In Conversation with Dr. Shanbhag and Dr. Hebbar (MUTBI)
MUTBI is an organization in Manipal situated at the Innovation Center that aims to aid those solving society’s problems by offering funds, connections, advice and legal aid. MTTN had the distinct pleasure of interviewing the CEO and Secretary of MUTBI, Dr. Harishchandra Hebbar, and the Senior Advisor and Principal at the Innovation Support Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston MA, and an assistant professor at Harvard, Dr. Arun Shanbhag, who gave us invaluable insights into the working of MUTBI and the mysterious world of business.
How did MUTBI come to be and what is its purpose?
Dr. Hebbar – Manipal University Technology Business Incubator (MUTBI), founded in 2010, is an initiative by Manipal University aimed at nurturing and developing innovation and entrepreneurial skills, and it promotes innovation driven Start-ups. We aim at solving the practical problems faced by society. If the students have some good ideas, and create a business plan which is also sustainable, we incubate them. With this end in mind, MUTBI was started.
However, having said that, Incubation is just the penultimate step. Ideas, Proof of Concept, the innovation factor and sustainability have to be taken into account, and only such ideas get incubated.
What resources could MUTBI offer a prospective entrepreneur?
Dr. Shanbhag – Coming up with an idea that’s sensible and marketable at the same time is a very long and arduous process. A lot of people come in with a good idea, but we ask them to think of their solution from a different perspective after providing further insights into the actual problem itself, and challenge them to ensure that their solution is indeed the best one that exists. We connect them with people from other disciplines and try to expand their thinking to incorporate those aspects too. To put it concisely, we help them ‘get there’, to the best solution for the societal problem that they aim to provide a solution to.
To that end, we plan to provide a working space right here, ‘Maker Space’ at the Innovation Center, where students can gather materials required for building a smaller model of their business idea in order to gauge its practicality and predict further problems that they might face along the way. MIT students are great, really, in their technical proficiency, with your algorithms, websites, apps and what have you, and this’ll give them the perfect opportunity to model it, build it, tweak it, and once a marketable product is made, actually try to sell it!
Another thing that we’re doing is setting up an Ideation Café of sorts near Marena. It should be ready by April, and the reason we chose that spot is because it’s somewhere that all the student bodies of Manipal kind of gather collectively, and it’s also closest to all the colleges relatively. It would just be a place where you can share ideas without any sort of inhibitions.
Something of this sort is really necessary because, surprisingly enough, a place where you can actually find materials to help you build what you’d need to is kind of hard around here. For instance, I searched all of IC and I couldn’t find a screwdriver. You’d expect everyone around here to be walking around with a screwdriver or a hammer all the time especially in a place like this. I just got four pairs of screwdrivers on the way here. The issue is, things barely ‘get done’ around here. No one actually wants to ‘do’ something by themselves.
I’d imagine it’s probably because most of us are too busy looking down at our phones.
Dr.Shanbhag – Yet another app! Because I’m sure that’s what we need. I’m sure there might be around 500 apps developed at the MIT Campus. Everybody’s got an app. We get so many proposals for apps – as though they were the key solving practical problems. If someone needs ice-cream, for instance, they’ll probably develop an app that contacts a middle-man that would get ice-cream delivered to your block. People are usually not willing to go talk to the middle-man themselves, or even the ice-cream maker to strike a better deal.
There are students here doing business by making T-Shirts, selling ice-cream – I mean, really? I feel like that happens because they’ve not really been exposed to good societal problems.
Do you think that because we’re college students, we’re kind of cocooned in this safe space because of which we aren’t really exposed to the things that matter in society?
Dr. Shanbhag – Absolutely. But you wouldn’t think so, would you, what with the internet and the various apps – which is fine, but that makes it our job to sort of, open the gates for you – remove the blinder and expose you to the problems just across the street. Only the other day, the nursing college sent in a list of problems that they have, that they think the engineering students would be able to help with. But kids here would rather deliver ice-cream, or rather make an app that connects you to somebody that delivers ice-cream. Trust me, no one would actually want to deliver the ice-cream themselves! You end up creating what we call more intermediation by involving more of the middle people.
