2020: You Are Never Gonna Keep Me Down!
Updated: Jan 23
I get knocked down, but I get up again You are never gonna keep me down I get knocked down, but I get up again You are never gonna keep me down I get knocked down, but I get up again You are never gonna keep me down I get knocked down, but I get up again You are never gonna keep me down
Reminded of this Tubthumping song as we write this 2020 wrap-up note. Much like everyone else, 2020 was hard for CIIE.CO, our team and our entrepreneurs. But hey — come pandemic or come the apocalypse, innovation and entrepreneurship will continue to thrive. And we begin our note by thanking all the entrepreneurs and their supporters (including our rockstar team) for not giving up, and living by ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get going!’
Thanks to COVID, we unlearnt and learnt, discovered and invented new things to support budding entrepreneurs and our portfolio startups — which is what this update is really about. But before we get to the details, we are delighted to share the headlines: in 2020 we backed 122 startups across our INNOVATION CONTINUUM. Below lies the chart where you can explore them and learn about what these change-makers were busy with; undeterred and playing offense (vs defense), while COVID played havoc.
Chintan Bakshi, Partner — Incubation:
Pandemic induced disruption got us revamping our programs to befit the virtual world. Offline touch and connect were truly missed, but we soon realised the online boon: from better structured programs to higher mentor engagement and availability. Apart from the regular diagnostic panels and mentoring sessions — we were able to plan a host of problem-solving clinics and sprints startups to solve their most pressing problems and/or validate their riskiest assumptions.
Going virtual for our regional programs met with a significant increase in participation, thus enabling us to serve entrepreneurs and startups from tier 2 and tier 3 geographies of Rajasthan and Gujarat. For certain few, a significant part of our support was focussed on enabling them to digitally transform for the strange 2020. Retaining all the initial excitement, virtual incubation programs and the on-going use of digital technologies to keep it relevantly structured will be continued into our 2021 timelines as well. Our past experiences reaffirmed our learning that specific problem-solving and validation through the means of mentoring clinics and sprints, are more optimally done online. Envisioning a hybrid approach, we hope to expand to newer geographies in 2021 with Madhya Pradesh, Assam and Uttaranchal. Furthermore, we are stoked about launching our first incubation centre in collaboration with Bajaj Electrical Limited in Jaipur. It envisions excellent infrastructure and high quality mentoring for startups located in the heart of this pink city.
Vipul Patel, Partner — Seed & Acceleration:
Strange as 2020 was, we did find hope in our incomplete yet impactful progress amidst all the muddle. Our vision of becoming the ‘the largest source of pre-series A and series A funded startups in India,’ remains undeterred and renewed. Our energies and efforts in 2020 have gone into providing deeper support to the startups facing unthinkable challenges. Travel restrictions and lockdowns have delayed piloting opportunities for the MVP stage startups; growth-stage startups have lost business, and thereby, revenue; and fundraising took a longer time than usual. These, and the added efforts in keeping employees motivated and engaged has been toll talking for the founders.
Yet, our spirits haven’t been knocked down! Challenging times have met reassurance in heartwarming instances and encouraging milestones. Here is a glimpse of some of those.
Startups from our existing portfolio raised over $27mn of follow-on/co-investments this year, vis-a-vis $50mn in 2019 — lower than last year, but given the situations they have surpassed the expectations.
Our teleradiology portfolio startup supported the combat against Covid by serving 8 lakh+ reports, making 50k+ life-saving interventions; of which 64% were from tier-II cities, 47% reports were assisted by AI, and with an average of 41 mins reporting time.
Our inclusive communication startup helped the Government and banks to spread awareness of DBT payments to 3lakh+ women Jan Dhan account holders.
A time when supply to grocery stores halted due to lockdown, one of our portfolio startups that provides staples to Kirana stores in Mumbai served 8000+ Kirana stores, fulfilling 90k+ orders with an average delivery time of 24 hours.
Our smart stethoscope startup (stethoscope can listen to heartbeats from a distance) deployed 1700+ units during the lockdown.
During the lockdown, our last-mile delivery startup repurposed their 4000+ agent network to enable the delivery of essential products to over 2000 villages across Rajasthan.
We expanded our deep-tech portfolio across technologies by adding ePlane building a flying taxi for 10X faster commute in cities; Unbox Robotics, AI-driven fleet of vertical sorting robots for the logistics industry; Agnikul building an orbital-class launch vehicle that takes 100 kg to orbit; Sova Health building India’s first and only precision nutrition platform; Comofi creating image-guided intervention platform for minimally invasive surgeries; Pixuate’s video analytics platform for fast, accurate and convenient screening of compliance and regulatory measures; GalaxEye bringing the concept of Edge computing in satellite raw imagery data; Nunam working on next-generation energy storage solutions using second life lithium batteries; and Ubreathe developing a plant-based natural air purifier using a smart bio-filtering process for air purification, to our kitty.
