Read Raj N Phani's views about the Deeptech Talent Pool in India.
• The shortage of engineers and researchers for the deeptech sector is going to rise by a staggering 200x in 2020
• At the same time, Indian analytics, data science and big data industry is growing at 33.5% CAGR
• The industry believes that early introduction to technologies is going to be the key to deal with the talent shortage
Artificial intelligence is the future — many have said this and will continue to say it. While AI is usually spoken of as a singular technology, it’s actually a combination of many techniques and systems. Machine learning (ML), natural language processing (NLP), neural networks, machine vision, predictive analytics and other technologies together make up the catch-all term called AI. And AI is just one of the many emerging technologies — blockchain, Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, drones and automation platforms — clubbed together under deeptech.
But while deeptech may very well be the future, it faces a crucial test at this time. For one, there simply aren’t enough engineers in India that are deeptech-capable and those who are, are being lured by big paydays in foreign companies. According to one study, the shortage of engineers and researchers for the deeptech sector is going to rise by a staggering 200x in 2020 as compared to 2019 as more and more companies look to capitalise on the opportunities offered by deeptech in terms of cost-savings, automation, revenue growth.
According to DataLabs by Inc42’s report – The Future Of India’s $2 Bn Edtech Opportunity Report 2020, more than half of India’s workers will require reskilling to meet the talent demands of Industrial Revolution 4.0 by 2022.
On the contrary, the opportunities are at an all-time high for deeptech startups. As of 2018, Indian analytics, data science and big data industry is estimated to be $2.71 Bn in revenue and growing at a healthy rate of 33.5% CAGR. Over the forecast period (2019-2025), spending on AI is expected to record a CAGR of 39%, increasing from $1.18 Bn in 2019 to reach $11.7 Bn by 2025.
Tapping The Academic Vs Skilling Gap
While the Indian education system has been through a 360-degree transformation thanks to online learning and apps, India still lags behind when it comes to skill development. The biggest indicator of this is the relatively higher funding earned by test prep apps, online school curriculum apps and more, in comparison to the funding for skill development startups, as highlighted by DataLabs.
The age-old cramming and grade-based assessments at an early stage are still prevalent. Even institutes offering technical degrees cannot guarantee their students to be proficient in even one of the new-age technologies. In the professional world, while the internal tech training put up a huge cost burden on the companies, not everyone can afford to pay big cheques for available external training to earn expertise.
This is where the edtech industry is playing a huge role. In the last few years, a bandwagon of players has made their mark in imparting skill-based education and upskilling or reskilling courses. CodingNinja, Whitehat Jr (coding), Cuemath (Maths), QtPi (robotics), ELSA Corp (English), Pesto Tech (IT), Great Learning (AI) and the list goes on.
But are these startups able to fulfil the demand of the deeptech industry and solve the challenges faced by the industry in acquiring talent?
What Is The Deeptech Industry Looking For?
For a majority of companies in the deeptech ecosystem, a strong grasp of data structures and algorithms, analytical skills, back-end coding skills and problem-solving skills is mandatory. The companies want candidates to have a skill set combining the knowledge of Unity, Unreal Engine, web AR platforms, AR.js, Three.js among others.
Here are a few examples that startups indicated to Inc42:
While high attrition rates owing to cut-throat market competition is an obvious challenge, the pace at which the technologies are getting upgraded is another challenge.
“These technologies are changing at a rapid pace and so we have to constantly update our teams to know the latest platforms and technologies. To keep up with the industry changes, we also have to continuously invest in research and training,” said Dr Pulkit Mathur, CEO, Queppelin.
Similarly, Yellow Messenger cofounder and CEO Raghu Ravinutala highlighted that sourcing is the biggest challenge. According to Ravinutala, many professionals have all these eye-candy terms in their resumes but their grip on tech isn’t strong enough. Given that, evaluating candidates at scale becomes a big problem.
Zaggle’s founder Raj N Phani also feels the same. “Over the years, we have come to realise that each of the tech use-cases are shallow and candidates who claim to have experience have actually only dealt with the subject matter from a periphery level,” he added.
For example; while interviewing a candidate for blockchain or AI, it was found that 80% of the candidates were a small part of the backend team and had no real knowledge of the domain. In the case of AI, while they had the technical knowledge, they lacked domain or say subject knowledge.
“AI candidates having real-life used case experience is rare. We first have to train until they become experts to be put in front of the team. This causes a delay in project delivery,” Phani added.
“Given that blockchain is a new technology, it is hard to find people who have worked extensively in the field, hence we have to look at their attitude towards adopting new technology and general problem-solving skills as proxies for blockchain capabilities,” the company told us.
