Bengaluru-based gradCapital, co-founded by Abhishek Sethi (PGP 2021), is leading the charge to be an enabler to the student start-up community, involving student talent at an unprecedented scale. It has launched a pan-India, student-focused VC fund designed to help college graduates grow their ideas into businesses. gradCapital will invest $25,000 in each of the 20 start-ups they select over the next year. gradCapital is also being supported by CIIE.CO – The Innovation Continuum.
EARLY LIFE I was a starry-eyed kid with the only aim to pursue theoretical physics. The craziness swept in me in high school. How can a Newton equation explain almost all the universe? – great explanatory power. The sweet elegance of mathematical equations majorly drew me into the depth of Science.
I went to BITS with the mindset to explore the realities of nature. During my internship at BARC, I worked on building a holographic microscope. Basically, constructing 3D images from a simple camera. I was then amazed to witness that 11th standard optics can be applied for such real-life things. The project at BARC could be used for detecting cancer in blood cells or using it as a defence application. I was frustrated at some point because I couldn’t take the project into the market and affect real lives. In other sense, I felt small and insignificant.
Because this idea was so simple, wouldn’t someone smarter and more resourceful pull it off better? This thought constantly echoed through friends and family. Every market demand is probably fulfilled and unless you have an extreme competitive advantage – one can’t pull it off. A student, who lies low in hierarchies in terms of economic power (no money) or social power (parents and teachers control decisions!). To my dismay, the students need to take permission for using the washroom in the schools. Moreover, the institutions in India have a hard time trusting students on risky projects.
With these thoughts in the backdrop, I pursued Science till I graduated. As what I observed, the common thread in all lab experiences was the lack of supportive institutions for students to bring research to life. Most academic projects stay on paper or as presentations.
During my final year, I gave CAT and got into IIMA. I also had an offer from UC Berkeley and chose to defer my MBA. During my deferral period, I figured that I don’t want to get a PhD and wished to do something more life-like. I was driven by an intention to touch lives and not just electrons with my work. I then worked at CIIE looking after their investments in Deeptech Startups with a focus on Biotech. The shift from a lab environment to business was tricky with the shift in culture, approach, and objectives were real. Academia was a more individual-focused goal and hence it gave the flexibility to work at suitable times. I also learnt that businesses need to have a culture of team orientation ingrained in it to bring ambitious projects to success.
gradCapital VISION gradCapital is an attempt to build an institution to support students and their brilliant projects. The challenges are largely institutional. Students are amazingly innovative, radical and experimental. What holds them back is the power and capital to execute projects. Historically, look at companies or social movements – most had their roots in student movements. From Google to Tiananmen Square protests – students have been excellently analytical in building things with a great ability of execution. The academic spaces have a free culture to think, question, develop, and converse about anything relevant. This culture is not easy to have or build from scratch.
Then there’s something tricky about transitioning to the real adult world. In the corporate world, one is exposed to a new set of norms. These new norms set in new types of thinking which further create a new map of the world. The world remains the same when you transition from college to corporate – but the construction of the world changes. Ask a first-year student, what are some major problems in the world and possible solutions, and then ask adults in a corporate. A college student is more likely to care about the environment or homosexuality tolerance than a manager in a corporate. The innate difference in innovation and ability to challenge the status quo is staggering. There’s a certain bliss in not knowing about the challenges to problems. You feel more optimistic about your solution and are able to go all in.
In our experience of talking with student entrepreneurs, many of the teams are building start-ups in quantum computing, new millennial consumer, content economy, or drone food delivery. Students are really good at frontier tech, that’s kind of obvious. At the same time, they are also facing millennial like new problems, and participating in the content economy. Overall, students have a great founder-market fit in the following:
1. Deep-tech: Robotics, BioTech, AI/ML and more
2. Products for the new consumer: e.g., Financial services for college students
3. Content and Communities: Producing, monetising, and distributing content. Building communities on the same basis
Having said this, we don’t have a rigid thesis to support students. These are just areas that students actively pursue. Moving forward, we want to go surgical on college campuses. Backing all kinds of projects: in labs, club activities, course project or even a hobby. We are bullish on this not from the view of opportunity, but because an institution like this is long due.
With this vision, we want to invest $25,000 in foolish student projects and help them turn into great start-ups. In future, we will think of investing in all kinds of projects (non-profit, R&D research, club goals) that may not have the start-up component.
The challenge lies in monetising and mechanics to finance them.
IIMA EXPERIENCE AND PRESENT I wasn’t much sure about joining IIMA for a long time. I just knew I came from a scientific background and I need to learn about people, society and structures – what they need, organisation structure, and society at large. I got more interested in public policy and entrepreneurship during IIMA. I took courses with Prof Anil Gupta and Prof Ankur Sarin – they had a major influence on me during my IIMA journey. To be frank, I presented gradCapital in CINE course at the Institute and encouraging words by Prof. Anil Gupta were immensely helpful. How could a 24-year-old person start his own fund? All fund managers in the market are relatively old people with more experience. Again to my surprise, even SEBI asks for significant work experience to get many investments advisory licenses. Entrepreneurship is by its nature very lonely, because you are challenging the status quo and building systems that have had no past evidence. It requires a leap of faith + appropriate support systems. I am lucky that I had them. But the period was hard and it took some time to tie my passion, strengths, and aspirations together. I am now able to connect many dots from my past to this new project.
In addition to this, I actively engaged with CIIE. I worked with Vipul and Kunal (Partners at CIIE) before joining IIMA and they have been a major support since Day 1. Their experiences in deep-tech, college ecosystem, and seed-stage companies are unparalleled. Each conversation with Vipul seems to enlighten us even more about the ecosystem. Kunal’s drive to pursue newer and difficult areas – is something we draw our inspiration from. Their belief in the mission and the team is hugely encouraging.
On a personal level, I feel I have got this perfect job. Interacting with student energy is always fun, and I get a chance to nerd around Science. Imagine talking to multiple people every day who want to change the future with their passion! On top of it, it is super exciting to build a company and its processes. We are innovating almost everything from scouting, investing, and a cohort.