Startups from the north-eastern region of India that will be worth watching out for in 2021

Startups from the north-eastern region of India that will be worth watching out for in 2021
From adventure tourism and agritech to media and entertainment, there are a whole lot of startups that may see increased business in the new year.

Recently, Jitendra Singh, the Union minister for development of the north-eastern region (DoNER), said the north-east will be one of the favourite business destinations of India post-Covid. Unarguably so, as the region has immense potential, which is yet to be explored to the fullest.

“Till recently, we were majorly confined to a job-seeking mindset. But the good news is that the past two-three years have witnessed the onset of a paradigm shift in the mindset of the people in the region. More and more people, especially the youth, are realising the importance of innovation to tackle the myriad local challenges themselves rather than expecting someone else to resolve the problems,” says HK Borah, the head of ecosystem development for IIM Calcutta Innovation Park (IIMCIP), which has been leading the mission to develop the startup ecosystem in the north-east since 2016. “It has also been observed that India’s top VCs and angel networks have their eyes on the region. With the markets saturating elsewhere, north-east India’s reasonably unexplored potential has investors warming up to the region,” Borah adds.

From adventure tourism and agritech to media and entertainment, there are a whole lot of startups that may see increased business in the new year. We profile some exciting ventures here…

A Guwahati-based 3D selfie store that is the first to create a 3D figurine from any type of photo

Harsha P Deka, CEO and founder of My3DSelfie, always knew that it was easier for him to do business in Canada or the US, but coming back to India and starting something new, acknowledging and accepting the challenges of a developing economy, and at the same time understanding the need of businesses that worked towards exports, was what intrigued him the most. That was the driving force for the Guwahati native to return to India after 14 years in 2016 and start his own venture.
The 32-year-old alumnus of Carlton University in Ottawa, Canada, where he did his bachelor’s in computer science, with specialisation in business management system, started his first company in 2010 called Myware Solutions while he was still in university. “We consulted SMEs to billion-dollar corporates. We also built a couple of products, one that dealt with bartering textbooks. Another was a stress management application,” he says.

With My3DSelfie, which started in 2016, Deka was the first in the world, he says, to be able to create a 3D figurine from any type of photo. “In my initial years as an entrepreneur, I realised that the 3D industry is new and the possibilities with it are endless. I could envision north-east India as a hub for 3D technology and traditionally-crafted figurines, much like what textile is to Bangladesh or manufacturing in general is to China,” he explains.

My3DSelfie operates in both B2B and B2C models. It has delivered products to thousands of consumers in over 39 countries, including Hollywood celebrities, sports personalities, high-profile government officials, Fortune 500 companies, universities like Harvard, Stanford and Cardiff, among others. “We are seeing 2x growth in terms of revenue compared to last year and are growing 25-30% every month. Our Q3 2020 revenue was 3x times compared to Q2 2020 and Q4 is on track to be 2x more than Q3 2020. We have been doing record-breaking numbers every month since July,” Deka says.

The startup raised Rs 50 lakh from the IIMCIP, raised Rs 15 lakh as a grant from the government of Assam, signed a term sheet with an investor at the first North East India Fund Fest held in 2020 of Rs 1.5 crore and is in talks with a few investors to raise a bigger round. “We are seeing enormous growth even during Covid. We successfully launched our new product line, opened up a subsidiary in the US and raised another round from a US investor, all in the midst of the pandemic,” he says.

But not everything was rosy. Wanting to create a 3D industry in the north-east was itself a challenge, firstly due to a lack of professionals in the field. “Hiring was a tough job… everyone had to learn and unlearn at the job,” Deka says, adding, “India has become too rigid with its systems. Processes are slow and are driven by a set of hierarchical undertakings, which is time-consuming and, in most cases, unnecessary. When it comes to exports, policies are taut and extensive. Ease of doing business when it involves exports is largely inconvenient and comes with multiple compliances.”

These, however, were some of the exact reasons why Deka wanted to come back. “I was always aware of the challenges, but we have slowly and persistently been able to overcome each one of them. I have slowly been able to start a culture in our office where we are motivated to come to work. We work not only for ourselves, but also as a team,” he says.

Going ahead, Deka is looking at raising funds and fulfilling his startup’s ultimate goal of employing 5,000 employees.

