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Why Bangalore Doesn’t Need Silicon Valley

Bangalore, however, has been attracting Americans and Europeans to start companies in India for Indians. And this phenomenon is hardly new

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Visitors to Bangalore, India, these days can see street art, have beer at local microbreweries or take an Uber ride to a distant neighborhood to meet with venture capitalists about a recent startup that grabbed their attention.

Gone are the days of a city dominated by call centers and American visa seekers.

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“There’s an artisanal hot dog place there,” Sean Blagsvedt, founder of online job portal Babajob, said of a nearby neighborhood, speaking over his plate of salmon sashimi. “You have a bazillion 20-something tech people who don’t like to cook and suddenly have a [large amount] of money to start paying for interesting food. … You saw the same things in San Francisco.”

Babajob employees take notes on a window overlooking a neighborhood in downtown Bangalore. (E. Sarai/VOA)

Babajob employees take notes on a window overlooking a neighborhood in downtown Bangalore.

A wide variety of dining options, nightlife and other activities has blossomed alongside the tech industry in “India’s Silicon Valley.”

Bangalore was rated the most dynamic city in the world, two spots ahead of California’s Silicon Valley — which isn’t a city but was ranked as one — by the JLL City Momentum Index this year. The index looks at more than 100 cities around the world, rated by their “ability to embrace technological change, absorb rapid population growth and strengthen global connectivity.”

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Not looking abroad

Call centers and outsourced IT workers still make up a part of Bangalore, but a vibrant crowd of modern, enthusiastic, tech-minded people has grown to dominate the city — and for most of them, the promise of “a better life” abroad is not on their radar.

Bangalore, however, has been attracting Americans and Europeans to start companies in India for Indians. And this phenomenon is hardly new.

Sean Blagsvedt, an American, moved to Bangalore over 10 years ago and started his own company. (E. Sarai/VOA)

Sean Blagsvedt, an American, moved to Bangalore over 10 years ago and started his own company. (E. Sarai/VOA)

Blagsvedt, who is also Babajob’s CEO, moved to Bangalore from his hometown of Seattle, Washington, when he was 28 to work with Microsoft. Although Blagsvedt enjoyed his work, he felt compelled to work more directly with Indians, for Indians.

“I always had this nagging thing, like, am I doing enough to address the inequity that I saw, am I doing enough to make the best use of my skills, to try to do something important to make a difference?” he said.

After reading a study that said to get out of poverty, one needed to either change jobs or start a successful business, Blagsvedt was inspired to change how people found those positions.

“If only we could find a way to digitize all the jobs, make it accessible to people who don’t use computers, and digitize the social network, then we might be able to catalyze the escape from poverty for a lot of people,” he said.

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Twelve years, a successful company and a family later, Blagsvedt is “more Bangalorean than me!” according to an Indian on his team, Akshay Chaturvedi.

FILE - Visitors crowd at the Global Mobile Internet Conference in Bangalore, India, Sept. 10, 2015.

FILE – Visitors crowd at the Global Mobile Internet Conference in Bangalore, India, Sept. 10, 2015.

In the past 10 years, however, it’s not just Americans and Europeans with humanitarian motivations who are starting companies in Bangalore.

Indians, even those who paid for American educations and planned to pay off those debts with American jobs, have seen the increasing opportunity back home.

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‘A lot of vibrancy’

“[There is] a lot of young talent trying to build solutions that are uniquely India on almost every sector, whether that’s health services, education, digital media, even financial inclusion,” said Vani Kola, a venture capitalist who has been in Bangalore for 10 years after working in Silicon Valley. “I see a lot of vibrancy with respect to opportunity for building unique companies with unique solutions for India.”

And Indians have taken advantage of that opportunity. The number of startups in Bangalore rivals those in the top tech cities around the world. In 2015, San Francisco research firm Compass rated Bangalore as the second fastest-growing startup ecosystem in the world, and it was the only Asian city besides Singapore to place in the top 20 startup ecosystems.

Akshay Chaturvedi, who recently began his own startup, checks in to a communal office space on an iPad. (E. Sarai/VOA)

Akshay Chaturvedi, who recently began his own startup, checks in to a communal office space on an iPad. (E. Sarai/VOA)

Chaturvedi is one such person who, after completing a fellowship in the United States, returned to India, specifically Bangalore, to join the world of unique Indian startups.

“I can’t imagine my life without startups,” Chaturvedi told VOA. “Everything I do — I’m touched by a startup at least 20 times a day. Every single dinner I order by some food tech startup.”

In the days after we spoke with him at Babajob, Chaturvedi quit to work on his own startup — Leverage, an online platform for higher education services.

Although the question of the future of H1-B visas, a visa most often granted to IT workers from India, is on the minds of American companies that employ them, Bangalore seems less concerned.

“When students studied there, I said, ‘Look, there’s a lot of opportunity calling in India — can’t I do something here?’ That, I think, was a trend that was already there for the last few years,” Chaturvedi said. “And now [the] Indian economy seems to be strong and the opportunity from startups seems very viable in India.”

