Challenges abound, the hardware startup ecosystem in India is coming together: Intel

With its Intel India Maker Lab, Intel wants to give the startup community a space to tinker around with hardware.

India is a renowned destination for software talent. The services and apps-related startup space is booming here with news of billion-dollar fundings becoming a regular feature. The same, however, cannot be said about the hardware startup space. Lack of talent isn’t the only issue as one would expect. But the kind of initial investments required to get a hardware product out is much higher than the case of the software-based startup.

Chipmaker Intel wants to play a role in changing that landscape in India. With its Intel Maker Labs which was set up three years ago, Intel wants to give the maker community a space to tinker around with hardware. It has also partnered with the Indian government’s Department of Science and Technology and academic institution IIT-Bombay’s Society for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (SINE) to come up with an incubator called Plugin which has been responsible for incubating around 60 hardware and systems startups since its inception in 2017.

In 2019, the 11 hardware and systems startups who have graduated from Plugin have already developed products and solutions which will be using technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), edge computing, Internet of Things (IoT) to provide solutions in areas such as healthcare, manufacturing, retail and transportation.

The graduated startups are Cyclops MedTech, SensoVision Systems, Constems-AI, Maxerience, Entropik Tech, Kaaenaat, SkinCurate Research, NOOS Technologies, Cardiotrack, Combat Robotics and Cyrrup.

We spoke to Jitendra Chaddah, senior director, Operations and Strategy, Intel India and Intel Maker Lab evangelist on the challenges facing the Indian hardware startup ecosystem and the emerging trends in the space. Chaddah, who was appointed as the chairman of the India Electronics and Semiconductor Association (IESA) this year, also shed some light on the Indian electronics manufacturing ecosystem.

Edited excerpts from the interview follow.

Could you give us a brief history of Intel India Maker Lab and how it came about? 

Jitendra Chaddah (JC): This initiative was started by Intel in 2016 and the idea behind it was to help startups in the hardware and systems space. The goal was to make this hardware and systems innovation space as vibrant as the software ecosystem in India. The hardware ecosystem required the support system which was not available at that given time. So, our goal was to encourage these startups by creating a platform that can help accelerate their product development lifecycle. Our overall goal was, of course, to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship in this space, also to make India a hub for product innovations in the world. We started with Maker Lab as a platform which can provide these startups with multiple areas of support systems. One was providing them with the infrastructure from where they can work, provide them with technology, tools such as test equipment, oscilloscope, etc. and other was providing hardware solutions. In addition to hardware lab access, we also wanted to provide them with technology mentorship and connect them to our partners for overall ecosystem support.

Challenges abound, the hardware startup ecosystem in India is coming together: Intel

Jitendra Chaddah, senior director, Operations and Strategy, Intel India

You have partnered with the Department of Science and Technology and SINE-IIT Bombay, to create a collective called Plugin. How is it different from Maker Lab? What does the partnership involve? Have you developed special curriculum programs which are taught by education institutions or is it just a space for the hardware creators to come and tinker around?  

JC: We started in 2016 as a Maker Lab program to help support the journey of startups in hardware and systems space. In 2017, we realised that many other ecosystem players had a  similar goal. We wanted to make sure that we can partner with them to bring more power to develop this ecosystem in India. Keeping that in mind, in 2017, we formed a collaboration with the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and then SINE (IIT Bombay’s business accelerator program). The three of us came together and developed a brand called ‘Plugin’ to help the same categories of startups who were building solutions using hardware systems and software together.

It is not just about providing space to startups, but it is a partnership that provides multiple support systems. Intel continues to provide them with the lab support that we have built, provide mentorship, SINE provides the program management and the training support for these startups. SINE takes them through a rigorous three weeks to three months program in the beginning so that the business and technical aspects of the startup can be further clarified. DST brings in the support from a funding perspective. All three of us have come together with very complementary support or skills that we provide to the program today. This is one of the first and I think still is the only industry, government and academia collaboration that came together to support the hardware ecosystem in the country.

