villgro’s exist in Africa, the Philippines and the US.

GIZ also realised that any programme must be able to add value virtually in these pandemic times, since there would be no f2f meetings. Villgro’s proposal of a combination of workshops, sharing actual tools and templates that could be directly used, peer learning sessions and especially the idea to make smaller groupings of the incubators with an external Advisor and a Trainer from Villgro handholding each group really appealed to them.

The Advisors included Chand Das, ex CEO of ITC Classmate and now an Angel Investor and Coach to many SMEs, Arun Venkatesan, the Villgro USA cofounder running a few trainings himself and Azhar who was head of this programme. I was in August company!

Highlights of the Programme

Twenty Incubators from around the country participated, they ranged from IIM Calcutta Innovations Park in a Metro (Calcutta) to Tier 2 towns like Vruksh Ecosystem in Nagpur; from Incubators formed by Industry Associations like Magic in Aurangabad to Government supported Pusa Krishi of IARI, Delhi; Private incubators like Lemon ideas to Academic institutions like IIM Nagpur; Some were new, and some had many years’ experience. To run a programme which could be of use to such a varied cohort was a challenge by itself – yet all the participants attested it to be a valuable programme for their role as Incubators and most did not miss a single session!

Azhar explained why the programme was structured in this manner – “The Incubating Incubator program is inspired by the learnings of the INVENT and Frontier Incubators program, in which Villgro trained multiple incubators across India and Southeast Asia. This program is designed to achieve the following outcomes:

  • Provide a practical approach to establish and run an incubator based on the learnings of Villgro and other successful incubators.
  • Build a community of other incubators to foster peer learning and collaborations such as co-incubation, pipeline building. and joint program design.
  • One-to-one mentoring from an experienced industry veteran as well as the current portfolio managers of Villgro to develop/customize
    incubation & investment models.”

Clearly, this approach appealed to GIZ…

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