Candid Conversation with Anoop Ambika of Kerala Startup Mission

Stephan Kuester
on October 19, 2022

Stephan Kuester, Head of Ecosystem Strategy of Startup Genome: I'd love to introduce very briefly, Anoop Ambika, a serial entrepreneur, famous entrepreneur, entrepreneurial personality in India, who is leading the startup activities and ecosystem curation in the state of Kerala. 

Anoop Ambika, CEO of Kerala Startup Mission: Sure, Stephan. Thank you for the opportunity. It's indeed a great pleasure to be in the company of such great people.

So my name is Anoop Ambika. I just started as the CEO of Kerala Startup Mission on July 11, which means that I've only been in the ecosystem for the past two months. Before that, I was an entrepreneur myself. So, to go back to my background – I have an undergrad in computer science and a master's in computational biology and bioinformatics.  

For the first 10 years of my career, I primarily worked with telecommunications. I worked in the U.S., I worked in Bangalore, I worked in Japan for some of the large telecom companies like AT&T, Nortel Networks, NEC, etc. But for the second half of my career, as I call it, I was an entrepreneur.  

So when I was 30 years old, I got what I would call the entrepreneur bug, I wanted to do something with my life. I was looking back and saying, “Oh, you know what? I'm wasting time just working for someone else. And then what do I do?” I came back to India. I set up my first shop in April 2004, which was a data analytics company called Creative Solutions. The business development efforts of that company led me into what is called clinical research. So I got introduced into the life sciences sector, the safety and efficacy analysis of new drugs and vaccines, and eventually, we built a 110 people clinical data analytics company, which was acquired by a US corporation in 2015.

I ran the company for another one and a half years and then I started a product company as well as a service company. The service company was, again, in clinical data analytics, this time around with a little bit more functions like pharmacovigilance and scientific writing and things like that. But the product development was developing an AI/ML platform, which would automate the scientific literature generation.  

In September 2019, we combined both the product as well as the service companies and created one company called General Research Incorporated, which is based out of the U.S. in Boston. We had around 10 or 11 people working in the U.S., and around 90 people working out of Trivandrum, which is where the Kerala Startup Mission is located. And we have another office in Baroda and an office in San Francisco, as well as Ireland sales offices.  

The company had taken shape, I would say it reached a certain critical mass, when this opportunity to lead Kerala Startup Mission came along. So I thought that this was, again, another inflection point in my life. And I thought that this might be the time when I could do something for the ecosystem from whatever I have learned. So I went into the interview and got the job. So I'm here talking to you wonderful people about the ecosystem that we have built and we are planning to build in the coming years. That's my story. 

Stephan Kuester: Super impressive story. We got you here as a role model of those serial entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs who build a successful company and then come back in order to help the ecosystem develop. So thank you very much, first of all, for doing that for Kerala. Secondly, for inspiring many others here on the global call. We really appreciate it.  

The last time I was in Kerala personally, was maybe 15 years ago. At the time it was an offshoring center and design center for larger corporations in Europe and the U.S. It was a hot spot. But I didn't have the feeling there was a lot of tech going on. That’s 10, 15 years ago. So something magical has happened over the last decade. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about the story. How has Kerala become what it is today? Where are you today?  

Anoop Ambika: Yeah, so I guess one of the things that we were good at as a state ecosystem in India is that we were the first in many things. We actually established the first color television company, which catered to the entire country at one point in time. We created one of the first medical research and accelerator facilities, called Sree Chitra Institute of Medical Sciences, which created heart valves much cheaper than what it would cost in the Western market. We had the first technopark in the country. We created the first Startup Village in the country. We now have many firsts. We have the first space park in the country. 

But one of the things that we have noticed about the ecosystem is that, even though we are good at pioneering some of these concepts, the scale-up of such initiatives and making a larger impact on the Indian as well as the global ecosystem was lacking until probably a decade back. I partly attribute it to the socio-political environment that exists within the state where people are not truly capitalistic. They find more pleasure in doing something meaningful as opposed to making a lot of money. The social impact is what drives the citizens of the state.  

