Barcamp Pune revealed

Is Pune the one? Can Pune be amongst the best cities in India to incubate a start-up? Will there be enough talent to tap into? Is there a culture that promotes innovation? My experience at Barcamp Pune has set my mind at ease. I am now confident that over time, I will win my bet on Pune after all. The unconference conference was replete with smart technologists and business people heading start-ups in the area. The speakers were more than willing to expose their products and ideas to everyone at the unconference for feedback.

Webaroo is an attempt to solve the problem of offline search for mobile users (laptops/mobile phones). The solution is to carry a “slice of the web with you all the time”. Webaroo is free for download and use. On installing their application and webpack, you can search as well as access the sites offered by the webpack for free. You also don’t get any advertisements with the application.

Most of the questions posted centered around the format of the webpacks. If I understood correctly, the format and the API to access the webpacks are both currently proprietary. This I think is a big mistake. One of their webpacks is offline. Wikipedia is covered by the GNU Free Documentation License. I believe that Webaroo cannot legally re-package Wikipedia content and distribute it as a webpack since they disallow further sharing and redistribution of the content.

I hope they have an answer. Webaroo is part of the IIT Powai, incubation effort. Of the innovative start-up talks that attended the Barcamp, they were the closest to having a serious, complete and viable model.

Patangs project carpool. Save the kittens and the baby seals, my housemate and I decided! This was over some tipsy light-hearted conversation. I sold my (mini) SUV subsequently. Patang (Siddharth Shah) has also sold his car. Patang’s solution deserves a mention because of the spirit behind his project. In his own words, Patang’s Project carpool is aimed at those who lament about the oil crisis, and the loss of foot paths (to bigger cars). The project carpool is an AJAX-based mash-up of the Google maps and a light web application that allows you to team up with registered car pools that follow your route.

The toughest question was from a gentleman up-front who asked, and I paraphrase – “When do you think the oil problem will go away?”, Patang replies – “probably in twenty years, when we run out of oil”!

Pune has a steady supply of smart nerds. The city also has a unique personality, history, and youth. But what about the funds? Of the 5 start-ups I heard talk today (there were more), none of them had issues securing angel-level funds. At a later stage, getting venture capital funds could get harder. For instance, Paul Graham writes that VC’s prefer to fund companies less than an hour’s drive away. Perhaps that is beginning to change. At least one services company in the area has secured serious venture capital funding. The VC’s were located in London if I recall correctly. Pune also has that special sauce. One of the most famous services companies started in Pune – Persistent Systems, can trace back its roots to Kirloskar Pneumatics. Kirloskar was also partially incubated in Pune in the 1960’s. Organically, is exactly how the entrepreneural bug propagates.

Sometimes, I hate Pune too. There are things about Pune – bureaucracy, buildings, roads, traffic and electricity – the less said about them the better. The 4 km long fly-over on University road is going to take more than 3 years to complete, too long by any yardstick. On my way to the Barcamp, I drove past a motor-cyclist who was knocked down by a bus on the far side of the highway. He was hurt very seriously and had not received medical attention. Some traffic cops in the distance were not really doing anything about the situation. He was being helped by some students who were on the bus. It was an unfortunate incident, also a common-place one.

Most Puneites have grown insensitive to these issues. No one slows down when the trafic lights turn orange. I get honked at even if were to slow down at orange or follow other traffic rules. Thankfully, the conscientious lot are working against changing that.

What about competition? The reader familiar with the area will note that I have (conveniently) clubbed Pune – Mumbai together in the for most of this post. I think of the two cities as having interlocked destinies. Pune does depend on the commerce (and airport) of Mumbai and vice versa. The Mumbai-Pune expressway is a good example of the synergy between the two cities.

Smart nerds don’t enjoy living in Mumbai or in Los Angeles for that matter. Most complaints center around the hour-long commutes, the impersonal nature of the urban crowds and the cost of living or renting there. A 26 year old executive ranted to me once “If you don’t have money, in Mumbai your no more than a commoner. No one will want to know your name or who you are.” – I believe that to be very true of any big city. So the deal is, Mumbai can keep the real money, while Pune can keep the smart talent. That arrangement is fine by me.

Barcamps provide the best forums for innovative start-ups to come out and display their products and solicit feedback. It was disappointing to see that the Barcamp attendance was limited to 150 people. As time flies by, some of these start-ups might wilt and die due to changing trends. I am confident that the spirit will remain.

Other startups/technology companies at Barcamp Pune, and references: