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Unilazer Ventures to focus on early-stage firms; eyes investments in e-com startups

Unilazer Ventures, the family office set up by Walt Disney India chief Ronnie Screwvala, will focus more on early-stage investments in its private equity practice as it looks to back Indian entrepreneurs. The firm, which has already backed a couple of start-ups, is looking to invest across sectors in the domestic consumption theme, a top official said in an interview to VCCircle.

Screwvala had sold his stake in UTV Software Communications to Walt Disney for an estimated Rs 800-1,000 crore and set up Unilazer Ventures as his family office. Other family offices in the country

include Nadathur Holdings (set up by Infosys co-founder Nadathur S Raghavan), Burman Family Office (promoters of Dabur), Catamaran Ventures (Infosys co-founder N R Narayana Murthy), PremjiInvest (Wipro founder Azim Premji), Bharti Family Office (Mittals of Bharti Airtel).

Unilazer has already set the ball rolling with investments in two early-stage plays in the past few months. It invested an undisclosed amount in Joule Consulting (which operates the employment marketplace OnContract.com) along with Indiagames' founder Vishal Gondal (Indiagames is now a subsidiary of UTV Software). Unilazer has also invested Rs 20 crore in INI Farms, a firm that grows pomegranates.

"Theme of our overall investment is entrepreneurship and that is reflected in our strategy," said Amit Banka, managing director at Unilazer Ventures.

"More often than not, we will be inclined towards making investments into early-stage ventures as they hold good promise

and there is enough out there at early stage to create value."

But the firm will not restrict itself to a specific stage, as Banka adds that Unilazer's investment structure gives it the flexibility to selectively invest in mature businesses as well. Also being a family office gives its flexibility in terms of holding period and deal size.

While fund has already taken an exposure to the online services play, it is also reportedly eying several e-commerce startups. "Key for us is to see sectors with large headroom for growth in that sector, the competitive landscape & evaluate is it part of the India consumption story," said Banka, who earlier headed corporate finance, strategy and business development for UTV Group.

Unilazer also expects to take board seats in the companies it backs and also expects to bring value addition in strategy, branding, marketing and making introductions given its pedigree.

While Screwvala's success with UTV Software Communications, which he co-founded with wife Zarina Mehta in 1990, is widely known, he has also set up a slew of other businesses in the past. Screwvala started

India's first cable TV company Network (which was sold in the 1980s) and also owns a toothbrush manufacturing company. Screwvala is also said to have started the first home shopping network in India called Tele-Shopping Network, though it was eventually closed down in 2001.

"Indian entrepreneurs are by and large not trained and focused on the fact that true value is created with strong positive cash flow business, rather than leveraged or diversified plays," according to Banka.

For a full version of the interaction click here.

(Edited by Prem Udayabhanu)

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