Universities are also incubators, of ideas. The incubator network, to my mind, is part of the so-called top layer of the pyramid, the layer encompassing activities that we felt would yield short-term results (competitions and prizes are part of this layer as well). The university network is more resilient to reform and change, with deep entrenched interests, so it is part of the middle layer where the country’s collective efforts will take longer to bear fruit.

ENCOURAGE NEW MODELS

Let’s take incubators first. As in any new industry, there has been excess entry in incubation as well, that is, there are too many incubators while we figure out which models work, which management teams (who run incubators) are able to do so well, and so on. They are competing now, and should do so vigorously. Importantly, the ones that don’t make it should not be propped up by implicit or explicit subsidies from the government, nor by automatic budgetary outlays that are not predicated on performance. The experiences of the non-performers will be keenly watched by the survivors, and the latter will improve. Meanwhile, we should continue to expect and encourage new entry as newer models of incubation are brought in. This continued entry and exit is a sign of dynamism at this stage.

I have much experience with incubators, both by researching these in different countries — Chile, Colombia, Singapore and the US, among others — as a member of the Harvard-MIT academic complex, which is swarming with world-class incubators, and as a cofounder of one in Bengaluru myself, Axilor. It’s a riveting and fun experience to be in an incubator, infused with energy from youth cascading in with new ideas daily. At Axilor we are pioneering an approach to curating ventures rather than waiting for teams to come to us with theirs. For example, in healthcare we recently had doctors, scientists, medical device professionals, caregivers, regulators, financiers, and academics brainstorming concrete ideas that we will then fund to get started.
The point is that ours is just one concrete effort. Let the market and society judge whether our effort works. Ditto for others’ efforts. Of course, part of the Darwinian process I’m advocating here is a shift of resources to the better managed incubators that show glimmers of success, as well to the newer experiments, away from those that haven’t worked out. As long as the interventionist impulse of the state is kept out, I’m confident that incubation in India will come of age very shortly.

NEED FOR PARTICIPATION

Incubators in India are inadequately connected. First, they should be connected with each other, at least loosely, so as to share ideas. This is a bit of soft-infrastructure that our committee would have looked favourably on as it can augment the results of any single productive experiment. Yet, currently, each incubator has exiled itself to its own silo.
The other obvious connection is to proximate sources of knowledge, the local universities. I have been surprised that even the incubators launched within India’s best universities lack connectivity even to their own academic resources. Relatively few faculty are involved, and few students have just begun participating. The incubation underway is with outsiders seeking to leverage physical facilities more than anything, and sometimes with alumni of the university. Nothing wrong with these constituents getting a leg-up in their efforts, but it seems that the lack of linkages between new ventures on the one hand and faculty and research on the other is a colossal lost of opportunity.

PROVIDING INCENTIVES

So, how can we fire up the universities more? This is what will take time, and we’re better off acknowledging it and working on it steadily. Professors should have more incentives to collaborate with would-be entrepreneurs. Students should receive credit in their coursework to give them the appropriate nudge in that direction. Since professors do not usually have adequate experience, the university should actively recruit mentors from the industry to work in the incubators, perhaps in the evenings or weekends, or on a project basis. Including such mentors in this way will ultimately allow corporates to become part of the incubation ecosystem as well.

I’m sure the particular contours of what will work will vary widely from place to place. But it’s not encouraging that the efforts at many incubators so far seem to me, perhaps a bit unfairly, to be all about sourcing some money from the government and then documenting how it got spent, with relatively little attention on knowledge creation and deployment.

Anyone who has visited Bengaluru lately and contrasted it with what was going on there a decade ago, will agree that, when it comes to incubation, entrepreneurship and knowledge creation, we’re on the cusp of something very exciting.

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