Ankit Mehta on taking off with ideaForge

In an exclusive interaction, Ankit Mehta, Co-founder and CEO of drone startup ideaForge, discusses his journey from being in the shadows to being in the spotlight.

Ankit Mehta on taking off with ideaForge

Wednesday January 17, 2024,

5 min Read

Key Takeaways

● Hardware startups require significantly more effort to build and scale. The key is to not lose focus of your long term goal.

● Understand your passion and find opportunities to build in related areas.

● A frugal mindset about material possessions will aid your entrepreneurial journey.

● Raise capital from people who believe in your story, they will truly root for your success.

In a world smitten with software, drone startup ideaForge’s story is an outlier. Not just because it is a hardware-based business, but also because it was more or less self-funded for the first eight years of its existence. Perseverance is a given, but it was also the founders’ intense focus on frugality and clarity of purpose that made the journey successful.

ideaForge’s story started in 2004-05, from IIT-Bombay. It was registered in 2007, and had a blockbuster stock market debut in 2023. That, and the way the company has gone from strength to strength, compelled me to speak to Ankit Mehta, the company's co-founder and CEO.

United by a common love for crazy ideas, the founding team has worked hard for nearly two decades to reach the stage they’re at today. They began by wanting to build hovercrafts using engines scavenged from motorcycles, and had a prototype of their drone make an appearance in the movie 3 Idiots.

But that was just the beginning. Over the years, ideaForge has built world-class drone technology that has found a seal of approval from India’s defence establishment. A far cry from a time when nobody believed in the potential of the technology. “Today, every five minutes an ideaForge drone takes off,” Ankit says, in an exclusive interview with YourStory.

However, he believes India is only starting to scratch the surface with drone technology. “Eventually, this technology will become like the infra(structure) technology (that) remains in the back,” he adds.

A passion for engineering

Ankit was always intrigued by the way things work. On a train journey, he noticed the train was losing energy to the ground on a bridge. He wondered if that energy could be tapped to build a device that can be embedded in roads. He eventually showcased the device to the then President, Dr. APJ. Abdul Kalam, at a tech fest.

Unlike his peers, he never really wanted to take up computer science. “I really wanted to build physical things, mobile robots, all of that was something really exciting. Rahul and Ashish were equally, or maybe more passionate,” he says, talking about his co-founders Ashish Bhatt and Rahul Singh.

He recalls staying up for days on end before important competitions, because nothing matched the thrill of building.

And though Ankit was very sure he wanted to build a business, he was also cognisant of the lack of funding opportunities in those early years.

So he took up a job for six months, saved up, and began working full time on what became ideaForge in 2007. A fourth partner, Vipul Joshi, came on board in 2008.

Frugality by design

In the startup world, it is not uncommon to find businesses raising millions in their first few months of inception.

Yet, ideaForge raised its first round of institutional funding eight years after it was founded. What did it take to survive and scale for such a long time?

A frugal mindset, razor sharp focus on the end goal, and learning to innovate through different projects. 

“I had kept my needs very, very low. So I did not believe that I need a lot to survive,” says Ankit. For a while the founders worked to make ends meet at a friend’s robotics education startup. They also got grants to work on projects ranging from building portable mobile chargers to data loggers for hobby drones.

This flexibility and openness to accepting that any idea can become big for them in the future is what inspired the name “ideaForge”. And the company’s tagline of “create. inspire” came “because of the lack of passion for hardware technology”.

Raising capital

ideaForge raised small chunks of capital from different sources between 2009 and 2015. It was primarily self sufficient.

In 2014-15, ideaForge bagged a large opportunity with the Government of India. That built confidence among investors, and it raised its Series A investment round with three investors: Celesta Capital, Infosys and Qualcomm.

The investors were not just trying to maximise their returns, but were invested in the success of the business, says Ankit.

With the fresh infusion of capital, ideaForge started expanding its team.

Stay the distance

One thing the ideaForge team was always focused on was building long-term technology. Ankit acknowledges that they were privileged to be able to survive that focus. “It's in fact, one of our values, which is to stay the distance.”

The perseverance and constant effort to remain in business is now beginning to bear fruit.

The drone industry in India has come a long way in the last decade, with funding in drone startups doubling in 2022 to $39.1 million. Reports peg the growth of the Indian drone market at 10.23% between 2023 and 2028.

In addition to having some of the most progressive rules for flying drones, the government has also said it aims to make India a drone hub by 2030.

Ankit points out global developments that have also brought home the importance of drones. Drone warfare became a talking point during the Armenia-Azerbaijan and Russia-Ukraine wars.

The technology has gone from being a good-to-have technology to a must-have technology. And ideaForge is at the centre of this transition. Its customers have used its drones to complete 375,000 operations so far.

Going public

But was it the confidence that the technology is now ready to become more ubiquitous that prompted the move to go public?

Ankit has a more pragmatic answer. “We wanted to raise or capitalise ourselves so that we can build the right set of products, technologies for the next phase of growth of this industry.”

The ideaForge IPO in June was oversubscribed 106 times, and gained 93% on the day it got listed on the BSE.

For founders and entrepreneurs building hardware startups that don’t usually get the kind of love their software counterparts do, Ankit has this to say: “Keep showcasing the value of what you build, because there will definitely come an inflection point where what you believe (in) will become mainstream.”

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