'There were extremely talented students in smaller towns, but they were not getting an opportunity to study at national level colleges only because they didn't get proper training to write such exams.'
Rediff.com's Shobha Warrier finds out how Mervin Rosario and his partners at Ignus are working to change that.
There are many successful institutes offering courses to train students to conquer various national level competitive examinations, but almost all of them are based in big cities.
It is to help students who live beyond such cities -- in Tier-2 and Tier-3 towns -- that Mervin Rosario and Akshay Bedhotiya from the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay, and Sharath Holla from BITS Pilani decided to start Ignus in Hassan, Karnataka.
Two years later, they have 300 students studying in their eight centres.
Mervin Rosario shares Ignus' story with Rediff.com
'Maybe entrepreneurship was in my blood'
My father Henry had been an entrepreneur in the field of education. He was one of the founders of the Manipal Institute of Computer Education, which has 400 franchisees all over India today.
K K Pai (the Syndicate Bank chief) wanted my father to start such an institute offering computer education to financially poor students. So, the fee in this institute was much lesser than other institutes.
Ten years ago, my mother Severine also decided to be an entrepreneur.
She started a Centre for Advanced Learning, an institute training students for national- level exams like JEE. That decision was taken when I was in the 10th standard.
My elder brother had gone to Kota in Rajasthan to train for the JEE and my mother wanted me to be at home in Mangalore and prepare for JEE.
So, having her younger son at home with her motivated her to be an entrepreneur.
She began by assembling a group of professors with excellent study material and a good set of students. I was in the second batch and I got into IIT-Bombay and my close friend Sharath went to BITS Pilani.
While I was studying, I had no desire to be an entrepreneur.
I worked for a year in Mumbai after my graduation and it was the dissatisfaction I felt while working made me think of becoming an entrepreneur.
The more I thought about it, the clearer it became.
I also knew I wanted to work in the field of education. After all, both my parents were entrepreneurs in that field.
My sister had started a kindergarten school by then and my brother was a teacher at NIT Suratkal. Maybe entrepreneurship and education were in my blood, but it took some time for me to realise it.
I started talking to Sharath, who was then working with Amazon, about this idea. We discussed what we could do as entrepreneurs.
It so happened that in July 2013 there came an accelerator programme by MIT at IIT-Bombay.
Then, I was selected for a one-year entrepreneurial programme by Villgro in August 2013.
As a part of the Villgro programme, I went to many small towns and spoke to parents and principals of many institutes.
The reason why we thought of small towns was we had always felt there were not enough good coaching institutes in smaller towns and there was a market out there that needed help.
Even when I was studying at IIT-Bombay, I had felt that most of the students who got admission at the IITs came from good financial backgrounds and studied either in big cities or had gone to places like Kota.
I had always felt that there were extremely talented students in smaller towns also, but they were not getting an opportunity to study at the national-level colleges only because they didn't get proper training to write such exams.
There was no dearth in talent, but they lacked the right kind of training.
My research also found that the institutes in those towns trained only for the state-level examinations and the training was more rote learning.
So, most of them did not have proper foundation or knowledge of the subject to write exams like the JEE in which your understanding of the subject is tested.
Our first plan was to start online courses for JEE for the students in Tier-2 and Tier-3 towns, but our study showed that Internet access was not that good there, and also most of the students and parents there preferred to have contact classes rather than studying online.
That was why we decided to have coaching institutes where students could come to regularly.
After doing the research for Villgro, we thought it was time we became entrepreneurs.
The decision to be an entrepreneur was the hardest for Akshay who was doing very well at Amazon while I was not satisfied with my job.
More than the money you earn, it is the satisfaction that matters ultimately. So, it was not a difficult decision for me.
Passion for teaching overpowered any doubt we had about becoming entrepreneurs.
With the Rs 4 lakh sponsored by Villgro, we plunged into it and started Ignus in Hassan.
Villgro was interested in our project because we were targeting small towns where such facilities were not available.
We chose Hassan because it is a small town, but have many students who aspire to go to national-level colleges like the IITs, NITs, etc. There were no other institutes training students in JEE, we found.
I got in touch with a teacher who had taught me when I was in the 10th standard and was then running coaching classes for bank exams in Hassan. We rented out the extra classroom he had for Rs 4,000 a month.
While the other institutes charged around Rs 80,000 to Rs 1 lakh as fees, we decided to charge only Rs 18,000, mainly because we wanted to get the initial batch of students.
We got 15 students for our first batch. It was in July 2014.
Akshay, who was doing research at that time, expressed his desire to join us as a teacher.
Akshay handled physics, Sharath taught chemistry and I took maths classes.
What we did first was create tabs with videos of classes, played them to students and we asked questions to which students had to come out with answers after discussing among themselves.
After the discussion, 90 per cent of the time, students themselves came out with the right answer. This helped them understand the concept.
We wanted to use this peer learning concept popularised by a Harvard professor as an activity in the class.
It was more about understanding the subject and asking questions rather than learning by rote.
In 2015, we started another batch -- with 35 students in Mangalore with video classes at my mother's institute. Our second batch in Hassan had 40 students.
The first batch
When our first batch of students were to write the exams in March 2016, we were very nervous. The biggest satisfaction we had was when they got good ranks.
For the first time a student from Hassan, Praveen Raj, got a state rank of sixth and got admission at NIT-Surtakal for computer science.
Along the way, we have also started basic science programmes for high school students in Hasaan, Mysore, Davengare, and Shimoga in Karnataka and Madgaon in Goa. This happened when we found out that the students we had were weak in the basics.
Now, we have eight centres and 300 students in our institutes.
And three more friends -- Ferdie D'souza, Akshath Nayak and Gaureesh -- have joined the team.
Living in Hassan was quite different, but pleasant for all of us as we were all from big cities. The major advantage we had was the commuting distance was just 2 minutes to the centre.
We have a very healthy and clean life here. Apart from the fact that we do not have the luxury of going to a multiplex, our quality of life is quite good.
Each of us is motivated by different goals.
I am more motivated by touching the lives of students when they come and join our centre.
For Sharath, who comes from a coding background, what gives him the kick is the programme he is developing that can have all the details and marks of all our students.
Akshay loves creating the best content for our students while it is the numbers that matter for Gaureesh.
Ferdie and Akshath are motivated to create excellent content for students.
All of us want to achieve one dream -- that of reaching the whole of Karnataka by this year end. We are also expecting our first student to go to an IIT this year.
This financial year, we collected Rs 55 lakhs as fees while it was Rs 18 lakhs last year. But it is not building a Rs 1 crore or Rs 10 crore company that is our ambition.
Money is not something we are very worried about. What matters is how many students we reach out to.
We would like to have many more branches of Ignus in small places so that we can the touch the lives of lots of students.
Please scroll down for more features on thinkers who are changing the way India learns.