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Ivory Tower Dreams To Reality

by Sushanto Mitra
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If there is a single thing that IIT teaches you to do, it is to dream with your eyes wide open.  So while I was leaving IIT after five years of being a part of SINE incubator it was a difficult moment in my life. Yes, from a career perspective it was a move for better position and compensation but somewhere deep inside me I felt I was leaving a place that was my home. A team of people who, despite our differences at times,  were a part of the family that Prof. C. Amarnath, PI SINE (2006-12) called the SINE family.

As I walked out of my farewell party the thought that kept recurring in my head was that I was leaving home forever. Strangely, it was at that very moment that an idea struck me. How about an angel investing network for IITians by IITians that would bring me back to the campus many times over.  At first, it was just an idea very much like the thousands of ideas eager students used to pitch to me at SINE, an aspiration rather than a viable business. There were already two major angel networks in India that were in existence for almost a decade now and almost everyone who wanted to be an angel had joined one of them. And further, unlike the students who pitched, I was in my late forties.

Funnily despite the audacity of the idea, it didn’t die. As I moved into my new job, with every passing day the idea got stronger until the time I could not hold it any longer to myself.

As I walked out of my farewell party the thought that kept recurring in my head was that I was leaving home forever.

So as a next step,  I spoke to one of the most successful seed stage venture capitalists in India who is notorious for shooting down ideas very bluntly. Strangely he liked it. That gave me some hope. So while I worked in my new assignment during the week, my weekend visits to Mumbai were busy meeting colleagues and friends to pitch my idea to them and again everyone seemed enthusiastic about it.  Idea validated I thought – words which we often used to encourage the students at SINE.

But then it’s not easy to leave the comfort of a fixed salary every month to start something new.  So while I continued to nurse my dream and while most of the feedback was positive and I even had a rough business plan ready,  I was too scared to take the final plunge. Months passed by and in some ways the idea sort of receded into the background as my work kept me busy.

While all this was going on, I suddenly got to travel to Eastern Europe where I met with angel investors from countries like Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Norway. What surprised me was that even a country like Finland with a population of a mere 5.5 million had over 500 angels. By the same logic India should have almost a lakh angel investors and the best current estimate of angels in India is around 1000, which is just 1% of the potential. This is actually true about most things in India. This was also what finally changed my mind.

Then there was no looking back. I put in my papers soon after I returned. Coincidentally, one of the students who was earlier the Overall Co-ordinator  of E-Cell at IITB, Bipin Kumar (2013)  got in touch with me around the same time to say he was looking for a job in an angel network post-IIT because he wanted to continue the work he did at E-Cell.  Bipin, Professor Amarnath, and I had worked together for Deferred Placement Program and spent a lot of time convincing students about it. I didn’t immediately tell him about my audacious plans. Bit by bit I told him about the idea and he seemed interested and agreed to join. The team was there. So the day after I left my job in Hyderabad, I started working from a friend’s office in Mumbai with just an idea and a two- member team and of course a name: Lead Angels appropriate I thought for IITians!

I then called Prof. Amarnath, who by then had retired from IITB, and told him about my idea. He said in his usual style of quiet composure, “That’s great, please come over and discuss”, just as he would tell students while he was at SINE however childish their idea. I took the next day’s flight to Bangalore and soon I was sitting at his HRBR Layout flat discussing how an angel network focused on IITians could work because both its members and its investee companies would come from the same community. He liked the idea too and agreed to be our advisor.

Things happened very quickly from there and within three months of our start, we had our first meeting of angels in October of 2013 with 15 members, all of whom were successful entrepreneurs with the sole exception of one young IITian, Ankit Jain (2007), whom most people would still mistake for being a student. With over 25 members into our second meeting and plans to open chapters in Delhi and Ahmedabad, it seems we are finally off the ground. What is interesting about the network apart from being an IIT team is also its focus on IIT students and alumni both as investee companies as well as the investing members.

And of course, nowadays we all come to IIT once again to meet students and sometimes young alumni to listen to their ideas and dreams and in our new avatar meet them even across in Delhi and Bangalore almost the same way as we did at SINE and Ecell. While we have to be more practical about what would interest our angel investors and screen ideas with that in mind, our advice to young entrepreneurs will always be: no dream is silly enough to throw away, of course, if your eyes are wide open.

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