BW Exclusive: NetApp India MD On Running A Startup Accelerator, Business Of Privacy

NetApp India MD Ravi Chhabria speaks BW Businessworld to understand the premise of the ‘NetApp Excellerator’ and what’s inspiring the data company to continue with its mentorship and what ‘privacy’ means to this effort in 2023

NetApp India on Wednesday saw six startups graduate at a demo day event from the 11th cohort of its flagship accelerator programme ‘NetApp Excellerator’. The graduating startups included Zluri, AppSenitels, RapL, PrivaSapien, Firefly and Squadcast – who pitched to investors, industry leaders, mentors and NetApp leaders on the day.

In its sixth year, the NetApp Excellerator has mentored a total of 72 deep tech startups, where 18 have engaged in proof of concepts (PoCs) with NetApp’s backing in funding and technology support.

From the current cohort, PoCs for AppSentinels and RapL have already been successfully implemented. In addition, seven startups have achieved successful exits, further showcasing the program’s success. The startups participating in the accelerator programme raised a collective sum of USD 160 million in CY 2022.

On the sidelines of the demo day event, BW Businessworld’s Rohit Chintapali spoke with NetApp India MD Ravi Chhabria to understand the premise of NetApp Excellerator and what’s inspiring the data company to continue with its mentorship and what ‘privacy’ means to this effort in 2023. Excerpts:

What’s your reason behind tapping into the Indian startup ecosystem for mentorship?

India is a source of talent for NetApp. It’s been our source of talent for 20 years. India has been a low-cost talent destination for many but for NetApp, that was never it. In fact, we had the kind of talent any company would die for, anywhere in the world. If you look at NetApp, we operate at a fraction of the headcount in comparison to the likes of IBM, Microsoft and Amazon. We are just 3,000 in India. But how do you create a presence for yourself in a big country with that? Through being a brand for innovation. We are living in different times and working with a generation that believes in making a difference, irrespective of size.

And so, partnering with startups is giving you that value in India?

It is one of the elements. Everything that defines NetApp in India is innovation. The reason it’s important is not only because innovation is what we sell, but innovation is what we create. And creating innovation comes from talented people. So, our focus is on talented people.

PrivaSapien, one of the startups from your 11th cohort, has some interesting offerings, including an AI chatbot with a privacy twist. Are you looking to incorporate the solutions by the startups in your cohorts?

Our objective is not always to incorporate them into our product. The big trend we see is that data is now pervasive. Data is not the product of a business transaction; it is now even the source of business value. But it is creating all these conflicting purposes for you and me. Today, we are creating data without a thought on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram – on every social media platform and beyond. Every time we swipe a card somewhere, some entity is in the know. Hence, there is a discomfort about having me being identified or being stereotyped or targeted. But there is undoubted value in all these actions. PrivaSapien is looking to safeguard you but at the same time enable a business to use the information. And we are looking to enable them.

Do you think privacy is a good problem to solve for a startup right now?

If you look at the whole volume of data being produced today, you must address the problem of protecting that data efficiently. Moreover, it must be compliant and relevant to a customer to generate value. Every country and every business, across verticals, is different. If you are a startup, you are thinking – there are zillions of opportunities. At some point, a pattern will emerge. The next Microsoft could come from something like that. We are all trying to say: let us be part of that solution.

How serious is NetApp about data and privacy in the current environment that is rapidly changing?

It is huge for us. Everything comes with risks and complexity. If you go look at the value propositions of companies over decades, they are born out of the idea of solving complexities. Hence, complexities must be seen as opportunities. Sometimes it’s not an opportunity that may be directly related to what we do but very often it will be. But when we talk about going from an enterprise data storage company to a cloud storage company, it’s an expansion of the market. When you talk about cloud storage company to now being able to provide observability intelligent solutions for governance, compliance, protection and security – you are advancing into yet another market. It allows us to expand our market again. So, that’s what we are interested in.

Where do the startups come into this picture?

These startups are the ones that are creating solutions. Trying to solve that problem. We are looking to be able to help them in that regard. Ultimately, there is going to be growth in this area. And no single company, not even Google, Amazon or Microsoft is going to solve all problems. The startups in our cohorts are working on hard problems that have not been solved at scale. They are all making some breakthroughs in their space. We are saying, let us help. That way, you learn and we learn too. Some of them will get acquired, some of them will go bust and some of them will do well. Some of them may use our product while others may be relevant to our customers.