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The role Indians play in America’s billion-dollar startup ecosystem - Then and now



With Indians facing a wave of criticism in the US for allegedly taking away American jobs, an Indian-American venture capitalist is trying to highlight the long history of their positive contributions to Silicon Valley.

The stereotype of Indians in the US tech industry has long been focused on the legions that provide inexpensive labour for the sector. However, over the past decades, Indians have also nurtured iconic businesses, from hardware-maker Sun Microsystems to the early e-mail giant Hotmail, and turned into some of the biggest entrepreneurial leaders and job creators.

In a report from July 2017, Manu Rekhi, director of venture capital firm Inventus Capital Partners, which is based out of Bengaluru and San Mateo, California, took a closer look at how Indians have made a name for themselves in the American entrepreneurial landscape.

The Foundation

A host of Indian-origin leaders have come to be household names today, including Google’s Sundar Pichai, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, Pepsi’s Indra Nooyi, and Adobe’s Shantanu Narayen. But the seeds of their success were actually sown decades earlier.

The first generation of Indian entrepreneurs arrived in the US in the early 1980s. “Among these legends, there was my partner, Kanwal Rekhi, along with Vinod Khosla, Naren Gupta, Prabhu Goel, Suhas Patil, and many more, who went on to found notable companies like Sun Microsystems (acquired by Oracle), Excelan, and Cirrus Logic,” Manu Rekhi said.

Most of the early entrepreneurs had migrated to America at a time when global exposure was scarce and their understanding of consumer behaviour in the US was limited, Rekhi said, so they founded engineering-heavy systems and networking companies, instead of consumer-facing ones.

The network

As more Indians began launching their ventures and the doors to the US opened wider for foreign students, Indian founders shifted their focus away from enterprise to consumer-oriented companies.

The biggest example of this evolution is perhaps Sabeer Bhatia’s founding of Hotmail.com in 1996. Bhatia, a BITS Pilani graduate, pursued his masters at Stanford University and worked at Apple before launching the email service.

The 90s were also the years when Indian-origin leaders turned into mentors in the Silicon Valley ecosystem. Serial entrepreneur BV Jagadeesh helped raise the seed money for San Jose-based Netscaler, and went on to become its president and CEO by 2000. 

He is still a managing partner at KAAJ Ventures, which makes early-stage investments in startups, and an adjunct professor at Santa Clara University, teaching classes on early-stage startups and valuation. 

Venture capitalist Ram Shriram, a founding board member and one of the first investors in Google—his stake in the company was valued at $1.3 billion in the mid-2000s—is also mentoring budding start-ups.

The acceleration

When the millennium bug bit, companies led by Indian entrepreneurs moved toward more advanced technologies, Rekhi notes. For instance, Jyoti Bansal started management and operations analytics firm AppDynamics, which Cisco acquired for $3.7 billion in March 2017. 

Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur alumnus Dheeraj Pandey led cloud-computing software company Nutanix to a multi-billion dollar initial public offering (IPO) in 2016.

And Manish Chandra, CEO of the social fashion marketplace Poshmark, created a product that would be “unheard of 20 years ago,” Rekhi said.

Despite comprising less than 1% of the US population, Indians founded 8% of all American technology and engineering startups by 2012. The group has started a third of the immigrant-founded start-ups in the US. The firms they founded also provided great acquisition opportunities and made high-value public debuts, Rekhi said

The era of returns

Although the first Indian-American founder-led Nasdaq IPO happened in 1987 with Excelan going public, the pickup in big-value exits came in recent times.

In the last five years, the software and services sector, with 17 companies, tops the list of IPOs led by Indian founders and co-founders, with a combined market cap of $26.2 billion. 

Pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, and life sciences came in second in terms of the number of IPOs (six). However, the retail industry saw a much larger market cap of $6.67 billion, compared to Pharma's $397 million.
US companies with Indian founders and/or co-founders that went public over the last five years.
Ten of these 34 companies—approximately 29%—were acquired following their stock-market debut.

Even before the turn of the millennium, companies like IBM and Intel had been making acquisitions, but mostly of outsourcing services companies where “you’re basically buying manpower,” said Rekhi. 

But between 2012 and 2017, more than 25 companies led by Indian-origin entrepreneurs have seen mergers and acquisitions worth over $500 million, Rekhi found.

“Topping that list is Western Digital’s acquisition of SanDisk, worth a whopping $19 billion, followed by several acquisitions from Cisco, HPE, and SAP,” Rekhi noted.
A brief history of the $500 million-plus M&As.
Today, 14 of the 261 unicorns (private companies valued at over $1 billion) in the US are headed by Indian-origin founders.

Together, these 14 startups have a combined valuation of $35.17 billion and funding of $81.8 billion, with the IT industry taking the lead, according to Rekhi.

Quartz - Ananya Bhattacharya
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