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December 2015 was a particularly refreshing month for me when I stepped out of the four walls of the Silicon Valley and got a taste of the tech startup scene in India. In particular, I visited Bengaluru, now the 2nd best funded startup hub in the world, outside the US. US-based Compass has rated the world’s top tech hubs on five counts: funding, market reach, talent, experience, and performance of startups. Overall, Bengaluru came in an impressive 15th in Compass’ latest ranking of ecosystems. Rightly called the Silicon Valley of India, Bengaluru is the birthplace of India’s IT sector that houses global brands.
For the past few years, there has been an exponential increase in the number of innovative tech companies leveraging the talent pool of India with three to four startups being born every day, and nearly five billion dollars of funding coming in 2015. The economy is doing well, a lot of money is being invested in companies, and the government is coming up with incentives to support this ecosystem.
A visit to Bengaluru, India
Working for PubNub, a global Data Stream Network, for the past year as a developer evangelist, I interact with developers on a daily basis. I equip them with knowledge about PubNub to ensure they are successful in using it to build always-on applications like instant chat, multiplayer games and taxi dispatch to name a few. I focus on IoT and embedded computing so I was curious to know how the developers outside Silicon Valley solve and approach similar problems in this domain. The time was right for me to visit Bengaluru to meet the brightest minds and enterprising entrepreneurs of India.
Over the next two weeks I met with several engineers, software developers and startup founders who all had hopes of being part of the next big unicorn from India. Drone technology, smart home solutions, robotics for industry floors, electric scooters, and on demand bus services are some of the verticals they were involved in. Tech shops and co-working spaces are springing up in every other corner, and the excitement was palpable.
One of the projects that came out of a Raspberry Pi workshop I conducted was particularly close to my heart. It was a network of Pis that were placed all around Chennai, my hometown, that was submerged due to floods. These Pis were used in critical realtime safety missions where they would tweet when the water level went above a particular level.
Over the course of next few weeks, and through workshops and meetups, I met hardware enthusiasts in Bengaluru working in many different domains like agriculture, wearables, and everything IoT. At the first meetup, we discussed how to take your duct-taped hardware prototype to being production ready. Easy access to design software, 3D printers, and crowdfunding have allowed engineers to take charge and go from an idea on a napkin to a good initial prototype. As in most cases the final product does not resemble the prototype and there is lot going on in between the two; from finding the right components to ensuring quality, packaging and shipping.
The meetup discussed the differences to consider when you have a hardware startup compared to the resources available to hardware giants in order to make your product a success. An interesting observation was that a lot of engineers started off with the Raspberry Pi, Arduino and ESP8266 – something common even in the Silicon Valley.
Raspberry Pi Connections
I must say, the Raspberry Pi seems like an all time favorite, all over the world. The Raspberry meetup and workshop saw a large crowd, a lot of enthusiasm, and a whole lot of innovative ideas. One common concern was how to get the Pi to easily talk to other devices, such as phones, laptops and other embedded hardware like the Arduino, all in realtime. Starting from the “hello-world” of IoT, i.e., making LEDs blink using your browser, to being able to monitor temperature and humidity from anywhere in the world using PubNub. I walked them through many different use cases at the workshop.
Time and again, I have noticed that people are excited about the Raspberry Pi and buy it, but it takes a large amount of convincing to actually build something simple with it. This PubNub-Pi workshop stood testament to that, but at the end of it everyone was eager to build something cool. What can I say, my job there was done.
The final meetup was definitely the most interesting one on smart farming. Throw away any notions of agriculture you have in the US because it is completely different in India. Land areas are significantly smaller, people still use animals and intensive human labor, monoculture still exists and weather can be extremely dicey. As in other verticals, technology adoption in India is at least a couple of years behind USA, and agriculture is no different.
Connections to the Internet are generally restricted to the bigger cities and a few towns, mostly where there isn’t any farming done. Something as simple as realtime monitoring of temperature and humidity in the fields is not easy to do in India because of unreliable, and in some cases nonexistent, Internet connectivity. Different ideas were bounced around, some feasible, some inspiring, and we left the room determined to bring about a revolution in the way farming was done in India.
Though behind, India seems to be catching up really well with the other tech hotbeds. Unicorns seem to be the buzzword, and India has eight out of the 144 in the world (according to CB Insights). Several startup founders seem to have done it right – with seemingly bulletproof business plans, promising ideas, and the right talent. However, it takes a lot more than that to be valued at a billion dollars and to be exalted to the position of a Unicorn. With 8 Unicorns in the bag already, including Flipkart, Ola cabs and Snapdeal, a bunch of smaller startups think they have what is takes to be a part of this club.
Unicorns are not new for a city like Bengaluru, which nurtured five of the eight from India. From what I have seen and heard, the city has a nurturing ecosystem where there is talent, investors willing to shell out money, a lot of R&D centers and large IT companies. All this makes Bengaluru a petri dish for startups to breed in. 2016 definitely feels like the year for startups in India, both big and small. There are a lot of companies building the next Ubers, Amazons and Instacarts. It is impossible to feed a population of over a billion with just one app per vertical, and competition is always good. When the government, students, entrepreneurs and investors all conspire to make this the year for startups, there is really nothing stopping it from being. India will be a bright spot for innovation in the coming years. Only those entrepreneurs who have the tenacity, long-term vision, and drive to lead teams will emerge winners.
Speaking at meetups and interacting with the developer community in India was a very different experience for me, though I have done this several times in San Francisco. The startup scene is nascent, the problems faced are different and the applications being developed are unique for that market. As a developer evangelist, I had so much work to do there to educate people about realtime technology. I have barely scratched the surface, and I can’t wait to go back.