Huddle Global brought together young innovators and entrepreneurs from across the state. Photo: Courtesy KSUM
The unknown virgin beach in Adimalathura, an obscure coastal suburb of Thiruvananthapuram (aka Trivandrum), had never seen anything like this before. The fifth edition of the annual Huddle Global, organised for the first time on the beach and claimed as the “world’s largest beach startup festival”, revealed the vibrant face of a young and enterprising community of Kerala, largely remaining unnoticed by the mainstream society and media.
The three-day jamboree, which has a niche in India’s startup ecosystem, brought together hundreds of stakeholders and even lay enthusiasts from in and out of Kerala. They included young entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, angel investors, innovators, mentors, corporate honchos, bankers, exhibitors, technology evangelists and officials – all gripped by a passion for the startup fever.
Palpable at the panel discussions, product launches, interactive sessions, pitching meets, workshops, coding contests, and the marketing expo were the excitement, and fascination for the revolutionary and disruptive new technologies and the enormous opportunities they offered. Quite a congregation of minds that sparked creativity and collaboration, as the organisers of Kerala Startup Mission (KSUM) claimed.
To this writer, the Huddle appeared as a festival of Kerala’s technology and entrepreneurship similar to the state’s vibrant carnivals of cinema and art, like the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) or the Kochi Biennale.
Hopefully, the KSUM will now come out with the concrete benefits derived from the extravaganza, like the new funds attracted, investments, collaborations, product orders, etc. Nonetheless, given the state’s anti-business image, even if immediate benefits fall short of the excitement, Huddle could certainly be a milestone in Kerala’s ongoing startup revolution.
As Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who inaugurated the event, said, Kerala holds a top position on India’s startup map. It was chosen last year as the top performer consecutively for the third time in the States Startup Rankings by the Department for Promotion of Industry and Trade (DPIT) under the Union Ministry of Commerce and Industry. According to a Lok Sabha response, Kerala, UP, and Haryana are among the top ten startup states that have no Tier One cities. However, the top ten list is dominated by Maharashtra (15,000) followed by Karnataka and Delhi (9,000 each) UP(7,500), and Gujarat (5,800). Tamil Nadu, Haryana, Telangana and Kerala are in the 3,500-4,000 category.
Products – both hardware and software – launched or showcased at the Huddle Global 2023 by the Kerala-based startups stemmed from a wide range of cutting-edge technologies like AI, robotics, electric vehicles, Augmented and Virtual Reality, fashion, food, health, spacetech, agritech, edutech, fintech, cleantech, etc.
While Kerala’s star of the startups, the Genrobotics, unveiled a mini version of their famed Bandicoot, the scavenger robot, the Perumbavoor-based Hindustan EV Motors vowed all with its stylish electric superbike -Landi e Horse- which they claimed to be India’s first of its kind. Other interesting products included a trucking security suite by IKIN Global that combines a 4G-enabled GPS lock with sensors and panic switches, an online clothing store by Aanu Designs, a mushroom-based health mix called Coonvita, etc. A socially relevant product was the Bhailog app, to assist migrant labourers in finding jobs and employers in finding workers with the right skills.
Expectedly, most participants were compellingly bullish about Kerala’s startup journey. There was a near consensus among investors and innovators that the future is for smaller cities and states, with the overcrowded metros tending to break at the seams.
According to them, 50% of venture capital funds would go to Tier II and III cities by 2025. All were unanimous that Kerala would be at the forefront of this wave with her urban-rural continuum and high social development indices.
Particularly gung-ho about Kerala was Anil Joshi of the Mumbai-based Unicorn Ventures India, the largest and earliest investor in the state’s startups. Sixty percent of Joshi’s total investment has gone to 12 Kerala startups, including the state’s first unicorn, Open, and Genrobotics. He declared that his total investment in Kerala startups would rise from the present 60 crore rupees to Rs 100-150 crore rupees soon.
