Early this year, an entrepreneur team from IIT-M made international news by winning the NYC Next Idea 2009-2010, an inaugural global business plan competition launched by New York City last year. GreeNext Technology Solutions a trio comprising of Aashish Dattani, Sriram Kalyanaraman and Vinayshankar Kulkarni beat out teams from leading international business and engineering schools in Europe, Asia and Latin America for devising a new system to allow utility companies and energy producers to store and distribute energy through remote sites across the five boroughs safely and efficiently. Declared the winners by a panel of judges from New York City’s venture capital community they won a cash prize of 20,000 (dollars!) In this exclusive interview with T5E, team member Aashish Dattani, currently in his final year of CSE and a resident of Godavari hostel details the big win.
T5E: So when and how did the idea emerge? Was it difficult to coordinate amongst yourselves for the event, considering how all of you were in different places?
Aashish: We got to know about the competition when an email was floated around on smail sometime in April last year calling for entries. Kaushik(Anand), Midhun(Broom) and I were in UBC, Vancouver doing our summer internship from May-July’09. But it wasn’t until Midhun reminded us about this that we started to take it seriously. Midhun is very enthusiastic about participating in B-plan competitions, and he was the motivating force for us to explore different ideas that have immense market potential. He got in touch with Vinayshankar (Caesar) and Sriram (Keki), insti alumni and that completed the team. We brainstormed for weeks during the summer stay at Vancouver before we were convinced that XEstor was indeed a strong idea. We were coordinating over a mailing group and there were phone calls occasionally, so the flow of ideas was rather smooth and at the end of it we could all seamlessly put together our ideas to develop the executive summary.
T5E: Could you tell us a little about your winning product, XEstor?
Aashish: GreeNext Technology Solutions is clean-technology company that is pioneering specialized software and hardware solutions to utility companies, renewable energy producers, energy storage manufacturers and energy traders. XEstor, serves as a common interface to store energy from any source into large battery storage sites. The product communicates with the electric grid and combines real-time consumer demand information with current energy prices to charge or discharge electricity into the grid. This flexible mechanism to produce or store energy based on demand can act as a backup power source to bridge supply gaps and maintain the grid’s reliability through ancillary services such as regulation and emergency response
T5E: How difficult was the competition? What do you think set XEstor apart from the initiatives of other teams?
Aashish: Since it was an international competition, where most of the participants were from big B-schools (INSEAD, IESE, LSE etc), it was going to be tough competition for us as none of us are from a management/business background. The competition consisted of 3 rounds – a prelims round that asked us for an executive summary, semi-finals where we had to submit a full business proposal with all details and the final presentation in NYC. At first, it looked like the odds were against us, but it came to us as a pleasant surprise when we got selected for the final round. The guidelines for each of the rounds were very clearly mentioned, and they were quite rigid, I must say. The team could comprise of at least one grad student, and alumni. This meant that Kaushik and Midhun would not get funding to come along to the finals. So it was me, Keki and Caesar representing Team Greenext against Team Biofont from INSEAD and Team NYCycling from IESE. The other two teams had put a strong pitch with very nice presentations. But what really won it for us was our identification of the market opportunity, and the technical strength in our product design. I believe that the overall engineering fundaes that we picked up along the way in insti education helped us put strong tech fundaes in the finals, which really stood out from the rest.
T5E: Formulating a good idea into a feasible proposal may well be just one facet of entrepreneurship; convincing others of it is quite another! How did you go about presenting/selling your idea to the judges?
Aashish: The judges panel comprised of 4 venture capitalists who came from various backgrounds – IT, media, bio etc. They really grilled each of us, making sure we had a clear idea of the viability of our respective products. As I mentioned above, our strongest point was our identification of the market opportunity and we also projected that we could tap the enormous amount of government funding in this direction. Storage technologies and management solutions are the Holy Grail of the energy sector. We backed our points with proper statistics. To give you some figures – the current US grid is 99.97% reliable – and yet the unachieved 0.03% has been estimated to cost the United States more than $100 billion each year through power outages and interruptions. These figures instantly caught the judges’ attention, and we built it up with how our unique product design could contribute towards helping the US save billions of dollars with a cleaner and greener solution. So at the end of the day, it’s the technical strength of your product more than a fancy business model that will really bring in the cash.
T5E: Any tips for students within the institute who aspire to start up and/or participate in similar competitions?
Aashish: Yes. The most important point to be remembered when you are starting off is to choose that field where there is immense market opportunity, and a strong promise, at least for a decade to come. Business models for selling random stuff like, say, jute bags made in villages, is NOT going to impress judges/investors who are looking at steady returns for the next many years. It has to rain in big money. There has to be some technical ingenuity in your product, something whose novel design really impacts society in a BIG way. Once you have a strong idea, and have identified a strong market for it, then everything else is going to fall into place. Be on the lookout for national and international B-plan competitions, ones where you would get hajjar exposure and good feedback from judges as well. Put your B-plan in as many competitions as possible, one of them will surely click and get you some cash and fame.