Why these ISRO engineers decided to start an EV startup
While working at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) engineers Nakul Kukar, Paras Kaushal, and Supratim Naskar would help in developing spacecrafts, electric aircrafts, and launch vehicles.
Though the work at ISRO was satisfying, the trio knew the power of engineering and electric systems, and felt that more could be done for the end consumer using the sciences. This led to the birth of electric mobility startupin 2017.
Founders of Cell Propulsion
The Bengaluru-based EV startup designs and develops electric powertrains (which powers the vehicle) and integrated electric mobility solutions for multiple modes of transportation.
Currently, with a team of 35 employees, Cell Propulsion is building expertise and core intellectual properties (IP) in multiple areas like electric motors and motor drives, Li-ion battery packs, battery management systems, chargers, and associated operating software stack.
The startup is commercialising these offerings as individual products, as well as integrated systems.
As part of the sector-agnostic incubator Huddle, Cell Propulsion is one of the front-runners in the EV segment.
The trio realised that with urbanisation on the rise, trends like traffic congestion and pollution are likely to surge in the future. Further, a growing ecommerce sector is propelling the movement of goods on the road, resulting in commercial vehicles (CVs) making up for a significant share of traffic within cities.
“The CVs on the road today typically generate higher nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions than passenger cars. Additionally, diesel engines emit more particulate matter compared to gasoline engines. Hence, the electrification of CVs is bound to have a much larger impact on urban air pollution compared to the electrification of any other mode of transportation,” says Nakul.
The startup is also mentored by Ravindra Pisharody, former Executive Director of Tata Motors, as part of the Huddle acceleration engagement. With a deep understanding of the CV landscape, Ravi adds credible value across strategy, business development, and roadmap planning.
Currently, in its pre-production stages, the startup is developing electric powertrains to convert existing diesel buses to electric. It claims to convert 16-ton city transport buses to electric, and believes that the same technology can be used to electrify other vehicles with a gross weight not exceeding 20-tons, such as school buses, corporate shuttle buses, light trucks, and medium commercial vehicles, among others.
For this reason, it is reaching out to its potential customers — bus and truck operators — to electrify their fleets. Apart from offering standalone electric buses and trucks, Cell Propulsion also provides turnkey support throughout the product lifecycle.
The startup sells these vehicles directly for an upfront payment or on EMI, and also offers a recurring annual maintenance contract (AMC) for after-sale support and services. While Nakul didn’t divulge the prices of these vehicles, he says they are priced based on the performance and the range requirements of the fleet operators.
“With Huddle’s support, we can identify relevant clients, and create contextual pitches to reduce the sales cycle… If our customers require us to provide a new vehicle body, we partner with coachbuilders for the fabrication of new vehicle body and chassis around our powertrains,” Nakul adds.
The startup also offers advanced technologies such as system engineering capabilities that can convert components like motors, batteries, BMS, chargers, etc., into energy-efficient, integrated systems.
"We are vertically integrated so that our powertrains can be fully customised and standardised for all torque ranges, performance classes, and voltage specifications while being easily adaptable to dynamic market conditions and diverse customer requirements,” the co-founder says.
Currently, the startup is targeting a margin of 15 to 20 percent on the sale of each powertrain unit.
As a powertrain manufacturer for EVs, Cell Propulsion works with various players in the mobility value chain, such as vehicle OEMs and Tier-I suppliers, mobility-as-a-service startups, conversion kit providers, and vehicle aggregators and fleet operators.
These entities help the startup obtain components for individual and integrated powertrains for converted and new electric vehicles.
The startup engages with these players based on outright product sales, lease/EMI-based recurring revenue model, and a fully-managed gross cost contract model.
Cell Propulsion’s electric powertrains consist of both hardware and software elements that are integrated to create an intelligent system that drives the vehicle and delivers required performance.
The startup has also built a 'network layer’ to enable IoT and over-the-air (OTA) update capabilities for the powertrain components, providing connectivity to electric vehicles, as well as controlling its driving performance.
“We believe that development of the software stack will unlock tremendous value by acting as a platform for providing in-vehicle infotainment, and finally, vehicle autonomy,” Nakul explains.
Besides, to accelerate the advent of charging infrastructure in India, the startup also offers proprietary fast-charging stations in compliance with both Indian and international standards.
“Apart from that, we are also developing advanced technologies, such as in-vehicle connectivity, image processing, computer vision, and deep learning (AI) to create EVs with reliable connectivity and OTA update capability. These efforts will enable us to be competitive for the future of mobility which will be fully autonomous,” Nakul adds.
However, the co-founder says, developing these technologies is a highly capital intensive venture, with total investments in the order of $100 million required over five to seven years.
Over the past few years, the EV market has been growing with startups like Ola Electric working strongly to make electric vehicles mainstream in India. Moreover, companies like Ather Electric and Hero Electric are focussing on manufacturing electric two-wheelers in India.
According to an estimate, by 2019, Hero Electric captured 65 percent market share in the Indian electric two-wheeler market, selling close to 50,000 vehicles. The electric two-wheelers segment gained significant momentum in the first phase of the FAME scheme, which ended on March 31, 2019.
Differentiator and future
Cell Propulsion, however, has been focussed on commercial vehicles, and aims to achieve the leadership position in developing integrated electric powertrains in India.
"We own designs and IP for electric motors and battery packs, but we get them manufactured from our suppliers. This enables us to be agile and scale our powertrain solutions quickly to multiple vehicle segments,” says Nakul.
In the next five years, the Bengaluru startup aims to commercialise electric powertrains for light and heavy commercial vehicles, after the technology development for the BMTC pilot is completed.
“We aim to sell or lease the electric powertrains for LCVs and HCVs, both in the after-sale market, as conversion kits, and directly to vehicle manufacturers for their new electric LCV and electric bus models. With the support of Huddle and our investor base, we are actively working to capture each of these market segments,” says Nakul.