Entrepreneurs can turn ideas into viable businesses

Introduction: Vibhor is responsible for investments and portfolio management for the Cleantech vertical at CIIE. His focus areas are renewable energy, energy efficiency, water & waste, recycling and sustainable agriculture. Prior to joining CIIE, Vibhor was with Ernst & Young’s business advisory practice for 5 years, focusing on energy and cleantech sectors. He was also a key member of the team that set-up the cleantech practice at Ernst & Young. Vibhor has also done a volunteer stint with Teach India. He also has 2 years of industry experience at Bharat Petroleum. Vibhor has done his MBA from IIM Bangalore and B. Tech. (Chemical) from IIT Delhi. Additionally, he has also completed a programme on Renewable Energy from TERI University.

Vibhor, Can you introduce yourself to the readers and what gets you excited about the Renewable energy/ energy efficiency (RE/EE) space?

I work with the cleantech team at CIIE. I am primarily responsible for evaluating and managing the investments that we make out of the INFUSE fund (INFUSE is a cleantech focused fund which has been set-up as a unique public-private-academia partnership).
I believe that RE/ EE solutions have the potential to solve many of the teething problems that the world at large is facing. RE/ EE is not only good for the environment but it is increasingly making commercial sense to adopt such solutions. RE/ EE solutions are no longer just for optics.

About CIIE: What gets CIIE interested in the EE/RE space? What are some of the programs/companies that they currently support?

The Centre for Innovation Incubation and Entrepreneurship (CIIE) helps entrepreneurs turn ideas into viable businesses. In partnership with mentors, corporates, development agencies, IIMA community and investors, CIIE helps entrepreneurs by incubating, accelerating, mentoring and funding start-ups. CIIE believes that entrepreneurship has an ability to bring about disruptive change in India and engages with ventures across technology and areas like energy, environment, agriculture, healthcare and affordable technology. CIIE believes it should operate in sectors and geographies where there are market gaps and private support is not easy to find.
Energy deficit/ energy inefficiency continue to be large real problems requiring serious innovations, and disruptive solutions in these sectors could become large businesses quickly.

One of the key initiatives of CIIE in the RE/ EE space is the INFUSE fund. INFUSE is a cleantech focused fund which has been set-up as a unique public-private-academia partnership. In addition, we have conducted the PowerStart accelerator which is a programme focused on cleantech ventures. We have also supported startups in the EE/ RE space through piloting and proto-typing grants to validate their solutions and business models.

What are some of the typical challenges that startups have encountered in the EE space? What has been the feedback from the investors?

First, the product needs to be robust and meaningful for the target customers. It should be something which really provides tangible, measurable benefits to the customer. Otherwise, it becomes difficult to build traction beyond the initial few sales.
Further, most startups in EE space are primarily B2B plays. And B2B sales is inherently not an easy process. It ends up being quite effort consuming. So there is a need to come up with approaches which can reduce the customer acquisition cost and time.
Next is increasing the customer stickiness which could be achieved through after sales customer engagement. This is not just about after sales service, but more importantly how to proactively engage with the customer to ensure that they are deriving maximum benefits out of the EE solution and it is helping them in their day-to-day operations. This would increase the customer life time value.
Of-course, all along one of the biggest challenge as always is financing for product or technology development and validation. There needs to be more soft capital available to entrepreneurs to help with proof-of-concept/ prototypes.

Lets’ talk about developments in Renewable/ energy efficiency space:I OT for buildings, SolarRooftop, Smart Cities… How can innovators and entrepreneurs wanting to work in making thebuildings and cities safer, smarter, and sustainable get a leg up

Today there are tremendous opportunities in these spaces. On solar power, for example, there is a target of 100 GW by 2022. Of which around 40 GW is expected from rooftop solar. These are big numbers and big opportunity for startups also. Installing these rooftop solar plants is one aspect, but there are many ancillary solutions that startups can provide (for eg: site assessment and design, procurement efficiencies, O&M, remote monitoring, P2P lending etc.).
IoT is already a growing area with numerous applications. There are a number of technologies or elements enabling IoT. To name a few – sensors, devices, network, analytics, augmented intelligence, etc. This creates a pool of opportunities for innovators and entrepreneurs. In the industrial/ commercial setting, IoT can play an important role in bringing efficiencies, not just energy efficiency but also resource efficiency.
Smart Cities is another important area which in some sense will be a medley of various RE/ EE solutions. Till now a total of 33 cities have been selected under the initiative (20 in the first round and 13 under a subsequent round), with a proposed investment of around INR 80,000 crore. Application of EE/ RE solutions will be an integral part of the smart cities plans and will enable these cities to use technology and data to improve quality of life.

Any case studies/ anecdotes in EE space from your past and current investments. (e.g. Ecolibrium?)

Ecolibrium Energy is one of the first companies that we have supported in the EE space. We have seen it grow almost 5 times since then. Ecolibrium works with leading commercial & industrial consumers and utilities, helping them intelligently monitor and proactively take actions to optimize energy consumption and improve asset utilisation. Ecolibrium’s solutions have led to an average savings of 5%-25% by effective demand side management for its clients, with a payback of less than 1 year. Till date, Ecolibrium has impacted 500+ customers. The company has helped not only the manufacturing sector but also mass transit (Delhi Metro) to achieve energy efficiency.
TESSOL is another interesting example. Tessol’s ‘PlugnChill’ suite of products is energy efficient solution for the stationary as well as transportation needs of the cold chain industry. It uses a technology called thermal energy storage which replaces the use of diesel thus reducing operating costs by 40-60%. The solutions consists of cold plates that can be charged using electricity and can keep a container cold for 8-10 hours after fully charged. The company already has marquee clients across frozen food, dairy, ice cream and QSR segments.
Another company supported by us is Altizon, which is in the IoT space, working towards enabling smart-grid, remote equipment monitoring and industrial resource optimization. Altizon’s platform Datonis helps customers gain intelligent insights from their devices and shop-floors and attain resource optimization and efficiency. Customers can build IoT product in weeks by using Altizon’s device connectivity kits, a device management layer, big-data analytics engine and alerting and monitoring services.

Keeping in mind the trends that are impacting the EE industry e.g. analytics and data based decision making: from an incubator’s point of view what will it take to translate them from concepts and pilot projects to reality?

I think it is about creating a product that solves the real pain points of the customer. It should not be just about creating fancy dashboards, but more about addressing the day-to-day problems of the end-user. So one should have a clear and in-depth understanding of the pain points of the customer.

For entrepreneurs looking at the EE space: what would be CIIE’s biggest value add: initial capital, mentoring, connect with customers, etc.?

Over the years, CIIE has undertaken various initiatives to catalyze entrepreneurship in India in different sectors including EE. We support entrepreneurs though various accelerators, bootcamps and other similar initiatives. During these programmes, we conduct workshops on diverse aspects, connect the startups with relevant mentors and provide guidance and support on their business plans. As part of some of these programmes, there might be a small investment component/ seed investment, but typically we prefer engaging with entrepreneurs and startups that will benefit from us in more ways than just funds. We have also provided prototyping and piloting grants in our attempt to create disruptive solutions.

Programs such as UNIDO’s GCIP (Global Cleantech Innovation Program) are innovation programs in this space? Do you see them as a competition or complementary to the work CIIE is doing?

Cleantech is still a nascent space. Any initiative to support innovation and entrepreneurship in this space is welcome and will benefit the sector. The more the better.