How Non-Resident Unicorns Are Helping India Accelerating Its Growth


In India, Kabir Barday’s name doesn’t ring a bell. Barday’s startup OneTrust, which focuses on data privacy and security, doesn’t quite feature in India’s unicorn list.

That is understandable. Born and brought up in the US, Barday is a first-generation entrepreneur, whose Atlanta-based company has been a trailblazer. Founded in 2016, OneTrust has over 1,200 employees and was valued at $5 billion-plus in its last fund-raising round in December 2020. The fast-growing startup builds digital tools that give companies a clearer view of their user data, while also enabling compliance with privacy laws. Although Barday and his company aren’t Indian, India lurks in both his and his company’s DNA.

Barday and OneTrust are an interesting new breed in India’s startup landscape. Let’s just call them NRUs—or Non-Resident Unicorns, a spin on NRIs. Non-Resident Unicorns are startups that have their headquarters outside India, have at least one Indian founder (or one with Indian roots), and a significant research and development (R&D) presence in the country.

“Some of our best and most important products have been built by the team in India. We are here for the country’s top talent,” Barday says. And the company is now thinking big and beyond the engineering center in India. “India is passing some of the toughest privacy laws in the world. As a result, it is also among our top strategic markets today,” he says. Now, as the digitization wave after the pandemic creates strong tailwinds, the company plans to double its engineering team in India even as it eyes robust business growth this year.

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Working closely with the consultancy firm Zinnov, Mint scanned the global landscape of unicorn startups to identify NRUs. Of the total 496 global unicorns, at least 53 of them with headquarters outside India have a significant presence within the country through global innovation centers (GICs). Of these, as many as 23 have one or more founders with Indian roots. “At least 14 of these 23 unicorns set up their India center alongside their US headquarters. They had a presence here (India) very early in their growth curve. Those are the ones that make it to the list,” says Atit Danak, principal and head, Zinnov CoNXT.

All the Non-Resident Unicorns in Zinnov’s list are business-to-business (B2B) startups with 93% of them being based in the US; their median age is nine years and they have earned the unicorn status over a period of six years, on average. The journey of the Non-Resident Unicorns marks the emergence of a new breed of entrepreneurs—with some India connect—who make headlines in the fast-growing digital world.

True, many of these “Indian” founders may not strictly be Indian. But they do have Indian DNA in their genes. For example, Barday is a first-generation Indian American. Sanjay Beri, the CEO of cloud-native security solutions company Netskope, is a first-generation Indian Canadian, and co-founders Krishna Narayanswami and Ravi Ithai grew up in India.

Most of the NRUs have largely been under the radar in India. There is San Jose-based Automation Anywhere in the cutting-edge area of artificial intelligence (AI)-based robotic process automation. It was founded in 2003 by four Indian-origin founders, turned unicorn in 2018, and was last valued at $6.8 billion in 2019. With almost 50% of its workforce in India, the company has three offices in the country—Bengaluru, Vadodara, and Mumbai. In 2018, the bootstrapped company raised $550 million in series A funding from major league investors like Goldman Sachs and Softbank Vision Fund and hasn’t looked back since.

Then, there is a $3 billion startup Netskope with four co-founders, three of whom have Indian roots. Of its 1,100 employees, at least 25% are in India. Its India research and development (R&D) center constitutes the core of what Netskope does. Many of its key products have been built from scratch in India. For instance, Netskope’s API security product was developed in India, and today, it contributes to 30-40% of the firm’s global revenue, says Alok Kothari, managing director, Netskope India.

San Jose-based Innovium develops semiconductor solutions to address the biggest networking challenges facing enterprises. It has two founders with Indian roots and at least 23% of its staff is based in India. Both its co-founders—Rajiv Khemani and Puneet Agarwal—grew up in India and studied at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi before moving to the US.

Mohit Aron grew up in Chandigarh, studied at IIT Delhi and by 2000, he was working for Google in Silicon Valley. “Google is a phenomenal teacher. It teaches you how to build scalable systems,” says Aron, who is the co-founder of Cohesity that helps enterprises manage their hyper-converged infrastructure. The company counts Amazon among its investors and got valued at $3.7 billion in March. “Our CTO (chief technology officer) works out of the India office. The team here is second to none,” says Aron.

Many NRUs say India is emerging as an important market already. Khemani says Innovium recently hired a sales head in India. London-based Rishi Khosla, the co-founder of fintech OakNorth, agrees. “In 2019, the RBI (Reserve Bank of India) allowed fintech to test their innovations in a restricted ecosystem. This boosted India’s global reach and attraction among global unicorns. This has had a positive impact.” The fintech landscape in India is expanding with businesses cropping up in areas like payment applications, insurance, personal finance management, and alternative lending, Khosla says further.

Also, Read This: India Is Challenging Chinese Monopoly In New Tech-Unicorns Race

Chakri Gottemukkala is the chief executive officer and co-founder of o9Solutions, a provider of cloud and AI-based supply chain planning and analytics that the firm calls the digital brain of the enterprise. India, as a market, is opening up for them with clients like Asian Paints, Aditya Birla Group, and the Tata group. “We see India as a pretty big growth driver as companies look for digital transformation,” he says.

NRUs are, thus, providing key insights into what MNCs of the future might look like. In the 20th century, MNCs were largely headquarters-driven with subsidiaries like India operating as satellite operations. As MNCs began setting up the captives in India, they set up parallel operations in the country. Sales and marketing outfits reported into their regional offices while the captives took orders from the headquarter. Often, marketing and R&D teams in India then worked in relative silos, reporting to their respective counterparts in the US.

With technology at the heart of their operations and India playing a critical role in product development, Non-Resident Unicorns might look at the subcontinent very differently. “We are investing here not just for India but also for other markets like South East Asia and the Middle East. India will be the core hub for the region,” says Gottemukkala of o9Solutions.




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