"India is going through a technological disruption"

Infosys co-founder and UIDAI chairman Nandan Nilekani. File photo: Rajeev Bhatt  

Infosys co-founder and billionaire Nandan Nilekani is returning to the entrepreneurship field after a stint in politics. Mr. Nilekani, 60, who spearheaded the country’s massive unique identification project, this time will help other entrepreneurs to succeed by mentoring and investing in their startups. In an interview, Mr. Nilekani said that India is going through a technological disruption and a new breed of quality startups are emerging that are addressing unique problems in the country.

Edited excerpts:.

On changes in Indian startup ecosystem

I think, there are many changes. Certainly Bangalore, especially I live in Koramangala, it has a very vibrant startup community. I think, number one, you are seeing many many more startups, literally I see hundreds of startups. Second I think the quality also is very good. People are trying very diverse things, for example Mubble (mobile tech startup) is addressing a very particular unique issue which is that most smartphone users in India are very very conscious about the consumption of their minutes for voice and data, especially as they go into the data world. This Mubble is a product which exactly tells them what is the data consumption. I think these are all interesting problems that are being solved, so I am very excited what I am seeing.

On making angel investments

I am very selective, I don’t really do too many investments, I do help and mentor a lot of people, that is my way of giving back, I meet lot of companies just to brainstorm with them and discuss strategic issues. I have invested in Team Indus (space startup), Mubble and couple of others. When I find a company which that is particularly interesting and has an interesting business model, which is addressing a new area and where I can contribute strategically, then I will invest. I also work as a volunteer with iSpirt (a software product think tank), I find they are doing a great job in creating a volunteer ecosystem, I contribute there.

On his tech project ‘Ek Step’ aimed at honing children’s basic skills

We are launching the first version of the app and we are rolling it out in a pilot stage, I think we are learning a lot about how to deal with literacy, we find actually literacy is much more complex than numeracy, especially because of multi language requirement. We are learning a lot, we are working with Pratham (non-governmental education organisation trying to improve the quality of education in India), looking at launching their app in a digital fashion. We are working with Akshara Foundation in Bangalore, we are doing lot of work on Maths. We are still few months away from having a full fledged platform. It is moving well.

On excessive red tape forcing startups to move abroad

The SEBI Chairman (U.K. Sinha) has been very very responsive to this and I think iSpirt has also worked with him and came out set of streamlining, which is called as ‘List in India’ programme, that has happened recently. What has also happened is that lot of venture capitalists want the companies to list abroad. For them investment in Mauritius, Singapore is easier. But as the government is talking about ‘Startup India’, I know the SEBI Chairman is very responsive, so as they streamline things and by the way many companies are registering, it is not every one is going abroad.

On Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the Silicon Valley and learning’s

What Silicon Valley shows us that you need to encourage risk taking and you don’t have to punish failure. You can fail and come back. It rewards diversity, merit and open society. I think beyond just the entrepreneurship, the fact that it creates such a liberal diverse society, we need to learn that also.

On Indian tech startups being bought at lesser price than global startups

It is difficult to tell what is the right valuation, but to me the important thing is that technology companies out of Bangalore or from India being bought by global companies, ZipDial was bought by Twitter and Little Eye Labs by (Facebook), there are many other cases. I think it is a good sign that people are developing very path breaking things here.

On innovation opportunities offered by Aadhaar platform and hackathons

Hackathons are conducted just to get more and more people to learn how to use Aadhaar APIs (application program interface) and learn how to build apps. When you bring a new capability like Aadhaar, it takes time for people to understand what it does and how it can be use and build a company. There is certain diffusion time, we are in that phase, I am very confident in the coming years, Aadhaar based companies and application will be numerous. Just like the internet with the GPS, ultimately became big platforms of innovation in the West, something similar will happen with Aadhaar in next few years.

On future plans of pursuing politics, technology

I feel my best contribution can come by leveraging my knowledge of technology, business, social activities. I think the change that I would like to see, I would do it through ‘Ek Step.’ I am an advisor to NPC (National Payments Corporation of India) on payment platform. We are working on this payment platform for interoperable mobile payments. All these things will make big contribution, that is how I would like to contribute.

On WhatsApp moment in the financial sector

The argument that everything is coming together, the technological disruption, Aadhaar, DBT (Direct Benefit Transfer) payment banks, small banks, Aadhaar based two factor authentication on smartphone with iris (scanners), IMPS (Immediate Payment Service) has been a great success in remittances. There are many things, they are all coming together and the mobile wallets, recharge. In all this, they hold Aadhaar stack. Aadhaar is not just authentication, it also provides eKYC (electronic Know Your Customer), digital lockers, digital signatures and this UPI (Unified Payments Interface). This entire stack allows you to completely reimagine a bank, that opportunity is open to the existing banks to reimagine the way they operate and is open to the new banks. I am not saying who is going to win or lose, I am just saying there is a certain period of disruption happening and it is up to individual players to take advantage.

On other initiatives

The bulk of the work is public service. I am on the board of IIHS (The Indian Institute for Human Settlements) which is trying to create a university, I am president of NCAER (National Council of Applied Economic Research), I work with iSpirt. I work on payments. I am enjoying a lot of these diverse activities.

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Printable version | Apr 23, 2021 1:09:52 AM |

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