From the outside, the tall glass structure on Sirur Park Road in Hubballi's Akshay colony looks like any other building in the largely residential neighbourhood. But inside, something different is taking place. Four of the five floors in the building function as the office for Sandbox, a social initiative that is run by Gururaj Deshpande, and other programmes managed by his foundation. As one walks up the stairs to the third floor, the action begins to heat up. This is where Deshpande, or Desh as he is popularly called, does much of the heavy-lifting-hand-holding wannabe entrepreneurs, thrashing out ideas with them and boiling them down to their brilliance.
An offshoot of the Deshpande Foundation-a non-governmental organisation he started with his wife, Jaishree-Sandbox is now catching the attention of aspiring entrepreneurs worldwide. Through his initiative, which was started in 2007, Deshpande, himself a businessman, has helped many youngsters transform their ideas into successful ventures.
Bengaluru youngsters Sanal NK , Chandan KD, Yashwanth BV and Ajay Shresti are among them. After finishing their engineering in mecha-tronics from city-based Acharya Institute of Technology, they turned to Sandbox for mentoring. Their idea was to develop a wind turbine that could generate wind even at very low wind speed (called an omni-directional vertical wind turbine). After a couple of installations in Bengaluru of wind turbines generating from 1 to 12 kilowatts, they realised the need for financial support and guidance to refine their product.
"We moved to Hubballi Sandbox just two months ago. We have registered ourselves as a company and have bagged our first project here. Sandbox has given us incubation and will provide step-by-step support to build the product and will even provide help in marketing and sales," says Sanal.
While their business is still to take off, there are many companies that have been fairly successful by now. Sasisekar Kris, an embedded engineer who has worked with Wipro and PMC Sierra, came to Hubballi in 2009. An IIT-Chennai graduate and a PhD from the Indian Institute of Science, Kris's idea was to develop an image processing technology for the automobile sector. Initially, he joined The Indus Entrepreneurs, a not-for-profit global network of entrepreneurs, in Hubballi as an executive director. It was here that he came in contact with Naveen Jha, the CEO of Deshpande Foundation and decided to join Sandbox.
In 2012, he graduated from the Sandbox programme with a new venture called NanoPix. Using multi-camera correlation algorithm, NanoPix manufactures machines that help sort cashew nuts based on their shape, size and colour, thus enhancing their export value. The company is also launching similar machines for other agricultural produces such as areca nut, almond, walnut and ground nuts. New opportunities in other areas such as healthcare and automobile are also on the anvil.
"If there is one reason why NanoPix is successful today, it is Sandbox. It gave me a network of entrepreneurs who filled me with positivity. Also, it gave me a network of mentors to tell me what I should do, including whether I should pay a bribe to get my registration done," says Kris, adding that "whether it is getting access to key talents or reference for customers or even getting seed funding, Sandbox stood by my side whenever there was a need."
NanoPix has sold about 100 units of the sorting machines, which costs between Rs 15 lakh and Rs 25 lakh. For FY16, it targets sales of 350-400 machines. "Even though I never wanted to fail, one thing is sure: the cost of failure in Hubballi is far less than that in Bengaluru," he adds. Even after his venture has taken off, Kris has not relocated from Hubballi and is now tying up funds for further expansion.
There are entrepreneurs like Deepa Ladawa, a commerce graduate from Bangalore University, who came to Sandbox in search of an office for her BPO start-up and then fell in love with the place. Ladawa's firm, ArVee Business Solutions, helps American doctors with medical billing services and currently employs 14 people.
"The basic philosophy of Sandbox is not to solve the problem but enable people to solve their own problems. Most of the young entrepreneurs who come to Sandbox are driven by a passion to make a difference, more than anything else," says Deshpande.
Driven by its success, a few entrepreneurs have now come forward to take the Sandbox model to other parts of the country. So far, it is getting replicated in Varanasi, where it is called Ek Soch Sandbox. The Varanasi set-up is run by Dilip Modi, chairman of S Mobility (formerly Spice Mobility). Phanindra Sama, founder of redBus, the online bus booking portal, and venture capitalist Raju Reddy will be launching the model in Telangana where it will be known as Kakatiya Sandbox.
What draws successful entrepreneurs to Sandbox is the potential it has of creating jobs and changing the lives of people in smaller towns. Modi, who got to know about Sandbox at an IIT event where he ran intoDeshpande and Reddy, says the idea clicked with him immediately. "I was quite amazed by the thought process behind the initiative and thus thought of taking the model to Eastern Uttar Pradesh with the base at Varanasi," he says.