Startups from the NE region of India that will be worth watching out for in 2021

Kunal Doley
Recently, Jitendra Singh, the Union Minister for Development of the North Eastern Region (DoNER), said the North East will be one of the favourite business destinations of India post-Covid. Unarguably so, as the region has immense potential, which is yet to be explored to the fullest.
“Till recently, we were majorly confined to a job-seeking mindset. But the good news is that the past two-three years have witnessed the onset of a paradigm shift in the mindset of the people in the region. More and more people, especially the youth, are realising the importance of innovation to tackle the myriad local challenges themselves rather than expecting someone else to resolve the problems,” says HK Borah, the head of ecosystem development for IIM Calcutta Innovation Park (IIMCIP), which has been leading the mission to develop the startup ecosystem in the North East since 2016. “It has also been observed that India’s top VCs and angel networks have their eyes on the region. With the markets saturating elsewhere, North-East India’s reasonably unexplored potential has investors warming up to the region,” Borah adds.
Harsha P Deka, CEO and founder of My3DSelfie, always knew that it was easier for him to do business in Canada or the US, but coming back to India and starting something new, acknowledging and accepting the challenges of a developing economy, and at the same time understanding the need of businesses that worked towards exports, was what intrigued him the most. That was the driving force for the Guwahati native to return to India after 14 years in 2016 and start his own venture.
The 32-year-old alumnus of Carlton University in Ottawa, Canada, where he did his bachelor’s in computer science, with specialisation in business management system, started his first company in 2010 called Myware Solutions while he was still in university. “We consulted SMEs to billion-dollar corporates. We also built a couple of products, one that dealt with bartering textbooks. Another was a stress management application,” he says.
With My3DSelfie, which started in 2016, Deka was the first in the world, he says, to be able to create a 3D figurine from any type of photo. “In my initial years as an entrepreneur, I realised that the 3D industry is new and the possibilities with it are endless. I could envision North East India as a hub for 3D technology and traditionally-crafted figurines, much like what textile is to Bangladesh or manufacturing in general is to China,” he explains.
My3DSelfie operates in both B2B and B2C models. It has delivered products to thousands of consumers in over 39 countries, including Hollywood celebrities, sports personalities, high-profile Government officials, Fortune 500 companies, universities like Harvard, Stanford and Cardiff, among others. “We are seeing 2x growth in terms of revenue compared to last year and are growing 25-30% every month. Our Q3 2020 revenue was 3x times compared to Q2 2020 and Q4 is on track to be 2x more than Q3 2020. We have been doing record-breaking numbers every month since July,” Deka says.
The startup raised Rs 50 lakh from the IIMCIP, raised Rs 15 lakh as a grant from the Government of Assam, signed a term sheet with an investor at the first North East India Fund Fest held in 2020 of Rs 1.5 crore and is in talks with a few investors to raise a bigger round. “We are seeing enormous growth even during Covid. We successfully launched our new product line, opened up a subsidiary in the US and raised another round from a US investor, all in the midst of the pandemic,” he says.
But not everything was rosy. Wanting to create a 3D industry in the North East was itself a challenge, firstly due to a lack of professionals in the field. “Hiring was a tough job… everyone had to learn and unlearn at the job,” Deka says, adding, “India has become too rigid with its systems. Processes are slow and are driven by a set of hierarchical undertakings, which is time-consuming and, in most cases, unnecessary. When it comes to exports, policies are taut and extensive. Ease of doing business when it involves exports is largely inconvenient and comes with multiple compliances.”
These, however, were some of the exact reasons why Deka wanted to come back. “I was always aware of the challenges, but we have slowly and persistently been able to overcome each one of them. I have slowly been able to start a culture in our office where we are motivated to come to work. We work not only for ourselves, but also as a team,” he says.
Going ahead, Deka is looking at raising funds and fulfilling his startup’s ultimate goal of employing 5,000 employees.
Dealing in spices and herbs, this company in Shillong aims to make local farmers famous by popularising their rare produce.
