The current engineering education system is broken. Students graduate with degrees but not skills. Here is a startup of young IITians trying to change it. Pavan Ponnaganti, an IIT Kanpur graduate, started Skyfi Labs with an objective to convert ‘textbook geniuses into productive engineers’. Skyfi Labs recently raised angel round of funding from The Chennai Angels and Spark Capital. They now have a team of 60 employees with 9 of them coming from IITK/IITM and IIMA.
Q. Tell us a little bit about Pavan and Skyfi Labs?
I joined Aero at IITK after clearing JEE. While at IIT Kanpur, I spent a lot of my time at the Aeromodelling Club building and breaking things. One day some students from a small engineering college in Nagpur contacted me asking me to come to their college and help them in their aeromodelling project. They did not have all the resources an institute like IIT Kanpur provides to its students and so needed additional help. That was the first time I realized the need for a service like Skyfi Labs. But at that time, it was more of a hobby for me and so I did not think of it as a business opportunity. When I joined JP Morgan after graduation and started to look at resumes from the other side of the table, I was able the understand what role these projects have in shaping up an engineer. I was involved in recruitment to a bigger extent at the next company where I joined as 7th employee (and hence the bigger recruitment responsibilities). Here I saw that freshers coming out of tier 2 and tier 3 colleges come with a lot of theoretical knowledge but not much practical knowledge. So they are facing a lot of employability issues. Putting everything together I came up with this business model of giving students the needed practical experience thereby making them more employable.
Q. How was your experience at IIT Kanpur and especially your association with the Aeromodelling Club?
It was a great experience. Aeromodelling Club gave us a lot of opportunities to go and explore things on our own. We read and understood a lot of Aero (especially flight mechanics and aircraft design) concepts well before they came up in our courses. We learnt how to solve engineering problems by learning on our own. We also learnt several non-technical skills like team work, people and time management etc.
Q. Are you an accidental entrepreneur or you planned it for quite some time?
I wanted to be an entrepreneur right from my third year. We had lot of fun in the final year in the wing brainstorming on a lot of ideas that we came up with. We even started to work on an idea which we thought was wonderful. We stopped after a day realizing how bad it is. The same thinking continued even after I started with my job and helped me look for problems to solve. The interest in entrepreneurship led me to leave JP Morgan soon and join DSquare solutions – a 6 member startup in Bangalore.
Q. Tell us about the initial grind when you decided to start-up?
The initial days were fun. I told some of my friends about this idea and asked them for help. We worked on it part time while doing our jobs. We spent a number of late nights and weekends experimenting on a lot of things. We were good at core technology but had to learn many new things across domains like web development, marketing, sales, inventory management, delivery, finance, legal etc. We got a few full time employees too and paid them from our salaries. It was in the summer of 2012 that we got into this full time and began building a team. We recruited few more IITians into our core team and started to work from the same house where we all stayed together. We kept growing at a good pace. We got into our first office around Feb 2013 and raised funding in Nov 2013. Our team kept growing and we rented out a second office in April 2014.
Q. What is the most satisfying part of being an entrepreneur?
The most satisfying part is to see the positive change our products/ services are bringing to the students. We are seeing students go back with a lot of skills and confidence of being able to do something. We feel happy when students feel so proud of the work they did in our programs that they put it up on their facebook profile pics. The comments and encouragement they receive from their friends, parents and faculty show us how we are impacting the entire ecosystem around a student and not just the student himself/ herself. And the calls from students telling us how our programs helped them get jobs keep us motivated.
Q. Any particular incident that stands out in your start-up journey so far?
Entrepreneurship is full of such incidents. Our association with Boeing for example is one. It was a dream for any aerospace engineering student to work with Boeing. So was it for me and other aero team mates while we were studying. The day we received a call from Boeing to work with them brought huge smiles across the office. Boeing introduced a competition to encourage Indian students and we worked with them in setting up and executing it. It was a great success and we are working with Boeing for the second time now to make it much bigger.
Q. Advice for young aspiring entrepreneurs?
Find a real problem and come up with a feasible solution.