Housed at IIT Madras Research Park, Ather Energy wants to change the negative image associated with the current crop of battery-operated scooters.
Founded by IIT-M alumni Tarun Mehta and Swapnil Jain, the venture was started in October 2013. They had been toying with the concept of manufacturing an electric vehicle even earlier. “After we graduated in 2012, Swapnil and I were interested in a start-up venture. We explored the electric vehicle market in India and, after six months of research, discovered there is a tremendous opportunity for battery-operated scooters, if we build it right,” says Tarun. A survey showed there was a consensus that battery life and charging time were the main deterrents to people buying such vehicles.
“We spoke to a wide range of people, including dealers who had shut shop and a few e-bike owners. They said the vehicles fall way short of expectations on performance, reliability, range of battery and charging time. Our vision is a scooter that does not compromise on any of these parameters,” Tarun adds.
Expected to cost in the vicinity of a Vespa (around ₹70,000), the scooter clearly falls in the premium segment. “People who buy e-scooters aren’t necessarily looking at a low-cost alternative to the petrol scooter. They are looking for a green alternative, something that would make them stand out in a crowd,” he says.
Ather Energy raised one round of capital in February from V Srinivasan, Founder, Aerospike, and the Technology Development Board.
The big break came in end-November, when Flipkart founders Sachin Bansal and Binny Bansal invested around $1 million in the start-up. The funding round also included investment from Raju Venkatraman, serial entrepreneur and CEO of Medall.
Sachin Bansal and Binny Bansal said: “We believe that the world is moving towards a smarter, more energy-efficient and environment-friendly approach. Indian start-ups like Ather are using technology successfully to make a mark in this field.” It wasn’t all smooth sailing for Ather. “We had people who would not even look at our product or even discuss the technology. They questioned us whether we got our balance sheet and cash flow projections worked out, which was irrelevant as we still haven’t gone into production,” says Tarun. Tarun says the Bansals were really helpful during the funding process. “At our first meeting with them in August, we explained the company’s vision and they were completely aligned with it. So we kept them in the loop about our developments.”
Ather’s co-founders met the Bansals again in October for help with structuring the entire funding process as they have experience in this field. “That’s when we asked if they would be interested in investing and they were very excited and replied in the affirmative. We decided to close the round with them and Raju Venaktraman, and to have them on board as advisers,” Mehta says. The Ather Energy team will relocate to Bengaluru in mid-January. The company has come a long way in a short time. The founders owe their journey largely to R Krishna Kumar, Professor, Department of Engineering Design at IIT-M, their mentor throughout the project.
“He was our first adviser and mentor and supported us in all ways in our seed stage. His support opened up all sorts of possibilities for us,” Tarun says.
In an e-mail statement, Krishna Kumar says: “India lacks the skill for product development and we do not have a product recognised internationally. Today, the easiest way to build a product is to get sub-assemblies from China and assemble them here. This is an especially easy route for an electric scooter. Instead of assembling the product, Tarun and Swapnil assembled a talented young team. The result is a very different product from what is available in the market. Their drives are unique, battery management system is home-grown, and the controls are novel.”
The government’s ‘Make in India’ initiative is slowly seeing results; more than 50 per cent of Tarun’s classmates have begun start-ups, many of them pure engineering plays. “‘Make in India’ does not mean ‘assembled in India’. More importantly, it should be ‘Designed and Manufactured in India’. We should also get FDI for Indian products. This will encourage talented youngsters into venturing into niche product markets, as shown by Tarun and Swapnil,” Krishna Kumar adds.
On the organisational front, Tarun says they were inspired by Tesla for showing people that electric vehicles can be mainstream. “We also look up to the US-based Mission Motorcycles purely because of the high quality technologies they incorporate into their bikes. More than anything, we are a product-based company, so companies such as Apple and Germany-based Braun really inspire us by their sheer innovation,” he says.
“We plan to launch the e-bike in 2016. In five years, we would like to see ourselves as the biggest manufacturer of electric scooters in the country.
“And in 10 years, a situation should prevail where electric scooters become the first choice for customers and petrol scooters aren’t logical any more; and we should be instrumental in such a change,” he says.