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C Balagopal: Building business in Imphal

Ex-bureaucrat and entrepreneur C Balagopal sets up Startup Cafe, Manipur's first business incubation centre

Indulekha Aravind 

C Balagopal

“So, what are you going to do about it?” It was as simple as that. A straightforward question, by a college student in the University of Hyderabad, to C Balagopal, a former Indian Administrative Service officer posted in Manipur and entrepreneur. Balagopal had just published a book about his experiences in the state titled On a Clear Day, You Can See India, and this was a discussion organised by students at the university who were from the Northeast.

“Some of the issues they raised were very disturbing, and I could have said, what can I do, I am just an individual, it is the responsibility of the state,” says Balagopal, recalling the incident months later. Instead, to his own surprise, he responded with, “Yes, you’re right. we all have to do something about it. I’m thinking about it, and I’ll come up with something fast.”

The “something” turned out to be a business incubation centre in Imphal, the first in the state, for which he has decided to commit Rs 50 lakh of his personal funds, though he had no inkling of this when he made his grand declaration in Hyderabad. But while mulling over what to do, he happened to watch a TED talk by Mohammed, a youth in strife-torn Somalia. The youngster had returned to Mogadishu and started something similar to help youngsters who were otherwise condemned to what he termed “waithood”, a poignant term coined for the futile wait for something to happen. And, when it doesn’t, you are tempted to turn to terrorism and other acts of violence, like the protagonist in Mohammed’s story who was convinced to blow himself up in a busy market. “Though it’s not as bad, it didn’t sound too different what was happening in Manipur. This seemed like one way to break that cycle of hopelessness,” says the 62-year-old who had served in Manipur till 1983 before relocating to Kerala and starting his next innings as an entrepreneur.

But there was one hitch: after leaving Manipur, Balagopal had never gone back. He had spent the next three decades in his home state, Kerala, launching Peninsula Polymers, which became the biggest blood bag manufacturer globally. The firm, in which ICICI Ventures also had a stake, was finally bought by its Japanese partner, Terumo. When the idea to set up an incubation centre took hold, Balagopal knew he needed to do a recce to find out if there were enough takers for it. Over 10 days, in different parts of a state torn by insurgency, he met a cross-section of people, from students to professors and politicians to farmers. “But everyone I met was not only positive, but also believed it would make an impact,” he says. A five-minute appointment with Chief Minister Ibobi Singh, for instance, extended to a one-and-a-half-hour session about how the incubator would function.

“I think the concept will succeed if he is committed to it,” says Pradip Phanjoubam, editor of Manipuri daily Imphal Free Press, on the phone from Manipur. “The situation here is bad but during bad times too, you need things like these. But you need to be in this for the long run.” Phanjoubam had met Balagopal while he was in Imphal for feedback on his concept, and he himself had spoken to a number of about it, he says. “Even at the height of insurgency, find a way to run small enterprises so this could pick up. But he should not give up on the idea even if there are a couple of failures,” he adds.

Students of the Central Institute of Plastics Engineering and Technology at a session on entrepreneurship by Balagopal
The Imphal Business Incubation Centre, which has already started accepting proposals, will be known by the snappier name of “Startup Cafe”, to appeal to the youth. It will be run by Niranjan Singh, whom Balagopal has identified as his local partner. Singh is a Manipuri but spent most of his life outside the state, from school at Lawrence, Sanawar, to an MBA from ENPC in Paris. “I worked in retail for 15 years abroad and in India, but one day I decided I needed to come back and do something for the Northeast,” says Singh, 38, who set up a training centre, first in Guwahati and then in his hometown, Imphal. “When I met Balagopal, we discussed building an ecosystem and I felt we could work together,” he says.

Setting it up as a non-profit, Balagopal says all proposals would not immediately get seed funding. “They will be made to go through the drill of preparing a watertight business plan. We will assign mentors to help them with this,” he says. Apart from Peninsula Polymers, Balagopal is also mentoring healthcare startups in Thiruvananthapuram, where he was the founding chairman of the Kerala chapter of The Indus Entrepreneurs, or TiE, a global network to foster entrepreneurship launched in Silicon Valley.

Startup Cafe’s structure will be very lean, says the former administrator. “I want my money to go directly to the entrepreneurs, I don’t want it to be spent on Godrej almirahs. The centre will have to come up with a business model to meet overheads, perhaps by levying a small fee. After all, an incubation centre is basically an ecosystem to take proposals from ideation to proof-of-concept.”

A sewing and knitting training centre run with the help of Niranjan Singh, who is looking after Startup Cafe in Imphal
Some of the ideas he received were for a tourist facilitation centre where a local would help visitors to the state with anything they wanted for a daily fee. Another was a design startup that would produce designerwear using traditional motifs and skills. Seeing the traffic gridlock in Imphal, Balagopal himself had proposed setting up a courier service that would make deliveries in an hour, using cycles to escape the jams. While in Tamenglong, famed for its oranges, he had asked the farmers what they would need and they said the chief minister had promised a cold storage facility to help them reach their produce to the market without the help of middlemen. Asked whether they would set it up on their own if they had some seed capital, they had not only been enthusiastic, but an enterprising man who overheard the conversation had even volunteered to start a jeep service to transport the fruit. “Once you plant the seed, you realise are very enterprising and confident,” he says.

One of the most common questions in Manipur has been about who would want to do business there. Balagopal replies that he would be asked the same question about Kerala. “While you have insurgents with rifles, people say we have our own, called trade unions,” says the entrepreneur who says his factories in Kerala have never lost a day’s work due to strikes. When his firm began operations, he invited the department of labour to conduct sessions on labour rights, including how to form a trade union because he realised if he did not, local politicians would misinform them. “Even two years after that, they had not formed a union,” he says.

The incubation centre is looking to confirm two or three conceptual proposals by the end of this month, and Balagopal hopes that in a couple of years, Startup Cafe will be self-sustaining. Local mentors, like Uttam Laishram, head of the department of science and technology in the government, have also been roped in, as have others like the managing director of luxury eco-tourism chain CGH Earth. “And I don’t want to approach any big group for funding, I’d rather keep it a crowd-funded venture. Otherwise there won’t be any personal enjoyment or passion,” he says.

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First Published: Sat, January 17 2015. 00:29 IST