Combining social impact and wealth creation out of these processes has created a certain enthusiasm within the community. That enthusiasm is what is reflecting in what has been happening for the past decade or so, Stephan. That's how I would position it.  

And obviously, the exposure we have gained over the internet about all these wonderful innovations that are happening across the globe, much like any other country or community or state, has inspired the younger generation of Kerala. Then there is also a larger diaspora that has gone out, starting from the nurses who went to West Germany, early in the ‘50s or ‘60s. Now a large number of software engineers, statisticians, and scientists are going to multiple countries and working and doing postdoctoral research. So the wealth of information that this diaspora brings back to the state is also a motivation for people to try out new things. A motivation for people to innovate, change the ways in which they learn, apply, and create enterprises. 

Stephan Kuester: Yeah, absolutely. You mentioned a sociocultural foundation. I experienced that a little bit myself a decade ago, thinking about society, about impact, and that's a very solid cultural foundation. 

In Kerala Startup Mission, you've been nurturing this kind of foundation with very practical programmatic initiatives, helping startups with mentorship, with funding. Could you give us a little overview of what to expect when a startup entrepreneur sets up shop in Kerala? If I come from abroad to set up shop in Kerala? How is Startup Mission Kerala helping entrepreneurs get started? 

Anoop Ambika: We were featured in your ecosystem report last year. We have been building this ecosystem from 2016 in the brand Kerala Startup Mission. Since then, many visionaries have been the CEOs and other top posts of Startup Mission. Many of them have created policies that would nurture enterprises out of Kerala.  

As a state one of the issues that we have is the lack of a larger industrial ecosystem. Unlike Mumbai or Chennai where the larger brick-and-mortar industrial ecosystem is in place for the last several decades. Kerala has been known for very specific sectors. For example, we have been ranked pretty well within the state when it comes to education and healthcare. We were the first fully literate state in India and we are fast moving towards a fully digitally literate state in India. We have been acclaimed as one of the best healthcare systems in the world, and even yesterday, the Minister of Health got an award saying that the most number of people who receive free healthcare in India is happening in Kerala. Like every three minutes or so, somebody's availing the public facilities to get the free health care services of the state.  

So healthcare, alternative medicine in terms of Ayurveda, agriculture, education, space tech, etc. are some of the areas where we have traditional strengths. We have the Vikram Sarabhai Space Center where most of the space technology that will power India’s satellite programs and some of the international satellite programs also come out of. We have an array of medical colleges, some of them probably more than 50 years old, who have created cardiologists, oncologists, and neurosurgeons who are some of the best in the world.  

We have been trying to build on these traditional sector strengths that we used to have, and as opposed to just going after every vertical. What you could expect coming to Kerala, if you look at these four or five sectors that I just mentioned, will be an extremely good testbed where you could develop, adopt, test, refine and get approval for your products. That is one way I would position and catalyze that. For these traditional sector skills, you should come to Kerala and set up your shop.  

The second area where we want to concentrate is social enterprises. So if you want to look at experiments that better people's lives, in terms of women and empowerment, of palliative care, of climate-resilient farming, there is a lot of research that is happening within Kerala. So if you are a social entrepreneur who wants to come and test out a social product, something that will make a social impact, Kerala is going to be one of the best ecosystems that you could come to. And anybody who's willing to or aspiring to abide by the UN Sustainable Development Goal charter, I would say that Kerala probably is going to be the best place where you could come and highlight your projects. 

Other than the grants, the schemes, the incubators, the Fab Lab/Maker Village ecosystem, the digital fabrication ecosystem. Philosophically, these are some of the things that entrepreneurs who would aspire to come to Kerala and set up shop should look at. The sector-specific strengths, the sustainability development goals as chartered by the UN, and the social impact factor that we value so much within the community when it comes to your enterprises. 

Stephan Kuester: Thank you, Anoop, I’m really delighted to hear it because it's so important for a somewhat smaller ecosystem to bid on these traditional strengths than the absence of, in this larger traditional industry. Because it is obviously going for sectors where we have these great strengths.  