Do Edtech Startups Add Value With Skills?
Interestingly, all tech startups we spoke to unanimously believed that edtech startups imparting new-age tech skills are going in the right direction. Today companies spend anywhere between INR 50K to INR 1 Lakh to hire and train talent at an entry-level. From hiring to training to actual inclusion in a project is a months-long journey.
All this is now taken care of with the emergence of edtech startups with innovative business models and having an eye for innovation and technology. The company’s cost is reduced by 50 to 60% plus the time frame has also reduced drastically.
“Startups engaged in imparting professional skills help students and professionals to hone their skills and become relevant to the ecosystem. So, companies which train professionals like UpGrad, Unacademy, Coursera are definitely the right platforms from where we can source the talent,” said Zaggle’s Phani.
Apart from these big names, deep tech players are also eyeing a lot of small companies which have been founded by those with deep experience in these areas and are passionate to educate others. Training companies which could collaborate with the deeptech companies to develop specific skills are also becoming a preferred choice.
As Natasha Jethanandani, CTO, Kaleidofin said, “I think edtech startups are helping job-seeking candidates acquire real-world skills on how to design and build products. This should help startups like ours acquire talent faster. We have experimented with this model on our team and it works well.”
Should Skill Development Start Early?
Karan Bajaj, founder and CEO of WhiteHat Jr, which works with children to teach them programming fundamentals, believes that the Indian edtech industry has so far been focussed on supplementing what has been taught in the traditional education system. Upskilling people in concepts like data science and artificial intelligence for professionals is only gaining ground now.
Edtech in skill development comes only later in the career, said Sumeet Jain, cofounder, Yocket. Since formal education is so slow in evolving, edtech will take time to gain momentum and revamp the whole education system, he added.
Then there’s the fact that many edtech skilling platforms and the trainers used by them do not have that adequate industry expertise and so it becomes a hindrance to impart industry-oriented deeptech exposure to students.
Rajeev Tiwari, founder, STEMROBO said that often edtech platforms are not able to deliver the practical hands-on training that many deeptech startups look for in candidates. Tiwari said this involves a good level of industry exposure.
“Deeptech involves core scientific or engineering innovations and this can happen only if you start stimulating the creator potential of kids and orient and teach them technology from a very young age,” WhiteHat’s Bajaj added.
But The Deeptech Sector Wants More!
Edtech startups are trying to do the best they can. For instance, Whitehat Jr is going deep into areas of Internet of Things (IoT), quantum computing and other emerging technology as part of its Frontier curriculum, while STEMROBO is offering project-based learning on its online platform TinkerLearning, making the students aware of hands-on learning, practical learning aspects and more.
QtPi’s efforts are focussed around gamifying the robotics education experience for young students, while Pesto Tech is working to improve career prospects for software engineers — there’s a wide gamut of edtech skilling models at play in the Indian market.
But that’s not enough, say deeptech startups.
Karthik Venkateswaran, cofounder and CEO of agritech supply chain startup Jumbotail highlights that updating learning modules and curriculums will definitely help introduce young learners to technology at an early stage, but it’s not happening with enough frequency to justify the demand from deeptech startups.
“Early introduction to technologies is going to be the key to deal with the talent shortage companies are facing now,” he added.
The latest budget announced some promising initiatives in technical education and e-learning which the industry stakeholders are hopeful to create a lasting impact in creating a technically sound workforce in the country.
The situation is not great at the college level as well. Zaggle’s Phani believes that except for few top technology-oriented colleges, one does not find many colleges that are progressive, up-to-date in terms of what’s happening around the globe and hence do not refresh their curriculum to meet the challenges of the industry.
“We need to look at how China and the US are taking lead by introducing these subjects at very early levels at a large scale. We can see most of the innovations are happening in these countries,” he added.
There are certain areas where deeptech players expect edtech startups to add more value. These include training with newer use-cases and examples that are relevant for the industry.
Deeptech startups also called for algorithms that improve matchmaking for jobs, more hands-on, real-world exposure and internships in industry, emphasis on developing mathematics and programming skills at the school level, and enabling students to use collaborative and productivity tools used by the industry.
Edtech startups are currently at the sweet spot as they are sitting where education is intersecting technology. Phani indicated that these startups are providing an open-source platform to acquire the skills that are in demand in the job market.
“Edtech industries are helping in bridging the skills gaps, making the workforce more employable and updated in terms of skill and knowledge. This also helps in building the confidence of the candidate/working professional and makes them well equipped to face the current and future challenges, and contribute to the consistent business growth and productivity,” he added.