He appreciated the state government’s initiatives in the sector, which makes Kerala's growth distinct from other states like Karnataka. His only surprise is about the continuing indifference from Malayali investors to investing in Kerala-specific funds. Joshi says his Kerala investments have brought impressive revenue as well. Joshi dismisses Kerala’s anti-business image as outdated.
A subject that propped up most in discussions was the continuing “funding winter”. Funding has not looked up since the Corona years compared to the pre-pandemic year when it went through the roof. However, investors like Joshi say winter only applies to the top-of-the-pyramid units and not to small and early startups like those in Kerala.
Though none mentioned the disastrous journey of India’s largest Malayali startup, BYJU’S, it was clearly the elephant in the room. Experts cautioned against the entrepreneur's profligacy and the investor's lack of diligence, which also were the factors that led to the funding winter.
Investors are not short of money but are more diligent and discerning now. Investors attach more importance to the sectors, too. Mohammed Shoeb of TransitionVC revealed that even during the ongoing funding winter, the climate tech sector saw a rise in investment.
Another interesting take from the event is the waning craze for the unicorns. Besides the falling number of startups acquiring that once-coveted status, investors said they were looking more for long-term valuations, scaling up possibilities, and sustainability. Again, BYJU’s remained an unmentionable!
A pop-up Kerala model for conventions
Innovation comes from the top, and KSUM has shown the way by choosing Adimalathura as the venue for this year's Global Huddle. The place is picturesque, and the organisers managed to put together a decent enough venue to host the event. It may have lacked the cold professionalism of an air-conditioned convention centre, but it did show what is possible without spending millions to build a concrete monster to host conferences and conventions. At a time when prefabricated structures are becoming sophisticated, this opens the way for a more sustainable way to organise big events with venues popping up in scenic spots.
True, there were some who were grumbling about the distance to the venue, but that is the initial reaction to all innovative ideas. Add a few more amenities like parking zones and more approach roads; this area could become a permanent space for conclaves of all dimensions. That would also give a lot of economic opportunities for the people living around that area also.
A window to the future
If you're curious about the impact of events like Huddle Global, all you had to do was peep into the room where the Top 100 Coders burned the midnight oil to tackle challenges set for them. It was a diverse mix of coders, from school kids to seasoned professionals, all working together with a camaraderie that defies age, experience, and status. Out of over 3,000 initial respondents, the contest narrowed down to 600 participants, and the top 70 were at the Huddle Venue. As their journey unfolds, we eagerly await news about the final winners. Anyone who visited that corner would have been captivated by the vibrant atmosphere that permeated the space and got a glimpse of what Kerala could be in future.
A role model for startup CEOs
As the CEO of the first Kerala-based unicorn, Anish Achuthan of Open Financial Technologies delivered a memorable account of his entrepreneurial journey at Huddle Global. What left a lasting impression, however, was his remarkable humility when approached by young entrepreneurs seeking advice. In contrast to some other high-profile startup CEOs seemingly overwhelmed by their commitments, Anish took the time to engage with everyone patiently, despite a busy schedule. During his speech, he underscored the significance of visibility through such platforms and shared that a foreign venture capital firm discovered Open Financial after reading about them in the media, promptly investing 30 million US dollars.
Missing in action
It would have added tremendous value if top executives from multinational firms based in Kerala had graced the venue with their presence, and VK Mathews (pictured above, in the middle), the Founder CEO of IBS Software, set a commendable example in this regard. We believe many other influential figures could have greatly benefited from being at the venue, even if they preferred to be silent observers rather than taking the stage. Interestingly, some foreign embassies recognised the importance of this and sent delegates, with some staying engaged in the proceedings well beyond their scheduled commitments. Julian Zix of the German Indian Startup Exchange Program (Ginsep) told TikTalk Newsletter that his platform is now actively considering joining a mentoring platform in Kerala after witnessing the vibrant activities and discussions at the event.