But getting back to the ideation process – this space that we’ve got here in the IC, people are already loving it We’ve pushed all the furniture back and made it sort of go back to the very grassroots – I mean, you can even see some exposing piping. But that doesn’t matter. Everyone likes fancy, but I’d rather keep it crude, and have you guys work your way about it instead. What matters is that it gives you a place to explore, ideate and create.
How is MUTBI funded?
Dr. Hebbar – It is one of the 54 Technological Business Incubators funded by National Science & Technology Entrepreneurship Development Board (NSTEDB), Department of Science & Technology (DST), Government of India to promote Innovation driven Start-ups in Udupi District, which was established in March 2010.
What exactly is the process of incubation?
Dr. Hebbar – Student should approach MUTBI with an idea, and then see who are their competitors and question what their edge is over their competitors. There are a few questions you need to ask yourself:
1) Is it worth incubating or not. If not, they come back with either a new problem or a new solution.
2) The question is then passed to the investors in the general region of Manipal/Mangalore/ Bangalore – ‘is it worth incubating?’. Once this stage is passed, it is considered to be incubated. Pre-incubation is when you test if the idea works or not.
Dr. Shanbhag – That’s also when we provide a common space for people of myriad fields to collaborate and work on an idea to achieve the best possible outcome or arrive at the best possible solution. There’s a lot of pre-incubation space available here. We’re hoping that you actually work it out, and really figure out what’s going on. After the decision, there’s a lot of paperwork to be done.
Dr. Hebbar – After the incubation, they’re given an office space here for 18 months, after which they’re expected to graduate and open their business elsewhere. In exceptional cases, it may be extended. That’s the point of an ‘incubation center’. We help them see their business through the crucial initial stages, after which they’re hopefully equipped enough to be on their own.
Dr. Shanbhag – And what’s something that might seem surprising is that we don’t really treat people differently based on who they are or what their GPA is. All that matters is the idea. You never know where an exceptional idea might come from – it could be a student, a professor or even someone on the outside. There’s no policy that can ever say that because someone’s a professor, their idea is bound to be ‘better’.
Dr. Shanbhag, you’ve been a faculty at Harvard and you’ve been around in MIT of late as well. What difference in culture do you notice?
Dr. Shanbhag – I’d like to say, students are students everywhere. There are weak and strong students here and they’ve got their own weak and strong students there. The difference truly lies in the culture. Of course, we select the students differently as well, so basically, you know you’re the 1% there, and you’d better behave like that. There’s a modicum of professionalism that a student at Harvard automatically imbibes into themselves, whereas in Manipal, students tend to be a lot more lax. You could take anyone out here in Manipal, and put them into a class at Harvard, and you can be sure they’ll behave the exact same way as the Harvard students do.
So, there’s the modicum of exclusivity that plays a role?
Dr. Shanbhag – Indeed, because they know the bar just got raised. If there’s a class at 8, and you’re expected to be there at 7:45, you can be sure they’ll be there at 7:45. Out here, if there’s a meeting at 10:30, we’ll see people showing up at 11 or even 11:30 just because they don’t care as much. So just because the bar’s high, people try to out-do it, which just makes things better. There’s also the holistic outlook when it comes to looking at a person that makes a difference. At Harvard, if you go to them with an application with a 9.5 CGPA, they’ll say ‘Oh, that’s fine. What else did you do?’ Nobody really asks about your grades or what you’re capable of technically, because it’s all there for us to see. What matters is what else you did well, or what you’re interested in, because that really tells us who you are. Simply put, I think people here just need to put more effort into caring more about what they’re supposed to do.
Dr. Shanbhag – Another thing I’ve noticed in Manipal is that people tend to be very close minded and protective of their ideas!
Dr. Hebbar – Oh yes. People have this age-old concept of how if you divulge your idea to someone and discuss it, it’s going to be stolen unless you have a patent, and that’s just not how either ideas or patents work! It just doesn’t happen.
