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Big ideas,small towns

Innovative,cost-effective and inclusive start-ups are addressing India’s diverse challenges

Written by Saritha Rai |
April 16, 2012 3:06:37 am

Innovative,cost-effective and inclusive start-ups are addressing India’s diverse challenges

Some 375 kilometres west of Bangalore,in a small town many Indians have probably never heard of,a few inventive engineers have struggled with their start-up for three years. It is the desultory town of Kasargod,smack on the border of Karnataka and Kerala,where power outages are three-times-a-day affairs and Internet downtimes are frequent.

Foradian,founded by Unni Koroth,Abdulla Hisham and their friends,is a technology company whose open-source school management web product is in use in 40,000 schools,including 15,000 government-run schools in Kerala,and schools in South America and Africa. The very scalable software can manage systems and processes in a school,college or training centre,tracking students,teachers,employees and courses.

The now-profitable company offers free downloads of the basic school management system but charges for customisation and large-scale implementation.

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In a country where innovation is just beginning to take root,start-ups like Foradian represent a new wave of small-town innovators. Their origins give them a better perspective on the adversity and diverse challenges presented by India’s vast geography. Unlike large companies who sell their products at a premium,plus added costs of customisation and support,small-town innovators’ solutions are inclusive and cost effective.

India’s information technology revolution of the past few decades,which built for India a global brand,had the underpinnings of innovation and creativity. But though founders of leading Indian IT services companies came from small towns and modest backgrounds,the IT wave was largely an urban phenomenon which sucked up talent from smaller places.

Now,the spread of the Internet and the cell phone are levelling the playing field across the countryside. A wider swathe of next-generation Indians is dreaming big,and trying a hand at turning out creative solutions for segmented markets. “Small town India is more hungry and driven than middle class and upper middle class India in big cities,” Bharati Jacob,a founder partner of the venture capital firm Seedfund,explained.

Foradian is a small-town venture all right. The founders are childhood friends who studied in the same Malayalam medium school. They went on to graduate with engineering degrees and MBAs from lesser known colleges,and added partners along the way,now numbering eight. “The unifying idea was to do something from our homeground,” says Koroth,26,the CEO.

In the early days of their start-up,life in the little town,Koroth lists what kept them going: living at home,low stress levels and the support of family and friends.

But there were struggles aplenty. In Kasargod,a one-street town with creaky water supply,sewage and transport systems,hiring and keeping employees was a challenge. “There is no semblance of a social life in the town,it has been hard to keep employees motivated,” describes co-founder Hisham,who like the other seven founders is also in his mid-20s. “Young people these days want to be in cities where there are malls,cafes and multiplexes.”

The company does not necessarily wear its small-town origins on its sleeve. As a web products firm,it does not need to advertise its Kasargod base. It has a marketing office in nearby Mangalore. But what small towns lack is a cohesive ecosystem to nurture innovators.

So,Foradian will make the inevitable move to an address in Bangalore in the coming months.

The move should help Foradian in several ways,including in marketing its product and finding mentors. Most of all,the company is in talks with a prominent Silicon Valley venture capital firm to secure funding. The big city move may also come with big city problems. “We don’t expect the same level of sincerity from employees as in Kasargod,” says Korath.

Jacob the venture capitalist says that small-town entrepreneurs are a growing breed. Her firm receives an increasing number of pitches from places like Vadodara and Indore,and has already funded a couple of start-ups like the Bhopal-based Carwale. Young Indians are more confident of themselves and of India. They want to stay where they are and become entrepreneurs. She predicts that small-town entrepreneurs could become the growth engines of the economy.

Certainly Foradian,born in a town that nobody can point to on a map,but selling its product globally to schools in Mexico,Brazil,Ghana and Morocco,is a sound example of that.

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