Dealing in spices and herbs, this company in Shillong aims to make local farmers famous by popularising their rare produce

When 70-year-old Ralph Budelman came to Shillong from Chicago in 2004, he was influenced by the potential he saw in the youth of the north-east. He wanted to ensure that this potential did not go waste and so he started Chillibreeze, the parent company of Zizira, to generate employment and offer better opportunities.

Inadvertently, Budelman saw the agricultural resources that the north-east had to offer that were being severely underutilised, especially in Meghalaya. So 10 years after Chillibreeze’s inception, he took another leap of faith and launched Zizira, a food-based company with a mission to make farmers famous. Zizira, which deals with spices and herbs, delivers the ‘undiscovered treasures’ grown by the small farmers of Meghalaya to discerning and food-conscious customers all over India.

“The abundant rainfall, rich soil, high altitude, hilly terrain, fresh air and clean water produce unique plants and crops endemic to a few regions globally.

We hunt for these treasures from what is considered by some to be ‘the richest, most biodiverse region in India’ using our knowledge of the local languages, cultures and drawing from ancient wisdom and folk medicine to give customers rare and authentic products… we also work with small family farmers in Meghalaya,” he says.

Zizira’s revenues are generated directly from discerning customers who consume its products. It works directly with local farmers to deliver products
to customers all over India. “The main user base and target profile of Zizira is the niche food-conscious Indian population living in metro cities, which does not have access to pure herbs and spices,” explains Budelman.

Zizira started in 2015 with nothing but a young group of individuals and one vision — ‘making farmers famous’. “Everything from there was trial and error. We learnt everything the hard way,” says Budelman, adding, “We had to figure out ways to pack our goods properly, ways to process them, how to select the right farmers, how to solve logistics issues. Zizira is defined by the challenges we faced.”

However, the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent lockdown proved to be a problem, which negatively impacted the flow of the business on many levels. The company’s supply chain was the most affected, but the challenges faced by the team forced them to grow and adapt to the new normal. The team put in great effort to tackle the limitations brought by the lockdown. This meant staying at the office for months on end, working extra hours and conducting meetings on shipments and logistics to prevent future problems. “In hindsight, however, all of it was a blessing in disguise,” says Budelman, adding, “We want to put Zizira on the map. We also have plans of expanding the business in terms of delivering our products to discerning customers outside India as well.”

The aim is to build a larger farmer network and partner with more family farmers who are not just from Meghalaya, but from other north-eastern states as well.

An environment conservation model based in Gangtok that works towards a goal of zero-waste Himalayas

Being an Army child, Pritam Pany lived in over 15 cities across India until nostalgia brought him back to his home state Sikkim. The 30-year-old started Voyage in 2018 with the goal of achieving a zero-waste Himalayas, and has had a grassroots-level focus in Gangtok ever since. “My intervention point in environment conservation began in 2010 when I had gone for an internship to Austria and was able to observe the stark difference in sanitation and hygiene with respect to our country,” says Pany.

This was always running at the back of his mind and he finally quit his corporate job in 2016 to pursue solid waste management full-time, with the intention of working towards the betterment of his country. Voyage, as an impact enterprise, has a hybrid model. Its NGO arm works towards uplifting landfill ragpickers out of poverty. “We conduct medical camps, improve livelihoods and also supported them during Covid times. Our NGO’s primary funding source has been online crowdfunding, which we have been able to successfully achieve with the help of our active supporters,” explains Pany, a graduate of IIT-Roorkee who has worked as a teacher, architect and a management consultant in two MNCs and a startup based in Bengaluru before starting Voyage.

“Voyage’s commercial arm was earlier involved in consulting… we have made Gangtok military station zero-waste by installing composting and dry waste management systems onsite, effectively stopping 90% of the waste generated from going to the landfill daily,” says Pany.

To increase its impact, and utilising the grant money awarded to it by the North East Council (NEC), it established a one-tonne-per-day plastics processing unit in October. “This way, we will be able to stop roughly 300 tonnes of plastic per annum from getting burnt or going to the landfill. Our project focus is currently on households and we have signed up with 50 of them. We collect their dry waste once a month and take it to our unit for further processing,” he says, adding, “We are a very agile startup with the ability to pivot at the drop of a hat. The systems we have installed right now would see us processing a minimum 300 tonne of plastic per annum. That, combined with our newly-forged partnerships with local communities and authorities, sees us poised for exponential growth in the coming year.”