Dr. Hebbar – An idea is worthless unless you have a plan around it and even implement it! I could just give you a novel idea about something right now, and it wouldn’t mean anything unless you actually go back, think upon it, and put it into implementation. That’s another reason we’d like to create a space somewhere for the implementation to actually play out, so you can share things, practice and see how it works, and then try to get it incubated if you have a business plan.
Dr. Shanbhag – I think, and correct me if I’m wrong, but people tend to just get an idea, and start a business. ‘Sir, I have an idea’ ‘Oh, what is it?’ That’s what they get apprehensive about, because they feel like their idea will get stolen. Everybody does that – ‘I have an idea! But I’m going to write it down.’
At what point do you think a patent is warranted?
Dr. Shanbhag – A patent is a very specific improvement where you get an incremental knowledge of what you’ve done. Not research – but something you’ve actually made, and it’s unique and not an obvious solution to the existing problem. What a patent does is it gives you a monopoly so you can license it to somebody in order to sell it. That’s all it does – gives you a legal monopoly.
For instance – suppose I have a sewing machine, and I decide to put a motor in it to work faster – can I patent that? No. Because it’s obvious. It may not be obvious to everybody, of course, but it’s obvious to somebody skilled in that field, and is therefore not patentable. You need to have reduced it to practice, and it’s actually useful. And someone needs to have bought it from you, because otherwise it’s pointless. A patents costs somewhere around a lakh in rupees or even a few lakhs, and they’re doing that intentionally because they want to check if you’re serious.
But you don’t need a patent for a business or even to make money. How much money do you think people make from this design of an iPhone case? Quite a lot, I’m assuming, but I imagine there’s no patents involved. Just make it and sell it. You don’t really need a patent.
I think the cause for misconception here would be that a patent would greatly add to your CV and it’s something they’d do for personal gain rather than for the community.
Dr. Shanbhag – Exactly. Very often people see a patent as an end goal, which they can include as part of their CV and work on the next thing. Patent is merely just a monopoly; a limited monopoly given to you.
Dr. Hebbar – If you don’t really intend to sell your product, there’s no point in applying for a patent. We don’t have a lot of patents in Manipal, it being a young University. We do like to encourage people to do patent their products. There’s thousands of patents being applied for each year. But what they really need to assess beforehand is if someone’s really interested in buying it. Only then should you buy the patent. People here have patents but no concept of what it’s all about or even trying to sell it.
Why do we see most businesses being incubated come from MIT?
Dr. Hebbar – To try and understand that, we’ll need to look at why anyone would approach us in the first place. Our primary objective is to come up with solutions to problems prevalent in today’s society by means of innovation and technology. The first thing you need to look at is the value of the solution – how big exactly is the problem? Whom will the solution benefit? The kind of problems that the healthcare people usually see engineers solving don’t involve them much. So unless we create a comfort zone for them, in which they’d feel free to approach us with their own problems, we won’t see much of an initiative from the medical professionals.
Dr. Shanbhag – I’d just like to add to that by saying that the KMC folks probably think that MITans don’t want to solve difficult problems. I can think of a very quick example. There was a spot hackathon coming up, and the problem statement given by the government was regarding waste management, specifically making trash cans better. These students came up to me and said ‘We’ve got a brilliant idea – we’ll install sensors to detect if the trash can is full, which will send a message to a server, which in turn will tell the garbage truck to collect the trash’, and I said ‘That’s ridiculous. Don’t you think the garbage trucks already know the trash is full? Here’s something that already exists in Oxford – why don’t you install a sensor for when it gets full, which activates a trash compactor, and that way the garbage man would only need to come at large intervals of time to pick up the trash.’ They said, ‘That’s brilliant!’, but the next day they came up and said ‘We can’t do it – it’s too hard!’, to which I responded with ‘What do you mean? The technology exists, you have the necessary tools and know-how, so what’s stopping you?’ ‘It’s just a lot of effort’. They just did not want to do it. ‘We’ll just stick with our middleman-dependent sensor.’ (Laughs)
A lot of people these days have taken to calling themselves ‘entrepreneurs’. They’ll get an idea, think more about it, maybe open a Facebook page, and give themselves that title. Now, as the actual authorities on the subject, how would you define an entrepreneur?
