What comes to mind when you say trackpants and t-shirts? The first and foremost association is with comfort. Today, apart from being used by those who work out or have an active lifestyle, sportswear is becoming a staple wardrobe item mainly because of the comfort factor. However, a large number of sportswear products available in the market are either badly designed or use poor materials. Top brands that use good material and design are extremely expensive.
In 2016, Prateek Sharma and Siddharth Jain saw the gap in this industry as an opportunity to start Heelium, a sportswear and athletic footwear startup primarily focused on safety and sustainability.
Prateek and Siddharth started working on a novel footwear material in late 2016 while both were working for multi-national companies abroad. Prateek is a Sports Engineer from Center for Sports Engineering Research, Sheffield, UK and a Materials Engineer from IIT Roorkee. Having formerly worked with Adidas, he has expertise in sports footwear, biomechanics and sports equipment design. He also has experience in business analytics, sales and marketing. Siddharth is a Mechanical Engineer from IIT Roorkee who worked with Halliburton in Singapore, and has expertise in CAD modelling, engineering drawing and finance.
The duo, who have been friends for a decade decided to move back to India and zeroed in on Pune as their playground for experimentation. They received a Government grant for technology development in May 2017 and formally incorporated Heelium in July, the same year. They launched their first sportswear product, a bamboo-based anti-bacterial and blister resistant sports sock in January 2018. The product was an instant hit. Buoyed by the early traction, they started developing other products made of bamboo fibre, which is extremely absorbent, and realised that it is a wonder material which can be used in several apparel products and accessories.
Heelium develops apparel products from bamboo yarn like sport socks and towels which they sell online via e-commerce platforms like Amazon and Flipkart and in select stores across India. They are also working on a performance t-shirt made from recycled plastic bottles that would otherwise go into landfills. These T-shirts are due to be out in July 2019. Another product in the pipeline is sports recovery footwear for athletes and marathoners who need high shock absorbency and arch support for better recovery. These will be out by the end of 2019.
According to the founders, they stand out as there are only a few products in the Indian market currently that address these problem areas, including big brands like Nike and Adidas. Also, these are quite expensive which makes it a difficult choice for a sports enthusiast. "As a young enterprise, we are promoting a healthy lifestyle through sports as a regular activity that is safe and injury-free. We are also developing a customisation platform that will help users choose their footwear correctly based on their foot shape and overall foot anatomy. This will help to reduce the likelihood of injuries significantly," says Siddharth. Heelium has served over 10,000 customers so far and growing at a rate of >50% month-on-month, selling its product exclusively online. They will be launching their own DTC web E-Cart soon.
The founders had friends who've lived in Korea and advised them to seriously consider Korea as a place to expand their R&D and operations. The K-Startup Grand Challenge was a great opportunity to collaborate with some of the biggest technology companies, accelerate their growth as well as access the market in East Asia which Korea’s location would enable.
During the first three months of the programme, they were focusing on market research and access possibilities and working on a product-market fit for the Korean market. They also used the time to work on collaborations that would help them continue their work in Korea after the programme. They qualified for Phase 2 and therein, setup a subsidiary company, Heelium Korea Inc. in Seoul and hired a local Korean team.
“Korea is a very interesting place for us owing to its market being so different from the Indian market. The consumer is not as price sensitive as in India and the new technology adoption is significantly faster. This programme helped us get key insights into how to adapt to different markets with the same or similar products,” says Prateek.
Through the programme, they formed some important partnerships in the footwear manufacturing business in Korea and also in Vietnam, which is a global manufacturing hub. This helped them explore growth opportunities outside of India which would otherwise have been a challenge. They’ve also been able to explore a more mature market with higher per capita income and tweak their product to fit the market.
The biggest transformation after the challenge was working with a multi-national team. This has expanded their outlook and they are now looking at other geographies outside India as potential markets. The startup already has clients in Korea, Vietnam, UK and US who are keen to distribute Heelium products in their regions.
Heelium has been funded by Centre for Innovation, Incubation and Entrepreneurship (CIIE), IIM Ahmedabad and incubated at Venture Center, Pune. They are striving to push sports products and technology development in India and create a brand deep-rooted in human-centric design and innovation.
They are recipients of the Economic Times Power of Ideas Award 2018 and are associated with several growth programmes with top technology and business institutes in the country including SINE (IIT Bombay), CIIE (IIM Ahmedabad), NCL (Pune) and Swissnex (Bangalore).
In January 2019, they won the National Entrepreneurship Award 2018 in Textiles from the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship (MSDE), Government of India for their bamboo-based sports apparel products.
Heelium is trying to work on a bilateral project with the help of the Indian and Korean governments that will increase their footprint in the East Asian market and help them extend their time in Korea beyond the programme. They are building a sales channels and looking at potential sales partners for a long-term business association. “In our next phase of growth, we are looking to expand into other regions like Japan, Taiwan and parts of South East Asia like Vietnam and Indonesia,” says Siddharth.
Heelium is a team of sports enthusiasts who are working to combine their engineering knowledge with their passion for sports, and the K-Startup Grand Challenge was an apt platform which helped propel them towards growth.