Building Energy for the Future
This is the story of a fundraiser, board game wizard and day-to-day organization manager, who founded one of India’s most ambitious electric vehicle companies.
The OnePlus Community counts many exciting talents and entrepreneurs among its ranks. Tarun isn’t just true tech fanatic, as proven by the fact that he and most of his family own a OnePlus device, he also happens to be the CEO and founder of one of India’s biggest and most daring up-and-comers. Ather Energy has almost single-handedly taken electric two-wheelers out of their niche and into the mainstream. We spoke to Tarun about how he and his team are building a product that serves a bigger purpose, and the enormity of the task they are trying to accomplish. This is the story of how two college-mates from IIT Madras are building something new & important. What followed was a conversation that ran through the history of the company, the power of its community, and the future of electric transportation.
Avantika Nair: To get us started, could you talk us through the history of Ather Energy, and what it’s all about?
Tarun Mehta: We have two products right now, the Ather 340 and Ather 450 – these are smart electric scooters. Build at our Bangalore facility. The main idea behind our products is that electric vehicles will only take off when they are great products, and not because of government laws or environmental concerns. With this principle in mind, our philosophy became to build something we will be proud and love to use. We started Ather five and a half years ago, and a year later we began to work on our scooters. When it all started, Ather was just two co-founders at IIT Madras. We were literally camping at a department lab, trying to get things together. Initially, we were trying to build just battery and then, we kind of figured out how to put the entire scooter together. At that point, we took up incubation, hired a lot of interns – who performed really well. So, we made them team members. After we raised our first funding with Sachin Bansal, the first real capital investor, we moved from Chennai to Bangalore, and we have been here since. After that, we raised three more rounds of funding, and along the way, we built these products, but we also built India’s largest R&D for electric vehicles.
Last year we opened our first experience center in Indiranagar, Bangalore. Today we have around 700 people coming every week to the experience center, making this an extremely active retail place. That’s a pretty quick story about how we started and where the business is today.
What was the idea that sparked Ather, and why do you believe in electric as the future for two-wheeler vehicles?
Electric is not just the future for two-wheelers. I think electric is the future for all vehicles. And that has its feet in the energy industry, which is why our company is called Ather Energy. We sensed that how energy is produced is changing. Most of the core technology used to create an electric vehicle is actually already in place. So, it doesn’t need new inventions – it requires a lot of engineering and product work. An electric vehicle can be cheaper than a petrol vehicle from an overarching cost perspective. Once we started analyzing the challenges in India and why electric vehicles haven’t hit the mainstream; we quickly realized that’s the result of the current batteries and the charging infrastructure. Automotive companies don’t see any need to build good electric vehicles. Cars are a tiny proportion of the market in India.
After talking with people who were using electric vehicles, we realized another layer of problems. They weren’t happy with their products. Their electric scooters could reach up to around just 25 kilometers per hour, had high-maintenance batteries and charging them took forever. That’s when we figured out that we should produce the entire scooter ourselves, instead of focusing only on batteries and infrastructure – and just like that, we became a scooter manufacturer.
You have explained that a key factor in any purchasing decision is the difference between what you guys offer and what your competitors offer. Do you still look at the traditional players as competitors?
Actually no, because I believe we operate under an increasingly different business model. Beyond the electric side, quality is what really sets us apart from any other two-wheeler on the market today. There is a complete Operating System that is connected to almost every component of the vehicle, like the lights, the brakes, the switches. Everything feeds back into the OS. This allows us to not just perform applicationlevel development, as you would in a mobile app or vehicle tracking, but it also allows us to improve the vehicle itself over a period of time. We have pushed out four software upgrades over the past six-months, improving features from everything like Google Maps navigation, added voice support, and lights assistance. These are software upgrades that no other vehicle company in India today has on offer, whether it’s in the the two-wheeler, threewheeler, or four-wheeler space.
What are the three significant challenges that you are facing in the automotive industry?
The main challenge we have been facing for a while is that we need to increase our capacity significantly. We need to make sure that we can service the market demand. Our supply chain is already geared for it, but our production is not. That’s a challenge we are working on. Engineering is a constant battle for us. We need to build a bigger and better development team. Today we have 300,350 people in the team, but we want to scale up to about 1,000 people. That’s another challenge. Apart from that, policy-wise things have changed dramatically over the last 18 to 20 months, which had made government policies and incentives quite favorable.
The EV business is still relatively new compared to traditional energy, there’s a lot of skepticism about its future. How do you deal with naysayers?
We just launched in Chennai over the weekend. We met hundreds and hundreds of customers at our events, some of whom placed their pre-order on the spot. And these are not necessarily early adopters or techies. They are traditional individuals coming with their families, they’re people from all segments, whether it’s advertising, student life. Really, just about everybody. So, we think customer demand is actually much stronger than what other transportation markets seem to imagine.
You talked about the vital role Ather’s OS plays as a differentiator in the industry. What about the role of AI, and how do your products tie into the Internet of Things?
I think AI is misused as a word. It means a lot of things. We are in the early stages where data and machine-learning play a significant role in leading product development into some exciting directions. As we gain a better understanding of motor usage, we can implement a more suitable motor or battery design. You can start thinking about more features around navigation; such as smart reminders, to help users, and assist them in making better choices. And as far as IoT goes, the scooter has its own SIM card. It actually has more than 50 sensors on board. All of these connectivity features built into the vehicle and don’t depend on any other devices, like a smartphone. The reason we can implement all of these features is because we know that the product is always going to be connected.
At OnePlus, we are famous for Warp Charge, our fast-charging technology that can get your battery ready in 20 minutes. Could you tell us a little bit about Ather’s fast-charging stations and how they work?
Based on our data, we know our fast-charging stations can charge a vehicle’s battery up to 80% in just one hour. This means that in 20 minutes you get about 20 kilometers of travel, which is great when you consider the average driving distance in Bangalore is about 17 to 18 kilometers. So basically, in 20 minutes you get one about a day of driving.
At OnePlus, we pride ourselves on having a passionate community that gives us feedback. They help us build our products, and improve ourselves. How does Ather maintain and grow its community?
It’s a pretty vibrant, very active community, which consists of almost 4000 people now. Hundreds of posts are published every day. This isn’t just a community of owners, but it’s also home to a lot of enthusiasts who might just pre-order today. A lot of conversations are about the product, usage, charging, bug fixes, and the city network.
We started doing events with people from the community, most recently, our community of owners visited Chennai for our launch. It was amazing, more than 50 owners volunteered to come and spend the entire weekend meeting prospective owners. If you check out the pictures on our social media handles, you will see that for most of our stalls were actually manned by Ather owners. The same thing happens online, just head to our forums and you will see. Sometimes, somebody will post a question, and instantly somebody will respond to it. Our Community of owners a real part of the family now.
What is your favorite community story?
This. 50 people coming from Bangalore to Chennai for an offline event, I can’t think of a better story.
Ather is already pushing the envelope of electric transportation, but Tarun and his team are far from satisfied. Companies like Ather and OnePlus are united by a Never Settle attitude, driving us to always ask for more and better.
Tarun is determined to push his company to greater and greater heights. “I think over the next five years, Ather’s target is to get to 1 million units sold annually across the country. I believe in 10 years we will be selling products beyond just two-wheelers. I think in 50 years, Ather will be more of an energy company rather than a distributing company.”