The Nexus of Innovation

The American Center New Delhi’s Nexus Incubator harnesses U.S.-India collaborations to help start-ups thrive.

In the exploding world of start-ups, rising Indian companies have a new ally: the Nexus Incubator. The innovative program, a collaboration between American Center New Delhi and the IC2 Institute at The University of Texas at Austin, uses an international perspective to help entrepreneurs in India bring their most brilliant ideas to life and to the market.

“When we work with promising new start-ups, we try to teach them the best ways to run their businesses through entrepreneurship and innovation,” says Erik Azulay, the incubator’s director. “The U.S. is rightly known as the world leader in innovation, commercialization and entrepreneurship, and the U.S. government is trying to bring the best American practices and expertise to India.”

The number one thing we tell people who want to start a business, or who are just getting started and want to get to the next level, is not to try to push your idea where it isn’t necessarily needed or wanted.

In other words, the incubator provides carefully-selected “cohorts” of Indian start-up companies with tools, resources, education and anything else that they need to evolve from intriguing ideas into powerful, sustainable businesses. Specific programs for incubator participants could include classes on marketing and market-based research or workshops on finance and fundraising, courses on dealing with partner organizations or one-on-one mentorship sessions with renowned business experts from the United States and India. “We work with start-up businesses to try and get them funding, customers and increased revenue. But, there’s an important aspect of diplomacy, international cooperation and bridge-building, as well,” says Azulay. “We are helping build internationally-reaching businesses in a wide array of fields, and this promotes international cooperation as well as business success.” 

Azulay is excited at the program’s progress, momentum and potential to affect change moving into the future. “I’m proud to say that our efforts are absolutely working,” he says. “We have shown that, when it comes to being a successful incubator of new start-up companies, we practice what we preach, and see actual results when it comes to business success.”

The feedback from participating companies has also been fantastic, Azulay continues. “We conduct surveys with our start-ups and have been hearing how this process has transformed how they think about business and how they look at problems in new ways. Even more importantly, we’ve been hearing about how it has transformed the way they look at customers, suppliers, partners—and that’s exactly what we’re looking for. We want to affect not just the companies we work with, but the entire Indian [start-up] ecosystem.”

To that end, Azulay and his colleagues have brought in significant players in the world of Indian business as official partners of Nexus. These include the investor group Indian Angel Network, the Indian School of Business, tax and advisory firm Grant Thornton India, the American Chamber of Commerce in India, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, and more.

Rising companies nurtured through the incubator are hugely diverse in technology and mission. For instance, while Morphedo is an online 3D printing service platform that lets companies build quick and affordable prototypes, Dhakka Brakes’ technology improves the safety and stability of the millions of cycle rickshaws in India. Agpulse Organics is an organic pesticide developer whereas S4S Technologies is a food preservation technology innovator. And these are just a few of the Nexus-supported start-ups.

In general, Nexus tends to focus on supporting innovations that help other businesses thrive, often in the fields of medicine, agriculture, manufacturing and customer goods. “In every cohort, about one in four of our companies is what we’d call a social impact entrepreneur—a company that tries to help with an important social issue,” says Azulay. “For us, the most important piece of the puzzle with companies like that is that we want them to have a sustainable business model and not just be a well-meaning nonprofit living off of grants.”

Although Nexus is a young program, its inception was fortuitously timed, as India is in the midst of a period of remarkable growth and increased focus on entrepreneurship, Azulay describes. In fact, it’s that very drive that Nexus seeks to harness and help. The competition to enter Nexus is fierce, for example, reflecting the nation’s rapidly-expanding entrepreneurial ambition. 

“We get over a 100 applications and choose 15 companies,” says Azulay. “We don’t take any equity, and the program is free of charge. Free, but not cheap,” he adds, laughing. “We take the program extremely seriously and work with entrepreneurs who are passionate. We expect them to take the program as seriously as we do, and our companies have done a great job rising to the opportunity.” 

If you’re interested in being a part of a future Nexus cohort, Azulay recommends asking yourself a crucial question: Does your business idea solve a real problem in a cheaper, faster or more efficient way? “The number one thing we tell people who want to start a business, or who are just getting started and want to get to the next level, is not to try to push your idea where it isn’t necessarily needed or wanted,” he says. “Make sure that a solution is relevant and useful—listen to the voice of the market.”

Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.