You were talking quite a bit about life sciences, patient care, and health. It's one example of this big global megatrend of deep tech on the rise. Deep tech is driving the growth for startup ecosystems globally. Deep tech also is very dependent on forming a good bridge between the academic, the research scientists, professors, postdoctoral researchers, and the startup ecosystem. I'm sitting here in Europe and things are sometimes a bit difficult. They speak different languages. They don't necessarily coalesce very, very well. What's your experience? Are there some learnings for the network here? How to do that, really well? 

Anoop Ambika: So the triple helix, as Stanford calls it, like the government, the academy, and the industry – how do they come together and create an ecosystem? This is a problem that the entrepreneurial ecosystems across the world along with academia have been pondering over the past several years. How do I reenact a Stanford ecosystem? Or a Boston bio ecosystem or a Finnish or a Scandinavian innovation ecosystem? How do I do that? It's a question that we have been consistently asking.  

And we have been doing some introspection in terms of, “How do we learn?” And as we speak, some of the ministers from the state are also planning to visit Finland and look at the famous model of the Finnish education, learning by applying or learning by creating, right? We as a community, Stephan, have been learning for exams for a long, long time. And that, I think, applies to India in general.

The new education policy that is coming into place is slowly trying to change that. Even though there is a lot of resistance from the traditional academicians that students should not be taught to create things, but they should be equipped with knowledge so that they could later go back and create. If you look at the lifecycle of a human being, the creation of larger projects, or I'll call them products or designs or poems, it used to come at a later stage in your life that is after 30 or 40, or something like that. That cycle has changed.  

Now you see the younger ones, which is probably the 18 to 30s, creating products or platforms that impact the global population, the way you network, the way you search. So some of these things are already created by very young people, which means that the traditional concept of, “Okay, so let me equip myself through knowledge, test it out, get my degree, and then later go in and create that” is slowly changing.  

So I think society in general is starting to accept that, “I need to start learning by creating and learning while creating,” right? So that change is happening within the universities. The way learning happens, we have been slowly trying to change and create micro-learning platforms. There is a community that we have created called MuLearn. So we call it MuLearn because it's smaller microlearning, but also at the same time, mutually done. I teach you what I know, and you teach me what you know, and that creates communities that will teach you things.  

So, a university entry or college entry is never going to be a barrier for you to learn if you can actually strengthen micro-skilling community platforms, which is what we are working on right now. So on one side, to acquire new skills, whether you are inside the university system or outside the university system, you will have these micro-skilling platforms. On the other hand, we are planning to create what is called a Community Innovation Center, wherein if I'm a homemaker who's sitting at home but have acquired a new skill by going to the micro-skilling platform, I will be able to go and then test my skill or use my skill to create something using these community innovation centers.  

These community innovation centers will eventually form micro-clusters of educational institutions, research institutions, policymakers, local hospitals, and other areas. And then, within the context of your city or your village, you will be able to identify problems, acquire skills, and create things that might solve the problems. Some might succeed, and you'll be able to scale them to a global scale. That is how we want to kind of enable an industry, academy, or community collaboration, where you will be able to find the prodigy that Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa was. Nobody knew about him before he beat Magnus Carlsen, but I'm sure there are a million Praggnanandhaas out there within India, which we will be able to figure out.  

Stephan Kuester: Anoop, fascinating, the very principles we talk so much about. This community as a center of gravity. Platforms where people informally can make these connections, learn about challenges, respond to them, acquire skills. Very much about peer-to-peer learning from a young age all the way to scaling entrepreneurs. I'm so delighted to hear that that's all happening in Kerala. That can only encourage many, many people on the call to study, to learn from Kerala as well, and be inspired.  

Maybe one last question from my side. Deep tech is very important. You mentioned health as one of these examples. Space is another one. We see a lot of more experienced people who have a career, like yourselves, a career in a larger corporation, career in academia, step out of their employment at age 35, 40, you name it. Really make this leap of faith saying, “I want to change the world. I got an idea, and I don't want to be constrained by a traditional corporate environment.” Is there any particular mechanism that you would recommend to help them go on that path, take that risk, take that leap of faith? 

