IBM has a new focus on startups in India, and has organised its operations to centralise its efforts to engage with the ecosystem, explains Nipun Mehrotra, IBM's Chief Digital Officer for India and South Asia. Last year, Gadgets 360 had spoken to Seema Kumar, Country Leader, Development Ecosystem and Startups IBM India, who touched upon about the work the company does with developers, integrators, and others
According to Mehrotra, until now, IBM has been engaging in these kinds of efforts in various silos across the company, and under the new organisation that he's leading, the goal is to provide a more centralised support structure for the startup ecosystem.
"These were the first few steps," he explains, "and we've experimented a little, but now the process has been streamlined at the global level and that's true for India as well, though we have stayed in tune with the local market."
"For example, we can help people with things like India stack integration," he continues, "and we can help them to interface with the various government agencies as well as businesses that can be customers."
Competing with the upstarts
IBM isn't the only global technology giant that's focusing on startups though - companies such as Google and Amazon that Big Blue would have described as upstarts in years past, are now competing for the attention of the same startups, and all three companies, along with others like Microsoft and Facebook, are all working on areas such as cloud computing, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and so on.
And as Mehrotra admits, this is an area where amongst other things, IBM faces a perception problem. "People will often think of the others are more exciting because they are consumer facing, while our customers are different, but we have actually been in the forefront," he says. "Others were making simple chatbots, where Watson provided actual intelligence."
"We are very industry oriented," he continues, "and so people don't automatically think of us, because we didn't start with an IoT, or wearable approach to machine learning, for example. That's more visible, but it's not a deep problem."
At the same time, although IBM's biggest strength is in enterprises, Mehrotra says that IBM is happy to work with consumer facing startups as well. "Sometimes they will have a product that is a great fit to a problem that the startup was not even aware about, but our customers will have a requirement," says Mehrotra. "A consumer product can be very useful in a B2B market as well, because eventual our customers are B2C, so there is an end user you have to develop for."
Someone needs to make money
According to Mehrotra, there is still a lot of potential for technology in areas such as health, education, fintech, and e-commerce, and these are the areas that IBM intends to focus on when working with startups. The focus is to see how "deep technology," as Mehrotra puts in, can make a difference, particularly when paired with the right business model.
That last part in particular is something Mehrotra says is easy to forget in the heady startup phase, but is essential to building something sustainable. That's also where he believes IBM can add a lot of value.
"We have the biggest customer base," he says, referring to the large popular of enterprise clients that work with the company, giving it insight into how the overall market looks, and what niches exist to be filled. "Sometimes we will work with people to build things from the ground up, and at other times we will find a startup that's doing something, and a customer that has the same need, or bring multiple startups together to collaborate and build a solution."
IBM isn't putting cash on the table to do this though - instead it offers consultations on the technology and business side of things, access to tools and also talent within the company, and applies it's "design thinking" principles to the startups to help them build for the future.
"We do make some acquisitions as well, but that's different from our focus on the startup ecosystem," says Mehrotra, "and look at where AI and deep technology can make an impact in an enterprise standpoint."
It's an interesting pitch, but IBM faces real competition, and it's a late entrant to the space. But when we mention that, Mehrotra quips, "A little early or a little late does not matter in a marathon."