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Principal Secretary DoIT&C Akhil Arora On Being a ‘Co-founder’ To CM Raje’s Vision To Build Rajasthan Startup Ecosystem

With Its Holistic Approach To Building A Multi-Level Startup Ecosystem, It Will Be No Surprise If Rajasthan Emerges As The No. 1 State On DIPP’s Ranking

Startups are like the seeds of new plants. Just like seeds require fertile soil and a conducive climate, along with proper sunlight, food, and water, as well as protection from the elements to flower into strong, fruit-bearing plants, startups also need a holistic approach to take off from the idea to the execution stage and then become successful.

Across India, the buzz across industries is startups. And young entrepreneurs need all the possible enablement and facilities they can get from startup ecosystem enablers to take their ideas to fruition. A job the Rajasthan government is doing very well, in fact, much better than many other states. The key differentiator in Rajasthan’s approach to startup nurturing is its comprehensive approach as opposed to the piecemeal approach adopted by the other states.

The Rajasthan government, under the leadership of visionary Hon’ble chief minister (CM) Vasundhara Raje, seems to have nailed it with its holistic approach of building a startup ecosystem across levels and functions — from free incubation facilities, mentoring from experts, programs and initiatives to foster entrepreneurship to policy and regulation — and has well proved that today, it is the No. 1 state in startup nurturing in India.

The results of its multi-level support system for startups, built in-house, are evident as well with the total number of startups in the state touching 1000 at present, a massive 1000% rise from 100 (approximately) startups in early 2014!

The state’s startup ecosystem enablers are burning the midnight oil to further grow these numbers, and therefore, in our eyes, are the top contenders of #1 spot on DIPP’s startup ecosystem ranking ladder. E-governance, iStart, Digifest, IT Day, hackathons, Rajasthan Stack, Challenge For Change (a chance to get INR 1 Cr worth government projects), eSakhi — you name it and the Rajasthan government has done it.

With more than 1000 startup enrollments on one-of-its-kind startup web platform iStart within just four months, disbursement of funds to 23 startups the from $77.3 Mn (INR 500 Cr) Bhamashah Techno Fund, and free infrastructure support under the Bhamashah Techno incubator, Rajasthan is moving ahead at a fast and furious pace in the race to be the best startup ecosystem enabler in the country.

But as Martin Zwiling says, “Unless the visionary highlights a cofounder who can take the vision and execute, I assume the worst.”

In the Rajasthan government, this “co-founder” who is executing the Hon’ble CM Raje’s skyrocketing visions to propel the state’s startup ecosystem is Mr. Akhil Arora. An IAS officer of 1993 batch, he has been the Commissioner and Principal Secretary at the Department of Information Technology and Communication (DoIT&C), Government of Rajasthan, since 2014. Mr. Arora has grown for strength to strength — just like the state — and has addressed several key roles during his tenure. He is a known name in the field of IT, eGovernance and Startup Promotion in India today – with almost all states wanting to know the trade secret with which he has taken Rajasthan forward at a booming pace in these sectors.

With the DIPP actively engaging with over 30 states and Union territories over the past many weeks to help them prepare and participate in the States Startup Ranking exercise, Inc42 caught up with Mr. Akhil Arora to get deeper insights into Rajasthan’s startup journey, IT and digital initiatives, as well as to validate the belief that Rajasthan could well be the most deserving candidate for the #1 position in the DIPP ranking.

Here are the edited excerpts from the interaction.

On Rajasthan Startup Ecosystem

Inc42: While other states are more focused on creating startup funds, the Rajasthan government is working on the ground with startups. How far do you think this ideology can go in enabling the state to become the top startup hub in the country?

Akhil Arora: Rajasthan is emerging as a startup hub in the country by enjoining innovation, digitisation, and technology, with disruption — which is the key to success. The dream of Startup India is being carried on the shoulders of Rajasthan as well. The Department of IT and Communication has been focused on walking together with the central government on its initiatives and using the best of the technologies.

Rajasthan has been the best investment locus because of the availability of resources and the efficient state startup policy. Our startup policy was not the end of the tunnel. We have come up with such transforming initiatives like iStart, Rajasthan Stack, and Challenge for Change to support the startup vertebrae of the state.