When we talk about India, the software ecosystem here is very well developed, but the hardware ecosystem is lacking. What is your perception of where India’s hardware startup ecosystem is right now and where is it headed, maybe five years down the line? What is the next big thing according to you when one talks about hardware innovation in India?

JC: Yes, sure. If you look at our overall tech ecosystem, of course, India is known for software services, software startup solutions and so on. But if you really look at it, there is a lot of talent and skill available in the country which caters to the hardware design and system solutions segment as well. Now, what we may be doing is building that – of course, we do that in the software space too - but we build these solutions for the global products in global markets. From the skills perspective, there is talent available in the hardware and system area in India.

The challenge is when it comes to the startups, the hardware startups require a different kind of support and have a different lifecycle and timeframe for product development as compared to the software startups. The support system requires some of the lab equipment that I just talked about. It requires the scaling from the manufacturing perspective, if the hardware final product is to be developed – all the design elements including physical, mechanical designing of the product need to be done. The needs of this ecosystem are far different from what one would require in the software space - even the investment required in this ecosystem is different. So, this is the whole idea behind why we have this Maker Lab and the Plugin program.

Going forward, if you really look at it, with the digital consumption growing in India, the hardware and system solutions are going to play a very critical role in every aspect of our businesses and lives to support the $5 trillion economy goal that the government has set up for the next five years. So, we will require solutions which would work in the agricultural domain, the healthcare domain, the retail domain, the factory and production environment. This ecosystem definitely will play a very critical role in the realisation of the trillion-dollar digital economy goal in the next four to five years.

How can one be part of Plugin or Maker Lab? Do you have to apply, present a project and then the Plugin organisers shortlist project? Or is it like - if I had an idea and I just want to use Maker Lab infrastructure to work on something, I can just walk up to one of the labs and do it?

JC: We have a formal incubation program that happens once a year where we ask for the applications. There are a few criteria like it should be a hardware or systems-based solution and a few more criteria that need to be fulfilled. The next program will start in a couple of months from now. This is a formal process where we ask for applications and then we have a target of 15 to 18 startups that we select from all the applications. That is one formal way to do it and it happens once a year.

But if there is a startup that qualifies the general criteria that we have and wants to engage with Intel or the SINE or the Plugin program, we encourage them to talk to us. There is a website, they can send a mail or connect to any of us at Intel and we see if they require the support that we can provide. Plugin is a formal once-a-year entry system and then over the year, we are very open to taking these startups into our stride.

The third way to connect is we are also tied up with several incubators and accelerators beyond Plugin or Maker Lab. We connect with them on a regular basis and see if there are any hardware-based startups in those incubators that we can support, and we bring them on board from that perspective.

When you mentor the startups, you mentioned that DST takes care of the funding. But what if there is some startup whose goals are sort of aligning with Intel? Does Intel eventually absorb the startups into its fold or are these startups completely independent of Intel?

JC: If you look at our goal, it is to make sure that the Indian hardware and systems startup ecosystem becomes vibrant. We are able to provide the right products and solutions from India and encourage that ecosystem to grow so that everybody in the tech space benefits from it. When technology adoption grows, innovation grows and definitely companies like Intel will benefit from all of it. The goal is not to absorb or just look at these startups only from Intel's lens, what we want to build is a great ecosystem where these startups are supported, and their journey is accelerated. If in the process we find startups/solutions that are matching to Intel’s roadmap and thought process, then we definitely connect them to our business units and then there is a process that takes place on how these business units want to engage with these startups.

You said that startups that are a part of the Maker Lab get access to Intel products. Since Intel has such a wide range of products in the hardware and software space, what kind of access do these Maker Labs participants have, apart from the Intel processors?

JC: Intel has solutions spanning from the client devices, servers, cloud space, AI solutions to FPGA and so on. We also have a lot of software tools and kits that help in the AI, ML space. What we do is we provide these startups, wherever they require, access to those toolkits in a very seamless manner. They also get access to our technologists, principal engineers, senior principal engineers who can guide and mentor them from a technology aspect. We’ve also noticed that these startups use Intel platforms to build and ideate. The acceleration is created by them being engaged with our technologists on a one on one basis.

