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Monday, 30 May 2016

How Angle Paisa is helping budding entrepreneurs chase their dreams

Having eight years of experience in financial modelling, fund management and business advisory services, chartered accountant Himanshu Kumar realised that there is a huge gap between the demand and supply of funds in the market.
Angle Paisa Team
According to a estimation by The World Bank, approximately 70 percent of all MSMEs in emerging markets lack access to credit. The current credit gap for formal SMEs is estimated to be $1.2 trillion and the credit gap for both formal and informal SMEs is $2.6 trillion.

Soon, Himanshu stumbled upon the idea of reaching out to a large number of investors to bridge the gap and back startup ideas. Founded in last September, Angle Paisa acts as a bridge between startups and investors by providing early-stage funding to startups. It helps startups raise equity investment from friends, family, community, independent investors and public at large.

With the help of Angle Paisa, startups can explain one’s business idea, narrate the startup story, describe the target market and strategy and the quantum of investment to be raised in exchange for the equity on offer. They can also engage investors using videos and photos.

Angle Paisa’s experts then evaluate this plan in detail to ensure that the campaign is fair, clear and not misleading for investors. Once the campaign goes live, the investors study the proposal, evaluate it in order to invest in the startup.

We create opportunities using Internet as a medium, to raise investment for businesses online, outlining the associated benefits and risks in a clear and easy-to-understand manner,” says Himanshu (33).

Seed stage

An expert in Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) and International Financial Reporting Standards, Himanshu provided support to many transnational companies. In 2013, he returned to India and started working on Angle Paisa. It took almost one year to channelise the process and kick-start Angle Paisa, where a person is considered as angel investor when he/she invests Rs 5,000.

Angle Paisa was bootstrapped with an initial corpus of Rs 50 lakhs, which was primarily utilised in setting up its website and social media campaigns and online presence.

Angle Paisa has around 34 investors and five startup ideas. While evaluating startup ideas, it considers business model, environment, feasibility, funding required and founding team. So far, it has invested Rs 3.75 crore in the startup community.
Revenue model and traction

Angle Paisa charges a fee between three and six percent, depending upon a few criteria such as nature of the project, quantum of investment required, dilution of stake. The company has a team of four people across finance, management, social media and IT. By next year, Angle Paisa expects to have more than 200 startups and 2,000 investors.

Further from the perspective of increasing our current set of skills and knowledge, our venture has been supported by some well-renowned CXOs from various sectors working with us as mentors,” says Himanshu.

Crowd Funding market in India

Crowdfunding is generally defined as an online platform for small businesses and startups to increase their opportunities, investment base and funding prospects. The concept is believed to have started primarily in the US and UK and entails the use of the Internet and social networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter.

It India witnessed a couple of crowdsourcing success stories, before the term even became popular. Dhirubhai Ambani’s Reliance Industries, a small but successful textile business, was crowdfunded by communities across Gujarat.

According to SEBI, crowdfunding is defined as solicitation of funds (small amounts) from multiple investors, through a web-based platform or social networking site for a specific project, business venture or social cause.

SEBI is currently in the process of establishing regulations on crowdfunding, which will be a boon to the SME or early-stage startups to raise funds from small-time investors.

According to a study by World Bank, the global crowdfunding market could will reach $90-96 billion by 2025, which is 1.8 times the size of the global venture capital industry today. The last couple of years have witnessed the srpouting of a few platforms in the space, such as Mumbai-based Wishberry, Bengaluru-based FuelADream, crowdfunding fintech platform Impact Guru, actor Kunal Kapoor’s Ketto and Mumbai-based Catapooolt.

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Saturday, 28 May 2016

How these two industry veterans are monetizing the $11 billion worth of textile surplus

It is an age-old business practice for textile mill owners to print some excess stock, lest they have wastage of the entire lot if a part of the design is not printed perfectly. They also print surpluses to be prepared for re-orders by their clients. The surplus stock thus generated after fulfilling the order, is, naturally, an equally high quality product, but is sold at lower prices through agents by word-of-mouth. In India, textile mills produce close to $11 billion worth of surplus textile and most of it is sold in an inefficient, cash-led method. The opportunity of bringing in an organised set-up where the mills and the buyers could transactin an open transparent manner, thus, is huge.

