Editor: S Vishal
Design: Shaurya Rawat
A few weeks ago, we sat down to research a new series that tells the stories of startups that grew out of IIT Madras alumni. This one company, in particular, caught my eye. Their mission statement was to build electric planes that could take off from roofs like helicopters and transport people from rooftop to rooftop in incredibly short periods of time. “Imagine your garage on the terrace instead of on the ground.” To my ears, that sounds a whole lot like flying cars out of a futuristic Sci-Fi novel. They go by the name of The ePlane Company and the premise only gets more interesting. It was founded by an unlikely duo of a Prof who’s been teaching for 22 years and a 22 year old student from Meta.
We sat down with the said 22 year old, Pranjal Mehta, Co-founder of this futuristic start-up to figure out just how a professor from combustion and a student from the department of metallurgy came together to build electric planes. His is a jam-packed story.
He caught the entrepreneurial bug young but ended up preparing for JEE mostly because he didn’t have an answer to “what else should I do?”. Funnily enough, a lot of the entrepreneurs he looked up to were themselves from IIT so he chose IIT Madras for its start-up culture. Right from his first year, he decided to deep-dive into the world of start-ups. With a group of friends, he decided to tackle the problem of waste management and worked on various solutions right from recycling paper waste in hostels to building an automatic waste-segregation dustbin. While the project was ultimately shelved due to a lack of time, they took away a lot of lessons from this first start-up.
He was already on the lookout for the next big idea to work on but in the meantime, he took up three PORs at Saarang Lifestyle, E-Cell’s InternFair and I&AR.
He also took part in business case study competitions and went on to win the Samsung E.D.G.E challenge. It’s fair to say, he kept busy, considering he also did an internship in almost every vacation (including the winters (!!!)).
At that time, a little further down Alumni Avenue, there was a Prof in the NCCRD who had worked on combustion all his life and now wanted to build electric planes. Professor Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy is also an alumnus of IITM. He was part of the graduating batch of ‘92 and then went on to do a PhD from Georgia Tech in aerospace engineering under an advisor who was 90 years old! He then returned to IITM as the youngest professor yet and founded the National Centre for Combustion Research and Development (NCCRD) which is the largest of its kind in the world and acquired over 30 million dollars in funding. After decades in combustion research, he saw a video by Tony Seba on how the age of combustion is gone and the future is electric.
So in a self-disruptive move, akin to Apple’s introduction of the iPhone that killed the iPod, Professor Satyanarayanan began to study electric planes. He offered a course on the same and studied them for an entire year.
As it happens, Pranjal was having a conversation with a friend who was working under a prof from the NCCRD and he mentions a case study he did for a helicopter taxi service. Soon enough, he found himself seated in Prof. Satyanarayanan’s balcony at 10 pm being convinced to work together. The duo have been partners ever since, and The ePlane Company was born.
One of the misconceptions about startups is that the most important thing is to have an idea. Most tech start-ups instead just take up a problem that they want to solve. An idea is just a hypothesis to solve the problem. Start-ups married to an idea would fail the instant their idea fails. But a focus on the problem instead would open up new avenues for a solution.
The ePlane Company seeks to minimise traffic and the amount of time spent by people on commute. To a macha from Bangalore, the cause seemed like a personal one.
The idea was to move the traffic upwards and into open airspace, in electric planes that could shuttle people from rooftop to rooftop that were kilometres apart in a matter of minutes.
But making this futuristic technology a reality is no child’s play. Even once the tech is in place, they will have to get government regulations to green-light their prototype and also win the trust of the people. So they decided to start off with a scaled-down version of their electric plane as a proof of concept of their technology, Ek Hanz, which is a uniquely designed helicopter and electric plane hybrid. Scaling down the technology meant that they couldn’t move people so they decided to move goods instead.
Ek Hanz thence became a delivery drone beast with wings as well as rotors that can vertically take off (without a runway) due to the rotors and then use the air as a virtual runway to produce lift using the wings. This may seem like a convoluted design but the original drones didn’t have much lifting capability, so a revamp of the design was necessary for the shift from photography to pizza delivery. This drone is capable of traversing long distances autonomously with a 6kg payload.
The Ek Hanz is now complete but major challenges still lie ahead of them in terms of getting approval from the government for its sale and use. Progress is being made, as the government plans on conducting delivery trials in the country in the coming months and The ePlane Company will be part of ten odd companies that are participating. In the meantime, they are trying to work around these difficulties by going international considering where they can fly Ek Hanz. They’re anticipating that the regulations for the electric plane will be in place by the time they are ready with the prototype. This may be counterintuitive but helicopter taxi services have been around since the ‘60s in New York and as long as the plane is flown manually, they will have the approval.
In a world with ePlanes, we’d have 10x faster travel at the same price we now pay for road transport. Cities would expand as travelling longer distances became more trivial. The electric plane would do to cities what elevators did to buildings. And Bangalore would finally be traffic-free.
That is the vision of The ePlane Company and it all began with an unlikely partnership between a prof who’s been teaching for 22 years and a 22 year old student from IITM.
Startups of insti is a series where we cover the story of startups founded by insti alum to inspire and motivate the entrepreneurial junta among the current students. Comments and suggestions are always welcome, you can send them to us at [email protected].