• India’s startup ecosystem mostly software driven, rarely about hardware

    India’s startup successes are mostly about software firms such as Flipkart and Ola, and rarely about hardware product companies. ET spoke with product entrepreneurs who have been there and done that for lessons the industry can tap into

    When the founders of electric scooter maker Ather Energy and medical diagnostics firm Achira Labs had not much more than concepts of their eventual products, they turned to familiar environments for direction. For Tarun Mehta and Swapnil Jain, that was their alma mater, the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras; and for Dhananjay Dendukuri of Achira Labs, it was his employer.

    “We reached out to one of our professors in engineering design at IIT Madras and told him we wanted to build a battery and maybe a full vehicle and put in a lot of engineering effort doing that. He immediately offered to support us 100%,” said Mehta, chief executive of Ather Energy that is set to roll out its S340 smart electric scooter this year.

    “If we hadn’t had that support, our starting would have been 10x harder and 10x longer.” Dendukuri got support from Connexios Life Sciences, where he was a lead scientist; the company incubated his microfluidics startup so he could tinker and experiment with developing a low-cost diagnostics device. That’s lesson 1 on building a product startup, an area where India has a woefully poor record.

    Unlike software ideas, even simplistic ones, that can find ready backers, products have to climb a steep arc to prove their worth in a market not known for its manufacturing prowess. Products have to evolve from being a concept to a physical prototype and undergo various iterations before they can hit the market. And then the market has to want the product.

    Which is why getting that first person to believe in your idea and give you the space to experiment is critical. Product entrepreneurs should gain indepth understanding of the problem that they want to solve and its magnitude, and determine how it can be solved best. Niche problems might seem exciting but may not earn your startup the money it will need to sustain.

    “We never started to become a medical device company. We felt that the magnitude of preventable blindness was really high. Then we went about understanding the limitations. Why is there such a high prevalence of preventable blindness?” said K Chandrasekhar, CEO of low-cost eye screening devices maker Forus Health.

    “We were then convinced that technology is the only way we can solve this problem.” The next steps are finding a core team and raising funds, because developing a product requires money. While seeking funds, have a working prototype ready. “As a hardware company, one of the trump cards that one has is to be able to show a prototypean actual, tangible, physical thing. The impact that a physical product has is unparalleled. You cannot do the same by making presentations,” said Ather’s Mehta.

    Since the product startup sector is only picking up now, finding core team members might need time along with foresight and ingenuity. Find people who are as passionate about the field you are working on as you are. Dendukuri of Achira Labs went to various colleges to deliver lectures and took in members who seemed passionate about microfluidics. “I went to IIT-Delhi to give a talk. Somebody there was doing his Ph.D in microfluidics.

    He attended the talk and then he stayed back to ask questions and now he’s been with me through the entire journey,” said Dendukuri. “The other important pick we made was through a scientific adviser.”

    Dendukuri offers more suggestions: Scout for Indians abroad who might be seeking interesting options at home to come back to. Non-resident Indians working abroad come with interesting expertise and cutting-edge knowledge, he said. Also, hire consultants or advisers from the first generation of hardware companies as they will have experience in managing an entire product lifecycle. Finding the right vendors for different components is a challenge of its own. Understand the sourcing ecosystem and reach out to vendors who can understand your vision and will want to be involved for the long haul.

    Akash Gupta, chief technology officer of robotics enterprise GreyOrange, holds one advice from the company’s experienced Germany-based cofounder Wolfgang Holtgen close to his heartthere is a lot of difference between cheap and economical. “There is a big difference between a cheap product and a viable product. Viable products cater to the market, not the cheap. This was drilled into us by Wolfgang. A lot of our supply chain is from Germany, Taiwan and Japan, so it is possible to make products which have really good components and still be viable enough,” Gupta said.

    It is critical to get the pricing right. Chandrasekhar reached out to experts in the eye care industry to determine the pricing for Forus’s ophthalmic imaging devices. “We were able to understand what would be a typical price a customer would be interested (to pay) and we got a particular price point. That price point was definitely not very profitable for us to sell at that point of time, but then we went about announcing it at that price point, which helped us to make inroads into the market,” he said.

    Finally, as all success stories go, it is the underlying passion that can take you through the arduous journey of building a product startup. “I started the company pretty late. Before that I was into racing. We named the team as Tork and remained in that space for fourand-a-half years. And then I had a bit of free time (when) I built a prototype,” said Kapil Shelke, founder of Tork Motorcycles, a Pune-based maker of electric motorcycles that is backed, among others, by Ola cofounders Bhavish Aggarwal and Ankit Bhati. “The perception of electric motorcycles was not good then. So I wanted to build and show that it is possible. It worked well.” Stephen Piscotty Jersey

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