Dr. Shanbhag – It’s just a little premature to be calling themselves that, don’t you think? People say, ‘Oh, I just finished a marathon’. Really? Oh my god, you’re practically an Olympian! ‘Oh, no no, it was 10 kilometers’. Even a marathon here is anything but – it’s either a half or a quarter or an eighth. You could just say ‘half-marathon’, but when you say ‘marathon’, it tends to sound more impressive.
I’m just saying, a lot of it is like that – you set a Facebook page, a website, and then you can claim to have an office space here at MUTBI, which is all good, but people would rather brand themselves first and then work later, which I think is sort of unfair.
Dr. Hebbar – There are so many companies selling T-Shirts, and other such trivial business engineers should have no business getting into. I think they should be discouraged from doing that and focus more on innovation. Create and impact society more. I mean, sure, they can do it on their own outside, but that’s not really the kind of business stature for yourself that you’d like to establish during your college years.
Let’s talk about the marketing aspect of the business. How important is it?
Dr. Hebbar – It definitely is one of the crucial aspects of it which can either make or break a business. You need to try and sell your product in order to actually make a business successful. Once incubation is done, the product goes through iterations and the students try to market them, and that decides how successful their business will be.
Dr. Shanbhag – I’ve had instances of really smart and technically proficient students here who claimed they’d spoken to investors in Chennai, Bangalore and other places who in turn claimed they were very interested in the product.
It’s very easy to get people ‘interested’ in your product, but when you put a price on it, and actually urge them to buy it is where the real challenge lies. I told them to go to TC and try to sell it, and they even went to their prospective investors in the Chennai and Bangalore. When they came back, they said that not a single person was willing to buy. Not one. That was an example of how important it is to truly assess your customers to evaluate the value of your product, and that’s something those kids realized themselves, which is great because the next company they’ll start will be a successful one.
Another instance would be for a product for which they had people interested, but when asked to buy it, no one even replied to their mail. Forget about buying it, no one even replied! I’d asked them six months ago ‘Where’s your business team?’, and they said ‘they’d manage’. It was a team of four engineers – all very good at their job, and great concepts – but without the marketing, their efforts may well be in vain.
I’d like to end with one last question – Dr. Shanbagh, you wrote a book called Prarthana – A Book of Hindu Psalms back in the day. How important is spirituality to you?
Dr. Shanbhag – I’ll just say that it’s something I cannot do without. It’s a way of life, and in many ways, it’s not even a part of me; it is who I am.
Any parting words you’d like to share with our readers?
Dr. Hebbar – I think a lot of people here are afraid of failure; afraid that their business isn’t good enough and once it fails, you have to pack it up and leave, and that’s just not the case. Failure should actually be a stepping stone to success.
Dr. Shanbhag – I’d actually encourage failure, and hope students fail fast. Failure can be great teacher, and if you failed at something at its initial stage, you’ll be ready to overcome whatever caused you to failed the next time, and it’s always better to fail in a business you’ve just invested a month or two on rather than a year on, because then the stakes are much higher, and you’ll fall much harder.
You asked about culture earlier – so what’s already an existing concept in the US is that there is no fear of failure out there. You’re expected to fail, and fail fast, rather than dragging it out and then failing.
It’s really okay to fail, and it’s never the end of the road, and if there was one thing I’d like to ask students to change here, it would be to not fear failure.
MUTBI recently organized and hosted the event CamTech-X Jugaadathon, which was aimed at improving access to healthcare for India’s urban poor, and saw over 500 students from diverse courses participating simultaneously across 5 cities – Delhi, Bengaluru, Mumbai, Bhubaneshwar and Manipal.