World Startup Convention: The India start-up gala that exploded into a scandal

In March, hundreds of budding entrepreneurs descended on Noida, a suburb of India’s capital Delhi, to attend a three-day convention that had dubbed itself the “world’s biggest funding festival”.

Eager start-up founders looked forward to rubbing shoulders with business leaders at the World Startup Convention (WSC), hoping that their 15-minute pitches would transpire into funding.

In 2021 and much of 2022, India’s start-up ecosystem was flush with funds as companies raised record amounts, birthing unicorns and making overnight millionaires of several entrepreneurs. But global headwinds had made investors more cautious, drying up liquidity.

That’s why expectations were high from the WSC. But within hours of the event kickstarting on 24 March, things plunged into chaos. Many participants and some sponsors have alleged that they were lured with false promises and cheated; the organisers deny this, accusing some of the entrepreneurs of disrupting the convention.

On Day 1 of the event, Sachin Chauhan and his team arrived at the venue raring to go. An entrepreneur from the northern state of Haryana, Mr Chauhan had bought passes for the event after seeing advertisements for WSC all over social media in February.

According to WSC’s website, top Indian politicians including federal transport minister Nitin Gadkari and health minister Mansukh Mandaviya were among the chief guests. Other guests included state chief ministers and ministers, all from the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Mr Gadkari’s Twitter and Instagram pages had posted about his planned speech at the event.

Short promo videos featured popular influencers such as Ankur Warikoo, Prafull Billore, Raj Shamani and best-selling author Chetan Bhagat. The publicity material said that 1,500 venture capitalists, 9,000 angel investors and 75,000 start-ups were expected to participate. It was billed as a platform to meet potential customers, network and pitch directly to investors.

Mr Chauhan, co-founder of the bike servicing and repair app Apna Mechanic, spent 20,000 rupees ($244.4, £196.3) to buy tickets for himself and four colleagues.

They arrived with a presentation for potential investors. Their excitement, however, didn’t last long.

“Hours went by and we barely saw any investors,” he told the BBC.

Bherav Jain, founder of the start-up Reproc, had travelled thousands of kilometres from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

“The crowd was full of start-up founders,” Mr Jain said. “I don’t think there was a single person [there] who was an investor.”

By 1.30pm, a scheduled virtual address by Mr Gadkari had been cancelled and a rumble of discontent was spreading among participants.

Many began gathering around the stage, demanding an explanation.

“People started asking questions about where the investors were,” Mr Chauhan says. “And it [soon] became chaotic because the founders didn’t have answers.”

By the end of the day, a group of 19 entrepreneurs – including Mr Chauhan and Mr Jain – had filed a police complaint, accusing the organisers of cheating and breach of trust.

Luke Talwar and Arjun Chaudhary, co-founders of Qofunder Pvt Ltd which organised WSC, denied all the allegations. They told the BBC that a group of “disruptors” with “an anti-BJP agenda” had ruined the event, forcing them to call the police.

The ministers and the BJP have not issued any statements about this.

By BBC News

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