Sajan Pillai, who as CEO built UST Global into a $1 billion technology services company from scratch, in his new avatar is now betting big to invest in ventures which are creating solutions for the post-Covid-19 world.
The tech entrepreneur turned investor is making these investments from his Season Two Ventures (S2), an Indo-US corridor venture capital firm which has a corpus of $100 million. Pillai said he is making several investments in India even as the investment activity is hurt by the Covid-19 pandemic. These ventures are addressing problems ranging from providing warehouse spaces, analysing air quality data to enabling contactless transactions and helping biotech researchers in drug discovery trials.
“There are a variety of companies including e-commerce and logistics firms. When a pandemic hits one of the most important things people need is the ability to have the (products) delivered to their homes,” said Pillai, managing partner at Season Two Ventures, in an interview. “That's going to further boost e-commerce and one of the biggest things in that context is the back-end has to be stronger and flexible.”
One such company, Pillai revealed that his venture capital firm has backed, is Bengaluru-based on-demand and flexible warehousing start-up – Warehouse Now. The demand for flexible storage warehousing has soared in recent times due to the pandemic induced business dislocations. While the investment amount is undisclosed, the average cheque size for Season Two investments is between $1-3 million. Warehouse Now is present in over 100 cities and has more than 1000 warehouse spaces. The firm not only provides spaces but also provides manpower for supply chain requirements, stock insurance, packaging and last-mile delivery.
When the pandemic hit a few months ago, Pillai helped launch US-based Start Coalition – called MacLaren, a group of public and private sector leaders, researchers, healthcare specialists and entrepreneurs. It is partnering with Harvard Medical, Stanford Medicine and Purdue University Research Foundation in the fight against pandemics like Covid-19. The Coalition is pulling together institutions and people to study and establish a scalable model of containment.
“That has kept me quite busy in addition to our venture investment activities,” said Pillai. “We are really seeing the impact that one can have once we apply a confluence of scientists, data, technology and public-private partnerships.”
Through Season Two, Pillai is also looking to invest in biotech firms and companies addressing various infections. This includes determining the safety level of the places where people reside, respiratory health and the factors that affect air quality.
“The air pollution, your work and exercise habits would become very important. So wellness and sustainability would be a huge area to focus on,” said Pillai. “On the other hand, there are also a lot of biotech, virology, immunology and pharmaceutical startups that will now be considered significant in the fight against the pandemic.”
Season Two has backed Ambee, a company which is working towards building accurate and granular (postcode, neighbourhood, and street-level) data and analytics on air quality across the globe. It has invested in Hilabs which uses artificial intelligence to help health organizations intuitively explore their data and discover novel insights.
The other ventures, which Pillai finds relevant for the post-Covid world are those which are making interactions and payments contactless. Season Two has backed Uvik Technologies which has developed an app-based POS (point of sale) solution without any hardware in place. The app can be installed on smartphones, which becomes the POS device to accept card payments.
One of the key executives supporting Pillai in his investment efforts is Harsha Vardhan, a partner at Season Two Ventures. Vardhan who led and co-founded the consumer business for Tata Health, a division of the $110 billion Tata Group, said there is an opportunity related to data analytics, remote working and collaboration, to help reduce the timeline of the drug discovery process. He said there is also an opportunity related to the increasing importance of genomics-based treatment for illnesses ranging from cancer to infectious diseases. Vardhan said Season Two has backed six companies and the plan is to invest in at least 12-13 more by the end of this year.
Pillai who holds patents in internet computing and data systems had led the UST Global’s founding team in 1999. His leadership saw UST Global grow from 20 employees to more than 25,000 employees today. He led the company's global business operations through its centres in many countries including the US, the UK, Israel, Malaysia, Singapore and Australia. Pillai aims to share all his learning and experience with the companies he is backing. He said that the leadership team must not only have competency but also the humility to continuously learn, have a very large vision and a clear purpose.
“We could not have predicted the world would stop in 2020 (due to) pandemic and economic downturn. The ability to learn, observe and then pivot your company is critical,” said Pillai. “So, we look for founders who can constantly look outside, get the learnings and adapt.”