The very mention of Kerala conjures up images of meandering, placid backwaters, verdant countryside, misty hills, fantastic beaches, and a smorgasbord of lip-smacking dishes — enough and more reasons to seduce tourists from within and outside the country into that magnificent strip of land on the south western coast of India. On the other hand, mention the same to an entrepreneur or investor and be prepared to get a frown or a scowl in return. Thanks to a mélange of issues, including its militant trade unionism and frequent general strikes, the state is seen as the last option as far as fresh investments as concerned. 

In fact, that stereotype is deep-rooted. However, a vast majority of people are unaware of the fact that Kerala is making slow, but steady, steps to become an investor-friendly haven. More surprising is the fact that Kerala has earned an enviable position in the country by leaving no stone unturned to help startups grow. 

Hard to believe at first, isn’t it? But the facts say so, says Tom Thomas, project head of Kerala Startup Mission, in a chat with Creative Brands. He was one of the speakers at the recent Kochi Design Week.

EXCERPTS FROM THE INTERVIEW:

The state government is pulling out all stops in trying to identify new areas of growth as well as ensure that it holds the fort when it comes to its enviable achievements in health care, IT, and startups. So how will this new focus on the ‘design’ element benefit the state now that Kochi Design Week (KDW) is going to be an annual event?

Last year, we just had a one-day conference focused on the theme ‘design’ and its various dimensions. There were a few expos and a workshop as well. But it was a good start. This year, KDW has grown in stature by spanning three days with multinationals sending their ‘design’ gurus to engage with the audience here. Kerala has an intrinsic affinity with art. But this mega event gives designers an opportunity to widen their canvas and think beyond art and engage design elements in solving day-to-day problems in multiple sectors. In future, we will probably see a week-long event with more participation. 

Kochi is sparing no efforts in its race to become ‘smart’. How far will it benefit from an event like this?

In its debut edition, we had discussions on how design is important for the government to frame its policies and for startups to come out with innovative prototypes. There were also talks on using AI in the design element as well. I was part of some of the discussions. Already, a good number of participants are working on their projects and implementing the ideas they got from the event. This year, the number of experts is more and the participation is huge. In that sense, awareness about design will eventually help us get better products and policies. And so, it wouldn’t be wrong to assume that Kochi is poised to become a design hub in the near future. 

How do you gauge the impact of design on the startup sector?

In startups, they encounter problems on a daily basis while creating a new invention or product. So, elements like graphic design, can go a long way in troubleshooting and exploring new options. A whole lot of design principles come into play in problem-solving and making the product viable and user-friendly. Events like these will ensure that startups have to give a serious thought to the design element.

Could you give a bird’s eye view of the startup landscape in the state?

A whole lot of design principles
come into play in problem-solving
and making the product viable and
user-friendly. Events like these
will ensure that startups have
to give a serious thought to
the design element

— Tom Thomas, Project Director, Kerala Startup Mission

As many as 1,600 startups have been registered with the Kerala Startup Mission. There are a lot more unregistered ones. Almost 70 per cent of them work on software products and the rest on hardware. We have a Maker Village in Kochi, which is a space for hardware startups. There are 70-plus startups which have come out with innovative, user-friendly products. In the past couple of years, they secured more than 30 patents. This is phenomenal for a non-academic incubator. Then there is Bionest in Kochi where we have close to 20 startups. In Kozhikode, we have Internet and Mobile Association of India, where there are 30 startups. There are quite a number of startups in health care and social innovations. I am proud to say that the first Blockchain acquisition in India happened with Kerala-based startups. The government gives equal support to all startups.

How about its funding?

If you have an idea and the panel of experts feels that it is worth exploring, there is a grant of up to Rs 5 lakh. If the product has a very strong potential and it hits the market, then there is a grant of up to Rs 12 lakh. In addition to this, the state and central governments chip in with loans. The Kerala government has also invested in Angel Funds. Each month, there are investor meets where they spend a day with startups. Overall, investment has gained momentum. Later stage funding of startups is taken care of by institutional investors. 

When exactly does the design element come into focus in a startup?

A. In the incubation stage, the design element comes into play. This is a stage in which the product or prototype gets a lot of feedback. So, based on that, changes can be made in its design. Startups come into incubators and stay there for a period of six months up to three years. 

Is the startup climate here really healthy now that we are bracing to face the onslaught of recession?

A. Five years ago, the government had just set up an entity to help startups. Over these years, the state has started doling out grants and loans. It has also created 2.5 lakh sqft of incubation space across the state for startups to function. Apart from that, the state was able to bring in a lot of investors and convince them to invest here. Now, startups have a lot more to be happy about. The support of the state government is what woos startups from outside Kerala. In the central government ranking of how good a state is for startups, Gujarat came first and Kerala was ranked alongside Karnataka, which is a top-performing state. In fact, we are ranked above Delhi, Maharashtra, and Telangana.