Runway Nagaland
Platform for local artisans in Kohima offering handmade products using indigenous technique & designs

Runway Nagaland started in 2012 as a platform to provide space to local artisans to promote and market their creations. Gradually, the startup got into manufacturing handmade accessories, using indigenous techniques and designs, with a motive to preserve and pass on the art of the region. “Our revenue model is based on channel partners, retail, online, wholesale, etc. We have a varied profile from jewellery to home furnishings to decorative and gifting,” says 33-year-old Nengneithem Hengna, a first-generation entrepreneur hailing from Kohima in Nagaland.

Runway Nagaland’s ‘Gou-lu’ tribal jewellery brand has made a visible mark in the fashion world and the startup has shown healthy growth in the past three-four years, with a revenue of `40-67 lakh. “Nagaland is well known for its creativity and craftsmanship, but we didn’t have any systematic way of doing business. I took the opportunity… and based on my favourite quote ‘Winners don’t do different things, they do things differently’, I created Runway Nagaland as a platform for our artisans,” says Hengna, a Delhi University alumna, who worked with Dabur India and HDFC Life in various capacities before starting her own venture.

However, it was never an easy journey. From people not taking a woman entrepreneur seriously to facing societal taboos and judgments to funding her business were some of the challenges that she faced while starting up. “I knew it’s difficult to sustain business in Nagaland due to many factors. So my focus was always to market our local products outside the state and this strategy has proven to be successful, mitigating other drawbacks,” she says.

Then came the coronavirus pandemic. “Business operations were badly affected due to the lockdown. So, for the moment, we are concentrating more on our social media presence and working on developing new designs. We have also taken up interior designing projects and training sessions,” she says.

Hengna also utilised the time in researching, experimenting with and understanding banana fibre, its usage and sustainable ways of harvesting it without harming nature. “With our new project on banana fibre, which is projected to make at least 35% profit within the first financial year, we are hopeful to break even by the third year. We have high hopes and are looking forward to 2021,” she says.

An adventure travel firm in Guwahati offering cycling and trekking tours

While working with various organisations in Delhi, Assam native Jitu Pegu realised that travellers were eager to know more about the north-east and were ready to travel there, but were unable to do so due to lack of professionalism in the region. Safety is a major concern for hardcore adventure travellers, as they tend to venture out only where certified and trained professionals are available.

“There are high chances of diversion of tourist flow to this region,” says 35-year-old Pegu, a master’s degree holder in tourism and leisure with adventure tourism as specialisation from the Indian Institute of Tourism and Travel Management in Noida. And so Pegu started his adventure travel company based in the north-east with co-founder Supuraj Gogoi in 2016.

“We specialise in cycling and trekking tours in this part of the country. Besides, we also do outdoor educational tours for school children and corporate outdoor training programmes,” says Pegu. Natventure, which was awarded the ‘Best Adventure Tour Operator’ of Assam in 2018-19 by the state tourism department, generates revenue mainly from cycling and outdoor educational trips. “In the next two years, we are planning to introduce water- and air-based activities to our itineraries,” explains Pegu.

So far, the co-founders have invested around Rs 20 lakh, a majority of which was spent on equipment and product development. Natventure has just completed its third operational year. While it made a transaction of around Rs 8 lakh in the first year, it increased to Rs 13.5 lakh in the third, adds Pegu. “We have handled international travellers, but our main target group is the domestic adventure traveller. Within India, our clients are mainly from Delhi, Karnataka, West Bengal and Maharashtra,” adds 43-year-old co-founder Gogoi, who graduated from Gauhati University and is a hardcore adventure enthusiast.

According to Gogoi, lack of trained manpower has been the biggest challenge in starting up in a region like the north-east. “However, we have been working closely with organisations like Assam Mountaineering Association. We have also been successful in polishing a few local youths,” he adds. Also, as compared to the rest of India, says Gogoi, adventure circuits are not developed in this region. “This has made us spend a lot of time, as well as money in developing adventure activity-based circuits,” he says. Going forward, Natventure aims to be a one-stop solution for adventure seekers. “To fulfill this, we are diversifying our option of activities, as well as developing various circuits in all the states,” Pegu adds.

