Startups can drive hardware innovation and seize the big opportunity


The biggest lesson we all learnt during the peak of covid-19 was self-reliance. The earlier we become Atmanirbhar, the stronger we emerge as a nation. The government’s thrust on Make in India is not just a visionary statement but the need of the hour, considering the fast-paced technological density, transformation and digital adoption happening now. If we don’t seize the opportunity in the product design and manufacturing space, others will fill the demand gap. Already, our electronics goods imports bill (around $33 billion in FY2020) has been second only to the country’s oil import bill. Startups can play a major role here and seize the big opportunity in hardware.

There have been some keen initiatives to roll off the startup product manufacturing space.

The first-of-its-kind in India Electropreneur Park (EP) set up by MEITY and IESA started in 2016 and created 51 hardware products, 51 patents, and 23 startups were funded. The EP will grow to be a hub with 20 spoke centres aimed to promote innovation and create unicorns in ESDM by offering access to a holistic ecosystem to accelerate the government’s flagship schemes like Startup India and Make in India. It helped in the creation of a full-stack ecosystem, from ideation to manufacturing.

Such support programmes are also replicated at the AIC T-Hub Foundation in Hyderabad, the Maker Village in Trivandrum, and similar programmes in Bhubaneshwar and Chennai, which include mentorship from idea refinement to business development, help to create a fully thriving Make-in-India design ecosystem, with support on ESDM technical recruitment, establishing processes, sourcing, test infrastructure and help in product commercialization.

We need many more such initiatives, as just these do not suffice compared to the size of India. We know how to integrate software into hardware, making us truly unique. The way IIT Kanpur Ventilator Consortium assisted Noccarc Robotics, a young startup, in building affordable, high-quality ventilators at the pandemic’s peak should be an inspiring study of possibilities.

If the aim is to nurture students to be ESDM entrepreneurs, we need to accelerate startups’ transition from prototype to growth stage.

Startups can take the lead in innovation because large companies have too many liabilities to take risks the way startups can.

Such ecosystems should be created early on in modern educational institutions. Tinkering labs set up in schools inspire great interest. In medtech, for instance, we need engineering and medical institutes to work together. The Indian medical devices industry is growing at 28% annually year and will reach $50 billion by 2030. So there is a tremendous need for such programmes to take shape now at a much faster pace in medtech, greenfield smart cities, drones used for security and entertainment, agritech, railways, telecom, and a whole lot of infrastructure that is set for a tech overhaul.

For hardware, we need testing, prototyping facilities, plastic moulding facilities, cabinetry, and the ability to make the highest quality product at the lowest price and design for manufacture, quality, sustainability, and repairable products that can also be recycled or upcycled. Based on the country’s requirements, we should create a design challenge and provide solid funding for that and create a VC ecosystem to fund these.

In biotechnology, the BIRAC (Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council) Challenge invites proposals under the challenge call for the development, validation and pre-commercialization of products/technologies.

In defence, iDEX fosters innovation in defence and aerospace by engaging industries, including MSMEs, startups, individual innovators, R&D institutes and academia. India is the world’s largest defence equipment importer and is expected to spend around $220 billion in the coming decade to modernize its armed forces. The Defence India Start-up Challenge has been launched in partnership with Atal Innovation Mission and is aimed at supporting startups in the area of defence innovation. Those who pass such a challenge can also get bulk orders for 20-30 crore. To make a product, you need 12 to 24 months, so minimum funding of 50 lakh is required, and then patiently wait for the product to work.

We need to incentivize product development to emerge as a product nation. I have been reiterating this at many public avenues and with the government, so that we can see India creating world-class products.

Ajai Chowdhry is the Chairman of Epic Foundation and Founder of HCL.

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