TomorrowMakers

In an exclusive interview with Amrita Chowdhury, Director of Gaia, she discusses Gaia’s journey and vision amid the current investment climate for startups in India.

amrita choudhary

Gaia is an Internet of Things (IoT) and automation company providing end-to-end solutions to enable a smart transformation of enterprises and cities.

As a business strategist, engineer and an innovator, Amrita Chowdhury is one of the founding team members and a director in Gaia. She is involved in every aspect of the firm -- from strategy to delivery—and looks after the overall marketing and business/ finance functions and “spends a lot of time in business development”. In an exclusive interview, she discusses Gaia’s journey and vision amid the current investment climate for startups in India. 


Edited excerpts of the interview

1. Tell us about the concept of smart cities and the contribution of Gaia in achieving it.

India’s Smart Cities Mission is the most ambitious program around the world of urban transformation, aimed at changing how 100 cities in India work and operate and provide citizen-centric solutions. Planning has always been top-down in India. This has been the first attempt of its kind – of looking at city planning from multiple aspects and multiple stakeholders. Each city is coming up with plans for tech-infused urban revitalisation. Some cities are already implementing their plans, whereas other cities are moving in a phased manner from detailed planning to managing bids to appoint vendors who will do the implementation. 

Gaia is a feedback and data analytics company, providing solutions to wide area problems. Gaia has been involved in every stage of the smart cities mission, including strategic ICT planning; detailed city-level technology blueprint planning; building a city-owned wide area network; and implementing Internet of Things-based solutions in several cities.


2. In a country like India, do you think participative governance will lead to sustainable development?

Participative governance comes in two forms – involving citizens in planning and in the governance process. 

During Smart Cities Mission planning phase, each city had to mandatorily solicit citizens’ opinions on the changes needed. This collective opinion led to each city choosing the unique set of initiatives. 

There are several initiatives and ways in which citizen feedback and grievances are being captured. This provides a way to monitor on the quality of public service delivery and the last-mile impact. For example, Gaia’s Smart Feedback Monitoring solutions are helping cities monitor citizens’ sentiments and thus the impact of last-mile delivery of sanitation work by third-party contractors. This increasingly provides means for using citizens feedback in the governance monitoring process.


3. Elaborate on your role in Gaia

I am one of the founding team members of Gaia, and a Director of the company. As such, I am involved in every aspect of the firm from strategy to delivery. I look after the overall marketing and business/ finance functions and spend a lot of time in business development.


4. Since you pitch for getting investments, what do you think are the key areas for any start-up to focus on to make an impressive pitch?

The investment climate for startups is dynamic and highly competitive. Few years ago, investors were willing to consider ideas and early-stage companies. Today, early-stage funding has become scant and hence startups need to show business traction on a proper business plan to attract investors. Hence, startups need to focus on getting real clients and real revenues. Traversing the journey from idea to product development to market gains quickly will enable startups to attract investors. 


5. As far as attracting investors are concerned, what are the major challenges you need to overcome as a start-up to gain the faith of the investors?

Investors are looking for business models that can scale up. Startups tend to focus on product ideas and innovation. Hence, combining the two mindsets is critical to show early market traction and significant long-term potential. 

6. Having led several multinational companies, why did you choose to be a part of a start-up?

I have worked with large multinationals in USA and Australia, but also been an intrapreneur setting up and managing early-stage businesses for South Asia for global organisations. So, in that sense, I have seen both sides before starting the entrepreneurial journey. To some extent, managing and growing early-stage businesses taught me more about managing depth as well as breadth. 

Gaia was founded to leverage new age technologies to impact cities and enterprises, and it’s been a rewarding and eventful start. We have worked on national scale projects for Smart Cities Mission, Swachh Bharat, and others. We have provided national scale monitoring solutions to city and enterprise clients. 

We have won numerous awards and recognition along the way, including incubation by ST Microelectronics; Microsoft Scale Up accelerator; Qualcomm Design in India Finalist; Microsoft Machine Learning Winner; Mayor of London India Emerging 20 List 2018, and several business awards for the Internet of Things and social innovation.

6. What is the biggest advantage and disadvantage of being in a start-up environment?

Early-stage businesses need to be agile and dynamic, and the biggest advantage of being in a startup environment is the ability to shape the business freely, take decisions quickly, and execute nimbly. It needs a quick-thinking mindset to continuously identify and chase opportunities. It gives a platform to operate on a wide scale and on a wide set of functions. 

The disadvantages of scale, however, create financial and resource constraints. Start-ups need to operate on shoestring budgets and bootstrap in every way – from product development to business development. The ability to withstand tough conditions and constraints is critical for survival. 


7. With Make in India and Digital India, do you think the current environment is conducive enough for domestic startups today? What other initiatives do you think would help this further? 

The current environment, despite Make in India and Digital India and Start-Up India, significantly constrains startups. The primary reason is that financial instruments and investor mind-sets are still not aligned with supporting early-stage businesses. Despite regulatory changes, there is still a lot of paperwork. Banking institution norms and current crisis from loan defaults by major corporates have made startup financing more challenging. Despite schemes being announced by the government, startups cannot avail funds as banks continue to evaluate them through traditional metrics. Furthermore, the decline in FII inflows, economy constraints following demonetisation and GST rollout, and very few exits by Indian startups led to funding constraints for early-stage firms. However, as the economic condition stabilises and few exits happen, the situation will hopefully improve over the next year or so.


8. You have authored two fictions. You write on a host of several other issues. What’s next are you focusing on? 

Over the past year, I have written white papers on Design Thinking and Smart Cities, and numerous articles on marketing, technology, and business. I have another half-written novel and several ideas for a non-fiction book in my drawer.

9. A business strategist on one hand and an author on the other. How do you strike the balance between these two roles?

I prefer to sequentially uni-task on different things. This allows me, over a period, to multi-task and manage two separate streams of identities.  

Work takes prime focus. Fiction writing, for me, takes time and clear mind space, whereas writing articles, blogs, and whitepapers is easy between work commitments. I like to set personal goals, but also understand that given complexities of work and life commitments, fiction writing may take longer.


10. Any experience or advice you would like to share to encourage women who want to venture into startups?

Entrepreneurship can be an exciting journey, but it requires commitment -- to spend long hours and courage to manage risks. Women shouldn’t enter entrepreneurship thinking about flexibility. Between expectations of teams, clients, vendors, and investors, it can be more demanding than working for a larger firm. That said, women should identify a good set of founding partners and team, and an area they are passionate about before embarking on their startup journey.

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