Rahul Nainwal is the Chief Executive Officer of the Runway Incubator. He is also the co-founder of iVolunteer and has been involved with the India Fellow program, UnLtd Delhi startup Incubator, and Cashrelief.
Runway is an incubation initiative by the UPES (The University of Petroleum & Energy Studies) Council for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (UCIE). UCIE has been recognised by the Government of Uttarakhand as a business incubator. UCIE is also a member of the University Business Incubator (UBI) Global platform.
Rahul is a TED Fellow, an alumnus of Institute of Rural Management (IRMA), Oxford University, and THNK (The Amsterdam School of Creative Leadership). He is also an angel investor and mentor to early-stage startups.
[This article is part of Startup Hatch, a series launched in 2013 by YourStory featuring incubators, accelerators, makerspaces, and coworking spaces in the startup ecosystem. See profiles of initiatives at IIT Bombay, IIM Bangalore, BITS Pilani, NID, IIIT-Bangalore, NetApp Excellerator, Sandbox Startups, Brigade REAP, Target India Accelerator, Maersk, Afthonia Lab, IISC-SID, and Ashoka Innovators.]
Rahul joins us in this extended interview on the role of Runway, opportunities for entrepreneurs, pandemic resilience, and plans for the future. Edited excerpts below:
UPES Take Off Event Panel Discussion
YourStory (YS): What was the founding vision of your incubator, and how is it supported?
Rahul Nainwal (RN): In his many addresses to the nation, the Prime Minister has urged the youth to think out of the box, rely on indigenous solutions, and play a more proactive role in shaping the economy.
Aligning with the call of being ‘vocal for local’, Runway was launched to work with startups within and outside of UPES on their ideas and help them transition into strong, scalable and successful businesses.
Runway seeks to support budding entrepreneurs through the early stages of building a startup. It will provide mentoring, financial, as well as legal support until they’ve built something impressive enough to raise capital. At UPES, we just don’t want to prepare our students as job seekers, but we also want them to be job creators. The presence of an incubator in campus will give students exposure to disruptive thinking and innovative technology.
Our goal is to help brilliant innovators get through the early stages of setting up a startup and reach the point where they have made a product/service impressive enough to raise money. This will be done through a mix of mentorship, grants and investments, legal and incorporation support, and allocation of space to work.
In April this year, Runway initiated its first pre-incubation cohort in a two-day event hosted at UPES, with 82 startup ideas selected from over 400 applications. In the first round of pitching, eight startups out of the selected 82 raised more than Rs 70 lakh from a group of investors.
UPES School of Business and Runway incubator came together to organise ‘Take Off’ in May this year, a startup competition held at India Habitat Centre, New Delhi earlier this year. The event provided a perfect platform for aspiring entrepreneurs to pitch their ideas, engage, deliberate, and learn to grow their business with seasoned investors and experts.
‘Take Off’ had invited startup ideas from around India and received an overwhelming response of close to 400 applications, of which 16 were shortlisted. Two winning startup ideas–GoFresh by Mrityunjay Baksh Singh and Metaskate by Anupam Tomar–were handed cash prizes.
Similarly, Runway plans on organising more events and supporting startups and aspiring entrepreneurs through its various initiatives.
Entrepreneurs getting their winning prize
YS: Which startups have graduated from your incubator so far?
RN: Homversity, founded by Saurav Sinha, provides a one-stop solution for the student accommodation problem in India. Backed by the Government of Gujarat, Homversity recently closed a funding at more than Rs 80 crore valuation and are currently operational in over 25 cities.
Pension Box, founded by Kuldeep Parashar, is a digital pension platform for the private workforce. It has been funded by100x.VC & Angel Investors with $160,000 to build the product and hire a team. Their team grew from two to ten in February 2022. They are expected to cross 500,000 users by year-end and 50+ team members.
Mulya Creation, founded by Alisha Maindoliya, is a homegrown clothing brand from the Himalayas, in the valley of Uttarakhand. They produce 100% eco-dyed fabrics with discarded flowers and fruit peels. Mulya is also actively involved in training women artisans to gain skills for financial independence. They have been granted around Rs 10 lakh from the Government of Uttarakhand.
FitBread India, founded by Aditya Kashyap, makes fitness breads in different flavours like Indian masala, herbs and garlic. Their raw materials are sourced from Himalaya villages. They are ‘committed to be connected’ to these communities.
YS: Which startups are currently being incubated?
RN: Agrijoy, founded by Priyanshu Jain, is a hydroponics solution provider, starting from a four-planter setup to 44,000+ plants. It provides all-round support to the grower from seed to plate. Agrijoy has projects in various states and has a global audience of 15,000+. They operate the biggest hydroponics farm in Uttarakhand.
