A start-up reimagining e-bikes

Founded by two IIT-Madras alumni, Ather Energy hopes to build "ground up" an electric bike designed and manufactured in India

December 31, 2014 11:59 pm | Updated January 01, 2015 02:09 am IST - CHENNAI

The Ather Energy team that is building an e-bike at the IIT-Madras Research Park in Chennai. Photo: Karthik Subramanian

The Ather Energy team that is building an e-bike at the IIT-Madras Research Park in Chennai. Photo: Karthik Subramanian

The office of Ather Energy, a startup incubated at IIT-Madras Research Park in Taramani, typifies the spirit of its young and restless workers: a dartboard at a corner has sustained heavy damage; there is a mini chaos of papers in almost all the cubicles; there are plenty of sudden huddles; and some of the employees even leave their wallets lying around.

And at the entrance, one can almost miss the prototype e-bike that the team has been working on for more than a year now.

There is no dearth of intensity with the team of 17 engineers in their attempt to re-imagine the electric bike for Indian conditions. The founders – Tarun Mehta and Swapnil Jain – both alumni of the IIT-Madras’s Department of Engineering Design, and their team are currently riding the high of having received a 1 million US dollar seed funding from Flipkart founders Sachin Bansal and Binny Bansal.

“Our intention is to build a zero compromise electric bike that will compete with the best petrol scooters in the market,” says Tarun Mehta. “The electric scooters that have so far been sold here have all been puny and have been marketed in the space in between a cycle and the low-end motor cycle. But we believe there is a market for a really well engineered product.”

Prof.R.Krishna Kumar of the Engineering Design department of IIT-Madras, who has mentored Ather Energy, says the startup is unique in its ambition. “They are not simply assembling an electric bike with components that are available off the shelf. This is a systematic attempt at creating a product through rigorous mathematical modelling. They are working on every important component – from battery management system to ‘ride comfort’ to handling.”

Big change is in battery

One of the big changes that the team is bringing to the electric scooter is in its battery pack. While most electric scooters in the market so far have used Lead-Acid batteries, the team at Ather Energy is trying to use a Lithium Ion battery commonly found in laptops. (The founders has applied for a patent for a new Lithium Ion battery pack.) There has been a company that has used Lithium Ion battery in the Indian market before but they have imported the battery pack. Ather plans to get the battery packs assembled in India.

Ather’s efforts come at a time when the sale of electric scooters has been on the decline in the country.The number of electric scooters that were sold in the country has dropped from close to one lakh units in 2009 to just 20,000 last year.

This is where both Tarun and Swapnil see the big opportunity. “We did a research before launching Ather Energy on the reasons for the failure of the electric scooter. We met people who had purchased electric scooters and asked them what their biggest grouse with the vehicle were. Most of them said the battery pack had failed, and they also complaints about the performance. Nobody wants to be on a scooter at a traffic signal and then watch other vehicles whiz past. This is where we presented our proposition for a powerful vehicle, with good pickup, shorter charging time and better comfort. We even got 25 pre-orders and the Rs.Six lakhs we received was the start to our company,” 25-year-old Tarun says.

Both Tarun and Swapnil, class mates from IIT-Madras, quit their jobs in different automobile companies after just six months on the line, in March 2013, and Ather Energy was formally incubated at the IIT-M Research Park in November that year. They had received a first round of funding in February this year from The Technology Development Board and another IIT alumni and founder of Aerospike Srini V.Srinivasan.

Another Chennai-based startup Termsheet, which provides standardised legal documents to startups for seed round funding, helped Ather secure its deal with the Bansals in quick time.

Move to Bangalore

The Ather team, which so far leveraged the ecosystem that Chennai had to offer in terms of prototype building or its rich heritage of automobile spare-parts manufacturing, will soon be shifting to a bigger office in Bangalore. A small team will still work out of Chennai, but Tarun says being closer to the scooter manufacturing hub of Hosur will help to roll out their e-bike by end of 2015 or first half of 2016.

For now, those interested in getting a feel of where Ather Energy is headed can log on to www.atherenergy.com and sign up for test rides. The team plans to get one of their new running prototypes for the test rides within the next few months.

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