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Start-ups are not just digital

Look, these start-ups managed to keep heads over shoulders!

Rather than falling for the easy lure of me-too digital models, these 10 enterprises took to breaking new grounds and even solving some unsaid problems

These are the days of digital unicorns, when VC money is flowing in freely once again since the boom-and-bust era of circa 2000. This money is a good enough reason for start-ups to get distracted from what should be their core objective (to solve a customer problem) and get prematurely drawn into the ‘monetization’ discussions.

Yes, monetization is not a bad thing per se but getting overly focused on that, without having built the fundamentals right, surely is. Start-ups are successful when monetization is an outcome of the offerings they conceive and bring to the table, not otherwise. The bad part is that many have still fallen for it.

The good news is that, quite a few have managed to stay focused on their ideas and have worked with perseverance to bring those ideas to life. Their entrepreneurial zeal helped them build for innovation and disruption. They just didn’t tread the easy path of wishful ‘digital’ thinking for the sake of coming up with me-too revenue models.

These entrepreneurs have addressed existing or latent customer needs in areas ranging from biometrics, digital cartography, cloud services, biotechnology and automotive electronics.

Let’s look at 10 start-ups that are either already half-way there, if not in revenues but in mindshare, or promise to be trendsetters in their chosen theaters of action — besides influencing our lives in ways we didn’t really imagine.

1) Jayaashree Industries – Arunachalam Muruganantham did not flinch whenever he described himself as the first man to wear a sanitary napkin to test out its inadequacies. The cost of sanitary napkins dished out by established players in the market was a deterrent to rural womenfolk. After numerous experiments, Arunachalam found that the commercial sanitary pads used cellulose fibers derived from pine bark wood pulp. He invented a low-cost machine that could be operated with minimal training, sourced the processed pine wood pulp from a supplier in Mumbai and the machines would grind, de-fibrate, press and sterilize the pads before packaging them for sale. His company now has a presence in 23 states in India. Arunachalam now plans to expand the production of these machines to 106 countries.

2) DriversKart – The dearth of verified professional drivers and numerous untoward incidents involving drivers of more popular taxi aggregators led to the creation of Chennai-based DriversKart. For a start, the driver is hired, but he drives you in your own car. Cognizant alumnus Saksham Grover and his friends Vinit Srivastava and Lakshmi Potluri had the idea of helping customers book a driver and a verified and trained chauffeur at short notice. DriversKart offers subscription models with driver-on-demand and valet parking packages. It follows a per-minute pricing band, which offers the flexibility to pay as per the time used. Currently, DriversKart is a core team of six members, supported by an operations team, managing a pool of drivers. They are looking to expand their presence across multiple cities and managing a pool of over 1,000 drivers in the next few months.

3) Lawrencedale Agro Processing – A pesticide-free world is still far from reality when it comes to procuring vegetables in India. Lawrencedale Agro Processing, a Ooty-based packaged vegetable firm, started off with carrots, before its founder Palat Vijayaraghavan literally branched out into multiple vegetable assortments ranging from potatoes, beetroot, radish, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, artichokes, zucchini, capsicum and lettuce to tropical vegetables like cluster bean, garlic, cucumber, brinjal, cow pea, pumpkin and tomatos. Today, under the ‘Leaf’ brand moniker, Lawrencedale Agro has a growing presence in the market for fruits as well, and is in the process of extending the reach of ‘Leaf’ into shelves of larger retail chains like More and Reliance Fresh.

4) Snackexperts – Obesity is as much a beast of obsession to eliminate it as the struggle to evade it. As waistlines expand with the omnipresence of snack food wherever one cares to look, the food entrepreneur found a way to get his foot in the door. Snackexperts has been an early disruptor in the emerging health foods market with a range of packed offerings like fruit chews, granola crunchers, ragi twisters, almond and cinnamon flapjacks, jowar puffs, health bars and seed mixes. Chennai-based siblings Arun Prakash and Mary Shamla started Snackexperts to bridge the gap between conservative health foods and the practical taste factor which often deterred potential customers from going in for them. Healthy and tasty snacks which appealed to customers across age groups was the result.