L to R: Harish Poojary, Sanjiv Khandelwal, Founder and Mihir Shah, Co- Founder

Who saw this opportunity?

Sanjiv Khandelwal did his undergraduate studies in Business Management at the Boston University. “I began with a venture in the textile industry and subsequently started a business in 2006.The company offered solutions for e-auctions, digital marketing, local services over Wi-Fi, mobile apps, and other such solutions for the B2B businesses,” says 52-year-old Sanjiv.

During that time, Sanjiv met Mihir Shah through a common friend. Mihir graduated with a BE from Mumbai’s Thadomal Shahani Engineering College and a Masters in Computer Engineering from University of Texas, and an MBA in Finance from Wharton. He has worked with Intel for four years and has had a long stint as a Director for TMT Investment Banking at Merrill Lynch, USA, and in filing patents. “In mid-2014, I decided to move back to India as I felt it was a different place since I had left 17 years back. The startup sector was just exploding and the entrepreneurial gene in me was starting to get vocal,” says 40-year-old Mihir.

Upon crossing paths, the two discussed their business ideas and realised they have complimentary skill sets, with a common vision to build a technology solution in the B2B space, which would change the old order fundamentally. “Mihir brings in the ability to analyse business and his experience in the technology, finance, and the TMT sector, and I bring in an understanding of the textile industry and the distribution network, and the experience in providing technology solutions to B2B business,” says Sanjiv.

They conceptualised a solution to digitise the process of trading in textile surpluses, and make it more transparent. The result was XSTOK‑ a mobile-first platform for buyers and sellers in the haphazard B2B space. By July 2015, they built an online B2B marketplace for surplus stock across fabrics, home textiles, apparels, and yarns. It enables the textile mills to upload details of their surplus stock on XSTOK, which can then be accessed by the registered buyers.

The company works with two parties ‑ mills and sellers, and wholesale buyers. The registered sellers upload the details of their available products. The registered buyers then get a notification, and the products are sold on the principle of dynamic pricing –either through an auction-based system or a wholesale price option.

“This way, the buyers also play an important role in determining the right price. XSTOK chargesthe suppliers a transaction and listing fees for every successful transaction. A buyer doesn’t pay anything over and above the cost of the product he or she purchases,” explains Sanjiv.

As an end-to-end service provider, XSTOK lets the buyer search for products, review real-time inventory, buy the products, and make the final payment through their website.

Early challenges
Dealing with an age-old sector that is disorganised and informal, and has patrons who are loyalists of brick and mortar and make purchases relying on the touch with snap exchanges of hard-cash, XSTOK definitely had its share of skeptics in changing mindsets to convince the business owners to formalise their system and adopt modern means. For the same, XSTOK took on the responsibility of checking the quality of textiles sold on their site, ensuring timely delivery for buyers and also timely payment for sellers. “Initially, whenbuyers wanted to see samples of fabrics, we created ‘SampleXpress’, so that buyers could touch and feel the fabric before purchasing it. We also conducted textile weeks across cities and invited the potential B2B buyers, to see the samples and also clarify doubts about the process.”

In the next three to five years, XSTOK aims to manage at least 10 percent of the overall surplus textile products in India.
Strategy finds the greatest opportunity to be in Tier 2,3, 4 cities and rural areas. “Most of the mills have been selling their surplus produce through local agents and hence the accessibility to the products was limited.But with digital, we are giving these buyers the opportunity to buy directly from mills and the largest manufacturing players, irrespective of their geographical location.”

As of now, some of the well-known mills that sell through include Arvind, Bombay Dyeing, Nahar, Trident, D’Decor, Grasim, Garden Vareli, Welspun, Syntex etc. Their suppliers are located in the key manufacturing hubs across the country, like Delhi, Gujarat, Punjab, Rajasthan, TamilNadu, Andhra Pradesh and some in West Bengal for Fabrics, Home-Textiles and Apparels, on a large-scale.

