Society

Space, time, and the startup

Umesh Sachdev at Elliots Beach Photo: Shaju John   | Photo Credit: Shaju John

Uniphore

Uniphore takes the lead when it comes to Indian startups making global news. The company, which created a software to enable rural India use speech recognition in their native tongues on their phones, was featured in TIME magazine. Rather, its founder Umesh Sachdev was — he was named one of the 10 Millennials Who Are Changing the World. In fact, he happens to be the only Indian and only technologist to have figured in the list that features individuals from all walks of life. For Chennai-based Sachdev, the mention was only a step forward in a long journey.

Uniphore’s journey began in 2007 when Sachdev and his co-founder Ravi Saraogi moved to Chennai from Delhi to work out of the IIT-Madras incubation centre. Uniphore, according to Sachdev, was a sort of last attempt at entrepreneurship. “We’d had a couple of other ventures that hadn’t worked out. We were just two men who’d launched our startup straight out of college. So we decided to give our next venture a shot for at least six months. If it didn’t work, we thought we’d go back and do either an MBA or get ourselves corporate jobs,” he says.

But then, entrepreneurs are just wired differently. “We gun for something that we are intent on.” And this one paid off.

Today, with over 70 enterprise customers, and a software that enables speech to transform human-machine interaction, Uniphore has touched millions of lives. Think IVR systems for phone banking, Jan Dhan programmes or customer care services. According to Sachdev, the co-founders envisioned building a product with a rural focus. Today, Uniphore has successfully addressed language barriers. Now, even a farmer in a remote Indian village can carry out financial transactions in his language via phone.

The company knew the product was working a couple of years after inception. And, there’s been no looking back since. It now offers 35 global languages, including dialects, and has a presence in South East Asia and West Asia as well. “We are now working towards making our presence felt in the Americas and Europe,” he says.

RANJANI RAJENDRA

 

A prototype of Team Indus’ rover

A prototype of Team Indus’ rover  

 

Team Indus

In December 2017, Bangalore-based Team Indus intends to launch a rover with the aim of landing it on the surface of the Moon and beam back images and video. The project is India’s entry into the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition, which challenged the best technical minds in the world to achieve this feat.

In a chat about the future of space exploration and the entities that push it forward, Rahul Narayan, who heads the team, explains that conquering space is an act born out of humanity’s curiosity to experiment, even without a specific goal in sight. “The moment you see all of Earth in one picture, you realise how small it is,” Rahul says, reminiscing about mankind’s first ventures beyond earthly confines, “Space is a natural extension for us, beyond the Moon and now Mars. But these are things that happen in multiple lifespans.”

About the competition, which was announced 10 years ago, and is set to culminate next year after multiple extensions, Rahul says that the journey has been long and stimulating. “We began by trying to solve a technical problem, but over time we’ve expanded and whittled away at the list of unknowns, and now the few left are regulatory in nature. There isn’t enough literature about lunar conditions and there is also a lot of deliberate misinformation. There are also a lot of unique engineering challenges we’ve had to work with, like getting the rover wheels to work on the lunar surface and designing a passive locomotion system,” he explains.

According to him, the future of space exploration will be fuelled by private companies that dare to push the envelope, though the support of governments can never be ruled out. Indus itself has recently secured a launch contract for its rover from ISRO, ensuring a spot in the final phase of the competition. “In the late 90s, you had Iridium who launched a global satellite network, and though it did not find many takers at the time, it set the foundation for the mobile revolution of today. Even companies like SpaceX were doing their own thing until NASA offered them a launch contract. So, that synergy is important.”

On the rate of progress in space technology, he says, “Technological progress has been such that we will make it into outer space relatively soon, though a Moon base and then a Mars base will be necessary. Will the companies pushing the boundaries now be around then? Possibly not, but investment is unlikely to be a problem.”

But is this endeavour a necessity? “Is being in Antarctica necessary?” he counters. “But we’re there anyway, and a lot of research happens there. It is the same case here. Once a commercial interest is found, private players will come in and then there is no stopping them,” he says, painting a realistic picture of mankind’s journey into the unknown.

SOORAJ RAJMOHAN

Shashank Vaishnav, Vinay Singhal and Parveen Singhal of Witty Feed. Photo: R. Ravindran

Shashank Vaishnav, Vinay Singhal and Parveen Singhal of Witty Feed. Photo: R. Ravindran   | Photo Credit: Photo: R. Ravindran

 

 

WittyFeed

How many of us regularly look up BuzzFeed’s pages for quirky content and listicles? At least one-third of one’s Facebook newsfeed is filled with links to the website’s stories. But a close second to this popular content generator happens to be an Indian company called WittyFeed. Ranked second this year after BuzzFeed in terms of content generation, the website was launched by three students of SRM College, who are now based out of Indore.