We kept our focus steady on inclusion which resulted in us supporting a diversified array of startups — Frontier Markets’s ‘Saheli’ network for rural distribution of products and services, Kosh with its joint liability group-based lending offered digitally, Whrrl financing against e-warehouse receipt over a blockchain, Credochain offering MSME-cluster based underwriting and cash-flow based lending, Aggois’s post-harvest receivable financing for farmers, Entitled as the employer benefits platform for low-wage workers, Xaastag that managed market-linkage platform for FPOs, Lakshya as the savings-led financial app for urban underserved.
We are glad to share that, out of the ten startups awarded by ET Startup Awards 2020, two belong to our portfolio — Bellatrix and Agnikul.
Building a strong pipeline of startups in the last quarter of 2020, we look forward to engaging with, and supporting these startups through programs and investments in 2021.
Somsubhro Pal Choudhury, Partner — Bharat Innovation Fund & Saras Agarwal, Vice President — Investments at Bharat Inclusion Seed Fund
Dusting off the plethora of negative news, we rose in hope — over the resilience of India’s startup ecosystem practised in its ability to morph quickly; the wake-up call towards accelerating ‘Digital Transformation’ and the K-shaped economic recovery that we are witnessing with the dichotomy between the Wall Street and Main Street.
In Bharat Innovation Fund and Bharat Inclusion Seed Fund, we huddled down with our portfolio startups to ensure the safety and efficiency of the team during the pandemic. We spent the early months mapping the impact on underlying businesses and cash flow; did a bunch of scenario planning exercises; lowered burn-rates and channelised businesses towards less impacted sectors. Fortunately, the majority of our startups were well-capitalised with at least 12–18 months of runway and for the rest, we worked quickly to get them access to some form of bridge and debt financing.
Most of our current portfolio has developed strongly differentiated tech, IP driven digital technology and solutions — hence leading to greater market adoption of their solutions post lockdown. Boasting a global customer base, they have been using digitally efficient delivery models to bring about productivity increase and cost efficiencies to their customers along with closing deals with global customers over Zoom calls. One of our portfolio companies Playshifu which develops phygital (Physical + Digital) smart toys, saw a 5x jump in online sales across 15 countries as kids stayed back home amidst working parents. Cybersecurity startup FireCompass, a leader in the new Continuous and Autonomous Red Teaming (CART) space within enterprise security saw its demand increase significantly and Entropik, which operates in the area of using Emotion AI for customer experience testing and increasing user retention, fared extremely well as an alternative for in-person focus groups. Lockdown induced adverse effects on the income profile of the marginalised segment, so Kaleidofin as a Neobank for the informal sector continued to help 145k people save towards their life goals. On the brighter side, it was a year for our portfolio companies to win patent grants from the US Patent office. It was also an opportunity to dig deeper into consumer and business behavioral changes to understand the opportunities and challenges in the post-Covid world. We have since then published some of our research (Agritech and Consumer behavior in the post-Covid world) and more insights upcoming (on Medium). Along with CIIE.CO, we contributed towards ACT (Action Covid-19 Fund) fund and regional support initiatives for accelerating the Covid resiliency in India. CreditVidya, our portfolio company operating in the space of AI/ML-based alternative credit risk scoring, analysed the impact of lockdown on income, spending and savings patterns of a vast swathe of the Indian consumers. vPhrase helped The Times of India on insights and textual summaries of COVID growth patterns by analysing significant amounts of data using their patented Natural Language Generation (NLG) technology.
Our portfolio companies successfully raised follow-on rounds. Entropik raised $8 Million in Series A financing from Falcon Edge Capital and Setu (API infrastructure for financial products) raised $15 million led by Lightspeed-US and Falcon Edge Capital. We invested in a cybersecurity platform startup, FireCompass, a continuous and autonomous recon and attack SaaS platform for cybersecurity testing, alongside marquee Cybersecurity experts from the US. We announced our investment in Riskcovry, an insurtech bringing a fresh API-first digital approach, creating highly relevant insurance products through a digital process of underwriting, policy issuance, claim settlement, and compliance.
Our wrap-up note of 2020 is a celebration of our portfolio companies and their milestones, and of Playshifu being honoured at the prestigious Consumer Electronics Show (CES) Innovation Awards. Last year our vision was: product and technology development, investing in the most impactful areas and marshalling the right processes and resources to scale. 2021 will be the year to deliver in these directions! We continue to remain excited and focused on our dual agenda of driving ‘Deeptech Innovation that can scale globally’ from Bharat Innovation Fund and our goal of driving ‘Inclusion through Technology and Digitisation’ via our Bharat Inclusion Seed Fund.