Their strategy to develop the registered buyer’s base is through a very strong digital presence, across all digital channels, including Google, Facebook, social media, direct mailing, and online advertising.
Is the business in surplus?

The startup has conducted over 500 auctions since July 2015, and has over 8000 registered buyers and over 300 registered sellers. “Very recently, a merchant downloaded our XSTOK mobile app while he was traveling from Vizag to Hyderabad by train. He participated in an auction; won it and also paid the product price, all of this while he was traveling. Such is the convenience that we aim to offer and it feels ecstatic to experience such stories.”

In September 2015, they raised Rs. 3 Crore in an angel round from an elite group of professionals that were heading consulting, stock broking, and logistics companies.The angel investors include Jeetu Panjabi (ex Capital Group), Manish Chokshi (Asian Paints), Anupam Mittal (People Group), VineetSuchanti (Keynote Capital) and Oliphans Capital, to name a few. “We were clear on only collaborating with investors who understood B2B business,” says Sanjiv

With the funds, they aim to expand to over 120 cities and break-even by the end of the current financial year, with over 1000 auctions, 25,000 registered buyers, and 500 registered sellers. In the long term, they aim to expand theirservices to several other commodities like paper, chemicals, etc.

The company is targeting a market pegged at $11 billion in India. Without any direct competitors, XSTOK is up against different flavours of transactional market places, such and

Friday, 27 May 2016

This startup lets you get behind the wheel of a BMW or Audi car even if you don’t own one

Most startup stories begin with two passionate friends or classmates inspired by an idea that would solve an existing issue in the market. This one too begins that way, well sort of. A forty-one-year-old Ashwin Jain started DRIVEN by you, with 27-year-old Karrar Taher Ahmed. But the huge gap in the founders’ age was bridged by the opportunity they both sniffed out in the self-drive business. Coming from families that run chauffeur-driven vehicle businesses, it made sense for them to join hands and set up a car rental business based out of Hyderabad.

The duo observed that while there were several car and bike rentals in the legal issues ensured they never the car-bike-bicycle experiences were never integrated for the self-mobility play.

This got us thinking and we thought we wanted to build a hub for mobility rental enthusiasts, where they can hire a self-drive or self-ride automobile effortlessly for every occasion, says Ashwin.

Ashwin and Karrar
Bringing in a new experience

The idea was to bring in a whole new car rental experience for consumers that fit every budget and aspiration. The duo began their journey with the idea of offering self-drive and self-ride experiences, with Nano to some of the fanciest cars, street bikes to super-fast bikes and bicycles, like Cannonades to Surly.

In 2014, when they started up, the Indian market was opening up to the idea of self-drive. The concept of self-drive car rentals is already very popular in countries like the US and China, where fairly large companies like Hertz, Zipcar, eHi, etc., have been created. However, India too isn’t far behind. Today there are several self-drive rental companies that have burgeoned in the space. Some like Zoomcar, Carzonrent, Cartisan, Myles, Voler Cars and JustRide have already raised funding. Apart from the funded startups, there are other newer ones in the space like Let Me Drive, ZipHop and NOW.

Exploring the Indian market

Ashwin says, We in India now have an increased need for privacy and safety, there is lack of skilled manpower, increase in the cost of available manpower, non-reliability of the manpower, the rise of newer business models like app-based taxi aggregators as well as the increase in the quality of road infrastructure plus a slew of other factors were decisive in creating a new category for self-mobility.

DRIVEN was initially floated as a joint-venture between 4-Wheel Travels and Noori Travels, the duo’s family business. The fleet includes Audi, Mercedes Benz, BMW, Volvo, Porsche and Mini and bikes like Triumph Rocket and Ducati in addition to bicycles like Cannondale and Surly. The rental prices start from Rs 299 to Rs 29,999 for the top-end model car.

Ashwin and Karrar
Since last year, the online rental automobile market has seen funding being pumped in across quarters. The funding has been across self-drive car rentals and automobile service providers. In June 2015, used-car marketplace Truebil raised $500,000 funding from Kae Capital and Anupam Mittal. Last July, automobile-focussed classifieds marketplace Droom secured $16 million.
Creating awareness

Ashwin adds that they are expanding their base of 50 cars and 10 bikes to a fleet of 150 cars and 50 bikes and 10 bicycles as they are beginning to gain insight into customer expectations and are now showing a 30-percent incremental growth month-on-month.