5) The Media Ant – Advertisers and the traditional media barons had long believed that they could not without each other’s indulgence. In late 2012, one startup changed all that. Their idea of creating a new market had disruption written all over it. Traditional media companies were now the “middlemen” who had to be eliminated by removing the last-mile barrier — go directly to the advertisers. What better way to start that with Mumbai’s legendary dabbawalas? The Bangalore-based company delivered an advertising message to over 2 lakh office goers about an alternate to eating food brought by them, through the hands of 2 lakh dabbawalas. Offline marketing campaigns are set to forge new directions with this company.

6) iD Fresh Food – Idly and dosa lovers go into panegyrics when describing the colour, aroma and flavour of their favourite dishes, but the raw material employed to bring them to the table draws less excitement. The back-end pressures of making the batter was a niche which IIM graduate P C Musthafa and his associates, Shamsudeen TK, Abdul Nazer, Jafar TK and Noushad TA decided to exploit in 2005. “Prepaid batter” was the answer. iD Fresh Food saw an opportunity to tap the market for fresh idli and dosa batter which would be as good as home-made stuff. iD now has production units in six cities, including two plants in Bangalore and one each in Chennai, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Mangalore and Dubai.

7) Cardiac Design Labs – Performing diagnoses of cardiac ailments remotely and affordably for the hospital as well as the patient has been a challenge in a country where 64 million people suffer from heart disease. About 90 per cent of them walk into small hospitals, which don’t have capabilities for cardiac diagnostics. Cardiac Design Labs founder Anand Madangopal envisioned his company breaking down barriers in cardiac monitoring through wearable biomedical sensors. Started in 2011, his firm introduced the MirCam (mobile intelligent remote cardiac monitor), which detects heart problems that do not show up during standard hospital tests. The device transmits data to the cloud, provides analysis and generates alarms on detection. It gives the patient the freedom to move and still be monitored continuously. The Bangalore-based firm has raised $250,000 and is looking to raise a seed round of $500,000.

8) Husk Power Systems – The humble rice husk which landed in the garbage dump after being separated from the rice grain may not have proved to be the power player it is becoming today, but for Bihar-based Husk Power Systems. Co-founded by Gyanesh Pandey, Manoj Sinha, and Ratnesh Yadav, the detritus of the rice-hulling process, has received a new lease of life as an input source in a standard gassifier to generate power for thousands of rural Indians. Gyanesh Pandey, an IIT Varanasi alumnus, worked towards modifying the gassifier to use rice husk as feeder stock to fuel a generator. A crude power distribution network was created in August 2007, and then on, there has been no looking back. Today, the company runs numerous 25-100 Kw power plants running on syngas generated from processing rice husk and supplies power to households for as low as Rs 80 per month every evening.

9) Bisko Labs – Hardened motorcyclists who love their gears may not appreciate this Kochi-based company’s plan to shift users to gear-free mode. But the company has moved diligently to expand the gearless vehicle market in the country with its IGT technology which strips the gear box apart and leaves only the clutch on the handle-bar of a motorcycle intact for the user who wishes to shift gears. The innovation helps those who are intimidated by geared vehicles and is a boon for the physically challenged who love the look and feel of a bike but are overwhelmed by the challenge of constantly shifting gears.

10) Vaatsalya Healthcare – Over a decade ago, Vaatsalya Healthcare became India’s first healthcare company to venture into the rural heartlands to provide primary healthcare to patients who could not afford costly, state-of-the-art medical treatment. In the ensuing eight years, the company gradually expanded its network to 17 hospitals, and increased its focus on pharmaceutical sales. It is now making four of its medical offerings — general medicine, general surgery, obstetrics and gynecology, and pediatrics — which constitute 70 per cent of its patient requirements, uniform across each clinic. It is also planning to set up a training institute for healthcare professionals and venture into telemedicine and remote diagnoses on the lines of established healthcare chains.

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