The Indian presidency of G20 is one of the many signs that the world today recognises the strategic importance of India. As a part of G20 initiatives, India has proposed the Startup20 engagement group to give startups the required focus. On the eve of its inception meeting in Hyderabad on January 28 and 29, 2023, Dr Chintan Vaishnav, Chairperson of Startup20, senior lecturer at MIT Sloan, and Mission Director at Atal Innovation, shared the vision and goals of Startup20 with Shradha Sharma, Founder & CEO of YourStory.
India’s G20 presidency has come at a critical juncture when new realities of the post-pandemic world are still emerging. Dr Vaishnav pointed out that it is still to be ascertained whether many of the shifts observed during the pandemic are permanent or not. For example, organisational process changes due to remote working, rural-urban distribution changes due to labour migration, changes in delivery mechanism of education and healthcare are still in a flux.
“All of these are open questions,” Dr Vaishnav said. He added that India, being somewhere at the middle of the continuum of developed nations on one side and emerging economies on the other, is best positioned to understand both worlds and take everyone along.
“There is perhaps nobody better than us to represent the whole world at this juncture” Dr Vaishnav reflected talking about the integrative spirit India brings to the table with its age-old philosophy of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”, i.e., the world is one family.
Elaborating on the rationale behind a group like Startup20, he shared that while G20 had been addressing the startup agenda, it was being done so as a part of various other groups. For example, Business20 has been one such group. However, since its mandate is also to look into the needs of large corporations, startups don’t get adequate attention. In this context, formation of startup20 will enable driving a charter specifically for startups. Being agile by nature, startups have played a critical role during the pandemic in solving business and operational challenges along with enabling key areas such as vaccination.
“We as a world have the responsibility to leverage this agility,” Dr Vaishnav emphasised. One of the first steps of this engagement group will be to prepare a policy communique articulating how all the member countries want their startup ecosystems to work together. Since it’s a new group, Dr Vaishnav feels that its success will lie in member countries being able to feel that their ambitions are being enabled. On the other hand, the group will need to offer something that start-ups will value.
Startup20 has identified three specific focus areas, namely foundations and alliances, finance and inclusion, and sustainability. Foundations will create a shared understanding of how a startup is defined in various countries. Alliances is about looking into linkages that exist in the startup ecosystem, e.g., across governments, investors, incubators, etc; identifying the best practices therein and scaling them. Finance looks into funding of startups across the participating economies. Inclusion and sustainability works at two levels. Firstly, it seeks to identify startups who can make the world more inclusive and sustainable, and find ways to scale them. Secondly, it will work on creating the architecture of an innovation ecosystem which is inclusive to begin with, not differentiating between entrepreneurs based on gender, ability to speak English or whether someone is based in an urban hub or remote rural location.
Dr Vaishnav’s own journey to becoming the chairperson of Startup20 is proof of human potential that can be unlocked if things like language and domicile don’t become obstacles. He studied in a Gujarati medium till 12th grade in Vadodara, a small town, thereafter moving to Bengaluru for engineering, which is when he was forced to learn English.
After a post-engineering job stint at a heavy engineering company, he left for Colorado for his degree in electrical and computer engineering. Dr Vaishnav gravitated towards studying networks, based on what a scientist had told him during his internship at ISRO about the country needing many communications engineers in the future. He entered the haloed chambers of Bell Labs after his masters, where despite meeting some of the best minds he felt a growing sense of dissatisfaction. He realised that while they were producing a lot of technology, it wasn’t creating impact on some of the world’s most pressing problems such as hunger and poverty.
“As an engineer, one got taught how to make technology, but one had no tools to understand what happens once you make something,” Dr Vaishnav explained. This led him to quit his job and seek a PhD at MIT to study the cross-section of engineering and social sciences. Serendipitously, Ratan Tata happened to visit MIT in the same period seeking to allocate funds to train engineers and managers on how to think of problems of the under-served communities. Dr Vaishnav ended up being a part of the founding team of the Tata Center at MIT. By then, he had been visiting rural India for two to three months every year, which helped him understand how technology influences society.
Dr Vaishnav’s experiences have shaped his philosophy on startups and he believes they are the linchpins in solving global problems. He elaborated using the example of climate change, as to how large incumbent companies in sectors like fertiliser, steel or cement will be reluctant to invest in redesign of core processes and disrupt themselves. It will need startups to drive that change and adoption curve.
Dr Vaishnav is of the strong opinion that none of the world’s large problems can be solved in isolation and it requires global collaboration and scale. Reminiscing what someone once told him, he summed up saying, “Scaling what works is very different from working at scale” and that Startup20 is just the kind of platform that will enable startups to think at scale right from their inception.
Edited by Megha Reddy