However, DRIVEN’s biggest challenge was to build and run a hub that offer dream cars, bikes, and bicycles at one location. To build awareness about the idea was their first big challenge. “Our first big milestone was to get the government agencies to approve the licencing for the car and bike rentals,” adds Ashwin.

Insurance products are available world over for self-drive services but these weren’t available in India, which in turn worked as a challenge in dealing with clients and convincing them, while maintaining sight of viability of ops and fleet.

The team claims that from the proof of concept stage to now, DRIVEN has seen a close to 350 percent growth and has gone from zero to $4 million in a span of seven months. “We are witnessing steady acceleration of customer numbers; we believe a 50-percent growth rate month-on-month is an achievable target we set for ourselves for the next few months,” adds Ashwin.
Expanding their avenues

Ashwin says that they are an integrated mobility services company that offers a range of cars, bikes and bicycles that none offer in the industry under one brand and one roof. He adds that their services are backed by strong city-centric pick up and drop facility, which is in turn is backed by comprehensive maintenance along with transparent and hassle free self-drive and self-ride rental plans.

“Our unique offer also includes pick-up point at Hyderabad airport, which is the first of its kind self-drive car rental service from airport. We will soon launch ‘DRIVEN Cafe’, which will be first-of-its-kind destination in India where you could step in for a cup of coffee and get your bike, car or super car rental as well,” says Ashwin.

DRIVEN has rolled out its services in Hyderabad, Vizag and Vijayawada in the first phase. The fleet addition is to help strengthen its next phase of expansion to cover Bengaluru, Chennai, New Delhi, and Mumbai.

“Our target is to build a fleet of 3,000 cars and 1,500 bikes. While the venture is bootstrapped we are open to investor interest and are evaluating them,” says Ashwin.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Cro Farms hopes to bring down the country’s post-harvest losses, which equals Australia’s annual production

While technology is making an impact across commerce, education, and healthcare, among other sectors, in India, it barely impacts the supply chain of the country’s largest employer, agriculture. A poor, antiquated supply chain causes post-harvest losses of 20 million metric tons annually in India, a waste that awaits the impact of technology. The good news is change is finally afoot, both at a policy level, with the introduction of initiatives like Aadhar and the Jan Dhan initiative, and, perhaps more importantly, the attention of entrepreneurs, who finally see possibilities in the sector. That is what makes the story of Cro Farm really interesting.

The Ministry of Food and Civil Supplies estimates total preventable post-harvest losses of foodgrains at 10 percent of total production, equivalent to the total production in Australia annually. Varun Khurana (35), Co-founder, Cro Farm, says:

In a country where 20 percent of the population is undernourished, post-harvest losses is a substantial avoidable waste.

Varun observed the poor state of supply chain in the agriculture sector while leading technology at Softbank-funded Grofers. “At Grofers, we set up a supply chain to deliver perishables by procuring vegetable and fruits from the mandi and delivering to the consumer. However, knowing what happens behind the mandi was always a matter of curiosity,” he says.

Varun and Prashant Jain (36) joined Grofers after the Sequoia-funded company acquired Greenbox in April last year. The duo founded Greenbox, a smartphone-based grocery delivery platform in 2014. Varun was serving Grofers as its Chief Technology Officer, while Prashant worked in the capacity of Vice President, Operations.

Why agro-tech?

Varun, along with Prashant, moved on from Grofers in February this year after a year-long stint at the Gurgaon-based company. Since then, the duo started spending time at farms across states including Haryana, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh. Varun adds,

We tried to understand the process. After visiting nearly a dozen farms, it was pretty evident that opportunities in agrotech are immense. And the best part –is that there is hardly anyone looking into it. After four months of rigorous on-ground research, the duo floated Cro Farm in April this year.

