India’s largest Telco Bharti Airtel has received only 150 applications for its “Airtel Innovation Fund“, Sarvjit Singh Dhillon, Group Director, Bharti Enterprises told Silicon India. Applications are from sectors like Mobile TV, M-commerce, wireless security, m-advertising, healthcare and social networking. 150 for applications is a rather low number, since companies may also apply while still at an idea stage. Airtel Innovation Fund has a corpus of Rs. 200 Crores, and the company is looking to invest around Rs. 20 crores in companies.

A couple of months ago, at their Annual Results Pressconference, the company had told MediaNama that they hadn’t made any investments, though applications were being reviewed. Little is known about the terms under which Airtel invests using its fund, and when we had contacted the company last year for inputs, we didn’t receive a response.

Their FAQs section suggests that Airtel would only seek rights accorded to an investor in an early stage company, the specific rights sought could vary on a case-to-case basis – including right of first use. Though the company doesn’t get involved in day to day operations, it may “provide strategic direction or other management inputs”, as well as support beyond funding.

For a startup, the right to first use from an investor that is also a potential client is a tricky thing: an investment from a telco may be seen as the root of a conflict of interest, and may put off other operators. Would RCom deploy services of a company in which Bharti Airtel has a stake, as well as first right of usage?

We’ve discussed earlier other potential issues that startups might face if they take what appears to be a strategic investment, at such an early stage, from a potential client. More on that at:

— Bharti Airtel Launches Airtel Innovation Fund