John Hoffmire: In the three years since I met you as a fellow of the Chevening Research Science and Innovation Leadership Programme (CRISP) at Oxford University, you created and have steered SR Innovation Exchange (SRiX) to a level where you are receiving international recognition. Please tell me more about that.
Sreedevi: I explain it this way: in the years before Oxford, while I had done meaningful work and research in the field of Innovation and entrepreneurship, to that point I had been jogging. Then, with all the inspiration, learning, and support I received as a CRISP fellow, combined with my years of experiential learning, I realized it was time for me to run.
As for the success of SRiX, it helps that it is part of a prestigious higher education campus, SR University — formerly SR Engineering College – which is an “A” grade accredited institution according to the National Assessment and Accreditation Council of India, Since I’ve been on board, this same educational institution has climbed right to the top of the table as Number 1 in India in the category of Private Institutions in the Atal Ranking of Institutions on Innovation Achievements (ARIIA 2020).
It also helps that we have been supported by the Department of Science and Technology (DST), Government of India, and that thanks to their support, we have state-of-the-art workspaces, a well-equipped IoT workshop, and prototyping facilities as well. As such, since its inception, SRiX has supported over 40 start-ups from Gurugram, Bengaluru, and Hyderabad.
Adding to this strong foundational base we made our top priority to create strategic partnerships across academia, industry, innovators, researchers and start-ups. I firmly believe that national and international collaborations are key to our country’s economic evolution and to the success of many start-ups. So, combine all these key ingredients and you will understand our secret recipe for the SRiX’s vibrant start-up ecosystem.
John: Why did you choose Warangal, a smaller city, instead of one of the larger metro cities in India, for creating a business incubator?
Sreedevi: Two thirds of all inventions in India come from young entrepreneurs or small cities. I believe that the opportunities that we have in the large metro areas, like Delhi and Mumbai, should ideally be available all across the country, in urban and rural communities alike. We need to up our innovation index by creating inclusive innovation ecosystems across the length and breadth of the country with a clear focus on problem solving for the country.
I also strongly believe that the innovation and entrepreneurial mindset of our young people will be instrumental in making India an international innovation capital and keep our youth and talent from migrating. Since its inception, SRiX has been doing a great job encouraging entrepreneurship and providing support to students through: 1) a range of world-class mentors, 2) a productive infrastructure, open marketplaces, and advanced IoT labs.
All of these help allow students the opportunity to tinker with ideas and grow businesses. We have as many as eight student start-ups incubating with us and have supported more than 230 student innovators.
John: Can you give me an example of a successful company that SRiX has supported from inception to successful enterprise?
Sreedevi: I’ll tell you about RACEnergy, one of our first start-up ventures which was incorporated by two young innovators in their twenties. RACEnergy makes electric conversion kits for three-wheelers and battery swapping stations. It aims to be a leader in its fields and is well on its way. It plans to scale up its swapping network across all major cities in India while increasing the density of stations in each city. The company wants to work with OEMs to manufacture vehicles using its battery-swapping platform.
In a price-sensitive market like India, the high price of purchasing electric vehicles (EVs) hinders the adoption of electric mobility. But the price-sensitivity of this same market provides RACEnergy with a great opportunity to innovate and address the market from a low-cost position. Through this process, they have helped accelerate the rate of EV adoption throughout India.
The main take away from RACEnergy is that it’s vehicles offer energy infrastructure support through its proprietary battery swapping stations, enabling rickshaw owners and fleet operators to save more in expenses, cut down emissions and costs, and increase their own profits. That’s disruptive and a win/win innovation.
John: I understand that you are quite involved with women entrepreneurship at the grass root level. In fact, you were recently awarded, the Private Sector Mentor award by the Government of India for the path-breaking work you’ve been doing over the past several years. And this is the first time the Ecosystem Builder-Mentor award has been conferred on a woman leader since the National Entrepreneurship Award was instituted in 2016.
Sreedevi: I do feel very passionate about supporting women entrepreneurship development initiatives at every level. I believe this type of work has great potential for economic and social impact. I have led and supported various women entrepreneurship development initiatives in the last few years, and I mentor women-run start-ups on strategy. I spend lot of time on women entrepreneurship initiatives aimed at empowering grass root level women. I also advise companies on POSH at the Workplace (The Prevention of Sexual Harassment (PoSH) at Workplace Act of India).
John: Tell me about your fellowship at Oxford with the Chevening Research Science and Innovation Leadership Programme (CRISP).
Sreedevi: Being part of the Chevening Research Science and Innovation Leadership Programme (CRISP) in 2018 was a pivotal experience for me. It gave me the opportunity to visit catapult and innovation zones throughout the United Kingdom. I had a one-point agenda for those visits: to understand how one can give wings to start-ups. My biggest takeaway was that when it comes to creating a successful entrepreneurial ecosystem, we must start big. By that I mean we must begin with all facilities in place instead of opting for an incremental rise in facilities. This realization helped me to create SRiX as a one-stop-shop for innovators. At the one-stop-shop, four things come together: entrepreneurs bring their innovations; faculty members bring strong research abilities and experience; people with corporate experience bring real life successes and failures; and we bring the facilities and programs. When the four things come together, sometimes there is magic. This is often how one-of-a-kind start-ups are born and flourish.
My time as a Chevening CRISP fellow helped me combine two somewhat opposing ideas which then pointed me to an understanding on how to disrupt and build a better type of incubator: The first idea: be a stickler for the basics, like doing thorough research, knowing your market, and laying the right groundwork for start-ups. This involves building your foundation on sound research and data so that your start-ups are well-conceived. The second idea: rethink and challenge assumptions to identify creative opportunities. Beyond the basics are the creative spaces where original ideas and innovative solutions are found.
John: As I am with every CRISP scholar I’ve met, I’m so impressed with the work you are doing, the drive you clearly have, and in your case, the commitment to helping women and youth fulfill their potential. Thank you for the wonderful work you are doing and for taking the time for this interview.
Sreedevi: Thank you, John. I feel the same way about my fellow CRISP colleagues. They are a tremendous inspiration to me.
Sreedevi Devireddy is the founding Chief Executive Officer of SR Innovation Exchange, the technology-business incubator of SR University, Warangal. She is also an alum of the Chevening Research Science and Innovation Leadership Programme (CRISP), 2018.
Interviewer: Dr. John Hoffmire is the Chairman of the Center on Business and Poverty, and Research Associate at the Oxford Centre for Mutual and Co-owned Business.