Srinivas Ramanujam | September 6, 2018

Why iPitch? I’d say, why NOT iPitch!

Have you heard of the chocolate melangeur? I had not, till last week. When I read about an entrepreneur in a metro city making artisanal chocolate at home. It is the humble idli mixer-grinder found in kitchens across South Indian homes. But when put to grinding cocoa beans, it morphs into a melangeur. Apparently, this machine is now transforming the world market for fine chocolates and making entrepreneurs from small countries like Ecuador and Peru a force to reckon with in this rarefied sector.

That got me thinking. If such innovations have reduced the entry barriers for entrepreneurs from developing countries, what about closer home? Are we making entrepreneurship more equitable? Across states? Across socio-economic classes? The uncomfortable truth is that a lot more can be done. One of the few efforts at unearthing truly innovative enterprises is Villgro’s iPitch. Not the jugaad that has unfortunately typified the small-town entrepreneur. But truly world class innovators.

Last year, iPitch discovered Gramshree – working with tribal women in processing wild custard apple for the food processing industry, MadGuy Labs – developing coaching apps aimed at aspirants for state and central government jobs, 5C Network – making radiology diagnosis more accessible and affordable. These aren’t the typical opportunities that fire our imagination. Kota, Trivandrum, Kanpur, Bhawanipatna; Venture capital rarely ventures into these places. Villgro and its INVENT partner incubators seek out such enterprises and find them in the unlikeliest of places.

What makes the iPitch so serendipitous? I believe it is because the effort goes the extra mile. Into small towns. Goes beyond the imperfect English and thick accent. And is patient with the entrepreneur. I suppose it flows from Villgro’s incubation model of investment + mentoring + technical assistance for the social enterprise. One could easily argue that this molly coddles entrepreneurs and they ought to figure things out themselves. And I would tend to agree. If the entrepreneur was like me – public school, GMAT acing vocabulary and a degree from an IIT or IIM. But for these social entrepreneurs solving problems, that strike at India’s deep-rooted societal issues, a passionate and empathetic mentor is as valuable, if not more, as the financial funding that they raise. Those who are technically sound need business skills sharpened. And those building conceptually new products, the ability to get deep insight into the local community and rapidly gain adoption among them. Of course, iPitch is designed with a bias to seek out leads from the ‘Low Income States’ and this helps focus efforts. A coming together of social incubators across Jaipur (Startup Oasis), Kanpur (SIDBI Innovation & Incubation Centre, IIT Kanpur), Kolkata (IIM Calcutta Innovation Park) and Bhubhaneswar (KIIT Technology Business Incubator) created a network that made the program’s impact larger than the sum of its partners’.

Social enterprises are often viewed anxiously by investors because they struggle to scale their business or convince follow-on funders. Last year’s iPitch investees appear to buck this trend. Larger institutional investors have offered at least three of them term-sheets. Delmos – which makes handy milk adulteration test kits – is seeing interest from large dairy companies. While one year’s results are hardly a trend, the design of the program and consequent high touch incubation likely increases the probability of success. The coming together of follow-on investment partners like Menterra Social Impact Fund will increase the chance of further funding and help the entrepreneur stay their course.

iPitch is but one effort in making innovative social entrepreneurs impactful and successful. India needs more such programs. Or this one program to get larger! Maybe this will attract more incubators, investors and other well-wishers. Time will tell on how the program scales. But for now, if one had to find the next potential melangeur from a small town, iPitch is your best bet.

(iPitch applications are open till 21st September, 2018. Apply Now.)