When 70-year-old Ralph Budelman came to Shillong from Chicago in 2004, he was influenced by the potential he saw in the youth of the North East. He wanted to ensure that this potential did not go waste and so he started Chillibreeze, the parent company of Zizira, to generate employment and offer better opportunities.
Inadvertently, Budelman saw the agricultural resources that the North East had to offer that were being severely underutilised, especially in Meghalaya. So 10 years after Chillibreeze’s inception, he took another leap of faith and launched Zizira, a food-based company with a mission to make farmers famous. Zizira, which deals with spices and herbs, delivers the ‘undiscovered treasures’ grown by the small farmers of Meghalaya to discerning and food-conscious customers all over India.
“The abundant rainfall, rich soil, high altitude, hilly terrain, fresh air and clean water produce unique plants and crops endemic to a few regions globally.
We hunt for these treasures from what is considered by some to be ‘the richest, most biodiverse region in India’ using our knowledge of the local languages, cultures and drawing from ancient wisdom and folk medicine to give customers rare and authentic products… we also work with small family farmers in Meghalaya,” he says.
Zizira’s revenues are generated directly from discerning customers who consume its products. It works directly with local farmers to deliver products to customers all over India. “The main user base and target profile of Zizira is the niche food-conscious Indian population living in metro cities, which does not have access to pure herbs and spices,” explains Budelman.
Zizira started in 2015 with nothing but a young group of individuals and one vision — ‘making farmers famous’. “Everything from there was trial and error. We learnt everything the hard way,” says Budelman, adding, “We had to figure out ways to pack our goods properly, ways to process them, how to select the right farmers, how to solve logistics issues. Zizira is defined by the challenges we faced.”
However, the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent lockdown proved to be a problem, which negatively impacted the flow of the business on many levels. The company’s supply chain was the most affected, but the challenges faced by the team forced them to grow and adapt to the new normal. The team put in great effort to tackle the limitations brought by the lockdown. This meant staying at the office for months on end, working extra hours and conducting meetings on shipments and logistics to prevent future problems. “In hindsight, however, all of it was a blessing in disguise,” says Budelman, adding, “We want to put Zizira on the map. We also have plans of expanding the business in terms of delivering our products to discerning customers outside India as well.”
The aim is to build a larger farmer network and partner with more family farmers who are not just from Meghalaya, but from other North Eastern States as well.
An environment conservation model based in Gangtok that works towards a goal of zero-waste Himalayas.
Being an Army child, Pritam Pany lived in over 15 cities across India until nostalgia brought him back to his home State Sikkim. The 30-year-old started Voyage in 2018 with the goal of achieving a zero-waste Himalayas, and has had a grassroots-level focus in Gangtok ever since. “My intervention point in environment conservation began in 2010 when I had gone for an internship to Austria and was able to observe the stark difference in sanitation and hygiene with respect to our country,” says Pany.
This was always running at the back of his mind and he finally quit his corporate job in 2016 to pursue solid waste management full-time, with the intention of working towards the betterment of his country. Voyage, as an impact enterprise, has a hybrid model. Its NGO arm works towards uplifting landfill ragpickers out of poverty. “We conduct medical camps, improve livelihoods and also supported them during Covid times. Our NGO’s primary funding source has been online crowdfunding, which we have been able to successfully achieve with the help of our active supporters,” explains Pany, a graduate of IIT-Roorkee who has worked as a teacher, architect and a management consultant in two MNCs and a startup based in Bengaluru before starting Voyage.
“Voyage’s commercial arm was earlier involved in consulting… we have made Gangtok military station zero-waste by installing composting and dry waste management systems onsite, effectively stopping 90% of the waste generated from going to the landfill daily,” says Pany.
To increase its impact, and utilising the grant money awarded to it by the North East Council (NEC), it established a one-tonne-per-day plastics processing unit in October. “This way, we will be able to stop roughly 300 tonnes of plastic per annum from getting burnt or going to the landfill. Our project focus is currently on households and we have signed up with 50 of them. We collect their dry waste once a month and take it to our unit for further processing,” he says, adding, “We are a very agile startup with the ability to pivot at the drop of a hat. The systems we have installed right now would see us processing a minimum 300 tonne of plastic per annum.
(Contd P 9)