Spokehub Cycling
A premium bike service and retail point based in Guwahati offering spares & accessories

When Ajanta Boro and Bikash Doley were working in corporate houses outside Assam, they owned geared bicycles from Giant, which they used to ride whenever they came to Guwahati. However, they realised there was a lack of service for premium bicycles in the city and traditional bike shops were not equipped to handle those bikes. “So we quit our jobs in 2016 and worked on setting up a bike service and retail point to give access to service and sale of high-end bikes along with spares and accessories,” says 33-year-old Boro, an IIM-Indore and NIT-Nagpur alumna. Thus was born Spokehub Cycling in 2017.

Before starting, Boro worked with Tata Steel and Diageo, while Doley worked in Mother Dairy and Glenmark. “Once we started this venture, we realised that the cycling scene here will improve only if an ecosystem is developed. So we evolved our business model from a retail chain to community engagement and development, developing cycling as sports through our ‘Spokehub Racing Team’, events and races, bicycle tours and rental programmes and content generation through our digital content partner Whacky Talky,” says Boro, who married Doley last year.

In early 2020, Spokehub Cycling was selected for incubation with Startup Assam, an initiative of the Assam government to create a startup ecosystem in the state. Through it, Spokehub received a grant of Rs 15 lakh, which was used for expansion of its retail chain and upgrade of its media partner. “Apart from that, the venture is bootstrapped one,” says Boro.

The pandemic proved to be a blessing, as people realised the importance of fitness, and there was a spike in demand. Spokehub Cycling, too, has seen around 3x growth. “But the curve is bound to go down as things normalise. Then we would be growing at our normal rate, which is about 1.5x y-o-y,” explains Boro.

According to her, having a base in Guwahati can be both a bane and boon. “When we started, we had an open field to try out new things for creating demand rather than working as a trading firm,” she says, adding, “It was a bane in the sense that examples of startups were quite rare. Initial hiccups on credit support, inventory availability and many more were overcome once we showed results not only in terms of revenue, but also in terms of building the brands,” Boro says. What’s their mantra for success? “There is no shortcut, believe in yourself and don’t lose focus of your purpose and aim. Everything takes time, so patience and hardwork helped us achieve where we are now,” Boro signs off.

Interview: HK Borah, head, ecosystem development, IIM Calcutta Innovation Park

‘The way N-E feels at home with music, a similar trend for startups is needed’

IIM Calcutta Innovation Park (IIMCIP) has been leading the mission to develop the startup ecosystem in east and north-east India since 2016. Kunal Doley speaks with HK Borah, the head of ecosystem development at the B-school’s incubator, to know why the region is fast emerging as a one-of-a-kind ecosystem. Edited excerpts:

Some reports say the north-east is fast emerging as a one-of-a-kind startup ecosystem. What are your observations?
North-east India has carved a unique position in the nation’s entrepreneurial landscape by dint of its emphasis on social entrepreneurship. Every region has its typical challenges and advantages, and I think it’s imperative to carve a niche than follow a fad.

We might not be the best tech innovators like a Bengaluru or Kerala or Chennai. But our uniqueness lies in our unique challenges and the unique society-centric innovations to deal with the challenges. So when a Tage Rita brews the world’s first variety of kiwi wine, her venture is predominantly fuelled by the intention to find a market for the abundantly-grown kiwi in Arunachal Pradesh. Or, for that matter, Khasi entrepreneur Bestarly Marwain’s aromatic plantations are inspired from his intent to restore green coverage in the mining wastelands of Meghalaya. While addressing the core local issues, these entrepreneurs from the north-east are innovating products and services that can meet global demands. And this indeed puts north-eastern entrepreneurs in a unique position.

You’ve been associated with the startup ecosystem in the north-east for quite some time now. What are your key takeaways so far? What kind of challenges, if any, do startups from the region face vis-a-vis their counterparts in other parts of the country?
The major challenges infesting north-eastern startups could be summarised in three pivotal factors — mindset, exposure and knowledge. The job-seeking mindset is intrinsic to our upbringing in this part of the world. In order to convince ourselves that we are far more capable than being mere survivors is something that would take time, awareness drives and a few success stories from the local ecosystem.