FILE - Commuters drive past the power transmission towers installed inside the International Tech Park, which houses several information technology companies in Bangalore, India, Sept. 26, 2015.

FILE – Commuters drive past the power transmission towers installed inside the International Tech Park, which houses several information technology companies in Bangalore, India, Sept. 26, 2015.

Fewer seeking H1-Bs

Blagsvedt holds a stronger opinion, saying that H1-B visas are exploitative, and that the rise of opportunity in Bangalore has limited the number of people desperate for those options.

“They haven’t raised that minimum salary in 22 years,” Blagsvedt said. “Now you tell me where you can hire a five-year programmer in Silicon Valley for $65,000 [a year]. You just can’t. And what does that guy have as recourse? If he doesn’t like the job, his visa is sponsored fully … he can’t complain, he can’t even switch jobs!”

Blagsvedt and Chaturvedi both said that in the Bangalore startup ecosystem, they had heard no talk, or worry, about the proposed changes to the U.S. visa program.

Chaturvedi did admit, however, that any threats to the H1-B program “would have been far scarier 10 years back.”

In today’s Bangalore, any widespread panic that Silicon Valley might imagine simply hasn’t taken hold. (VOA)

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Diesel Exhaust Converted Into Ink by Indian Innovators To Battle Air Pollution

Supervised by young engineers, workers at the start-up company Chakr Innovation in New Delhi cut and weld sheets of metal to make devices that will capture black plumes of smoke from diesel generators and convert it into ink.

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representational image. VOA

Supervised by young engineers, workers at the start-up company Chakr Innovation in New Delhi cut and weld sheets of metal to make devices that will capture black plumes of smoke from diesel generators and convert it into ink.

In a cabin, young engineers pore over drawings and hunch over computers as they explore more applications of the technology that they hope will aid progress in cleaning up the Indian capital’s toxic air – among the world’s dirtiest.

While the millions of cars that ply Delhi’s streets are usually blamed for the city’s deadly air pollution, another big culprit is the massive diesel generators used by industries and buildings to light up homes and offices during outages when power from the grid switches off – a frequent occurrence in summer. Installed in backyards and basements, they stay away from the public eye.

“Although vehicular emissions are the show stoppers, they are the ones which get the media attention, the silent polluters are the diesel generators,” says Arpit Dhupar, one of the three engineers who co-founded the start up.

The idea that this polluting smoke needs attention struck Dhupar three years ago as he sipped a glass of sugarcane juice at a roadside vendor and saw a wall blackened with the fumes of a diesel generator he was using.

It jolted him into joining with two others who co-founded the start-up to find a solution. Dhupar had experienced first hand the deadly impact of this pollution as he developed respiratory problems growing up in Delhi.

An Indian girls holds a banner during a protest against air pollution in New Delhi, India, Nov. 6, 2016.
An Indian girls holds a banner during a protest against air pollution in New Delhi, India, Nov. 6, 2016.

A new business

As the city’s dirty air becomes a serious health hazard for many citizens, it has turned into both a calling and a business opportunity for entrepreneurs looking at ways to improve air quality.

According to estimates, vehicles contribute 22 percent of the deadly PM 2.5 emissions in Delhi, while the share of diesel generators is about 15 percent. These emissions settle deep into the lungs, causing a host of respiratory problems.

After over two years of research and development, Chakr has begun selling devices to tap the diesel exhaust. They have been installed in 50 places, include public sector and private companies.

The technology involves cooling the exhaust in a “heat exchanger” where the tiny soot particles come together. These are then funneled into another chamber that captures 70 to 90 percent of the particulate matter. The carbon is isolated and converted into ink.

Among their first clients was one of the city’s top law firms, Jyoti Sagar Associates, which is housed in a building in Delhi’s business hub Gurgaon.

Making a contribution to minimizing the carbon footprint is a subject that is close to Sagar’s heart – his 32-year-old daughter has long suffered from the harmful effects of Delhi’s toxic air.

Motorists drive surrounded by smog, in New Delhi, India, Nov. 8, 2017.
Motorists drive surrounded by smog, in New Delhi, India, Nov. 8, 2017.

“This appealed to us straightaway, the technology is very impactful but is beautifully simple,” says Sagar. Since it could be retrofitted, it did not disrupt the day-to-day activities at the buzzing office. “Let’s be responsible. Let’s at least not leave behind a larger footprint of carbon. And if we can afford to control it, why not, it’s good for all,” he says.

At Chakr Innovation, cups, diaries and paper bags printed with the ink made from the exhaust serve as constant reminders of the amount of carbon emissions that would have escaped into the atmosphere.

There has been a lot of focus on improving Delhi’s air by reducing vehicular pollution and making more stringent norms for manufacturers, but the same has not happened for diesel generators. Although there are efforts to penalize businesses that dirty the atmosphere, this often prompts them to find ways to get around the norms.

Also Read: Exposure to Traffic-Related Pollution Poses Threat of Asthma in Kids

Tushar Mathur who joined the start up after working for ten years in the corporate sector feels converting smoke into ink is a viable solution. “Here is a technology which is completely sustainable, a win-win between businesses and environment,” says Mathur. (VOA)