In this week’s expertology interview, we’re talking to Dr Ashish Agrawal, co-founder of  NPBridge, a social technology company. NPBridge works to empower the social sector with technology to achieve its full potential and generate social impact. Dr Agrawal completed his Bachelors and Masters in Technology and PhD from IIT Kanpur. Today, he’s here to share his views on entrepreneurship. 

You are the co-founder of NPBridge. Tell us more about the journey – what led to you starting this venture, and what challenges you have faced so far?

The idea of NPBridge started during my PhD. I have always been interested in building technologies to contribute back to our society. Thanks to my supervisor Prof. Prabhakar TV, I was also exposed – and sometimes part of – some projects that were making a massive impact on our society. Towards the end of my Ph.D., I was fortunate to meet Mr Kushal Sacheti – one of our senior alumnus – who had a great vision to transform the social sector with technologies. Initially, our activities started as a research project at IIT Kanpur, and later on, we incorporated our startup NPBridge.

At NPBridge, we operate in the digital information space of the global social sector. Our vision is to provide scalable digital technologies so that any stakeholder in this space can access and manage any type of information.

Currently, our focus is to democratize access to existing public data. For the same, our applications use both human intelligence and machine intelligence to transform data into meaningful information.

It has been an exciting and learning experience so far. I have been fortunate to have great mentors and learn from their experiences. Coming from a technical background, one thing I learned in a hard way is that technology is just an enabler. You have to design your application considering its consumers as stakeholders and not only users.

How can technology help in the social sector?

The social sector in India involves many entities such as non-profit organizations (also called NGOs), government agencies, corporates (engaged in CSR activities), and academic institutes. To give you an idea, we have more than 3 million NGOs in India working on a diverse set of domains and beneficiaries.

Similar to many other sectors, the social sector is also a knowledge-intensive sector. Here, the returns of investment are measured as the impact on the life of the people.

Thus, to be more effective and efficient in this sector, people need to make informed decisions. We all have seen how organizations like Google and Wikimedia Foundation have changed the way we work. However, many times, being domain-agnostic, these applications fail to understand what a user wants. We think that technology that understands this sector can enable solutions for many challenges in this sector.

You are a PhD from IIT Kanpur. Tell us something about the importance of higher studies for entrepreneurs.

I think it depends on various factors. Instead of giving a generic answer, I would only share my experience. I think apart from the domain knowledge, the conceptual tools built during my PhD still help me in not only identifying and evaluating various technical solutions but also problems.

Let me explain this. During my Ph.D., instead of giving the exact research problem, my supervisor would tell his students to find research problems themselves.

He would say that identifying the right research problem is much harder than solving that problem, and we should all learn this.

I would say that this has been my biggest learning during the PhD that strongly helps me making decisions.

What skills do you look for, when you hire someone in your company or what skills do you think are most important for entrepreneurs?

While hiring, what I generally look for is the candidate’s interest in learning new skills and the ability to do it quickly. Many times, we start with a small paid assignment before hiring for full time. As a startup, we continuously explore new opportunities, and it is essential to have a culture of learning.

A lot of students are interested in entrepreneurship these days. How do you think students can develop the necessary skills required (expect answers like the importance of entrepreneurship clubs in college, development of leadership skills, coping with failure etc.)

I think the best way to develop skills is to be a part of the journey. During my undergrad period, I worked with multiple startups (intern/freelancing). I not only developed an interest in entrepreneurship but got more interested in regular courses. I could see the applications of concepts taught in classes. This is why I also like the idea of  Kickstartup.

Connecting startups with quality freelancers in a cost-effective way would be a win-win situation for both parties.

What do you think are the problems with starting up in today’s scenario?

Currently, the COVID situation has changed the way we work. As per the experts, startups will face tough times in activities such as fundraising. However, there can be many new opportunities, as people are adopting technologies to avoid physical contact. For example, most of the schools and colleges are adopting tools to conduct remote classes. I think there are many new opportunities to focus on both the quality and functionality of products.

Any advice you would like to give to budding entrepreneurs and managers?

I would suggest looking out for mentors who have the same values as you.

There were many scenarios where I felt a lack of knowledge, and my mentors have been very kind to share their experiences. That helped in making many informed decisions.

The Expertology team thanks Dr. Ashish for sparing his valuable time and sharing his insights. We’ll be back next week, with another interesting interview. Stay tuned and subscribe to our blog to never miss another interview in the Expertology Series!

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