Supriya Sharma, Partner — Insights
Unprecedented, one of the most popular adjectives of 2020 describes it all: the year, the pandemic, response to systemic racism, migrants’ exodus, lockdowns and what they entailed. At Insights, it got us improvising in response to some challenges; while for the others, we paused, took stock and changed course to be able to generate knowledge and tools that were more relevant to the evolving world order.
During the year, we undertook solving for financial inclusion in several ways. We selected and supported seven studies under the Bharat Inclusion Research Fellowship. These were across the high impact domains of gig economy, mutual insurance, MSMEs, women’s digital access, FPOs, and meso insurance. These studies are helping unravel insights and high potential use cases. We will publish and share the research findings and use cases with you over the next few months. In 2020, we also undertook a rather novel initiative of research-backed prototyping to solve for the low-and-middle-income users’ mistrust in digital financial products. We hosted consultations with over 25 leading fintechs and policy experts, collected data from over 250 users across five states, and finally hosted a Design Jam which led to the development of five prototypes. These design prototypes are mainly aimed at solving the new users’ lack of confidence with using UPI and engaging existing users through the product journey and avoiding their experience of alienation. We did this study with some stellar partners — DICE India, Parallel Labs and TTC Labs at Facebook. A comprehensive docket of this study with suggested principles of designing for trust will also be out soon. Keeping watching this space! We also published three cases — Eko, Kaleidofin, and Micro Housing Finance Corporation — all on startups building for the underserved in India. We started working on these cases a little over a year ago with the goal of creating learning tools that are relevant for startups that are building for Bharat. While Eko illustrates the effectual approach that is critical in fast-evolving markets and policy systems, Kaleidofin demonstrates how the Bharat startups can build customer centric value propositions. The case on Micro Housing Finance Corporation touches upon the dilemmas encountered by founders along the growth path, particularly their exit from the startup. Finally, we passed a milestone in 2020 with publishing our 50th story under the People of Bharat. We are now taking this series to the next level. More on this soon!
Knowledge, we believe, is collaboratively created. While the universe of webinars was exploding in the lockdown and WFH phase, we adopted a somewhat analogous approach to generate collective and shared knowledge. Commissioned by the International Finance Corporation, we undertook developing a model for a state’s agtech policy. Towards this goal, we put together five roundtables with agtech startups, incubators and investors. Not only did these roundtables open up a treasure trove of on-the-ground realities facing startups and futuristic outlook of investors and incubators, these intimate conversations also led to creation of networks and potential partnerships. For the study on research-backed prototyping for mistrust (described earlier), we curated four roundtable consultations with fintechs from digital payments, insurance, savings and investment and credit and one with policy experts.
Digital transformation and an oversupply of content across platforms also marked 2020 conspicuously: at the start of the year, we were ready to publish a coffee table book ‘Unlocking the Future’ on The Economic Times Power of Ideas — the entrepreneurship program that we ran between 2008–19. Taking cognizance of the incoming virtual world, we took a step back and reimagined the physical book. While our website showcases a digital version of the book, we have chosen a more visual-storytelling approach in introducing startups that went through the program and are now touching the highest echelons of success; our Instagram handle flaunts some of these visuals. We collaborated with Prof. Rakesh Basant at IIM Ahmedabad to offer the course New Technologies, Design and Business Models, completely online. We opened up the world of civic tech for the students to delve into and emerge with ideas, product designs and business models and supported them with various tools for all of this to be done entirely on virtual platforms!
Stepping into 2021 with hope, perhaps more wisdom and definitely a stronger drive to create tools for founders to tide over unprecedented futures — first half of the year will be packed with publications around landscapes and deep dives in the domains of telemedicine, alternate proteins, crafts, insurtech, property rights tech, legal tech and civic tech. In partnership with IIMA and IRMA, we will also be undertaking extensive surveys, focus group discussions, discrete choice experiments and a field experiment. In parallel, we will continue to dive into high potential sectors and technologies to publish tools for founders, investors and sector catalysts to identify and evaluate novel opportunities. Our work on developing learning tools and cases on Indian startups will continue to surge ahead; so will experimenting with publication formats for greater access. 2021 will witness the publication of two books aimed at equipping founders and founders-in-making with inspiration and decision-making schema. Bygone months may have been unprecedented, but remaining ahead of the curve is in our DNA and we will continue to do just that in 2021.
Balancing optimism with realism, resilience with risk, and reinvention with survival — there was much to learn from the year gone by. Expanding into new geographies, exploring less-ventured sectors, creating knowledge that inspires, building companies of consequence — there is much to do in the year that will be. You are never gonna keep me down!
Onwards towards an innovative and inclusive 2021.