For Vinay Singhal, Parveen Singhal and Shashank Vaishnav, WittyFeed is a journey of trials and tribulations, after a string of entrepreneurial failures. Facing bankruptcy, the trio had given itself all of six months to make WittyFeed work. “And it finally broke even in its seventh month. Ever since, we’ve only been growing from strength to strength,” says Vinay, the CEO of the company. “Before WittyFeed clicked, we’d been bankrupt eight times in six years. When we set up this company, we’d borrowed heavily and went in prepared to incur losses for at least six months,” adds Vaishnav, CTO.

Fortunately, the tide turned, and today, WittyFeed enjoys its moment in the sun. According to Vinay, the company is essentially a platform for content creators, distributors and consumers. “Honestly though, while to the world we are a content company, to us we are a tech company. Our focus is on building tech offerings for the content business — in a way we act as a content ecosystem,” he says.

With several players in the segment, WittyFeed manages to stay on top of its game by dint of sheer numbers. It has over 15,000 influencers across the world and is sure to get news first.

Another factor that sets it apart is work culture. The company makes it a point to hire inexperienced people. A typical job interview at WittyFeed could last up to six hours and has no fixed format. “It’s quite like a Roadies interview, you could say,” laughs Parveen, the COO. “Qualifications don’t matter to us. Our interviews are our way of gauging how passionate an individual is, how keen to learn he/she is and how loyal.” In fact, their head of design used to be a door-to-door salesman.

“Whatever he learnt was on the job, and today he’s the best we have,” he says.

RANJANI RAJENDRA

 

Swapnil Jain and Tarun Mehta unveil the Ather Energy S340 electric Scooter.

Swapnil Jain and Tarun Mehta unveil the Ather Energy S340 electric Scooter.   | Photo Credit: Photo: G.R.N Somashekar

 

Ather Energy

While trudging on traffic-clogged roads as auto rickshaws emit toxic fumes, have you wondered about getting a vehicle that will not only reduce the carbon footprint but will provide you with a durable commute choice? Ather Energy is coming up with solutions that, in the long term, will make your commute pollution-free and smart.

Early this year, the firm created by IIT Madras graduates Tarun Mehta and Swapnil Jain in a small engineering lab in 2013 launched the prototype of the S340, the country’s first electric smart scooter. The firm has been in the news recently after receiving funding from Binny of Flipkart and a Rs. 205 crore infusion by Hero MotoCorp. Tiger Global, the firm that holds a major stake in Flipkart, is also among the early investors for the bike.

Mehta says, “When we started out, we discovered that most electric bikes in the market were low on performance and took a long time to recharge. Bad batteries were also a constant complaint. The S340 comes with a touch-enabled dashboard that will personalise the driving experience. It is also equipped with driving modes such as sport and economy, that let you choose the mode for regular and aggressive use. We have also developed a mobile app that will allow for configuring ride preferences.” He adds, “The touchscreen dashboard contains a system that monitors rider behaviour and is equipped with an indicator showing how much distance can be travelled on the remaining charge. It also has Google Maps integration and a slot for a SIM card.”

Mehta adds, “Our focus is on good engineering. We have spent almost a year understanding what building an electric bike entails. We have got the systems and processes in place. The key is to keep things simple. We are creating a new industry. I feel that if you complicate something like electric bikes, it will never become a mass product. We hope that as more people get the bike, electric bikes will also turn mainstream, much like how smartphones took over the market in the last five years.”

One of the major issues that electric vehicles face in India is the lack of charging stations. Mehta says that Ather is working on solutions to overcome this situation, “We are working to create charging stations in public and private places. Customers will be able to charge the vehicle at home or the workstation. In addition, we are working to set up charging stations in shopping malls and corporate offices, apartments and other commercial places. We also plan to set up public charging stations in partnership with Government agencies.”

He says, “We did not look for experience alone while setting up a team. We focussed on specific skills. We got many people with a background in the automobile sector. We want to create something that is not very complicated. Easy use would mean that the product becomes more popular. We do not want to stop with just an electric bike. We want to be the frontrunners in a new industry by itself.”

NIKHIL VARMA


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Printable version | Jul 23, 2021 8:07:58 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/Space-time-and-the-startup/article16949415.ece

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