PDA, founded by Smita Taneja, is a motion functional fashion brand that works on various segments from dance and performance wear to yoga and swimwear. It offers customised activewear solutions by size and height.
Pieux, founded by Pratyush Kumar, uses cutting-edge 3D printing technology to build and design eyewear. The eyewear can be upgraded by modularity and interchangeability of parts, as in Lego.
Indian Hemp Store, founded by Siddharth Gupta, is an ecommerce platform and marketplace for hemp products. More than 10 leading companies have been onboarded, such as Boheco and India Hemp and Co.
AAGYO, founded by Mukul Mehta, is a delivery app for groceries, food, medicines, makeup, and fashion shopping.
Students presenting their startup ideas
YS: What is the profile of the managers of your incubator?
RN: Senior Manager Mohit Nagpal is a post graduate engineer, mentor, and guide to many startups. He also executes operational and engagement strategies for the entire ecosystem community, including startups, investors, corporates, mentors, advisors, and subject matter experts.
Incubation Manager Dr Manjari Chaturvedi is an academician and a mentor. A Fulbright alumnus, she manages the incubation program at UPES. She has worked with startups in branding, marketing, and building social media presence, and is passionate about creating a market-ready startup ecosystem driven by innovation.
Incubation Manager Khushboo Jogani is a design professional, educator, and mentor. She has also been an active member for TiE Women Entrepreneurs Surat, and initiatives like Fuckup Nights and PechaKucha in various cities of Gujarat. She has 18 years of industry experience in product innovation, brand identity creation, and brand equity building.
Incubation Manager Vikash Kumar is an entrepreneur and consultant. He is the co-founder of Outdoors for Learning and Development, an experiential learning startup. A Naropa Fellow, Vikash co-founded Skillgram during the pandemic with incubation support from IIT Mandi. In 2018, Vikash bicycled 2,200 km across Jammu and Ladakh to raise funds for a non-profit that supports early education.
YS: What would you say are the top three opportunities for Indian entrepreneurs?
RN: The rapidly expanding domestic market promises opportunities in e-commerce, logistics, health-tech, web technologies, and digital entertainment.
However, at Runway, we believe that problems that need ideas to solve them are sector agnostic. An idea may work and be grown into a successful startup even if it isn’t unique or in the top growing sectors.
Participants of Runway Incubator
YS: What are the key challenges faced by startups in India, and how can you help bridge the gap?
RN: Poor revenue generation is one of the challenges. Runway ensures that startups are able to focus on and leverage their competitive advantages by enabling them to grow, sustain and generate capital.
Building a pan-Indian startup is also difficult because of market diversity and digital divides. Runway helps in regional market understanding and connects for the startups.
There is a lack of appropriate strategies to counter competition. Runway provides understanding and skills to analyse the market and devise suitable branding strategies and contingency plans.
Startups also need to find market niches. Runway, with its university research scholarship, enables startups with market research to enable reaching out to the right segmentation for their products.
YS: What are the unique challenges for social entrepreneurs as compared to tech or profit-led enterprises?
RN: Lack of funding or, lack of information about the existing funding opportunities, are the prominent challenges.
In addition, poor impact management due to decentralised data, lack of a business strategy due to insufficient understanding about goals and feasibility, as well as inability to scale up are other factors challenges for social entrepreneurs.
YS: What is the selection criteria for startups in your incubator?
RN: We look for founders with intuitive problem solving, ideas that provide value to the masses, ideas with lesser competition or that can have the first mover’s advantage, ideas that solve existing problems more efficiently or have an innovative approach to a competitive area, sustainability of the idea, and disruptive founders.
YS: Who are some of your institutional partners, and what kinds of agreements are in place?
RN: We have partnerships with a number of organisations.
Startup Uttarakhand is an initiative of Government of Uttarakhand to create an ecosystem and support the startups in the state. As a recognised Startup Incubator and Nodal Agency of Startup Uttarakhand, Runway is the first level screening agency for the startups to be recognised by the Government of Uttarakhand. In addition, Runway also incubates and supports startups recognised by Startup Uttarakhand.
The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) Dehradun chapter is a non-profit organisation devoted to entrepreneurs in all industries, at all stages, from incubation, throughout the entrepreneurial life cycle. Runway is the academic charter member of TiE Dehradun. Our startups benefit from the mentorship of TiE investors and chartered members.
Headstart Network is India’s largest volunteer-driven grass root level organisation supporting entrepreneurship and startups with a presence in 20+ cities. It has conducted 200+ meetups across India impacting over 20,000 lives through its activities. Runway is the innovation and incubation partner of HEADSTART and our incubated startups actively participates in pitching events, webinars, and networking events.
