38% of India’s Unicorns Are Not “Indian”

India currently has 90 unicorns – startup companies that are valued at over $1b – and will likely soon have 100 unicorns, becoming the third such country after the USA and China. Since January 2016 when the “Startup India” program was launched, the startup ecosystem of India including infrastructure for startups, be it incubators, mentorship, funding, corporate initiatives, media coverage, or even patent filing, has improved substantially making life easier for entrepreneurs. 

However, it is still not as smooth a ride for the Indian start-ups as it is for startups in the advanced economies of say, the USA, Singapore, and China. Our “ease of doing business” is yet to be on par with the developed world, especially given the high taxation, onerous compliance requirements, inadequate and cumbersome legal protection of IP, as well as time-consuming and expensive processes to access capital and secure exits. It isn’t a surprise therefore that many companies are shifting their primary legal location to foreign jurisdictions like the USA, and Singapore. 

How do the numbers stand?

As per a study by Venture Intelligence, of the presently known 90 “Indian” unicorns), 56 are based in India, 25 in the USA, 8 in Singapore, and 1 in the Netherlands spanning sectors from e-Commerce to fintech to gaming and more. In other words,  38% of “Indian” unicorns are not quite Indian as they are domiciled outside of India. Moreover, these 34 unicorns have raised approximately $30B ie, this large money could have been but hasn’t been invested into an India domiciled entity. 

Sector Wise break-up of the Unicorns 

Source: Venture Intelligence

Chart: Sector-wise domicile of unicorns as on 31st March 2022.

The reasons for incorporating in the USA are different from incorporating in say,  Singapore. SaaS founders find it easier to reach out to the large market for SaaS “Software as a Service” based offerings in the USA by incorporating there. Companies incorporated in Singapore for high “ease of doing business”, low taxation, quality infrastructure, and quality of life while remaining close to India.  

Out of 12 Indian unicorns in the SaaS category, all except Zoho and Darwinbox are based in the USA. SaaS offerings are expected to be a $1 trillion opportunity and India will lose wealth creation, tax revenues, listing, and related income, by not having these companies domiciled in India. 

Of the three unicorns in a frontier technology area like Artificial Intelligence, namely – Glance, Fractal, and Mindtickle, one is registered in Singapore while the other two are in the USA. Of the 3 unicorns in Gaming, Mobile Premier League and  Dream 11 are based in Singapore and New Jersey respectively while Games 24×7 is registered in India. 

Flipkart, India’s greatest startup success story and the poster boy for Indian e-commerce, which was acquired by Walmart at a valuation of over $20B, was domiciled in Singapore.  That set the trend of e-commerce companies having their HQs in the island country. There are many Singapore shell companies set up by VC funds to become holding companies for Indian subsidiaries. Singapore is today the hottest destination for the registration of Indian e-commerce players.

Even more worrying than this trend of registering the parent company outside India is the migration of startup founders to UAE and Singapore.  Lower taxes, easier access to capital, government support, simple compliance, and better quality of life while being just a short flight away from India make the UAE and Singapore rather attractive to founders. 

Whichever country our startups chose to register or our founders chose to migrate to, the ultimate loser is India with intellectual property ownership and funds being vested in non-Indian jurisdictions. 

Stay in India Mission

In order to retain the economic value added by the start-up ecosystem, it is important that India urgently puts in place policies that ensure that founders and startups ‘Stay-in-India”.  This will require the coming together of various ministries, particularly DPIIT/Min of Commerce, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, and regulators like the Reserve Bank of India and Securities and Exchange Board of India to address the Stay-in-India Checklist. 

Stay-in-India is an evolving checklist of issues that need to be solved to contain the exodus of startups from India. These issues fall under four categories: a) Ease of doing business and making it easy to raise funds; b) harmonization of coding of digital economy c) Reducing overall tax anomalies and d) Increased DTA and foreign markets access. 

The issues are comprehensively listed in the Stay-in-India checklist

As an example, let’s consider the anomalies in the taxation of dividends. Dividend received from overseas subsidiaries, that has been already taxed, is taxed once again in India as income in the hands of the company. Also, while the rate of tax on such dividends for certain companies is 15% (as against 30%), the same exemption is not provided to limited-liability partnerships and individuals. It amounts to double taxation of income and discourages a model where overseas subsidiaries of Indian startups can pay dividends at lower tax rates to Indian shareholders. Removal of this dividend tax will directly encourage start-ups to remain domiciled in India and receive dividend income from subsidiaries abroad. 

Similarly, there are regulatory frictions e.g. TDS on the sale of software products which reduces the working capital in hands of Software product companies, or the need for filling the Softex form (which was relevant in the early days of IT services exports), and which is now redundant as GSTN Invoices already have the required and sufficient data. All that is required is for different departments of the Govt and regulators to connect digitally and share information. The unfavourable tax regime for IPR protection, such as subjection to minimum alternate tax, IPRs being subject to income tax, and not capital gains even when they are held for more than a year is another big irritant. Technology-heavy startups, therefore, tend to relocate to jurisdictions like Singapore and the USA that have a smoother and lower-cost approach. Founders relocating to overseas jurisdictions are typically seen around the time of M&A. One of the reasons relates to taxation: typically, a portion of the financial proceeds arising from an M&A transaction is held in escrow and released to the founders after some time and/or completion of certain contractual obligations. The escrow payments are treated as income by the Indian tax authorities rather than capital gains as other jurisdictions do – this needs resolution.

