India start-ups at risk as investors close taps, Modi fund falls short

Mumbai, January 20

After pumping billions of dollars into Indian internet start-ups in the last 24 months, global investors are cutting that flood back to a trickle as dreams of huge online sales are clouded by soaring valuations and still-distant profits.

Even as PM Narendra Modi lines up a four-year, $1.5 billion government fund to help start-ups create jobs, entrepreneurs fear that may prove a drop in the ocean. Venture capitalists have already tightened purse strings as ripples from China’s economic slowdown lap around the world.

As per a new report by CB Insights and KPMG, venture capital investments in India’s start-ups nearly halved to $1.5 billion in fourth quarter 2015 from July to September. Faltering start-ups could mean India missing out on huge potential: Bank of America Merrill Lynch has forecast Indian e-commerce will surge to $220 billion by 2025 from about $11 billion last year.

“While first phase of funding was about investing in big markets ... now investors want to look at how entrepreneurs manage their business and compete while investing,” said Niren Shah, India head of Norwest Venture Partners.

Modi’s plan for newly launched companies includes tax breaks on their first three years of profits, as well as their investors.

But most of India’s tech start-ups make losses, not profits. They follow a discount-driven business model aimed at generating revenue from customers that buy and sell goods and services, touting growth in ‘gross merchandise value’ on their platforms as a metric to attract funding.

Two of the country’s best known e-commerce retailers — Flipkart and Snapdeal — have attracted big-name backers like Accel Partners, Singapore state investor Temasek Holdings and Japan’s SoftBank Group Corp, enthused by growth potential in a country where only 252 million of a population of 1.3 billion people have internet access.

Yet, the pair have notched up huge losses as they compete for increasing sales through deep discounts, according to banking and industry sources. Flipkart and Snapdeal did not immediately respond to Reuters’ e-mails seeking comment.

“In last few years, people were looking at gross merchandise value (when considering investment),” said Radhika Aggarwal, chief business officer of “I think that changed very quickly in the second half of last year.”