You mentioned that you started Plugin in 2017 and it's now three years. This will be the third year of this initiative. Could you tell us about some of the past graduates who have really sort of transformed into great startups or whose projects are now being implemented? Maybe highlight a few success stories?

JC: Since we have started the journey, we have directly supported 60+ startups; 40 products are in the market overall in the last three years and many of these products are revenue-generating products. There is a startup, called Acceleron Labs, in the server space who uses Intel Xeon technology to provide reconfigurable data centre in a box solution, catering to small businesses.

In the demo day that we just demonstrated this month, 11 startups demonstrated their products, of which five of them are generating revenues today, three of them are having products that are doing the pilots with customers and three are in the final stages of their product journey. These 11 startups have cumulatively raised about Rs 22 crores of funding and cumulatively they have generated revenues of Rs 24 crores.

Jitendra, you have also been appointed as the Chairman of the India Electronics and Semiconductor Association (IESA) earlier this year. What are the challenges we are facing in the evolution of the Indian electronics manufacturing capacity? Because, even though we have lot of things happening in the manufacturing space such as smartphones being made in India, a lot of the critical electronic products are still imported from abroad and assembled here. How long will it take till we have an electronics manufacturing ecosystem in India, just like there are, in say, China or Taiwan?

JC: The Intelligent Electronics Manufacturing Ecosystem requires support and some initiatives that are definitely different than what our software ecosystem requires. We must bring all the stakeholders to the same understanding of what this ecosystem requires - whether they are government agencies or industry players, or academia and so on. All of us have to be on the same page and that is what we are trying to do from IESA - the same that we did for the startup ecosystem in the hardware space with Intel leading the charter three years back. IESA is trying to lead the charter of bringing all the ecosystem players together to make sure that the electronics manufacturing ecosystem can grow faster. But let me tell you the good story about the ecosystem that has been very, very encouraging in the last five years. If you really look at the smartphone ecosystem, there is a lot of production now happening in India. I think it is a growing ecosystem - we have an opportunity to accelerate that growth further in the next 2-5 years.

I went through the projects that have been shortlisted this year. A lot of them had computer vision and AI as one of the key underlying technologies. Do you feel that out of these projects that are selected, they have to fulfil any criteria that have to be looking at these particular technical aspects of hardware development?

JC: I think AI would be used in every aspect of our lives going forward. So, I would consider that tech to be there in projects. You can argue that internet solutions are used everywhere, the same is the case with AI. But what we look at includes the kind of solution these entrepreneurs or ideators are bringing in — Is the technology viable? What is the business proposition of that idea? How scalable is it?

But as Intel, what I can tell you is that we are transforming as a company and, are on our journey to becoming a data-centric company, our solutions would provide support in every aspect of the data compute, the data movement which is the transition of data from one device to another and the storage of data.  So, we basically would be providing platforms that would be data-centric in nature and would be supporting technologies like AI, 5G, visual computing, machine learning and so on - that would enable and enrich businesses and lives of people using our platforms. In that journey, I think we definitely encourage and support the solutions that are built with the next generation of technologies that we just talked about.

Given that you are looking at hardware startups, in a lot of international countries, tinkering with hardware and building right from school level is encouraged. So, is there any such initiative that you are thinking of with school students in mind or any initiatives where students can just come up and be part of at some level with hardware ecosystem?

JC: Yes, absolutely. I can give you a few examples. One such initiative is supporting the Atal Innovation Mission. As part of this, Intel India worked with NITI Aayog to design the program and has set up 10 exemplar Atal Tinkering Labs across India that have trained over 10,000 students.

We also have a program called ‘AI for Youth’ that aims to empower youth with AI readiness skills in an inclusive way. So, there are a few of those programs we are helping to take to the ground level - to the level where the students right from the very young age can start the maker mindset and develop solutions using some of the hardware and emerging technologies.

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