Jishnu Nath, a school-going teenager from the Barpeta district of Assam, is an innovator in the making. With 10 innovative products already in his kit, the young lad wants to study Electrical Engineering and then found his own startup. Jishnu’s parents are giving no opportunity a miss that could take their son a step closer to his goal. Such kind of entrepreneurial aspiration and the zealous support from parents were rare, if not unimaginable, in Northeast India, 10 years back. The startup buzz has finally taken Northeast India by storm, and for good.

The recently announced States’ Startup Ranking 2021 by DPIIT has put NER under national spotlight. While Assam and Arunachal Pradesh have been recognized as Leaders in Category A and B respectively, Meghalaya has been dubbed as the Best Performer in Category B. States like Manipur (Aspiring Leader – Category B), Tripura (Aspiring Leader – Category B) and Mizoram (Emerging Startup Ecosystem – Category B) have also been duly recognized for the gradual coming of age of the startup ecosystems.

The rankings may sound like music to the ears. But it took a good many numbers of years for the region to realize and accept the concept and importance of startups. If we go merely 7 years back, the word ‘startup’ baffled a majority of the people. While a few ‘maverick, rule-breakers’ did dare to break themselves free from the job-seeking conditioning to embark on a lonely, startup journey, the startup ecosystem existed incoherently in bits and pieces, if it existed at all.

Today, however, the startup ecosystem in the region has assumed a position where corporates, investors and even the nationally renowned startup companies are unabashedly expressing their interest to explore the motley possibilities in the region. A generous amount of the credit for this would go to Government of India’s Startup India initiative, which jolted and inspired the Northeastern states to unbury the latent entrepreneurial potential of the region. This sparked industry-academia partnerships and government intervention to activate the entrepreneurship development cells and incubation centres, as well as facilitate workshops and Business Plan contests for the youth. A perfect instance to mention is the intervention by the Mizoram State Entrepreneurship Development Monitoring Committee (MEDMOC), a nodal body of the Government of Mizoram, to partner with B-School incubator, IIM Calcutta Innovation Park, for launching the state’s biggest annual innovation challenge – Mizoram Kailawn – in 2017. Encouraged by the response to the first edition, the second edition garnered greater institutional support from the Mizoram University Incubation Centre, TATA Trusts, North Eastern Development Finance Corporation Ltd. (NEDFi) and Software Technology Parks of India (STPI).

Meanwhile, the Government of Assam pioneered a new chapter by giving a definite structure to the roadmap for the development of a startup ecosystem in the state. The Assam Startup Policy 2017 formulated by the Industries, Commerce and Public Relations Department, Govt. of Assam, made way for the launch of Northeast India’s first state-owned marquee startup incubator, Assam startup – the nest, in January 2019, with IIM Calcutta Innovation Park picking up the baton to drive the initiative. Assam already had reputed institutions like the Technology Incubation Centre at IIT Guwahati and Indian Institute of Entrepreneurship (under the Ministry of Skill Development & Entrepreneurship), making its impact felt among innovators, startups and MSMEs. The Assam Startup initiative has tried to bring cohesiveness among the stakeholders – including innovators, entrepreneurs, incubators, academia, corporates, industrialists, HNIs and investors – and establish symbiotic relationships towards building a nurturing ecosystem. This collaborative approach, along with startup-friendly schemes and policies by the central and state governments, have resulted in the opening up of a wide window for internationally acclaimed corporate houses and VC companies to learn and explore the startup potential of the region. For instance, IT giant, CISCO collaborated with Assam Startup in 2021 to launch the India Technopreneurship Series (an initiative under Cisco LaunchPad Accelerator Program), making Assam the second state only after Kerala to be introduced to the series. Further, VC companies and angel networks like Omnivore and Mumbai Angels Network have already invested in the startups from this part of the world. In fact, 56 startups incubated by Assam Startup have raised funds worth Rs. 32 crores. This could well be the result of the rising confidence and the newfound business savviness of the startups by dint of the capacity building programs, investment-readiness training and the exposure that they have received under the initiative.

Meghalaya has been the talk of the nation since its recognition as the Best Performer in the States’ Startup Ranking 2021. The state has exhibited phenomenal enthusiasm and progress in the entrepreneurship space ever since the launch of the state initiative, PRIME Meghalaya, under the towering leadership of Hon’ble Chief Minister of Meghalaya, Conrad K. Sangma, in January 2020. The two dedicated incubation centres under the initiative, each at Shillong and Tura, are managed in collaboration with IIM Calcutta Innovation Park as the Knowledge Partner. Playing to the strength of the state, the initiative has made a conscious choice to lend due importance to promoting startups with rural or grassroots impact in Meghalaya. Apart from running the incubation program, the initiative has made phenomenal advances in sparking entrepreneurial aspirations in the students as well as capacitating the ecosystem enablers through various sensitization workshops.

Further, the startup investments have witnessed a conspicuous surge lately. NEDFi has been at the forefront in making investments in the startups from NER. Its subsidiary venture capital firm, NEDFi Venture Capital Ltd., has made 20 investments and is continuously on a lookout for investible startups from the region. The North East Venture Fund, a dedicated venture capital fund for NER, and promoted by NEDFi, Ministry of DoNER and SIDBI, has recently announced the launch of Startup Investment Fest 2022. The Fest aims to reach out to and invest in scalable startups from NER having innovative products/services backed by technology. PSUs like Oil India, NRL and IOC have earmarked seed corpus to support the emerging startups from Northeast. The state governments in Assam, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh have reserved seed corpus that are awarded to the promising startups under the respective state initiatives. Besides, the startups now have access to the funding and handholding schemes by different departments of the central government as well the corporate, which are channelized through various registered incubators. The Startup India Seed Fund Scheme, MeitY TIDE EiR and Grant, DST NIDHI EiR, STPI Chunauti, DST NIDHI-PRAYAAS, BIRAC SPARSH Fellowship, MeitY SAMRIDH, DST NIDHI Pragati and Pernod Ricard India Foundation’s Women Entrepreneur’s program are such initiatives to mention a few.

The startup buzzword has surely started reverberating across the region. If the newfound momentum manages to carry itself without a pause, there isn’t anything stopping Northeastern region from growing into a startup hub the nation would recognize as a force to reckon with.

Author: Satarupa Misra