AIM SmartCity Accelerator — The Journey and Impact

Remember Mussaddilal, from the hit TV series Office-Office, trying to get his pension?
Did you ever have to get a permission that required multiple approvals from different departments and people?

If yes, then you’ll know a little something about how taxing the process can be. The starting up process in the country feels similarly taxing and definitely more exhausting. Which is why we have single window clearances — to make life easier and to make working efficient. AIM SmartCity Accelerator does exactly that for start-ups in the country — it provides them with a single window to access multiple support systems that an idea needs to grow.

The inception of the accelerator:

To build something new you just don’t need an idea but that idea needs a multitude of platforms to grow into something sustainable. It needs substantive development, technical assistance, managerial aid, financing and appropriate guidance. This support structure is something that almost all start-ups in India build over the course of months, if not years — putting together each component through different sources because the entrepreneurial ecosystem lacks a single stop solution for these varied demands.

In fact, it was while analysing this lack of an inter-disciplinary approach to entrepreneurship, on a flight to Hyderabad, that Priyank Narayan conceived the idea for an accelerator that brings together different organisations to create a platform which offers the best of all to entrepreneurs. Being the Director for Entrepreneurship Programmes at Ashoka University, he knew that the institution, with its firm liberal arts foundation, was the perfect place for an idea to grow. All he needed now was to bring in expertise from other crucial areas.

So the first thing he did once he got off that plane was to speak to DLabs at the Indian School of Business and get the ball rolling. The coming in of Microsoft Ventures brought along the necessary technical know-how and the association with the Dalmia group and Holostik brought in the investment and commercial exposure.

(left to right) Ravi G. Narayan, Managing Director, Microsoft Ventures; Priyank Narayan, Director, Centre for Entrepreneurship, Ashoka University; Naveen Asrani, Director, Microsoft Ventures and Prasanna Krishnamoorthy, Chief Technology Officer, Microsoft Ventures, during the first onsite training of AIM SmartCity.

The setting up of an accelerator programme was deliberated upon and finally, AIM Smart City Accelerator was born — a program designed to identify, invest in, and support the best start-ups focused on making our cities a better place. Ashoka University, with its commitment to a cross-disciplinary outlook that emphasises on learning across subjects, had helped deliver a panacea to starting-up problems in the country. The college campus also enabled the creation of an atmosphere that was more accepting of failure and then overcoming it, which is crucial for any start-up. Given its structure, the Accelerator’s collective extensive industry and academic network, design thinking expertise, mentorship and resource base is unparalleled in the industry.

But why the focus on Smart Cities?

“About 28% of India’s population live in the cities and solutions to the problems of our living spaces will not emerge from a single start-up or sector. It will have to be a comprehensive approach and an accelerator like this is exactly the way to bring in that comprehensive, multi-dimensional approach,” says Priyank. He agrees that Smart Cities are the current “hot topic” in commercial circles as well as the government’s vision for urban India. But that vision will not be realised through mere talks and discussions. Substantive groundwork is needed in all sectors affecting the transformation of a city into the living space that the idea of “Smart City” has come to denote. “Which is why we kept the applications for our first cohort sector agnostic,” he explains further.

The entries for the programme were diverse and so was the final selection. The Jury ensured that not all the start-ups that were chosen were based on IoT (the Internet of Things). The ‘final 8’ start-ups that were selected in fact address a broad spectrum of issues related to Smart Cities, while focusing on the four core areas of healthcare, education, transportation and infrastructure. These 8 start-ups began their journey at the Programme on the 25th of April, 2016 and have since been provided not only with funding and technological assistance, but also crucial skills, as well as direct access to investors and most importantly, to customers.

The Impact

They say your work speaks for itself.

And the work that the start-ups have undertaken shows a remarkable passion to give back to the society, and not just build commercially successful enterprises.

While the entrepreneurial and commercial success of the AIM SmartCity Accelerator can be gauged from the fact that most of these start-ups now have paying customers (and the Programme hasn’t even concluded yet!) what is remarkable is that they are making real time physical impact in the living spaces around us in positive ways.

Gudgudee, a design start-up that builds out of the box playspaces and outdoor furniture for public spaces, recently designed a play-space at Blind Peoples’ Association, Ahmedabad.

Gudgudee designed and built a sensory park within their premises where children of all abilities in the age group of 6 -16 years can enjoy playing together.

“There was a child with autism who didn’t say anything at all in his class. Communication didn’t come naturally to him but as he approached the sound installation we had designed in the play area, he came up and spoke hello through it on his own. We saw tears well up in the eyes of his mother,” said the team at Gudgudee when asked about their experience with their clients and the impact they think they’ve been able to create. “Nothing gives us more delight than to hear the laughter of a child because of our design,” they added.

Since the accelerator programme started, the start-up has been able to concentrate on their core skill — design — and have started outsourcing other aspects. As a result they have been able to enter the new sector of working with builders and developers as well.

Another start-up from the Cohort — Truckerrs, has a similar story to share. Their monthly transactions now vary from 1.2 Cr to 1.5 Cr per month and they currently have 11 paying customers while 13+ customers are in the pipeline. In addition to these impressive numbers, they have been able to create significant impact in the lives of the people they work with. Based on their recommendations to their client in Karnataka, plans to improve the quality of living of the truck drivers engaged with the enterprise have been initiated.

The team of Truckerrs, presenting their ideas to truck owners from the Sonepat Truck Union on how they can make the world of logistics smarter.

All the other start-ups in the Cohort have similar stories to share, of the commercial success they have seen in terms of numbers and the smiles they have seen on the faces of their clients. These smiles come from solutions forged through hard-work and collaboration spanning almost an year long process. The impact they are creating to help make smarter cities is tremendous and AIM SmartCity Accelerator has been a truly enabling platform in the process. Social responsibility is a commitment that has been taken seriously alongside economic goals.

“Build the new, don’t just fight the old”
- Sairee Chahal, Shereos

AIM SmartCity Accelerator is not only helping build smarter cities but also a platform that effectively addresses the problems faced by most start-ups and provides a one stop solution to their needs. The old is giving way to the new. We’re heading to a start-up ecosystem that will truly impact and change our lives for the better through an interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approach which has always been at the core of the value system at Ashoka University. And that should not be surprising, given that the University was founded by some of the most diverse entrepreneurs and professionals of our time through an unusual act of collective public philanthropy in India. And that is the legacy AIM SmartCity Accelerator endeavours to live up to.