Apart from farms, the duo also spent time meeting city-based grain and vegetable merchants and participated in various agri-conferences. Prashant adds: There is so much effort going into enticing farmers to buy better farm machinery, fertilizers, seeds etc., however, very few people are talking about how to help them sell their produce.

Selling produce at right price-point is a huge challenge for farmers

Selling crops at decent price-point is the biggest headache for farmers. We often see how farmers forced to sell produce at cheap prices while intermediaries hoard it and make a killing when demand soars and supply plummets. “We aspire to weed out the multiple layers existing between farmer and market,” says Varun.

Existing supply chains require a lot of work. The produce spends too much time in transit, with multiple loading/unloading causing wastage, and with several intermediaries involved a lot of money ends up going to entities that don’t add much value. Varun points out,

We decided to focus on this problem, and help farmers sell better.

Penetration of smartphones and Aadhar pave way for disruption in agriculture

Penetration of smartphone and The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) have created scope to turn around existing supply chain. Varun says,

Besides access to smartphones, with 93-percent coverage, Aadhaar has made great inroads with the farmers, almost everyone we met had Aadhaar. This opens up a lot of opportunities to leverage technology that were not possible earlier.

He explains that Aadhaar uniquely helps to identify farmers, keep track of their produce and quality, as well as pay them through their Aadhaar-linked bank accounts.

Currently Cro Farm is in the proof-of-concept (PoC) stage, by partnering with select farmers for select products and selling them to select merchants. “So far, the response has been very encouraging,” reveals Varun. The company has on-boarded about two dozen farmers and claims to process over 100 tonnes of produce on a weekly basis from farms across Haryana, UP and Uttarakhand.

Prashant Jain & Varun Khurana (From L to R)
Cro Farm makes revenue through a commission on every sale it facilitates. “Right now, we’re focussed on getting our POC right and accordingly will take it further,” says Prashant.

Agriculture forms 13 percent of our GDP and according to government estimates, it’s an over $250-billion market. At present, over 95 per cent of agricultural produce is traded by well-entrenched multi-layer intermediaries. These intermediaries eat up a major chunk of profit, leaving too little on the table for most farmers. However, with the power of Internet, smartphone and government initiatives like Aadhaar, this sector appears to be at the cusp of disruption. Thus, be it better targeting of credit or better access to market prices, farmers will presumably get the benefit of both access and choice finally, opening up better opportunities for Cro Farm.

By using scientific processes for managing storage and agri-logistics in existing structures storage losses could be reduced from 10 percent to a mere 0.5 percent, translating into a saving of $13 billion. A saving that could help attack the challenge of a staggering 20 percent of Indians that still go hungry regularly.

So far, agriculture is one of the most neglected sectors by technology. However, things are now looking bright for the sector, as tech startups have started showing interest in one of the largest unorganised sector in the country. Startups like Awaaz De, Anulekh Agrotech,FreshWorld, Farmily, and Sahaja Organics are disseminating farm information through mobile phones, bridging the gaps in agri retail supply chain, providing farmers with direct market access, besides weather, water and soil management services.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

How best friends turned co-founders are building their dream business

“We didn’t set out to become entrepreneurs. We simply noticed a gap in the market, addressed a category we were passionate about, and chose to fill the gap ourselves. The entrepreneurial bit was simply an outcome of a desire to bring back the art of the handwritten note and provide good quality stationery to like-minded patrons in India,” says Sanaa Jhurani, Co-founder of The Pa pier Project. Sanaa, and her partner in crime Ayesha Wadhawan, founded the Mumbai-based stationery startup because the self-confessed stationery addicts couldn’t find what they were looking for in the city. “One thing led to another and we decided that if there was anyone who could bring this stationery enterprise to India, it was us,” says Sanaa.

Colleagues to best friends to co-founders

Ayesha and Sanaa met at their previous place of work, Heel&Buckle, ‘and it all pretty much took off from there.’ Ayesha handled e-commerce while Sanaa handled PR and marketing. “We were, as they say, a match made in heaven. Colleagues to lunch partners to best friends, and now business partners,” writes Sanaa.