As the licensed partner of Startup Weekend, a programme by the operational investor Techstar, Runway organises the three-day program, where aspiring entrepreneurs experience startup life. Startups also get the opportunity to connect with mentors globally.
The India Network is a platform for people from across the startup spectrum to connect, collaborate and learn for aspiring entrepreneurs, freelancers, artisans, students, startups and investors across the country, as well as business owners and influencers. Rahul Narvekar, Founder and CEO of the Indian Network is also a mentor at Runway.
Women’s Indian Chamber of Commerce & Industry (WICCI) boosts and builds women’s entrepreneurship and businesses through greater engagement with government, institutions, global trade and networks. Runway has shared an LoI with Startup Uttarakhand Council. Women entrepreneurs incubated at Runway participates in various networking and skill building events organised by WICCI.
Runway is the incubation partner of FICCI FLO to encourage and support women entrepreneurs in Uttarakhand and establish an enabling ecosystem for women to set up businesses in the state.
YS: What support and services do startups receive in your incubator?
RN: We provide infrastructure support, co-working space, meeting rooms, conference rooms, Wi-Fi, printers, and so on.
We also give access to services such as labs, library, advice from subject matter experts, funding opportunities, and Rs 1 lakh grant for prototype development to all the incubatees.
YS: What kinds of IP are being created by your startups?
RN: Startups at Runway have been working in diverse like metaverse, deeptech, healthtech, and edtech, as well as sustainable fashion and organic Himalayan products.
They are creating solutions for delivering organic fertilisers to crops, and providing mechanised solutions for sowing small fields. Being a sector and location agnostic incubator, Runway has enabled creation of IP that includes patents, trademarks, and copyrights.
Panel discussion on startups (Left: Rahul Nainwal, moderator)
YS: How would you differentiate your incubator from the other incubators in the field?
RN: As compared to other incubators, Runway has the advantage of catering to multiple domains under one roof.
With a university to support the incubator, Runway has a range of technical expertise and mentoring to offer to the startups as well as opportunities to its students, faculty members, and staff to actively ideate and be a part of the startup ecosystem.
YS: What are some of the challenges you face, and how do you plan to overcome them?
RN: As one of the first incubators in the hilly state of Uttarakhand and in Dehradun, meeting the need for incubation for the number of startups from the region is a challenge.
This requires Runway to constantly expand its capacity as well as its ability to nurture startups in all sectors, as well as form outreach partnerships both within and outside the state.
YS: What would you define as success for your incubator?
RN: Being able to advance the disruptive innovation economy and strengthen the youth-led entrepreneurial ecosystem would define Runway’s success
YS: How do you compare and contrast India’s incubators with those of other countries like the US and China?
RN: Though India does rank third, after the US and China in terms of the number of startups, the gap is still wide.
For example, in India there are about 140 incubators, while in the USA, there are about 1,500 incubators. Similarly, China provides a startup visa to invite entrepreneurs while in India, despite the fast-track and one window streamlined clearances process, there is still excessive bureaucracy stalling the growth of startups.
Also, incubators in India are taxed like other companies and are obligated to bear several direct and indirect taxes along with a corporate tax of 25% plus surcharge. Incubators in China pay corporate tax as low as 10% depending upon the scale of their operations and are extended loans at low interest rates.
YS: What are your plans for the coming years with respect to new startups?
RN: At present, Runway has 120 startups in its cohort. In the next five years, the number of startups in the ecosystem would increase five-fold.
YS: What challenges has the pandemic posed for Indian startups? And at the same time, what new opportunities are opening up? How are you positioning yourself here in this regard?
RN: COVID-19 created supply disruptions majorly for startups, which caused many to even close down due to unsustainability in an unpredictable environment. Yet, the pandemic also ushered in massive growth in certain sectors like edtech and healthtech as well as web technologies and digital media content creation services.
The turn towards digital is a key focus area for Runway. A more curated incubation program that provides better access to the market, mentor connection, and prototype development support in the next five years with two to three unicorns to emerge is the vision of Runway.
YS: How can better partnerships be forged between incubators, industry, and universities?
RN: Universities can develop collaborations with industry and provide solutions to industry-relevant problems through incubators, where startups can serve as effective solutions.
YS: What are your recommendations for Indian policymakers to make business easier for incubators, investors, researchers, and startups in India?
RN: India has a comprehensive startup policy that is being meticulously implemented to enable startups to get maximum benefit from government and ecosystem support. However, we still need to reach out to the outliers and remote areas as well as entrepreneurial individuals from rural areas to enable a grassroot startup revolution as much as a top-down trickle of the benefits of a startup driven economy.
YS: What are your recommendations or words of inspiration to the startups and entrepreneurs in our audience?
RN: Aim to be inventive in going beyond the unicorn funding norms and becoming the decacorns that can also thrive on independence!