Sunday, 05 Apr, 6.34 pm Sikkim Chronicle

AIC-SMUTBI acceleration program for local startups launched virtually

The coronavirus has severe repercussions on the global economy and many entrepreneurs hadn’t thought of a backup plan that would help their businesses since the pandemic was sudden and unanticipated. Yet in the midst of it all, there are a select few who are vowing to learn more and work toward strengthening their business models.

AIC-SMUTBI, supported by the Commerce and Industries Department along with Let's Venture, a Bangalore based online funding platform, virtually launched the first cohort program that Sikkim has seen on 04 April, with a total of 23 startups gathered on a video conference.

The acceleration program was launched on 15 February 2020 with a vision to scale new heights with the businesses that had applied for it.

According to AIC-SMUTBI, this is a 3-month structured program for early-stage entrepreneurial ventures, to give these bright minds a thorough walkthrough of all they could expect when starting a business that takes into account sustainability, innovation and growth to become self-sufficient.

The program will involve one-on-one assistance to startups, with weekly reviews and monthly progress assessments to increase the chances of success of startups.

– Deep-engaged mentoring

– Group learning programs

– Startup specific customized one-on-one interventions by experts

– Customer connects

– Showcase to investors and other forms of capital, including government grants

Dr Tejbanta S. Chingtham, CEO & Mentor of Change at Atal Innovation Mission, talks about how the virtual acceleration program was initially planned as a physical launch, where all the selected participants would be introduced to their mentors and an interactive session would take place after.

He explains that this is a sector-agnostic approach, where businesses are given specific advice and mentorship regarding the industry they fall under. "But this is not a mentorship that is rigid in its execution. We believe in only giving a general overview and advice that is custom made for each business. Of course, there are certain rules and regulations to be followed by the entrepreneurs but largely, the decision making is up to themselves. We are there to guide them."

After the months of scheduled group sessions which comprise of conferences where the businesses have to delve into the legal world, wherein they would look at contracts and learn what to sign and what to question, and individual sessions which are tailored in accordance to every entrepreneur's growth and understanding, there will be a demo day where all the businesses will have to pitch their progress to investors, which Dr Tejbanta stresses on, is the objective.

Chimi Ongmu Bhutia, founder of Lagstal, a pro-nature handicrafts e-commerce business that is famous for their bamboo products, weighs in on the virtual launch. "I think it is very easy and it's a first in Sikkim, coming up with a more realistic approach to business and investing."

She uses environmental friendly packages – all recycled material, zero bamboo waste and no plastic in sight. She discusses sustainability in business whenever she gets the chance to talk about it.

"People think making handicrafts and other such things are pretty easy but the market is competitive and tough. We have to compete with Chinese products that are mass manufactured and our people compare our handcrafted products to those! But thankfully, now it is a growing business and people are more receptive to it.

The main reason why I joined this acceleration program is that even when we talk about entrepreneurship and business in Sikkim, not a lot of us are serious about it. Everything is seen as a small scale business. Whatever Dr Tej is trying to accomplish is for growth on a bigger scale and we too are trying our best."

But how do sessions like these help to build a business in a scenario like the one we are currently living in?

Sonam Gyaltsen Bhutia, the founder of Echostream, believes that while COVID-19 has major implications to life and business globally, entrepreneurs need to rethink strategies and make the best out of the situation. "Since the sector that I am concentrating on for my business idea, this is great as it builds and brings new insights and information to the design process. The inaugural of the Incubation program with a cohort of Sikkimese entrepreneurs was great. Lockdown is not a new scenario for us as Sikkim has always faced issues of being cut off from the rest of the world. Building a strong and consistent communication network is a way out and the session yesterday is a beginning to connect and create opportunities."

D.K. Ghatani of Amazing Adventure Private Limited, agrees that it helps since Sikkim doesn't have any other platform for entrepreneurs and AIC-SMUTBI does help the many who have an idea they want to see into fruition.

Then there is the question of the slow growth of new startups after this lockdown and pandemic are over. "Manufacturing might be hit for a while as it depends on manpower. To get people back to the factories will be a challenge. The tourism sector is another area that will surely get affected. So it depends on sector-to-sector and the government policies for this year, says Sonam.

Ghatani thinks similarly. He says that there is a chance that many startups may shut down since it is difficult for a new startup to survive in such times. But when it comes to his business, he is confident that tourism in the state will boom soon enough, having had an experience of more than 13 years in this sector. "Hopefully it will resolve soon".

"The craft sector has definitely been hit badly though. We do a lot of livelihood projects in the craft sector. We have lost out on a lot of orders and it definitely is going to have long term implications", addsSonam. But if one were to talk about purely creating art, he believes that for the self-aware and the curious, this will surely build new content and approach towards art and culture. You have to have an eye for it".

Although there seems no end in sight regarding the COVID-19 crisis, what is interesting to see if the resilience that Sikkim's business owners and entrepreneurs have. There is a flurry of activity within their own spaces and a need to break out of this restrictive zone. Even if there isn't and the lockdown has dimmed their optimism, it would do well for everyone to listen to Dr Tejbanta's sage wisdom – "It is true that we are at the lowest point but I believe that now, the only way to go is up."

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