Unicorns in the spotlight of India's 2021 start-up and technology boom

This year, 44 Indian unicorns – privately-held startups valued at more than $1bn – were minted, as investors piled money into a country long overlooked, despite its vast potential

Among those attracted to India's start-up scene is Japan's SoftBank, which invested $3 billion in the country this year. Reuters
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Sumit Gupta has had a big year; turning 30, getting married and seeing his start-up become one of India's newest technology unicorns.

Hampered by the coronavirus pandemic and too busy expanding and getting funding for his cryptocurrency platform CoinDCX, his team finally grabbed a few days on the beach in Goa to celebrate recently.

“That was very delightful to everyone,” Mr Gupta said. “It's been a very, very exciting journey. I've learnt a lot ... the future of India is very bright.”

This year 44 Indian unicorns – privately-held start-ups valued at more than $1 billion – were minted as investors piled money into a country long overlooked despite its vast potential.

Overseas funds put more than $35bn into Indian start-ups in 2021 – a tripling from 2020, according to data compiled by Tracxn – buying into everything from FinTech and health to gaming.

Foreign investors have long preferred China, another Asian country with more than a billion people, but times are changing.

In the start-up space, investors this year sank $54.5bn into Chinese firms, down from $73bn in 2020, analysis by GlobalData showed.

India by contrast became more attractive, with its large pool of well-educated entrepreneurs upending how many businesses work using a fast-developing digital infrastructure.

“India really is that final frontier where businesses can attract a sixth of the world's population,” said Siddharth Mehta, founder of investment firm Bay Capital Partners.

“I think India is about 13 to 14 years behind China in terms of size and scale of the market. India's overall digital marketplace is about sub-$100bn today, but that number can easily be a trillion or $2 trillion over the next 10 to 15 years.”

Among those attracted are Japan's SoftBank, which invested $3bn in India this year, as well as China's Jack Ma and Tencent and US-based Sequoia Capital and Tiger Global.

“I believe in the future of India. I believe in the passion of young entrepreneurs in India. India will be great,” SoftBank's founder Masayoshi Son said earlier this month.

Indian tech also saw a record number of initial public offerings this year.

Companies going public included food delivery app Zomato and beauty products platform Nykaa, listing at huge premiums to their IPO prices and making billionaires of their founders.

At their October high, Indian stocks had rallied more than 125 per cent from their April 2020 low, becoming one of the world's best-performing equities markets.

But some experts warn that many of these firms may be grossly overvalued.

For instance, local FinTech giant Paytm, the biggest IPO of the year, has yet to make a profit and its share price is some 40 per cent down from its IPO valuation.

India's bumper year for start-ups also masks serious problems for an economy struggling to provide jobs for the 10 million young people entering the workforce every year.

I think India is about 13 to 14 years behind China in terms of size and scale of the market. India's overall digital marketplace is about sub-$100 billion today but that number can easily be a trillion or $2 trillion over the next 10 to 15 years
Siddharth Mehta, founder of Bay Capital Partners

Desperate for employment, many take low-wage, “gig economy” jobs, earning as little as 300 rupees ($4) a day with little to no job security.

But for white-collar workers in the start-up sector, demand for qualified workers has outstripped supply this year.

Flush with cash, companies are competing to recruit and retain top talent, offering cash, stock and even motorcycles and tickets to cricket matches as incentives.

“Recruiters reach out to us all the time,” one tech employee said.

“Salaries have inflated in the last year and it feels like everybody is hiring. People are changing their jobs constantly.”

CoinDCX's Mr Gupta, fresh from his beach holiday, was bullish.

“If you remain persistent, it's very possible to create a unicorn – especially if you're living in a country like India, which is full of opportunities,” he said.

Updated: January 01, 2022, 4:00 AM