|October 26, 2015|
Tesla, the Indian Version
|Tarun Mehta apologizes as I hop onto his red Vespa scooter, behind him. There's not much support for an extra passenger, he warns. Watch where I put my feet. Hang on tight. All this before zooming headlong into the torrent of honks and non-lane-abiding traffic of Bangalore.|
Later, he adds to the list of complaints about the scooter: It's got a slow response rate; it's not very powerful. And he can hardly even reach the lights --- he's too short, at 5-foot-7ish. "I'm sure the Vespa's great for a taller Italian. But not really Indians."
You might allow some grains of salt, since this 25-year-old self-described "scooter guy" is trying to put the Vespa, and every other two-wheeler, out of business, in India, across Asia and anywhere else he can manage. His complaints, though --- style, power, maneuverability --- aren't what one would normally call selling points for his counteroffer: a clean-fuel vehicle. Mehta is the co-founder and CEO of Ather Energy, a series A-funded startup --- backed with $13 million by the likes of bigwig e-commerce king Sachin Bansal and Tiger Global --- that's creating an electric scooter; it's making a kind of Tesla play for the market, hoping to sell the ride to people who wouldn't buy green for its own sake.
Electric two-wheelers have been popping out of Asia by the dozens. India's Mahindra is reportedly launching an electric scooter in the U.S. this fall. Taiwanese startup Gogoro made headlines with its own product. Chris Cherry, a professor of engineering at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, studies electric vehicles and says China, not India, has the big advantage here: China banned motorcycles and has long been a bicycle culture. (And one of Cherry's studies shows that Chinese e-bike ownership more than doubled between 2002 and 2012; similar studies haven't been replicated in India.) India sure needs the help catching up: A 2014 World Health Organization study showed New Delhi has even worse air pollution than Beijing.
Mehta, raised in the northern state of Gujarat, kicked off the company while still in college at the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology, at its Chennai campus in the south. That's a standard story for startuppers coming out of Stanford or MIT in the U.S., but in India startup fever hasn't won over the relatively risk-averse population yet. Mehta probably should have been gunning for a big company job, and he did work for a truck manufacturer for six months post-grad before quitting for Ather. But he was part of a new, emerging group of entrepreneurially minded students studying in a brand-new major, engineering design --- his was just the third class in the program; they didn't even have a building yet. He studied material sciences and coding, and worked on problems like "how can laborers lift X amount of weight better?" He calls it "real design-school questions; practical, hands-on stuff."
Mehta and his partner, Swapnil Jain, first landed funding while they were still both students from Silicon Valley-based Srini Srinivasan, an entrepreneur who says the kids' ambitions for the company reminded him of "the Tesla experiences in the Valley." Today, the company is both technically ambitious and hungry to dominate a global marketplace. Instead of using a standard, preexisting model of a scooter and slapping electric on top, it's building a whole new battery --- shortly after graduation, they filed a patent on a lithium-ion battery pack --- considering the dashboard's hardware and software alike. In other words, Ather is tackling the whole package. Mehta bought a bunch of secondhand electric scooters to suss out the competition, dropping maybe $200 on each, and "rode them till their death." He says he wants every one of his salaried employees (they're at 67 now, "adding an engineer a week") to do the same, to get a sense of what's out there.
In person, Mehta is a quiet, serious presence. The son of an engineer father, he's always been a tinkerer. He remembers having two or three cupboards full of tools in the house --- drilling machines, stuff for carpentry. That propensity for technical work makes him a hands-on CEO. We ride over to the house that comprises Ather's office, just off a busy main road. Sixteen scooters sit parked out front. A lively kitchen in the back is full of pots of rice and curry for lunch; whiteboards fill the living room. It's buzzing with mostly male engineers. Laptops are out, but it's also got the feel of a mini manufacturing workshop. We head to the garage, which is not home to a pingpong table and algorithm-crunching monitors but rather a skeleton of an 85-kilogram scooter undergoing various surgeries.
The head of product, Arun Vinayak, wearing a T-shirt that reads "This guy can party," walks me through a highly technical tour of the garage and then wheels out the prototype into the street. It's not technically supposed to be driven, but we can't resist. He proffers me the handlebars. I explain why that is a terrible idea. So I hop on the back behind an engineer for the second time that day. The thing starts up crazy fast. The engine is silent; the accelerator requires just a touch. We weave so close to the ground I think I could skim it with my fingers. We arrive back at the house after just a minute or two. I am winded. Vinayak wheels the scooter back into the garage, where Mehta is bent over a pile of papers, completely absorbed.