There’s much more to insti than acads, sports, DC, trip sessions at Guru/Zaitoon and the usual mix of extra-curriculars — albeit with more variety than the average college. In addition to all this, the atmosphere at insti is inspiring — so much so, that it has encouraged many of its students to develop and commercialize innovative products and solutions during their stay here. In this series of articles featuring both alumni and current students, T5E takes a look at some of these ventures.
Ather Energy is a startup engaged in building a futuristic electric scooter which has garnered funding from the founders of Flipkart (to the tune of $1 million). Here, Varun Sridhar speaks to Tarun Mehta and Swapnil Jain, co-founders of Ather Energy, as well as Arun Vinayak, who is the COO. They tell the story of how Ather was founded, and also offer plenty of advice on starting up after insti.
What does Ather do?
Ather is an insti start-up that was, until recently, based in the research park. It is building a futuristic electric scooter which aims to go head-to-head with the best e-scooters in the market. Some of the features it boasts of are:
- A unique Lithium-Ion battery pack which is 75% lighter than current varieties.
- Battery pack charges 8 times faster than others.
- 20% lighter than petrol scooters.
- Android-based dashboard that monitors all functions.
“We Just Love to Build Things”
Both from the department of Engineering Design, Tarun Mehta and Swapnil Jain were always passionate about building things. From construction equipment to electronic gadgets, they love designing and putting together mechanical objects. “On graduating, both of us took up jobs in the automobile sector. The idea to found our own company had been in our minds for a long time. We were always interested in renewable energy. We knew that even if we got placed, it was only a matter of time before we quit our jobs and started up”, says Tarun.
Tarun and Swapnil quit Ashok Leyland and General Motors, respectively, seven months after they got placed and founded Ather Energy. “Fortunately, my job wasn’t too demanding, and I had plenty of time to think. This was when we decided to enter the electric scooter market.”, Tarun says. “We realised that it was a great opportunity to pursue. There aren’t many high quality electric scooters in the market and we believed that we could do well in that industry. It was something that we could spend the next ten or twenty years working on. We didn’t want to just start something and sell it off three years later. We wanted to build something huge.”
Swapnil echoes the sentiment, describing what it felt like to leave a steady job and commit to working on a startup. “It was a mixed bag of every emotion possible. What we started was never a simple thing or an obvious thing, and we had no clue whether we’d even get the initial capital to make our first prototype. The excitement was high enough to overcome the fear, though- what we quit our jobs for was a stupid dream but a dream we do not want to wake up from. We’re still far from being a successful company, but the dream is what keeps us going.”
Arun Vinayak, the COO, joined Ather in June 2014. From the Mechanical Engineering department, Arun quit his job at ITC before joining the team. His reasoning, put so very simply, shows us his passion for the industry. “My job at ITC was good, but it didn’t make me want to work 16 hours a day. I thought that when you’re 23, that’s how much you should be working. The automotive bug bit me early on in college. Once you’ve driven a vehicle that you’ve built, there’s no going back. Now, I hope a lot more people will drive the vehicle I’ve designed.”
Wooing the Bansals
Tarun notes that starting up in the automobile sector isn’t common. Most startups operate through the space of the internet, but Ather isn’t the archetypical Indian start-up, and everyone knew that obtaining funding wouldn’t be easy. Adding to that, the entirety of the Ather team were fresh graduates.
“Raising funding was difficult. Most investors that we spoke to wanted us to build something more basic and understandable. They suggested that we build and market something like a new battery pack or a case for the battery pack. That didn’t excite us at all.” says Tarun.
That’s when they decided to reach out to the Bansals.
In early December 2014, Sachin and Binny Bansal invested 1 million dollars in Ather. Tarun sounds elated talking about it. “These guys were brilliant. They understood exactly what we were trying to do. We had plenty of meetings with them. They gave us feedback on the project, which helped us immensely.”
Advice for Aspiring Entrepreneurs
Tarun is quite clear about the message he wants to pass on: “If you already have an idea in mind, and if it isn’t too generic, my advice would be start up as soon as you graduate. There is an inevitable risk attached to starting up, but if you’re from an IIT, you have a pretty strong safety net. At no point in time will you be really struggling. Taking the risk at 21 or 22 is far better that doing it at 25.” Besides, he adds, “In a year or two, you’ll get a pretty good idea of whether your company is doing well. After one or two rounds of funding, you’re very likely going to do well.”
Swapnil offers another way to think about it: “Don’t think too much. Unless you are placed on day one, there is no better option than starting up. And if you have a job on day one then you are smarter among the smartest so it is only better. You are smarter than most people running the business currently and most importantly, (hopefully) you know enough about new technology to beat everyone who thinks in the old ways.
Arun offers solid advice that can be followed by anyone, regardless of whether they plan to start-up. “Have a long term vision and ensure that everything you do falls in line with that. Don’t look at the short term profits if it requires you to deviate even the slightest from the vision”, he says. “More importantly, build a great team, and then work on building a great culture. The product will follow”, he adds.
On how to prepare yourself if you are looking to start up, Tarun says, “I think that there are two critical things that you need to do when you’re in college. First, focus on the technology. Think about how to improve your product. Only after graduating should you worry about building a business around it. Second, and this is the most important thing you need to do in college, is to build a network of like-minded people around you. This is one of the greatest things that an IIT offers you. A group of like-minded guys who you can work with. You’re going to pick your co-founders out of these guys. If you can’t find a group who you love to work with, you’ll face tremendous issues with things like hiring. The smaller your network is, the harder it’s going to be.”
Tarun also shares his concerns on the lack of start-ups in some domains like manufacturing and hardware, as most start-ups deal in software and in the internet. He believes that there is great potential for innovation in hardware and manufacturing that isn’t being tapped by start-ups in India. “One thing that most people tend to do is go for the lowest hanging fruit, the easiest of start-ups. Manufacturing isn’t being touched by start-ups. It seems that no one is approaching anything that needs two or three years of incubation before a product is rolled out. I do think that this is an approachable problem. I’m confident it will happen in time. These are sectors where the returns can be massive.”
On ideating and the start-up process, Swapnil hands us a few gems. “Sometimes your solution to a problem (for which you are trying to start-up on) will seem very obvious. Never think about why someone else hasn’t thought about it. You will be surprised by what is not obvious for many people and how much inertia people have in implementing something new.” Finally, he says, “Most importantly, think big and never be intimidated by the problem or the difficulty in thinking big. The bigger you think, the tougher it is for your competition to beat you. Thinking big will give you the push needed to work hard and make your venture successful. Always think about what you would like your company to be ten years later and then work on reaching it. This will help you filter the noise from the signal and concentrate on growing big.”
With the company rapidly rising, the team doesn’t plan on staying in the Research Park forever. Ather is moving operations to Bangalore, closer to the scooter manufacturing hub of Hosur, Arun tells us. On their vision for the future, Swapnil adds, “My personal, very broad vision, is to enter the energy industry, which includes the supply and storage of energy, and achieving new standards in every segment, may it be power electronics, energy storage (batteries), energy distribution (charging infra) or smart vehicles.” In the vehicle specific domain, which is to be their focus for the next 5-6 years, Swapnil says Ather will concentrate on becoming mainstream in the electric two-wheeler segment, delivering smart, practical and clean vehicles.