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In 2010, they spent six months building a prototype, only to have the managing director of Hatsun, India's largest private dairy, point out that the 2,000-liter thermal battery that was used to store cold thermal energy was too big for any shed found in the villages.
Finally, they let go of the idea of being a solar company. Instead, they developed a thermal battery that is able to take advantage of the intermittent power on the grid. The battery releases a cold fluid that chills milk quickly.
Now the company has Hatsun as a client and has attracted funding from clean technology investors like the Quercus Trust, angel investors and grants by the National Science Foundation and the United States-India Science and Technology Endowment Fund, which was founded by the two nations' governments.
"Eighty percent was our own mistakes — we would have faced them in any country," Mr. White said. "But we always learned from those mistakes."
A common complaint among the entrepreneurs was the difficulty in finding and keeping good employees. Even by Silicon Valley standards, Indian tech employees are restless. "The job market is so hot it's not uncommon for a young person to think they can build a career by quitting within three months to get a pay raise somewhere else," said Ms. Wagoner of ZipDial.
(Read more: Wal-Mart cozies up to China as it shelves India)
The tech companies have to offer salaries at the market rate or higher to attract job seekers, who prefer the stability of a conglomerate over opportunities for personal growth. In fact, Mr. Frykman said the "lack of coolness" associated with a start-up was one of the biggest surprises he encountered. For this reason, Indians are less eager for stock options than their counterparts in the United States.
To increase Indian employees' exposure to such incentives, Ms. Wagoner has made stock ownership plans part of ZipDial's compensation package and will give additional grants to people without their asking if she thinks they deserve them. "I believe it is very important that people who are taking a risk in building a company see the benefits of that," she said.
Entrepreneurs, for their part, have embraced another Silicon Valley trait and learned to try again after failure. Rahoul Mehra, 42, founded Saf Labs, a biotechnology trading company in Mumbai, with his wife, Glennis Matthews Mehra, a 39-year-old neuroscientist. They originally wanted to run all operations out of New York, where they lived. "In doing business with India, we never intended for us to move to India," he said.
But in 2008, two years into the business, which they had financed on their own, Mr. Mehra realized that deals would not be properly managed unless he was in Mumbai. Dr. Mehra reluctantly followed with their daughter, then 2.
The business managed to turn a profit and attract a private European investor so the company could expand into biotech services. But in 2012, after the Indian government delayed biotech funding for its new five-year plan, Saf Labs' business was drying up. The Mehras realized they had to move away from the Indian market and focus more on international opportunities.
Now they are negotiating a sale of the company and using their experiences to market advisory services for Indian companies that want to expand overseas or foreign companies looking to enter India.
Other entrepreneurs, too, have begun exploring expansion to other emerging markets: ZipDial has already entered Southeast Asia. Driptech has sold its products in Africa, and Promethean Power is moving into Pakistan, Africa and Latin America.
"I don't know who said it, but there's a saying that what you're going to find in India are little islands of excellence: people — despite the country, despite India — who are succeeding," Mr. Mehra said. "If you can connect those dots, you can make a real go of it here."