Towards the end of 2016, when KK Vijayan returned from the Middle East after working in the oil industry for 35 years, his family and friends in Kerala were looking forward to spending lots of time with the retired engineer. Vijayan, however, had other ideas. Within a few months of arriving in Kerala, he had his own startup company in Thiruvananthapuram. Enspark Systems, Vijayan’s startup in home automation, was incubated in early 2017 in Maker Village, a state-owned ecosystem for hardware startups. “I wanted to do something in my area of expertise,” says 69-year-old Vijayan, an instrumentation engineer, whose last job was with the Bahrain Petroleum Company.
When he came back to Kerala, he realised that his home state needed some serious work in energy management. Vijayan understood that the emerging startup scene in Kerala suited his ideas. “The ecosystem and connectivity were good to start a company,” he says. Enspark, which builds systems to monitor energy use and control appliances, employs four young engineers today.
At Kochi-based Maker Village, which has an annex in the state capital, 14 of its 48 startups are initiatives of engineers who had long illustrious careers or switched midway. “When we started in 2015, we had only fresh engineering graduates who had hit upon ideas while they were still in college,” says Maker Village CEO Prasad B Nair. “Now, we are also attracting retired engineers,” he adds.
Maker Village, a joint venture between Kerala government’s information technology department and the Union ministry of electronics, welcomes the long years of experience and professionalism that retired engineers bring to the table. “We encourage senior startups,” says Nair. “Student startups have brilliant ideas, but seniors come with great experience. Students take big risks, but they lack experience… seniors bring in networking, contacts and knowledge about the market,” he explains, adding, “The ventures of these retired professionals will create a new kind of environment in the startup ecosystem.”
Many of these startups are looking at finding solutions to local needs. Take, for instance, Charles Vijay Varghese. The electrical engineer spent a decade working in Qatar, Bahrain and Oman before returning to Kerala. Varghese’s startup, Nava Design and Innovation, is developing an automated product to extract palm nectar from coconuts without having to climb the trees. “In Kerala, there is an acute shortage of people to climb and collect palm nectar,” says 38-year-old Varghese, who launched his startup in July 2017. “There is a huge potential for marketing palm nectar, which is presently led by Indonesia and the Philippines,” he adds.
Then there is Avatar Renewables. Incubated at Maker Village in February 2018, it was started by eight engineers, seven of whom passed out from Kerala’s Thrissur Engineering College in 1975. “Our primary product is a fully submerged water wheel capable of generating electricity from low-velocity water currents,” says 65-year-old Krishnan Thampi, its managing director. “We are looking for partners to develop and market the product,” says 59-year-old Ramesh Thampi, the technical director, who has more than three decades of experience as an instrumentation and electronics engineer.
Fifty-six-year-old Sivaprasad KK—who heads Tosil Systems, a startup functioning from the Maker Village annex in Thiruvananthapuram—is a veteran in research and development having worked in the field for 36 years. The electronics engineer was a vice-president of NeST, an engineering and embedded services company in Kochi, when it was acquired by global engineering solutions giant QuEST four years ago. Three years later, Sivaprasad bid goodbye to QuEST to launch a startup with his colleague Biju Viswanathan, an electronics engineer with two decades of experience.
Tosil Systems, which was incubated in 2017, has already built a prototype, based on an Internet of Things (IoT) platform, to automatically maintain assets such as office blocks and factories of big companies. One of the biggest embedded design services that Tosil Systems is offering is in office occupancy. “In any large company, the norm in seat occupancy is about 30% at any point of time,” says 43-year-old Viswanathan. “By analysing weekly, average and peak occupancy, our system will predict occupancy at a given time,” he adds. The intervention promises to bring down the number of seats by creating a system of floating seats instead of fixed work stations. “Our system will inform an employee on her mobile that a particular seat is booked for her,” explains Viswanathan. “If a company has three lakh employees, this could help them reduce 10-15 buildings to house the staff and massively bring down the cost of maintaining a seat.”
Interestingly, not just retired, but mid-career professionals, too, are entering the startup fray. After working in the country’s aerospace industry for five years, 32-year-old Rajeev C now has a startup venture, which is focused on developing a cargo delivery drone. Incubated at Maker Village in February 2017, Rajeev has a supporting team of two, both PhDs from the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. “We are in the prototype-building stage,” says Rajeev, who has a master’s degree in aerospace engineering.
Another entrepreneur Ramachandran S, who runs BioPrix (a startup in Kochi), is creating a camera-based surgical product that could be used for laproscopy and endoscopy. “We have already developed the hardware for our device, which is an IoT-enabled product,” says 35-year-old Ramachandran who formerly headed sales for pharmaceutical multinational Johnson & Johnson in Tamil Nadu. “The devices available in the country today are imported from Germany and the US. We want to bring down the cost of medical care for patients with our product,” he adds.
Kerala’s information technology department, which runs Startup Mission to promote entrepreneurship, is looking ahead. “A couple of years ago, we realised that college startups will not be enough,” says state IT secretary M Sivasankar. “We talked about adopting senior professionals, who are in their late 30s, early 40s or even late 50s, into the startup system,” he adds. “Now is the time for ‘grey-ups’.”
-The author is a freelancer