India is emerging as a global startup hub, with the support of the Govt, with our startups attracting capital and talent while being at the forefront of innovation, jobs, wealth, and intellectual property creation. Brand India is enhanced globally by the success of Indian startups.  With more support from the Government by way of removal of regulatory friction and by providing incentives – fiscal and regulatory –  the ecosystem required to create, enable and grow Indian startups will dramatically accelerate. 

The Ease of Doing Business must be tackled in mission mode with the Stay-in-India Mission (SIIM) being an integral part of India is to secure its rightful place around the global innovation table. 

The blog post is co-authored by our volunteers Sanjay Anandram and Amit Agrahari. You can reach out to Amit at [email protected]

Disclaimer: The article depends upon various pubic data sources apart from credible data sources that are relevant at the current date and time. Readers may like to read this accordingly. 

Data Sources Courtesy: 1. Venture Intelligence. 2. Invest India

NavIC Grand Challenge Launched by Shri Piyush Goyal, Union minister on 17th May 2022

At the Fourth National Startup Advisory Council Meet held on 17.05.2022 under Hon’ble Minister of Commerce and Industry, Consumer Affairs, Food & Public Distribution, and Textiles Shri Piyush Goyal, the NavIC Grand Challenge (GC) was launched. The GC seeks to mainstream the use of NavIC and establish it as a domestic mapping solution.

iSPIRT has contributed to the development of this Grand Challenge. During the Third NSAC Meet, Sharad Sharma, Co-founder of iSPIRT and a member of the National Startup Advisory Council (NSAC), proposed the concept of prominence to NavIC as a domestic mapping solution.

Later, the iSPIRT Team, led by Captain Amit Garg and our volunteers Sayandeep Purkayastha, Captain George Thomas, and Tanuvi Thakur, presented the concept note and working paper on the GC to DPIIT (Dept for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade). 

Multiple rounds of discussion among the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), and iSPIRT Foundation brought the final shape to the working paper. All of this culminated in the launch of GC-NavIC on the 17th of May.

What is NavIC?

NavIC or Navigation of Indian Constellation is India’s independent regional satellite navigation system created by DOS/ISRO. Its signals are inter-operable with the civilian signals of the other navigation satellite systems namely GPS, Galileo, Glonass, and BeiDou. NavIC has made in-roads into civilian applications in India like vehicle tracking, power grid synchronization, location-based services (using mobile phones), disaster alert dissemination, etc. Efforts are being made to enable the incorporation of NavlC into drones, the maritime sector, wearable devices, time dissemination, geodesy, etc. The applications are being promoted by the availability of NavlC-enabled off-the-shelf chipsets & devices at competitive rates and by the adoption of NavlC in national and international industry standards.

The GC is a step towards taking NavIC adoption further into the future, i.e. the future of AtmaNirbhar Mapping Solution. The GC brings together the triumvirate of NavIC, Agriculture, and Drones by becoming a big-bang thrust for the Kisan Drones Project as well.

The GC-NavIC

The GC-NavIC has an intersection with GOI’s Project Drone Shakti. It seeks to promote:

  1. The use of drones to solve the problem of agriculture insurance, i.e., the integration of the product to solve cases under the Pradhan Mantri Fassal Bima Yojana, is in line with the Government’s steps to harness technology for agricultural growth;
  2. Building a digital database of agricultural data that will supplement the digitization of land records and crop assessment measures of Drone Shakti;
  3. The use of ISRO’s homegrown NavIC technology in developing drones under the GC will promote the use of NavIC in the commercial drone landscape for remote sensing, imagery, mapping, etc.

The GC has invited innovative solutions that will utilize NavIC-enabled drones to capture data related to farm field topography, process this data, and make it available for use for commercial purposes. Ideas should be such that the product can be deployed across all terrain types in the country. Further, the captured and processed data should be viable and efficient for use within the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (PMFBY) framework. 

A detailed application process (here) calls for a detailed proposal of the tech specs of the participants’ product solution. This will be the basis for 25 participants selected for a presentation of their product before the Experts Panel. 7 selected participants on the basis of an objective and transparent selection criteria will compete in Phase 1 of the GC – the prototype deployment stage. In phase 2, the top 3 participants will compete towards fulfilling the problem statement by deploying their fully functioning product.

Transformative Powers of Challenge Grants

Challenge Grants have transformative powers and scalability opportunities that can serve as an impetus to quality innovation. Treatment Adherence for TB was the first challenge launched under the Grand Challenges in TB Control program. The aim was to devise solutions for improving tuberculosis screening, detection, and treatment outcomes. One of the participants, 99Dots, came up with a novel solution for low-cost monitoring and medication adherence program by using a combination of basic mobile phones and augmented blister packaging to provide real-time medication monitoring at a drastically reduced cost. By 2017-18, 99Dots was used across all districts in India and is now listed as a treatment program on the Government’s Nikshay portal.

The GC-NavIC through its intersection with Project Drone Shakti and the revamped operational guidelines of the PMFBY that emphasize tech-based solutions will help harness technology for agriculture and create opportunities for commercial utilization of NavIC. The recent ban on foreign drones by the Government will move the focus to domestic manufacturing. Encouraging local drones with local technology will increase the AtmaNirbhar potential in the drone and navigation ecosystem and enable Indian Startups to unlock the $5 billion drone market.


The GC-NavIC is touted to deliver three essential outcomes – better regulations in the drone and mapping space, ecosystem development, and channel of public money for private innovation.  All three will lead to transformative innovations that will push India into modern agricultural practices and domestic mapping-navigation solutions.

The post is authored by our volunteer fellow, Tanuvi Thakur. She can be reached at [email protected].