By Vivekdeep Gupta

What creates a less-cash society? This is a question that consumes us at Catalyst. Our hypothesis, till the time we are proven wrong, is simple: A ‘less-cash’ society is created when there is an ecosystem that enables, supports and incentivizes digital payments, thereby creating a virtuous loop. This ecosystem consists of consumers, merchants, their suppliers, regulators, government and, last but not the least, innovative business models that address hitherto unidentified market gaps. While our ‘digital payments lab’ and ‘regulatory sandbox’ address the former aspects, it is our ‘fintech for the last mile’ incubator that will empower innovators addressing these hard to solve market gaps.

Internet based business models in India have been unfortunately limited to the top 100-200 million consumers – those that are conversant with English and have access to smartphones. While this is a good start for a primarily cash driven economy and has encouraged a whole new set of entrepreneurs, this model has reached its limits. Slowing growth rates for ecommerce companies[1] and the recent waves of shutdowns in the startup ecosystem are testimonies to the limits of the shallow market.

Fintech, especially digital payments have also suffered from similar problems. While closed loop wallets, payment gateways and alternative lending products have opened the Indian consumer’s mind to fintech products, the fact remains that most of these solutions have failed to touch the life of the common man, as evident from epidemic of zero-balance wallets, limited card penetration and abundance of thin-file consumers. On the other hand, the digital payments landscape in India has undergone a sea change with the availability of a world beating payments infrastructure – UPI. Aadhar enabled services have lowered the cost of doing business dramatically by providing a world class infrastructure over which services can be built. These infrastructure enablements, coupled with policy initiatives like demonetization and the sustained focus on digital transaction have created a scenario where there exists the potential to create large scale businesses that transform the lives of the common man, especially those at the lower end of the pyramid.

The CATALYST Incubator

What is it & how it works?

Businesses which address this segment face multiple challenges such as from a long return horizon for investors, evolving business models, changing regulatory landscape and high costs of educating and acquiring customers. We feel that this necessitates a different approach during the startup’s initial phase. Startups addressing such tough problems need a potent mix of the following:

Based on the insights derived from the groundbreaking work being done by Catalyst in its Digital Payments Labs, our incubator is designed to solve these hard problems in a systematic manner. To start with, we provide the initial patient capital that is required by such startups. Our US$ 50K grants, to be awarded to 15 startups over the course of the year, will give the startups the initial runway required to test and develop problem-specific solutions without worrying about equity dilution, hyper-growth or vanity metrics. While our commitment is to support businesses that are sustainable, starting them out with a grant ensures that they spend the initial most critical phase of their startup developing solutions that address real needs.

Grants based support has always been a key component in the success of the startups that solve hard systemic problems. In India, Babajob – a portal for blue collar jobs – is probably a success story. Supported by a $1Million grant from USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures, Babajob went on to be sustainable, raising a $10Million Series A round and has emerged as one the largest blue collar job portal in the country. Similar examples abound in fintech as well, well established companies ranging from Kiva to innovative startups like Tala rely on grant funding achieve their objectives.

Coupled with grants, the incubator also offers the startups mentorship from leading industry figures, venture capitalists and international development consultants. The goal is to provide startups with the necessary industry connections and to help them learn from the experiences of the seasoned entrepreneurs so that they can stand on their own once the incubation period is over.

Moving forward with Digital Payment Labs

Last but not the least, startups that become a part our incubator will be integrated into the ‘Digital Payments Labs’ that we are running in Jaipur. To any startup reading this post, this is the ‘killer app’ that distinguishes us from any other incubator in the market. Digital Payments Labs is Catalyst’s tried and tested way of rapid evidence generation and testing. A typical Digital Payments Lab is a limited geographical area with certain demographic and socio-economic characteristics (ex: 50-50 mix of merchants and consumers, preponderance of salaried employees, abundance of small merchants), where Catalyst runs experiments and research projects to test the adoption of digital payment solutions. The experiments are designed by the Catalyst team, conducted on the ground by our in-house team of researchers and analyzed by our data scientists. Our incubatee startups will have access to the same labs infrastructure.

This will not only allow them test their hypotheses and products on real life customers that meet their actual user profile but also ensure – due to the involvement of our research team – that the surveys/ experiments are designed and administered in a scientific manner. Startups also get access to Catalyst and its partner’s wide body of research and learning so that many of them do not have to reinvent the wheel. All we ask for in return is that startups spend some time in Jaipur interacting with these users and monitoring the experiments that we will be doing on their behalf in the digital payments labs. Many startups addressing the mass market segment, especially in a fast changing economy like India, complain that it is untenable to follow the startup tenets of being lean, testing rigorously and failing fast. We hope that this unique aspect of our incubator will help startups to apply these principles to solving the hard problems facing the digital payments landscape in India.

The building blocks are in place for our incubator and we are looking for startups!

If you are a startup which is solving these hard problem or if you know of any startups that fit the bill, inform them about us, ask them to head over to this page and apply!

Also published on Medium.


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