Deepti Dutt has always been obsessed with bringing innovation and scale to the government sector and impact start-ups, as both are closely interlinked. While start-ups cannot reach their true potential without administrative support, government agencies need to work with them to bring innovations in their operations.
Eager to increase the synergy between the two, Dutt, who heads the Strategic Initiatives for Public Sector at AWS India, started the GovStart programme in 2018. It addressed the question of how AWS could work backwards from customer needs where both the government and start-ups were its clients.
Impressed by the concept, AWS implemented the programme globally in 2021 and rechristened it as Startup Ramp to connect start-ups with stakeholders in the public sector.
Dutt tells Outlook Start-Up how AWS works closely with policymakers, partner networks and start-ups in India to educate them about the cloud, its cost savings, scalability and performance testing benchmarking.
How does Start-up Ramp help start-ups working with government entities who struggle to navigate the lengthy payment cycles, long-winding internal processes, and cumbersome documentation?
Typically, a start-up needs three key things. The first is business validation for their idea through on-the-ground pilots on their first customer set and then picking up those results in providing the solution.
Secondly, they need tech validation, scalable technology, and the ability to reduce overall costs and ensure security. And the third is financing as they scale.
Working on a collaborator ecosystem model helps us see how we can solve their problems comprehensively. So, I look at solving the government procurement issues, scaling their needs and de-risking a project.
As the Start-up Ramp programme evolved, we realised the importance of systems integrators in this process, with the government as the buyer and start-ups as the suppliers.
For instance, Agami is an innovation ecosystem facilitator in the justice domain. It works closely with the technology champions in court space, leading universities, justice departments, IT organisations and start-ups.
We work closely with Agami and recently launched the Smart Cities Innovation Pod, a series of accelerator programmes, in association with the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA). Through it, we create start-up cohorts in specific themes and nurture them, like harnessing AI for online dispute resolution, transcription, translation and litigant counselling, or fast-tracking bulk cases through automation.
Since the government sector is mainly impact-driven, what role does AWS play to ensure that the ecosystem moves seamlessly and deals are processed sustainably?
Business disruption is already taking place, and we are using technology extensively to resolve last-mile challenges. For instance, Hyderabad-based start-up Kuza has created an agripreneur concept in the agricultural space.
They make digitally savvy local youth their ambassadors, equip them with mobile phones and train them to take their solution to the farmer. This does two things—the educated local youth get employment, and farmers, who don't often understand technology, get the solution.
Similarly, we have partnered with KrishiTantra, which does soil testing using small kits. They, too, have a similar model, where they give work to villagers to conduct soil testing as part of government programmes and the government pays them a certain amount per test.
Another customer, NeML, procures rice, paddy and wheat for the government and has a presence at agricultural mandis. They created a mobile app for their on-field agents to check the quality parameters of the produce.
So, there are many disruptive ideas gaining ground where technology is used by the underprivileged by leveraging the overall larger set of the ecosystem. Moreover, technology is becoming simpler and user-friendly, which will be used increasingly at the grassroots level.
How will investing in the cloud help these start-ups?
Customers increasingly realise the cloud is more secure and hyper-scalable than doing things on-prem. Moreover, the cloud helps the government scale citizen services quickly.
When the first lot of smart metering projects were awarded four to five years ago, it was not on the cloud model. Systems integrators and the government struggled to scale this project securely.
We have been working closely with policymakers, partner networks and customers to educate them about the cloud, its cost savings, scalability and performance testing benchmarking. Today, most players in the smart metering ecosystem, including Fluentgrid, Trilliant and Enzen, are on AWS.
Fluentgrid moved from proprietary databases to Amazon Aurora, our open-source, enterprise version with MySQL and PostgreSQL. They could reduce their costs by 40 per cent and seamlessly move to 2 million, 4 million, and 5 million meters with performance testing.
While start-ups often have a problem-solving idea and the knowledge to build technology solutions, they find it challenging to get a foot in the door within the governmental space. How can you help stakeholders in the public domain understand this technology's viability?
The government, too, is embracing innovation and we have them participating in the innovation we organise. We conducted a drone programme with T-Hub and the Telangana government last year, where different departments gave four separate contracts to start-ups.
Have certain regions in the country shown more impetus towards technology?
That is a standard bell curve where you'll have champions and early adopters. Several drone start-ups are working with the Central government's SVAMITVA scheme. The CoWIN platform was another central government initiative that was a significant innovation.
The India stack has 12 applications, of which six are built on AWS. We also partner with MeitY Start-up Hub, on how we enable the start-ups better.
We are at a stage where innovation is not limited to just one or two, but it is happening at a much wider scale.
Do you agree that the government is focused on collaborating with start-ups in agritech, healthcare and education in the public domain?
The start-up innovation in the public sector is not limited to agriculture and healthcare. There are many other exciting projects underway, especially the sustainability charter.
India is expected to have over 100 million electric vehicles by 2030, which will need a lot of charging infrastructure. We have a start-up, Elocity, which works with all charge point operators to provide solutions in the space.
Citility has some great smart mobility projects in multiple cities. Similarly, Recity is solving the circular economy problem by recycling across seven to eight cities, as is LogicLadder, a carbon emission monitoring space.
I've encountered various drone technology applications in multiple industries. Police surveillance, land records, agriculture and geospatial are some of the domains where this technology is being used.
Last year, we did an innovation challenge with Coal India Limited on using video analytics for their coal pilferage problem. This addressed the pilferage issue from where the trucks move after coal extraction to the refinery and loading onto trains for transportation. So, innovation is happening across all government sectors.
Start-ups are tackling a funding winter, recessionary fears, economic slowdown and skill shortage. How is AWS working with them till things bounce back to normal?
All of these are compelling reasons to work in cohesion. Start-ups understand that the cloud is the way to go if you must do rapid innovation with a fail-fast, fail-safe model.
Instead of investing in heavy capex to lift infrastructure for operations, adopting the cloud allows start-up founders to focus on the application layer and business strategy.
Stating that AWS, Microsoft, and IBM dominate India's cloud sector, Union Minister of State for Electronics and Information Technology Rajeev Chandrashekhar felt there needs to be an equitable playing field for smaller players. What is your take on the entry of more players?
The government made these policies as far as what they feel is right. Incidentally, many of the government's projects are on AWS because it knows the technology differentiation AWS brings. The CoWIN platform was launched within four to five weeks during the pandemic, which was possible because it was on AWS.
We are not worried about more players as we believe focusing on our technology takes precedence over anything else. Moreover, start-ups will go where they see more value and get better services, technology, and solutions.
What advice would you give start-up founders about breaking into the public sector?
Firstly, be very clear about the problem you're solving at the grassroots level. You need to define your customer and the solution's beneficiary clearly. After that, you have to be clear about the minimum viable product (MVP) and ensure that you're building around the identified problem.
They should aim for scalable, secure solutions that allow for quick iteration. This is because any current app needs updating with new features and can't stagnate. You need to factor in your ability to innovate quickly and securely.
At the end of the day, it boils down to their obsession with the customer problem and the precise definition of how they are resolving it while adding some value.