Anoop Ambika: Yeah, a very, very, very slight step that we are trying to do, Stephan, is entrepreneurship out of the industry, right? So what we are going to do, and this will roll out in the next year, is a program wherein we want to make a call, an expression of interest to the entire industry. Even though I said Kerala does not have many industries, we do have probably a large number of public sector units, which is working in metals and minerals, mining, healthcare, diagnostic equipment, etc. etc. and quite a few companies which work on very high technology in material sciences like blood bags, diagnostic equipment, spice extracts, life sciences companies.  

So, we have curated probably around 100 private enterprises and 100 public enterprises which work on very specific niche sectors. What we are going to do is to throw a challenge to the professionals who are working within those organizations to come up with a problem that you have seen, which you believe has a value in solving, but your organization is not letting you solve it because the priorities are different, obviously, no complaints there. What we're trying to do is take 100 such ideas, fund the top five from the government itself with a reasonable amount of money, by a reasonable amount of money; in Kerala terms, we are talking $100,000 to $150,000 for you to come and start up your shop.  

The rest of the 95 ideas, we are going to pass on to the angel investor network that we have created, or we are going to strengthen in the coming days primarily from the Kerala NRI ecosystem. A NRI is a non-resident Indian. Someone who has made her wealth abroad in the UK or US. We are planning to build an angel investment network. Each of those guys will eventually fund the rest of the 95 ideas.  

So, the first step that we are planning to do is take 100 ideas from the industry, fund them with reasonable money, which will take them through probably six to 12 months, within which they should be able to develop a prototype. Then take that risk out a little bit and enable them or motivate them to come and try out what they want to try out. We will start with that, and that is our only solution at this point of time, Stephan. 

Stephan Kuester: We will be following these activities with really great interest. It’s one of the most clever, I find, more sophisticated ideas of bringing more experienced talent into an ecosystem. Love it. We shall follow you very closely if you allow us to. It's fascinating.  

We are nearly out of time. In your own words, two to three arguments: why should I, as a foreign entrepreneur considering building a business, scaling a business, or as an investor, why should I look at Kerala? Why should I come to Startup Mission Kerala? 

Anoop Ambika: Kerala as a community, I'll give you the reasons from the history to begin with. If you look at the history, Kerala has been pretty much isolated from a lot of the rest of the country, primarily because of the mountain ranges that we have, the Western and Eastern ones. So, if I may call it the invasions, or the trade that happened with the world primarily happened through the sea route. And the Portuguese came in, the Jews came in, the Chinese came in, the Middle East came in, and as a community, Kerala is historically trained to do work with the world. And people do have that mix. The diaspora, sometimes, I even feel that there is a genetic mix that has occurred probably 100 years back, which makes you adapt to work with the global community. If you look at the non-resident Keralites who have gone abroad, they have excelled very well within the knowledge-based industries because of the education, the university system, the higher education system, and the research ecosystem that works.  

There are 125 research institutes that exist within the state and we do cutting-edge research on life sciences, earth sciences, material sciences, social studies, you name it, we have it here. So, there is a lot of wealth that is getting accumulated. I feel that a lot of it is going unused. Come to Kerala for the wealth of knowledge that is accumulated in terms of the research and development that is happening within the state. Come to Kerala for a global mindset that we have cultivated within the state over the past several centuries because of the global linkages, the historical linkages that we have had with Europe, the Middle East, the Chinese, etc. etc. So that's what I would see as a reason for you to come.  

Stephan Kuester: Thank you very much, Anoop. I think our research has demonstrated the importance of having diversity and the connectivity to the world in order to really build businesses, intelligent competitive businesses, and to scale them. So being so deeply rooted in the most diverse history certainly is a great argument. Again, a big thank you for having you here, for giving us the insight on Kerala. Fascinating journey for the state. But also looking at yourself. The ecosystem must be so grateful for a successful entrepreneur to come back, give back, and shape the future of a fast-growing startup ecosystem. Big thank you for joining us. 

Anoop Ambika: Thanks for having me. And good luck with all your programs, and we definitely look forward to being part of some of them. 

Stephan Kuester: See you in person very soon. Thank you.

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