Finance Minister KN Balagopal (third from left) with Zoho cofounders Sridhar Vembu, Tony Thomas (to his right) and other Kerala officials met several times before the Kottarakkara project became a reality. Photo credit: Anoop Ambikan
Can the quaint Kottarakkara become Kerala’s Silicon Valley, what cities like Trivandrum (now officially known as Thiruvananthapuram) and Cochin (Kochi) have been aspiring for long?
I see many cynical yawns. But something truly surprising is happening in Kottarakkara, the small town known to most only for its presiding deity, Lord Ganapathi, and the amazing unniappams, the famous sweet fritters offered at the shrine.
The latest announcement came from GR8 Affinity, an American multinational tech company, that has already begun operations at Kulakkada village, a stone’s throw from Kottarakara. This follows the exciting news that the giant Indian software multinational, Zoho Corporation, is setting up its state-of-the-art research and development centre (Zoho Labs) at Kottarakkara.
Sridhar Vembu and Tony Thomas, the co-founders of the Chennai-based Zoho (Revenue: Rs 8,100 crore rupees, employees; 16,000 in 2022), visited Kottarakkara and Thiruvananthapuram many times, met with Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, Finance Minister KN Balagopal and officials and have formally announced the launch of the centre by 2024 which is to create 1,000 jobs initially.
Why Kottarakkara? Well, for one, the Thanjavur-born Vembu (55) is an ardent devotee of Kottarakkara Ganapathi temple.
Secondly, the mundu-clad Princeton graduate’s heart has always been with rural India. Vembu is credited with having taken IT to rural Tamil Nadu, and his Zoho Lab at Tenkasi proves he walks the talk.
“High tech companies focussing on rural India would arrest the exodus of our youth towards overseas countries for jobs,” believes the Padmasree-winner.
Thirdly, Vembu’s close friend and the three-decades-old Zoho’s co-founder, Tony Thomas, is from Kerala (Kochi).
Last but not least is the excellent liaison and backing from the Kerala government, its IT officials, and Minister Balagopal’s initiative.
Zoho’s plans for Kottarakkara began a couple of years ago with CEO Vembu’s visit to Genrobotics, the startup at Technopark, where he is an investor. During that time, Kerala’s top IT officials met Vembu and took him to Finance Minister Balagopal, who is the legislator from Kottarakkara.
Balagopal presented Kottarakkara’s potential as a typical Kerala small town but with all the modern facilities. It also has the state government-run Additional Skills Acquisition Programme (ASAP) Centre where youngsters undergo training and upskilling.
Vembu reminded the Kerala team that his co-founder, Thomas, is a Malayali and that the state should use his excellent capabilities. A couple of more visits by Vembu and Thomas to Thiruvananthapuram and Kottarakkara made the project possible.
Balagopal also visited ZohoLabs at Tenkasi and saw how it transformed the rural region. Chief Minister Vijayan and the Kerala delegation had met Thomas again when they were in the USA.
Zoho’s search for an ideal professional to anchor the Kottarakkara project was also realised when it zeroed in on their former colleague, Dr Jayaraj Poroor, currently the Dean and Faculty, Artificial Intelligence, Amrita Viswapeetam, Coimbatore.
GR8, headquartered in the USA, has hired 18 persons – all of whom were Commerce graduates from the Enrolled Agent course at ASAP. According to the company’s website, GR8 (pronounced “Great”) is an affinity of six top 100 US-based accounting and consulting firms committed to seeking ways to do business together and expand opportunities”. In 2022, the company established a network across the Philippines, followed by India.
“International companies coming increasingly to rural regions rightly complements our government’s ‘Work Near Home’ concept to help youngsters get quality jobs without having to go to distant lands and decentralise growth,” says Industries Minister P Rajeeve.
Poroor agrees: “There is a mix amongst youngsters, those who want to explore abroad options and some who want to be closer to their families and native places. This is definitely the case in Tamil Nadu since the Zoho model has been quite successful there,” said he.
“The Kottarakkara model is going to be a game changer. We should try to replicate this across the state,” says Anoop Ambika, CEO, Kerala Startup Mission.
The interest of investors in rural Kerala has come at a time when the State government is giving final shape to its new IT Policy 2023. The new policy is expected to integrate it with technological advances like AI that have revolutionised the sector since the time of the previous IT Policy of 2017.
However, the challenge is the break-neck speed at which technology advances in this sector, baffling even the most perceptive professionals, which makes every policy formulation outdated even before they are announced!
The “Kottarakkara Model” may align well with the traditional Kerala Development model. More so when Kerala’s villages are actually semi-urban with excellent physical and cyber connectivity and also because the results of the city-centered IT growth have been far from being sufficient.
Although Kerala has had impressive growth in internet penetration (second highest in India at 56%), reducing the digital divide and building infrastructure, it still remains South India’s laggard in IT and industry in general.
The three South Indian states, along with Maharashtra, lead in India’s IT exports, with Karnataka at the top with 3.95 lakh crore rupees, followed by Maharashtra (2.45 lakh crores), Telangana (2.41 lakh crores), and Tamil Nadu (1.79 lakh crores). Compare this to Kerala’s 25,000 crore rupees.
Clearly Kerala has to re-strategise its IT policy to catch up with the top states and Kottarakkara Model offers a lot of promise.
Devotees believe serving the first morsel of food to Ganapathi marks an auspicious start and brings in good fortune. Let Kottarakkara lead the way.
Reliance now aims for the sky
Reliance group is eyeing a new orbit with its plan to develop a satellite-based internet service. This will put Mukesh Ambani-led group in direct competition with Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Besos’ Kuiper and Sunil Mittal’s OneWeb. Reliance will not be using low orbit satellites like others, but rely on medium earth orbit (MEO) satellite technology. JioSpaceFiber will be able to give high-speed internet even to the remotest parts of the country when the service is up and running, says the company.
This follows the news earlier that Reliance is closing in on a deal with Disney+Hotstar. Such a deal would create an online behemoth with Disney commanding around 40 million subscribers and Reliance Jio boasting around 450 million subscribers. India’s streaming market is currently estimated to be worth over 3 billion US dollars.
Startup with some age-old chemistry
We believe it is never too late to begin your entrepreneurial journey, and three individuals from Chennai, Sivaram Pillai, Bala Chandrasekar, and Vishwadeep Kuila, are proving us right. They co-founded ProKlean Technologies in 2012 when they were all in their fifties. The firm specialises in producing non-toxic and biodegradable chemicals for various industrial and household applications. ProKlean raised approximately 4 million US dollars in June, and its revenue reached around 40 crore rupees in the 2023 financial year. Pillai told the Times of India that the age of the founders was never a problem, although he admits that some investors they met were initially hesitant.
Singapore gets a digital twin
Singapore now has a digital twin, thanks to a company called Vizzio. Using artificial intelligence and satellite images, their 3D city modelling technology, known as Geo Earth, has created “photorealistic renditions from aerial views down to street levels and indoors, offering a seamless and interactive 3D tour” of the Lion City. According to the Techwire Asia, the company claims that they can replicate any part of the world using satellite images and are actively seeking deals with governments and commercial firms.
ChatGPT is going to the dogs
Gone are the days when talking dogs were only in the realm of Hollywood dreams. Thanks to Boston Dynamics and a touch of ChatGPT magic, their robo dog has gained the gift of gab. In their latest video, this mechanical marvel is seen giving a tour of its facility, complete with a few cheeky retorts. From a 1920s archaeologist to a rebellious teenager and even a Shakespearean time traveler, the robo dog boasts a repertoire of personalities, says a Verge report. AI is going to the dogs, we say!