For instance, the iStart platform fills the knowledge gap and provides (startups) access to all the requisites at every stage from ideation to MVP or early-growth stage.

I believe that this multi-dimensional growth matrix will provide a long-term support to the new startups and help Rajasthan emerge as the top startup hub in the country.

Funds like Bhamashah Techno Fund of $77.3 Mn (INR 500 Cr) have been introduced to back the growth of the startups of the state. So far, more than 23 startups have received financial support under this fund.

Incubators help entrepreneurs solve some of the problems commonly associated with running a startup by providing workspace, seed funding, mentoring, and training, and iNest is one such successful incubation centre run by the government. Here startups can convert their ideas into a profitable business proportion.

Another important initiative is the Rajasthan Stack, which offers a one-stop platform to address all kinds of technological infrastructure requirements of a startup. It offers a four-layer technology structure to help startups set up their tech base quickly and build their products on it. So, I believe that this multi-dimensional growth matrix will provide a long-term support to the new startups and help Rajasthan emerge as the top startup hub in the country.

Inc42: In Rajasthan, startups have so far raised funding mostly from government funds, VCs, and angel investors. Corporates in the state have played a relatively less active role. What is the reason behind this?

Akhil Arora: Rajasthan has its own strong funding system that has helped the major startups in the state. We understand the corporate contribution in the startup realm, and for this, we are organising and inviting corporates through our events such as Rajasthan Digifest and IT Day.

We are promoting our startups and showcasing their potential in front of these investors and corporates so we can lure corporate investment along with government aid and financial support. In future, we are planning to increase such meets and events.

Inc42: What do you think are the factors required to build the perfect startup ecosystem? In which areas is Rajasthan aligned with these factors?

Akhil Arora: I firmly believe that to build a successful and perfect startup ecosystem, the factors required are government policies and regulations, capital resource, knowledge resource, human resource, infrastructure, and markets, and networks.

Rajasthan is aligned with these areas as we have a comprehensive startup policy, enable ease of doing business with a single-window clearance system, and provide online approvals of all mandatory licenses, registrations, and NOCs.

For capital resources, the state has different funds such as the Bhamashah Techno Fund etc. We also have the proper infrastructure in terms of investor-friendly services for obtaining utilities such as electricity, water, and Internet connectivity. Besides, high-end incubation facilities like iStart and the Bhamashah Techno Hub are available to promote the startup cluster.

Under the leadership of Hon’ble chief minister Vasundhara Raje, Rajasthan is shaping itself as a perfect startup ecosystem and the process is a continual journey.

On Rajasthan IT Day, Hackathons And Other Events

Inc42: The hackathons organised during Rajasthan IT day seem to have imbibed the spirit of entrepreneurship in the entire state, particularly at the student level. What are your plans to encourage them further?

Akhil Arora: I am enthralled that these events have become a renowned name among the youth of the state and are also making a huge impact across the country.

The Hon’ble chief minister of Rajasthan, Vasundhara Raje, has always been intrigued by the technological spectrum. Her dedication to transforming Rajasthan to DigiSthan gave birth to the Rajasthan Hackathon — a coding marathon that derives innovation from the young coding community of India. We have held four editions of the Rajasthan Hackathon with thousands of young coders participating and appreciating this move of the Government of Rajasthan.

We are one of the first-ever states that is actively using niche technology like blockchain, AR/VR, and AI in our various projects.

I strongly believe that as our previous events were a big hit and attracted thousands of entrepreneurs, IT professionals, and aspiring students, we will continue the legacy and keep on promoting IT in the state.

We are one of the first-ever states that is actively using niche technology like blockchain, AR/VR, and AI in our various projects. Such events will bring more and more innovative and cutting-edge solutions into the e-governance architecture.

Inc42: Have you implemented any of the startup solutions selected during Rajasthan IT Day in the government’s processes? If yes, how have they helped change the existing working mechanism of the concerned departments?

Akhil Arora: It is interesting that you ask this. As of now, five of the solutions selected in the hackathons that we organised have been already implemented and three more are under implementation.

