We at Upaya Social Ventures have been running our accelerator program since 2017. In the previous two years, the accelerator program was focused on specific sectors that we believed have the strongest potential for job creation. In 2017, the focus was on skill development & training, and in 2018, the focus was on agribusinesses. As our team discussed which sector to focus on for the 2019 accelerator program, we decided to take a new approach.
This year, our team decided to keep the focus of the accelerator ‘sector-agnostic’ and open it up for applications from all early stage enterprises that have the potential to create jobs for people living in extreme poverty. This aligns with Upaya’s mission of identifying and investing in such businesses to help them scale. The objective of this new approach was to also be able to identify the sectors where the most jobs are being created and potentially uncover sectors beyond those in which Upaya has traditionally invested (agribusiness, rural manufacturing, skill/training). A sort of market mapping exercise by analyzing the application pool.
What makes the findings of Upaya’s 2019 Livelihoods Accelerator Program applications even more critical are the news stories that have been coming out in the last few months around jobs data in India. As pointed out in the BloomberQuint article, The unemployment rate is currently estimated to be at a 45-year high, reaching 7.8% in urban areas and 5.3% in rural regions. Even more worrying is the payroll data of the Employees State Insurance Corporation (ESIC), which provides subsidized health and medical insurance to employees in informal and blue collared jobs. The data shows that job creation fell by 6.91% in January 2019 to 11.23 lakh (1,123,000) as compared to 12.06 lakh (1,206,000) last year.
Given this scenario, we at Upaya are hoping to gain insights from our 2019 accelerator application process to help improve our approach and focus in identifying and investing in enterprises with the largest job creation potential. At the close of the first round of applications in early March 2019, we had received over 190 applications. I have highlighted three key insights from our analysis of the applications.
1. The highest numbers of applications came from companies in Agribusiness, Skill & training and Artisan Crafts industries.
We at Upaya were surprised by the diversity of sectors that were represented in the applications we received, especially given that Upaya’s focus is on identifying companies that have potential for job creation. It wasn’t surprising, since a large part of the country is reliant on agriculture, that the highest number of applications (over 36%) were from the agribusiness industry. The same trend is reflected in Upaya’s portfolio, with active investments in three agribusiness companies.
Other sectors from which we saw interesting business models were tourism and clean tech, where several applicants’ businesses are focused on rural areas of India with the potential to create jobs or significantly increase in income for people in those regions.
2. Over 90% of companies that applied are less than 5 years old and have revenue between INR 10 - 50 Lakhs ($14.5k - $72k USD) per year.
The fact that so many applications came from such young companies shows that there is a strong pipeline of early-stage enterprises that are building on new and different models to address various social issues along with trying to create jobs. This validates Upaya’s focus on investing in early-stage businesses in particular.
These companies, like many of our current partners when they first entered our investment portfolio, are still at an early stage with early traction. We at Upaya understand the risks involved in investing in these businesses, and Upaya’s Accelerator Program allows us to work closely with them to address some of these risks and grow through both financial and non-financial support.
3. Over 60% of the applicants have an investment ask of less than INR 50 Lakhs ($72k USD) and less 14% of applicants have previously raised over INR 50 Lakhs.
The predominant pool of enterprises applying to the Accelerator Program need early-stage, patient capital to help them further build their model and scale to attract larger investments from other investors. Given that Upaya’s investment is up to $50,000 USD (~INR 35 Lakhs), this was another key validation of Upaya’s model.
A key piece of support entrepreneurs receive in Upaya’s Accelerator Program is preparing them for investment. We work closely with the cohort companies to build their financial model and deep dive into their investment ask.
From Upaya’s 2019 Accelerator program application, we can clearly see that there are various model and different sectors that are creating jobs with a focus on people living in poverty. We were also pleased to see that Upaya’s model of providing investment capital and supporting early-stage enterprises is strongly validated by looking at the types of companies that applied for the program.
Along with validating Upaya’s model, we identified several key takeaways during this application process. For one, we faced the challenge in communicating about an accelerator program that doesn’t have an explicit industry theme. The 2019 Accelerator Program is themed around “livelihoods,” which is a highly social sector-related term -- very few businesses use the term. It’s very rare that an enterprise’s core function is to create jobs. Rather, job creation will be an outcome of the main activity of the enterprise. It’s possible that potential applicants didn’t feel the “Livelihoods Accelerator” applies to them, even if their enterprises are creating valuable jobs for people in extreme poverty. Despite the challenge of communicating, we were successful in getting over 190 applications in the first round.
The Upaya team is currently reviewing the second-round applications from enterprises that were shortlisted for a more in-depth application, and we hope to derive further insights. We are all excited to select the final set of companies that will be part of the 2019 Livelihood Accelerator program by first week of May, 2019.