Exclusive: MIT Professor Ramesh Raskar busts biggest Startup Myths

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Ramesh Raskar is an Associate Professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He’s also the head of MIT Media Lab's Camera Culture research group. He received the TR100 Award from Technology Review and holds over fifty patents.

His lab has co-produced a new device to compute refractive error of eye (prescription for eyeglasses) on a mobile phone. This has spun out as a new venture EyeNetra.com. Raskar has also co-authored one of the earliest books on virtual and augmented reality, Spatial Augmented Reality and made it freely available for download.

Business Insider caught up with Ramesh during his short trip to India, and got chatting about startup myths, innovation, and India’s digital ecosystem.

The Biggest Startup Myth
The idea that one person has to be the complete package. The innovator is not always the entrepreneur. He just wants to solve the problem, and the entrepreneur looks to capitalize on that.

In the West there is often enough of a mix. One comes up with an idea, showcases the demo, builds a team, chooses the CEO and raises funds.

Here, if you want to do something simple, like e-commerce or hyper-local delivery you could probably do it. All the tools already exist, and you don’t need a technologist. However, if you want to do something moderately meaningful, you have to think in a completely new way.

Why can’t we have an innovator-cum-entrepreneur in one?
Why wait! Why not create an ecosystem where these can be two separate people!

Even culturally, the people who do technical work (innovation) are different from the communities that do business.

So you support the co-founder model?
That’s ideal.

The likelihood of that happening here is very low, unlike the West. You’ve got to get this match-making, this arranged marriage correct.

The innovator looks for the problem, and the entrepreneur will try to find the best product market fit.

So young startups shouldn’t have business plans for VCs?
VCs are sitting at the top of the food chain.

At the beginning you often have University students with class projects. Family and friends fund their projects, seed funds and incubators take care of them, and finally VCs come in.

VCs are so late in the game that they’re actually doing a disservice by trying to mimic the western model. Why can’t we have a model where we don’t put the onus on the innovator to monetize!

Our institutes and incubators need to change their thinking and allow innovation on important problems. They can then find correct entrepreneurs to monetize these models.

So we’re pushing the money bit a bit too much?
We’re pushing the Flipkarts and Snapdeals in front of the eyes of young entrepreneurs, and saying just because they did it, you can do it. For one Tendulkar, there are thousands who didn’t make it.

Let’s not be in a country where few win, and most lose. That’s where the bubble comes from.

The one question an innovator must ask before banking on an idea.
The only question for the innovator is whether he’s working on a really important problem.

Anything else, like how to commercialize and monetize it can come later.

What’s the question an entrepreneur should be asking?
Just two words – unfair advantage.

They must know the market very well. They can have an awesome innovator onboard, or be privy to changes in the market that others are not aware of.

Should the innovator give in to the demand of the times?
Innovators are pushing, entrepreneurs are pulling.

Entrepreneurs can worry about what people want. They may not realize the solution to that. An innovator is really trying to solve the problem, and doesn't care so much about public perception.

Why did we start the startup revolution so late?
The newly digital users are the key. We didn’t have digital consumers back in the days.

When you have millions of newly digital consumers, you can do something with them. As your tangent kicks up, even a tiny delta of digital users transforms everything.

Message to Indian startups
Your focus shouldn’t be how to raise funds. Funds will come if you do something interesting.

Image credit: MIT
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