We have provided direct work orders to the winners of Rajasthan Hackathon worth $48K (INR 32.5 Lakh) per hackathon as well as under the Challenge for Change, we have provided $148K (INR 1 Cr) per challenge and ensured the promotion and due support to them.

This is leaps and bounds ahead of providing just some basic relaxations under tendering — which we, in any case, are doing. The vision of the Hon’ble chief minister is clear — to provide maximum benefits and support to young entrepreneurs to the highest level — as we work for the happiness of the people and our motto is #PeopleFirst (sic).

Inc42: On IT Day 2018, the state government also introduced a Green-a-Thon where three student-led teams were announced as winners. Will the state government be implementing these solutions in the respective areas?

Akhil Arora: Of course! The objective behind organising the Green-a-Thon was to invite solutions which can help in environmental sustainability. I am also very happy that even in the first edition of Green-a-Thon, more than 800 coders participated and developed sustainable solutions to make the state’s cities smart and green.

All the three winning ideas — on air pollution, waste to feed, and air brigade vehicle emissions detection — will be surely used and implemented soon by the government.

Principal Secretary DoIT&C Akhil Arora On Being a ‘Co-founder’ To CM Raje’s Vision To Build Rajasthan Startup Ecosystem

On The Bhamashah Tech Incubator

Inc42: Rajasthan will soon be setting up the country’s largest incubation centre, the Bhamashah Tech Incubator. Could you tell us what’s unique about it? How will it be different from incubation centres of other state governments?

Akhil Arora: We believe in creating an environment that helps nurture and grow startups and the Bhamashah Techno Hub will be an incubation centre that helps do that. This 1,00,000 sq ft of incubation space will be entirely dedicated to entrepreneurship and development with the world-class facilities such as co-working spaces, connectivity, easy funding, mentoring, and advisory support — all under one roof.

This is biggest startup hub in the country with a seating capacity of more than 700 startups. No other state has such provisions to provide a single space to more than 700 startups with the best facilities. It will have state-of-the-art amenities like video conference rooms, individual and shared offices, committee halls, etc, along with tinkering labs to provide an experimental space to innovative young minds and think tanks.

I believe that Rajasthan has an immense talent pool which only requires the right direction and proper support.

Inc42: Which are the sectors that Bhamashah Techno Hub will cater to? What facilities will be extended to startups as part of the incubation programme?

Akhil Arora: The Bhamashah Techno Hub will be a one-stop-solution for all startups. This incubation centre will cater to all the sectors — from IT to education, edtech, agritech, IoT, eCommerce, healthcare, FMCG, travel and tourism etc. This incubation centre will provide startup founders with the opportunity to pitch their ideas to various angel Investors and venture capitalists.

Our objective behind this incubation centre is to encourage the potentiality of the startups through in-house and multi-level support. I am sure this will ace up startup promotion in the state.

 On iStart, Rajasthan Stack And More

Inc42: So far, a majority of the startups have emerged from Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities. Is the Rajasthan government trying to cater to the needs of Tier 3 and Tier 4 startups as well through the iStart platform?

Akhil Arora: Rajasthan has been the fountainhead of various entrepreneurs and industrialists. The state is not only growing its startup environment ecosystem at a faster pace compared to many other states but is also developing various platforms to ensure startups have a close and healthy relationship with the government.

Any emerging startup or entrepreneur from any tier city can access the iStart website and register to make their dreams come true even if the startup is not registered in Rajasthan.

We keep organising various events so that startups from any nook and corner of the country can get access to industry experts, funding, and mentoring. We are not only helping startups get connected to VCs, government officials, mentors, and industry experts, but are also helping them with funding and infrastructure support. As of now, Rajasthan is one of the leading states for growing the startup culture extensively and generating employment opportunities.

We, in addition to being the only system in the country providing free incubation facilities to entrepreneurs, are also a leader in taking entrepreneurship to the so-called Tier 3 and Tier 4 Cities with full-fledged incubation centres running in Kota, Udaipur as well.

You would be happy to know that these incubators as well are 100% occupied, and we have many more applications in the said cities asking for support through incubation and promotion, which we are happily taking care of.

