Advice to a technical student who wants to apply to a US college

By Abhishek Sethi

If you are someone who is studying engineering or science in India, and is aspiring to go for MS / PhD in the US, consider not going, and instead start a company in India. I have also written about how non-technical people should think of starting a company in another piece.

When I was in BITS in 2014 - 2018, people who were really passionate about engineering / science their only choice was to go to the US to study and work there. It doesn’t seem true anymore. There seems to be one more option - of starting a technical company back in India.

Many people think that gradCapital funds student startups that are part of e-cells or taking entrepreneurship courses, where they are learning how to startup.

That’s really not true. And we are looking for people who have a unique observation and just get obsessed with it, in a way that’s authentic.

E-cells attracted people who wanted to intentionally start a startup, but did not have an idea. And it’s very hard to start a company that way. And we have funded very few teams that way.

When you are passionate about something, you end up observing something in it that others aren’t able to. And many times that observation becomes the startup idea. For example, Naman was in 11th standard when he started noticing that drones can be made much more efficient if built a certain way, and then became obsessed about it. In one of our initial calls he was not looking in the camera throughout, and I asked what he is up to, and he was sanding a part of his drone. He told me he is working on this full time while going to school (5-6 hours after school if I recollect correctly). His pitch to our investment committee was simpler because he just showed on camera what he is working on - a scrappy drone structure, and parts of it.

I never wanted to start a fund when I was at IIMA, I just had an observation that not a lot of people are funding students, when a lot more should.

At the end of first year, I thought of starting a club that would fund just IIMA students, which would be run by students with each batch coming in - and thought by thought we decided to do it for all students. It was only after 2-3 months of experiments that gradCapital became an active goal to make work. Traction also helped - because in the first 2-3 months we selected a group of teams to get into YC, and one of them was Zepto.

We have been funding many teams like that, who worked on projects for passion. And that’s why we also give money for your projects through Atomic Fellowship and Feather Grants. It is basically free money to work on your project, with no expectation of you starting a company.

As a technical person, why starting a company is a more compelling option now:

  1. There are so many great Indian companies that are technical first - meaning they first discovered the engineering / science part of it, before making it relevant for customers. And many were started by students or young people. Ather Energy, Greyorange Robotics, Pixxel, & Ideaforge are examples of that. Examples like these are useful because it sets a new standard for people, especially for VCs and potential employees.
  2. Being an academic researcher has a reasonable probability that you’ll work on projects you won’t like, and a professor who may not align with you - with some inability to not being able to control these outcomes. If you start a company, all you need is an observation that can help people (“as customers''). “Can a certain type of bacteria break down plastic?” - then that can be a basis for a company. If your observation can be used to help people, there’s a case for making a company around it. If you care about working on things you like, going to another degree may constraint that.

You’d work with your friends, and choose what to work on. You increase your chances of success if the team is competent and likes each other. And if you can control that, it will improve your odds.

On academia: Getting a PhD now is so different from the 1900s. Freeman Dyson became a professor in physics without a PhD, and that requires incredible demonstration of capability. Now signals in CV are much more important to succeed than absolute merit of your work. You have to hack your way through - by sometimes finding “easy” journals to publish to get a point. And it’ll be a really long journey of working with the system before you do the science you like. Now, for so many fields, you need to have published papers to apply for a PhD.

There’s no set way to start a technical company, but one of the ways is definitely working on an interesting project, and then along the way:

  1. Figure what your unique observation is about the world or project
  2. Tell it to a lot of people
  3. Get to a point to show something

I think when you talk about your project to people, you start feeling a little bit more accountable. Because you have shared your idea with them, they’ll ask questions you may not have an answer to or ask how your work is going when you meet after 2 weeks. And it can feel a bit scary to think that, because you’ll wonder what if it doesn’t work out. The upside of telling a lot of people is also exactly this, you’ll want to get started. Either people will diss on you, or support you. In case they support you, you’ll have more people to work with. In case they diss you, well it may motivate you.

They’ll also ask a lot of questions and some of them are going to be valid, you’ll need to answer those with more honesty than those questions that are used to pull you down.

Also you’ll learn to describe your project, and it will push you to think of more details each time. And as you get more details, you’ll also learn the immediate next steps you can do to make progress. And that’ll give you an action plan that you’ll want to work on.

At some point, think about why the thing you need to make is “important” to be built. Once you are able to convince yourself and the friend why it’s important to be built, then you would feel okay failing once in a while. Because if it’s so important to be built; then the failure will feel small in comparison to the importance of keeping through. If you know how to create energy out of thin air - then a bad day won’t stop you. Because it’s so worthwhile to solve it.

Have a really high bar on importance. This is also one of the questions we ask when someone applies to gradCapital.

03 June, 2023