Apart from security, another very important element attached to a job or career in this part of the world is respect. We often want our children to grow up to be doctors, engineers, professors or someone holding a coveted position in administration. This desire does not just emerge from the income considerations, but also from the notion of respect that these professions command. As such, it’s important to convey to the people the fact that entrepreneurship doesn’t just bring profit, but also immense respect by the positive changes that they bring in society and to the economy as bold and ethical leaders. When we talk about changing mindsets, change must be brought both in the youths to take up entrepreneurship, as well as in their parents to support the decision to take up entrepreneurship.

This can come through extensive awareness campaigns. However, even if one has finally realised the amount of money and respect that entrepreneurship can bring, he/she might still pat an argument: “Business isn’t in our blood.”

Perhaps, what they see as a genetic construction is, in reality, a lack of exposure. In order to stop playing safe and start taking risks without a fear of failure, the need is to get exposed to a challenging environment where brilliant risk-takers are playing smart gambles to successfully resolve problems through innovative thinking.

In this part of the world, even if someone thinks of a startup idea, they would, most possibly, bury it within themselves without realising the idea’s potential to be built into a profitable, scalable and sustainable business. Cut to a city like Bengaluru, Mumbai or Delhi, a youth deciphers the commercial viability of an idea as soon as it hits him or her. It is this kind of exposure and familiarity to entrepreneurship that we lack.

The way the north-east feels at home with music and guitar, a startup trend needs to be created with a supportive ecosystem, so that the youth feel at home with startup and entrepreneurship as well.

However, even if one has the required mindset, it all comes down to zero without the knowledge of doing business. Being more of a job-oriented community, our interests, as well as the academic curriculum, are focused more on job-based subjects than on entrepreneurship courses. But we must understand that while passion and risk-taking are entrepreneurial virtues, they will end up like a mighty bedlam without strong and level-headed knowledge of business.

That’s one of the fundamental reasons why a lot of brilliant ideas die down in this part of the world without making any noise. This is where the IIM Calcutta Innovation Park plays a significant role in terms of disseminating business knowledge and handholding fledgling entrepreneurs to grow with knowledge and confidence.

Many young entrepreneurs from the region have made their mark with their unique startups. What makes them click? Any interesting entrepreneurial ideas and projects that you have witnessed so far?
A rundown of the cases of successful startups brings out three significant qualities that have made them click.

First is the intent to solve a problem rather than obsessing over their own innovation. It’s a common mistake made by startups to focus more on their innovation than trying to align it with the market need. Successful startup founders have a keen understanding of the pain points and are smart enough to tailor their innovation according to the need.

The second standout quality is perseverance. They aren’t bogged down by lean patches, but are rather quick to make decisions to tweak the business model according to the situation. The car service aggregator from Assam, Automovill Technologies, is a good example of this. When the lockdown had dried up their business, the startup founders quickly pivoted to offering vehicle sanitisation services. They use high-grade anti-microbial solutions to sanitise government vehicles, as well as a number of government and corporate offices in Guwahati. Being a startup, it’s important to stay nimble and alert and waste no time in adapting to situations. And this is one quality that makes startups like Automovill script success.

The third unique quality, especially of the startups from this part of the world, is their knack at harnessing local resources to resolve problems typical to the region. So, be it a tea startup from Assam — Esah Tea — working closely with small tea growers to push the quality of tea production and help align it with the global demand, or the Meghalaya-based startup Zizira-working closely with local farmers to procure, process, and sell quality herbs and spices to cater to a global market — these statups are making significant contributions towards livelihood creations, thus addressing the grave problem of unemployment in the region.

What is your message to budding entrepreneurs from the region?
It’s encouraging to see more and more youths from the region jumping on to the entrepreneurial bandwagon. I must congratulate them for taking the first step by daring to aspire to be an entrepreneur. But, while entrepreneurship is slowly but certainly emerging as a fad in the region, one must realise that entrepreneurship is a serious business that demands a lot of hard work, perseverance, and the courage and skills to survive the initial failures. Planning is a must before kickstarting the operations. Do not rush yourself. Do the homework well. Do a thorough market research, understand the needs, and determine your prospective customers. Remember that your brilliant innovation might prove a waste if it isn’t serving a need.

Kunal Doley is a freelancer

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