Inc42: The Rajasthan Stack is an open platform for all startups across the country. How will it help Rajasthan become a top startup hub? How will it benefit the government?

Akhil Arora: Rajasthan has transformed into a startup leader of the country with the robust, effective, efficient, and active digital infrastructure it is providing startups. With the launch of initiatives like iStart and Rajasthan Stack, the Government of Rajasthan is developing a digital infrastructure to promote and facilitate entrepreneurship in the state.

The Rajasthan Stack is an innovative platform that provides startups, developers, and businesses a digital infrastructure so as to enable a paperless, presence-less, and cashless service delivery. These technological insertions will boost the economic standards of the state as well as startups.

Through the Rajasthan Stack, the state government aims to bridge the gap between startups and the government. It has become a single window where startups across India can be nurtured and get various services at one place. The stack will allow the government, startups, developers, and businesses to utilise our unique digital infrastructure to resolve the issues/problems that the state of Rajasthan is currently facing.

Inc42: A number of state governments have initiated blockchain pilot projects to improve transparency in e-governance. What preparation has the Rajasthan government made in this regard? 

Akhil Arora: India has changed the world’s perception towards us in the last four years. Talking specifically about Rajasthan, we have left no stone unturned to prove we are the most advanced in technology and are leading the country.

Rajasthan is the first state to move ahead in blockchain and also to have fully developed use cases running on the technology.

Rajasthan is the first state to move ahead in blockchain and also to have fully developed use cases running on the technology. What others are thinking of, we have already achieved — covering healthcare advancements, transaction transparency etc.

We are making a huge impact through our new-age advanced technologies like big data analytics, artificial intelligence, AR, VR, and machine learning for challenges such as cybersecurity, payment frauds etc. What’s important is that all this has been achieved with niche technologies becoming an integral part of various projects in the last four years.

Inc42: You have been associated with the Rajasthan government since 1993. What changes have you observed in its workings over the years when it comes to implementing any new policy or strategy?

Akhil Arora: The process of growth is evolutionary, and what we see today is effective, efficient, reliable, accountable, and transparent governance for all. I have seen Rajasthan growing in multiple sectors.

The biggest change I see today is more and more resident-centric approaches to implementation, and enhancement of public participation. Technology is now playing a role much bigger than being an enabler. Today, IT has become an integral component, in fact, a necessity, for rapid growth, which is the need of the hour.

The new young generation — Gen Z — is highly tech-savvy, and we keep this in mind while launching any new programme. You can take a cue from our latest disruptive programme on digital literacy — eSakhi — the biggest in India. eSakhi works fully well on mobiles.

Climbing The Steps – And becoming the Top Contender for The DIPP State Startup Ranking Order

With India at the cusp of becoming the youngest nation in the world by 2020, the median individual in India will be 29 years of age, very likely searching for jobs. To create jobs, encouraging entrepreneurship is important. Rajasthan is working proactively in this direction at the grassroot level.

A few months ago, a Rajasthan-first initiative focused on student-preneurs selected bright minds from local colleges and gave them a chance to travel to Silicon Valley, US. The idea behind this was to help broaden their vision and enable them to take a quantum leap towards their prosperous future.

The several other initiatives that Arora described during the interaction will certainly serve as a booster for students, young individuals, startups, and women entrepreneurs to pursue their dreams. These initiatives will also motivate students to shun the lure of corporate jobs and think on the lines of being an entrepreneur and help uplift the state by resolving social and developmental problems.

Hon’ble CM Vasundhara Raje, who runs the state with her mantra ‘SuRaaj’, indeed must be proud to have people like Akhil Arora – who is the torch bearer of the new Digital Rajasthan.

Rajasthan is the first state government to implement something of this scale for student-preneurs, apart from taking holistic initiatives such as iStart, the Bhamashah Techno Hub, and the Rajasthan Stack, among others. Considering all these factors, the state has certainly showcased its potential to gain the top slot in the DIPP State Startup Ecosystem Ranking index.

[The Rajasthan government is keen to work with enthusiasts and startups in sectors such as wool production, agriculture, mining, crop cultivation, and boosting land productivity and is inviting applications for Challenge for Change. Interested Innovators And Startups Can Apply Here!]