INSEAD Business Lab a Showcase for Alumni Success


Around the world, INSEAD and its alumni help entrepreneurs sharpen their ventures by providing insights and access

Left uncultivated, even the best ideas stagnate. To thrive, business innovation needs a vibrant ecosystem.

That’s why when Deepak Punwani and Sameer Hajee wanted to turbocharge their energy venture, they turned to fellow INSEAD alumni for the knowledge and network to expand operations in East Africa and India. Their company, Nuru Energy, had functioned in those nations for several years—primarily in rural locales. But now they saw a lucrative opportunity to bring their renewable solutions to urban markets in emerging economies too.

To make this move, Deepak, MBA’05J, and Sameer, MBA’04D, tapped the strategic expertise of their INSEAD peers by participating in the inaugural India Business Lab event last April.

Held in Mumbai in conjunction with the school’s daylong India Business Dialogue, Business Lab is part entrepreneurial bootcamp, part networking forum.  Led by the India Alumni Association and inspired by a similar effort in France, the initiative brings INSEAD entrepreneurs and faculty together for intensive discussions that strengthen INSEAD ventures. Some of these businesses are just launching, while others, like Nuru Energy, are looking to develop further. Some companies want to gain strategic direction to sharpen their core value proposition; others hope to attract board members or forge relationships that open new markets. Each of them looks to the INSEAD community as a powerful catalyst for entrepreneurial innovation.

“We wanted to brainstorm about how we could fine-tune our ‘go-to-market’ strategy’ for semi-urban and urban sectors,” says Deepak, whose award-winning company offers an off-grid, human-powered pedal generator to provide reliable, clean and sustainable energy. Founded in 2008 with seed money from The World Bank, Nuru Energy uses locally available bicycle parts for its PowerCycle device to deliver energy even among the poorest rural areas. Their success in that segment, though, has attracted broader interest.

“We found that urban consumers also loved our product,” Deepak says. “Business Lab was a great, risk-free environment to discuss how to expand our operations. We gained some really workable ideas and introductions to two large foundations through INSEAD contacts.”

Business Lab is an alumni-driven event that carefully selects participating entrepreneurs. At the inaugural session, which garnered very positive feedback from the more than 60 participants, five teams engaged with distinguished alumni and faculty panellists. Ventures included a financial services firm seeking to extend access to educational funding to aspiring students in India; a telecom and media startup; a real estate services firm; and an online hospitality company.  Teams each had five minutes to present an overview of their businesses and challenges—typically issues related to strategy, marketing and business development. The groups then connected with panel members, based on interest and expertise, for a 30-minute brainstorming session. Afterward, each team shared its learnings with the entire group.

“We wanted to provide a different kind of networking opportunity, one where people gained insights that let them make tangible progress in their ventures,” says Smriti Gupta Mathur, MBA ’11J, IAA Secretary and one of those who spearheaded Business Lab. She’s a private equity expert and co-founder of Singapore-based Catalyst Partners, an SME advisory firm helping entrepreneurs build businesses. “Social networking events are great, but as an alumni association we wanted to do something more structured and with a higher ROI to help INSEAD entrepreneurs.”

Smriti has more than a decade of success helping fund start-ups, including advising on transactions valued at more than US$3 billion, She says that fundraising, though, was deliberately kept out of Business Lab: “That puts a different spin on things. We wanted to create a P2P event that was safe and open.”

She says that Business Lab attracts alumni from across the school’s programmes, including some older graduates from the INSEAD Leadership Programme for Senior Indian Executives (ILPSIE). Their experiences often are different than those of younger MBAs. “ILPSIE participants tend to be mid-level managers who may have worked for 15 years at one venture,” she says. “This can give them really deep network connections within a firm or sector.”

That’s valuable knowledge for INSEAD colleagues looking to build their businesses in new markets, says Marketing Professor Amitava Chattopadhyay, who contributed to the Mumbai event. “Business Lab points young entrepreneurs to resources that they can leverage, but that they may not have known about,” he says. The Lab’s focused conversation helps “clearly identify pitfalls and challenges that younger entrepreneurs are likely to face and offers ways to navigate through without having to reinvent the wheel.”

Marketing Professor Paddy Padmanabhan recalls a specific example from the inaugural event. A student presented a startup in the mobile commerce arena. It was a nice idea, says Professor Padmanabhan, but one that many others had tried before. “The conversation with Lab participants helped the student learn these lessons quickly and then devise strategies to adapt accordingly,” he says. “Many of those lessons were the consequences of decades worth of experience that Business Lab participants were able to bring to bear on the entrepreneur’s dream.”

The success of Business Lab in Europe provided the impetus for expanding the initiative in India. Serial entrepreneurs Benoit Pothier, EMBA’11Dec, and Dimitri Singer, IEP’06Dec, have run the Lab in France since 2012. Dissatisfied with existing options to help entrepreneurs, they decided to create a superior and “INSEAD-friendly” version. The two met at an entrepreneurial conference and felt that the “content was too generic and did not match our particular situation,” says Benoit, a tech-industry veteran and co-founder of The Cantillon, a Paris-based entrepreneurial accelerator. Dimitri is co-founder of 3D Sound Labs, a French startup that’s developing 3D audio headphones.

Benoit says Business Lab “leverages the ‘wisdom of the crowd’” to create a sense of community and provide non-judgemental feedback. “Because participants all have different backgrounds, the discussions—held in subgroups—are really interesting and bring value,” he says. “It reminds us of the business cases studied in the classroom, only that at Business Lab, the case is the entrepreneur’s venture.”

The next India Business Lab will take place in April 2015, again in Mumbai, with another set for next November in Bangalore. The success of the inaugural event is attracting interest from INSEAD MBA students, too, says Smriti, and the IAA India is exploring how it might accommodate this additional demand.

“INSEAD has a thriving entrepreneurial community and the school has been great about nurturing that interest,” says Smriti, citing INSEAD’s extensive teaching and research resources in entrepreneurship. “We see Business Lab as an exceptional way to complement and enhance this ecosystem by harnessing the talent of alumni to help other alumni develop networks and ventures.”

For more information on the India Business Lab, please contact the India Alumni Association.

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