Currently, 37 startups in the agri cohort are being helped by the foundation’s Innovate2Cultivate programme
For every successful startup, there are many that remain only a great idea in lab conditions. And for every successful startup that grows into a profitable large-scale venture, there are many more that fall by the wayside. Two of the big reasons for this are a lack of a go-to-market strategy and the inability to identify a commercially viable manufacturing process.
This is where Marico Innovation Foundation (MIF) comes in. The not-for-profit CSR arm of Marico, steered by the FMCG company’s chairman Harsh Mariwala, helps these entities make the transition from startup to SME. The foundation identifies business challenges faced by a startup, draws expertise from its pool of mentors and provides solutions leading to sustainable impact and growth of the startup. “From startup to SME is a frog-leap. Entrepreneurs know the technology but may not be sure about the manufacturing process or where to procure from at an optimal cost. Marketing strategy may be a grey area. This is where MIF’s scale-up programme helps by providing the right guidance, identifying third-party manufacturers, shaping procurement and marketing strategies, etc.,” says Priya Kapadia, head, MIF.
Unlike tech incubators or accelerators, MIF does not provide any funding to the chosen start-up. “We do not work on valuations,” she explains. It has a tie-up with Marico’s human resources cell, through which it has created the ‘Marico Mentor’ programme. Senior Marico executives, around 90 of them, handhold startup founders through the 3-6 month process and review the progress every month.
Vaibhav Tidke, founder of S4S Technologies, which uses solar drying technology for food preservation, agrees how his association with MIF helped his fledgling company. “While we knew our product well, we were facing challenges like customer acquisition, setting up the new production unit, choosing the right direction for marketing, and establishing essential food quality processes,” he says. “MIF brought in a host of mentors who are experienced in quality systems and processes so that we could set up the factory in the most optimum manner.”
Today, S4S’s revenue is up 50% compared to what it was before it joined the MIF programme. It is now ready to set up a factory with an operational capacity which is ten times the capacity of its current factory.
Since it started its programme in 2003, MIF has helped more than 25 startups find their feet. These include Zaya Labs and Niramai in the field of education and rural health to S4S Technologies and Innovision focusing on technology-based innovations or Atomberg Technologies and Incredible Devices looking to be game-changers in their respective segments.
Incredible Devices is one startup which Kapadia herself has mentored. The medical devices startup invented a catheter reprocessing system that makes catheters suitable for re-use. Marico helped it with its manufacturing challenge. By creating Marico standard processes and frugal automation, their manufacturing capacity has now increased by four times. Says Kapadia, “We realised that the problem was not with the product but with the mindset regarding reuse of a catheter. Traditionally a sales kit is used by the sales team to convey the usefulness of any product. Using the same concept was essential for Incredible Devices.”
Meanwhile, MIF itself has undergone a subtle transformation in its operations, especially how it helps these startups. If earlier it offered its services pro bono, now it charges a one-time entry fee of Rs 25,000 from every startup. While initially the focus was those with maximum social impact, it has now moved on to a sector-agnostic strategy, supporting startups that promise maximum innovation and impact. This year, it is looking to identify and nurture agri startups that are using technology most innovatively to maximise farm productivity and ensure better returns to farmers. Initially, MIF’s ‘Innovate2Cultivate’ programme will focus on coconut cultivation in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, bringing together farmers and start-ups to increase coconut production.
“The aim is to implement innovations in agriculture to double farmers’ income through an increase in productivity,” says Kapadia. There is an added benefit here—Marico itself would be able to better source one of its major raw materials for its hugely popular Parachute coconut oil brand.
MIF plans to take the learnings from this programme to other crops. “This is a first-of-its-kind programme, so we chose coconut. If it is successful, then we can replicate the same model for other crops,” says Kapadia. The larger objective is to solve agricultural challenges with the help of innovations.
MIF currently has 37 startups in the agri cohort as part of the Innovate2Cultivate programme. It is looking for startups coming up with innovations—be it product, process or service—that can solve the challenges faced by coconut farmers. The programme is open to all agri start-ups whose innovations are in the prototype stage, seed level stage, proof of concept stage or already in the market. MIF has brought on board experts from Kerala Startup Mission, IIM Ahmedabad’s Centre for Innovation Incubation and Entrepreneurship, Omnivore Partners, Villgro, Social Alpha, Indian Angel Network to select the startups. Startups have to submit proof-of-concept following which an eight-month to one-year journey would begin to bring these plans to fruition.