Nurturing Social Innovation

January 05, 2022

What makes a startup investment-ready? Achieving product-market fit while maintaining good customer relationships and growing in different geographies/markets ensures investment readiness. Columbia Global Centers | Mumbai devised a mentoring curriculum for the 2020-2021 Urban Works Innovation Challenge cohort to help convert promising innovation into investible, market-ready enterprises. Faculty and staff from Columbia Engineering and Columbia Entrepreneurship, along with local experts from India, coached these companies on important business principles via workshop sessions and one-on-one meetings. No good innovation is complete without a working demonstration in the field – hence, the Urban Works startups showcased their real-world pilots, either as customer-facing mobile apps or as physical prototypes in field sites across India.

The startups interacted with Ms Yvette Miller, Director of Marketing and Communications, Columbia Entrepreneurship, where they learnt via an interactive session about the nuances of brand building, digital marketing, and outreach. This session proved to be valuable for startups selected for the Urban Works Innovation Challenge of 2021 such as Bandhu and Urdhvam, with their tech-focused founders who want to scale rapidly through online distribution channels. Urdhvam, a borewell replenishing and water conservation innovation, met with an Urban Works alumni company, Indra Water, as they shared notes on India’s evolving water market and how to work with government stakeholders to ensure maximum impact in periurban areas. Bandhu, an employment search and discovery app for blue-collared migrant workers, had an online interaction with Ms Swati Salgaocar, Urban Works advisor and Columbia GSAPP alumna. Ms Salgaocar, who currently leads the Vimson Group in Goa and heads the innovation committee for the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) Western Region, helped Bandhu identify gaps in business strategy and improve positioning in the Western India market. Bandhu also presented their mobile solution to the Mumbai Center team, where they showed the entire workflow of migrant workers, contractors, and real-estate sector employers. They received key inputs that added focus to their strategy.

The Center’s team monitored the pilots of PerSapien and Urdhvam in Bengaluru and Pune, respectively. PerSapien displayed a working prototype of their real-time, chemical-free room sanitization solution at their client site, where their client was impressed by their tech ingenuity. Urdhvam’s pilot in peri-urban Pune district consisted of two borewell recharges, which resulted in satisfied customers in the form of a poultry farm and a highway restaurant business. The Urban Works startups also engaged in meetings with Professor Ioannis Kymissis, Department Chair of Electrical Engineering, Columbia University. He probed the teams on two aspects: marketing strategies and financial models. This, especially, benefited PerSapien, as their financial projections were trimmed down to make them more realistic.

The Urban Works Innovation Challenge was developed to nurture social innovation that solves urban India’s problems. With support from committed Columbia faculty and experts in India, the current cohort is on course to create better social outcomes in the form of increased job security for migrant workers, sustainable use of water, and safer urban workplaces.