A virtual incubator is helping India’s untapped engineers share their love for all things tech

Picking each other’s brains
Picking each other’s brains
Image: Reuters/Gabrielle Lurie
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Going virtual is the new way forward for startup incubators around the world. But months before Silicon Valley’s famous Y Combinator took its expertise online, establishing a Startup School, a small collaboration and networking platform was making a name for itself among techies in India.

Though the country is home to over 140 offline startup accelerators and incubators, these haven’t always been able to cater to those who live outside of big cities. And virtual incubators, such as StartupWave and ReRise, have so far primarily focused on entrepreneurs who have established startups. As a result, many engineers still struggle to find mentors and are often unable to put their talent and ideas to full use.

New York-based Collaborizm hopes to plug this hole.

Since its launch in July 2016, Collaborizm has been offering budding Indian entrepreneurs, engineers, and even coding enthusiasts a platform to share their knowledge and build on their expertise. Today, it has 119,000 registered users from over 40 countries, 85% of them Indian. Through the platform, these users can find mentors, learn from their peers, and build new startups.

Untapped engineers

For Collaborizm founder Steven Reubenstone, the idea to create a virtual networking and learning environment for techies came about when he was still an engineering student at the University of Miami between 2009 and 2013. At the time, Reubenstone struggled to find like-minded techies to collaborate with. A little research showed that this was a big problem in India, too. So, he launched a portal to help engineers, irrespective of their locations, to come together.

“We were building a platform initially for engineers/tinkerers. We focused (on) where the biggest audience/most desperate pain-points (were),” he told Quartz in an email.

Within a month of Collaborizm’s launch, around 12,000 people had signed up; in six months, nearly 50,000. Today, over 101,000 engineers from all over India, some as young as 13 years old, use the platform. Around 8% of the user base is from tier-2 and tier-3 cities, the rest from big cities. After the launch, Reubenstone reached out to his prospective users through Facebook, which he says has been his main channel for growth. He now believes the platform can eventually reach more rural entrepreneurs.

Over the last year, collaborators have created projects such as KandyBot, a multipurpose robot that can be controlled using an Andriod app, and BucketList, a to-do list app to help people achieve things on their bucket lists. For Reubenstone, these collaborations are a sign of success. So far, he says, around 105 teams are “striving towards their early stage prototypes.”

Now, Collaborizm is expanding its reach, teaming up with the Indian government.

Startup India

In June, Collaborizm partnered with the government on its Startup India initiative to find and groom Indian entrepreneurs. It works with Startup India Hub, an online networking platform, to zero-in on promising local firms. Based on a set of critera, it selects Indian-led projects from the Collaborizm platform and introduces them to the government-backed portal through which they can receive support.

Three weeks into the partnership, Startup India Hub and Collaborizm identified the first worthy entrepreneur: Narendran Asokan, a 23-year-old engineering graduate from Chennai. Asokan’s firm, Sciencotonic, makes animated videos of science experiments to teach school students basic concepts.

But while Asokan says he did benefit from Collaborizm, industry experts believe online incubators aren’t necessarily a perfect solution.

The fine print

While such platforms provide opportunities, there are security concerns that users need to take into account.

“They key thing is that they are highly dependent on the people behind the programme,” Pankaj Jain, an advisor to startups and funds, and a former member of accelerator 500 Startups, told Quartz in an email. If the people behind the virtual model are highly reputable, have strong offline networks that virtual students can tap into, and are very clear about their goals and objectives, then it can lead to great opportunities opening up for people, Jain said. “However, if the people…are suspect, unknown, aren’t clear about their intentions (not just value-add), then I would be very wary, especially if they’re planning to charge or intellectual property is shared on their platform,” he added.

Collaborizm tries to combat this by giving top users administrative privileges so that they can moderate the platform, weeding out fake users and those who flout the rules.

The other concern is the fineprint. Jain points out that few read the “terms of service” agreement when they sign up for any app or website service. It is possible that these terms state that everything shared on the platform effectively becomes the property of the site and not the actual creator.

“In countries with weak IP (intellectual property) protection laws, this could be a major problem, depending on how the virtual incubator allows info to be shared, accessed etc,” he explained.

Reubenstone, however, believes ideas discussed on Collaborizm aren’t IP. They are what people explore before IP is built. “Most of our focus is on early stage tasks that do not require you to expose all of your IP or idea,” he says. In cases where sensitive topics are discussed, the platform has tools that enable the information to flow through hidden channels,” he added.

But perhaps the biggest issue is that some forms of learning are just more effective in person.

“Entrepreneurship has less to do with the knowledge—you can find most information online, but giving the right advice to the right team at a time when they are in the mindset to absorb it is where mentorship finds its place,” said Vijay Anand, founding partner of accelerator The Startup Centre. “Virtual incubation makes it harder to read the situation of an entrepreneur to be effective on that front.”