Nucleating an Indian Rainforest

By Neeraj Sonalkar, T2 Venture Creation Advisor, research associate at the Center for Design Research at Stanford University, and a co-director of VentureStudio in Ahmedabad, India

Ahmedabad is a city known for three things – for being the home of Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram, for hosting India’s premier design and management schools, and for its textile industrial families. A tier II Indian city of around seven million inhabitants, Ahmedabad has multiple communities that sometimes interact around popular street-food stalls in the night. The affluent Gujarati business families jostle with the more cosmopolitan students of design, engineering and management schools in the region, and the not-for-profit crowd following Gandhi’s principles in uplifting the poor. It was in this social milieu that the seeds of an innovation ecosystem, a Rainforest were planted in 2011.

Ahmedabad University, an upstart educational institution in collaboration with Center for Design Research at Stanford University established VentureStudio, a center for innovation ecosystem design. The vision of its founders was to nucleate an innovation culture similar to the likes of Silicon Valley in the US, which would result in a greater yield of high impact technology ventures. This article gives a brief overview of the thinking and the doing at VentureStudio.

VentureStudio campus is a blend of indoor and outdoor spaces designed to facilitate social interactions and idea sharing.

VentureStudio campus is a blend of indoor and outdoor spaces designed to facilitate social interactions and idea sharing.

It is 9 am in the morning. A group of young entrepreneurs and design coaches gathers in a circle on the VentureStudio patio for daily reflection. They all write silently in their notebooks for 5 minutes and then one-by-one share their reflections on the past days’ activities – things that influenced them, feelings about their performance, and insights they learned. The coaches then take over and lead the entrepreneurs in a series of venture design activities. Today, the group is participating in conflict-handling experiences. In the past, these venture founders have participated in need-finding to gain user empathy, teamwork training, foresight analysis, concept elaboration, prototyping, business modeling and similar such activities all oriented to transform them into innovation leaders.

The heart of VentureStudio is the six-month fellowship program that coaches entrepreneurial hopefuls into innovation ninjas. Much like martial arts, we believe that innovation is a contact sport. The first five weeks of the fellowship present fellows with an intense workout of activities and reflection moments that help rebuild their self-image, develop self-efficacy to collaborate, and acquire design and business innovation skills. Coaches… we call them coaches and not mentors or professors to emphasize a bias towards action… follow a design pedagogy that relies on iterative whole-body engagement. They conduct a series of flash ventures which involve designing a complete venture from need identification to solution development, to prototyping, business modeling and raising investments in a very short amount of time. The first flash venture lasts three hours, the next a few days, the third a few weeks. With each flash venture, the fellows grow into new perspectives, new imaginations and new skills that prime them to become the innovation leaders of an ecosystem. Thus, the fellows are already serial entrepreneurs before they tackle their venture during the rest of the fellowship.

Fellows using equipment in the workshop to prototype their product concepts.

Fellows using equipment in the workshop to prototype their product concepts.

VentureStudio is more than a bootcamp for innovators. The fellowship program and the launching of ventures is an active probe into the local innovation culture. As the founders interact with the surrounding ecosystem to develop their products, seek advice from local leaders, raise funds, and acquire customers; the challenges and opportunities they encounter give a window into factors that hinder or help the growth of ventures in Ahmedabad. The coaches working at VentureStudio identify these factors and design interventions to overcome challenges and leverage opportunities. For example, the coaches realized that the investor ecosystem in Ahmedabad was missing angel investors who could invest not on the basis of profit & loss statements, but on the basis of recognizing the potential of the team and a foresight for the market. Prafull Anubhai, the Ahmedabad University chairman galvanized the local business leadership into setting up the Ahmedabad Venture Alliance, a mentor network with an associated angel fund to provide angel investment. Another factor that coaches identified, as key to venture success in Ahmedabad was family support. Initially a number of venture teams broke up when one or more founders were not supported by their families in their vision. Family support is of crucial importance in Indian culture where parents have a greater influence on their adult children’s decisions and growth. VentureStudio broadened the concept of founding teams to founding families and set up events to sensitize families of young founders to venture creation process and the work that their children were undertaking.

VentureStudio, thus acts as a nucleus of an innovation sub-culture within the surrounding Ahmedabad ecosystem. However, VentureStudio is not a passive nucleus. It actively seeks to diffuse this culture within the surrounding ecosystem and in the process create a rainforest that is a unique blend of local values and innovation process imperatives.

In the three years since its inception, a strong foundation has been created for this unique model of building an innovation ecosystem. VentureStudio fellows have created ventures in various domains such as digital publishing, urban farming, education, healthcare, art retail and energy generation. The successful acquisition of one such venture, Cruxbot, has demonstrated the potential of financial returns following this model. A group of local business leaders have coalesced around VentureStudio to form an angel network and a mentor group. A product development ecosystem is being mapped to accelerate product innovation. The process of nucleating this ecosystem is ongoing. The hope is that in a decade or so, Ahmedabad will now be known for a fourth thing – a vibrant and thriving innovation rainforest.

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