THE OTHER SCHOOL

BITS Pilani: The non-IIT college that, too, is a cradle for many an Indian startup story

Quartz india
Quartz india

It is often said that graduates of the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) are the cornerstones of India’s startup boom. After all, IIT-ians have founded five of the eight Indian unicorns—startups valued at over $1 billion (Rs6,768 crore).

However, there is a non-IIT engineering college that, too, has produced some of the country’s most successful and innovative technology entrepreneurs: the over 50-year old Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS), Pilani.

“I am a lucky alumnus of a lucky institution,” says Vijay Sharma of BITS Pilani’s 2010 batch. While the institute was his second choice—the first, of course, was IIT—the 28-year-old now says his alma mater has given him more than just a degree in life.

Sharma got his first job through BITS’s widespread alumni network. Besides, he got a co-founder for his tech startups at his alma mater—in 2011, Sharma co-founded cloud telephony startup Exotel with his senior from college. In 2014, he launched a recruitment technology startup, Belong, partnering another BITS alumnus.

Belong is different from most other recruitment startups in India as it does not solely depend on the CVs of candidates, the usual practice in India. Instead, it scans social media activity and other public sources on the internet to identify potential recruits. This helps it tap top talent that may not be actively looking for jobs.

Sharma’s recruitment startup has attracted marquee investors, including Matrix Partners, which backs Indian unicorns such as Ola and Quikr. Belong has also received investments from Snapdeal co-founders Kunal Bahl and Rohit Bansal. The company’s clients include Chinese electronics firm Xiaomi, online lingerie seller Zivame, and online furniture seller Urban Ladder, among others.

Besides, BITS is where Sharma first met the woman who would become his wife.

Sharma’s is not the only success story from BITS Pilani. Its alumni also charted one of India’s earliest startup successes; bus ticketing platform redBus.

Founded by Phanindra Sama, Charan Padmaraju and Sudhakar Pasupunuri of BITS, redBus was among the first Indian startups to be successfully acquired by a global player, the Ibibo Group, for a reported $135 million. The company’s story is an inspiration for the Indian startup community. redBus was also the crucible of several other startups as many of its former employees started their own ventures.

Here are a few other startups founded by BITS alumni:

Startup Industry Details
BigBasket Online grocery delivery Co-founded by Hari Menon, it is one of the most-funded startups of 2016, despite poor investor sentiment.
Zivame Online lingerie delivery Founded by Richa Kar, it is expected to have a $1-billion valuation soon.
Exotel Cloud telephony Founded by Siddharth Ramesh, Ishwar Sridharan, Shivakumar Ganesan, and Vijay Sharma of BITS, it had around 85 million users in India in 2015.
Online Prasad Home delivery of prasad, or food item made as a religious offering Launched by Goonjan Mall, its business idea weaves religion and technology.
Attune Healthcare software Backed by Qualcomm Ventures and Norwest Partners, it handles over 10 million patient records. It was founded by Arvind Kumar.
Grey Orange Robotics Warehouse automation software A venture in the warehouse robotics space, it was founded by Samay Kohli and Akash Gupta.

IIT vs BITS

Since 2013, alumni of the four BITS campuses—Pilani, Hyderabad, Goa, and Dubai—have gone on to launch around 500 startups, according to data from startup research firm Xeler8.

“There are so many IITs that have been around for so many years, so obviously the volume of IIT alumni are much higher than that of BITS,” said Sharma of Belong. “In comparison, BITS had just one campus for the longest time.” Alumni of the 23 IITs have founded around 1,400 startups since 2013, according to Xeler8.

BITS Pilani was set up in 1964 and it opened its Dubai campus in 2000, Goa in 2004, and Hyderabad in 2008.

“There is a general opinion that IITians are smarter and a lot of students choose BITS as the second option because they don’t get through IIT entrances. But I did not even try for the IITs,” Shivakumar Ganesan, co-founder of Exotel, said. He graduated from BITS in 2004 and his company now works with over 1,000 corporate clients in Asia, including Uber, Shell, Expedia, and Amnesty International, among others.

“I was made to be a part of a rat race up until 12th standard, and I wanted to go to a college that allowed some freedom to think and act,” Ganesan said.

Break free

BITS Pilani alumni consider the institute’s location and environment as their first lessons in entrepreneurship.

“It’s a 1,300-acre compound that is far from everywhere. It takes six hours to reach any big city from BITS Pilani. So you learn your first lessons at resource management there,” said Akash Gupta, co-founder of Grey Orange Robotics.

Pilani is a small town in Rajasthan with a population of 29,741, according to the 2011 census. The city is not directly accessible by train, with the nearest railway station (pdf) is 16 kilometres away.

Since there is not much distraction, students end up spending a lot of their time and energy thinking and doing innovative stuff, said Gupta, who also featured in Forbes’ prestigious “30 under 30” list this year.

Twenty-five-year-old Gupta, raised in Kanpur, had no idea about entrepreneurship and startups before he came to BITS. At the institution, Gupta and his senior, Samay Kohli, developed AcYut, India’s first indigenously-developed humanoid. The duo also founded the robotics startup Grey Orange while they were still at BITS.

“When I came to college, my ambition was like that of any other middle-class boy: to graduate and find a good job in the US. But the ecosystem at the campus changed all that for me,” he said.

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