The Papier Project

Ayesha and Sanaa envision The Papier Project to grow into a serious stationery enterprise that is easy to access – one that has a young, vibrant, and internationally influenced design aesthetic. Papier means paper in French. Sanaa explains, “There’s a certain romantic sensibility associated with a charming Parisian afternoon, an indescribable emotive response that has you going weak in the knees with the wistful charm of a bygone era that was dotted with letters of love, post cards from fondly remembered holidays, the yellowed pages of a favourite novel, or even a fading photograph.
Ayesha and Sanaa
The Papier Project was founded as an ode to this emotive response, an ode that was meant to encapsulate the beauty of the written word and the sheer magic of being able to pen down our thoughts, of the possibility of creating and leaving a legacy, an imprint – one that stands the test of time and serves as tactile proof of our feelings.”

Sanaa and Ayesha designed the offerings of The Papier Project to be an amalgamation of the bold novelty of modern contemporary design and the traditional simplicity of classic styles. The two ladies are avid travellers and their visual philosophies are almost entirely influenced by their travels abroad. Sanaa says, “If we aren’t travelling ourselves, our voracious appetite for reading, a vast majority of which is satiated by romance novels, is inspiration enough to ensure that we are constantly bringing something new to the design board. A lot of our design work is a reflection of our personalities, our personal preferences and our individual interpretations of the myriad influences we encounter in our daily lives. Most of our customers see the design, but only we see each piece of art as a tiny bit of our soul.”

The Papier Project employs a three-pronged approach. “One arm of the business is our manufacturing and designing wing – where we produce a whole range of products under The Papier Project label. These products are then retailed through our own e-commerce portal, through our retail store at the new domestic terminal at T2 Chhatrapti Shivaji International Airport, Mumbai, and through other third-party portals.

The other arm of the business is our customisation studio where we work with clients to create complete custom stationery solutions to complement their requirements. Most of the clients we meet typically look for these custom sets to gift to newly married couples or specific sets for their children.

Finally, the third arm of our business model is associated with an endeavour to promote our portal as a one-stop-shop for all things stationery. We are moving towards an aggregators model, where we will host other stationery brands alongside our own homegrown label, so that a client can essentially be presented with the opportunity to peruse all the various options at their disposal by visiting our portal,” Sanaa offers.


Founded in 2015, The Papier Project is a bootstrapped venture that is hoping to break even through ambitious offerings in its immediate future. “We’re looking to expand into multiple physical retail and product variants. We want to make The Papier Project more available to our customers and also host other budding indie brands that match our design aesthetic. Eventually, the goal is that when a customer thinks of good-quality stationery they immediately think The Papier Project,” says Sanaa.

They haven’t put a number on the customer base, but say the response has been favourable. “In the initial few weeks after our launch, a lot of the sales that came in were primarily from friends and family or personal referrals. The first time a complete stranger took a gamble on us – and kept coming back to us for more – we knew we were doing something right,” Sanaa exclaims. The biggest landmark was a complete surprise for them. She explains, “We had customised a wedding planner with the name ‘Bipasha’ – and a few days later we read about it in the news – which is when we realised that this was for Bipasha Basu!”

The Papier Project is on a three-year timeline to break even and so far, Sanaa confirms, they are on schedule.

The Papier Project’s bestselling product is their range of greeting cards. Sanaa is not surprised. She says, “We firmly believed that sterile texts/WhatsApp messages/emails simply could not match up to something so beautiful.”

The challenges of going in blind

Sanaa is the first to admit they didn’t have a clue as to what they were doing when starting up. While creating beautiful stationery was their forte, backing up that dream with technical knowledge and analytical foundation has been hard on the duo. She says, “Rewinding a few months, a lot of these challenges were frighteningly daunting. When it came to setting up our website, the back-end system that we’d operate on, designing our customer interface, ensuring easy navigation, and the myriad technical details that needed to be addressed, we found ourselves in over our heads. We had to blindly rely on the expertise of another team of people and trust the fact that they’d deal with this as thoroughly and as succinctly as we would have ourselves. It’s hard to just trust someone and go in blindly, especially when you have so much riding on the outcome of this decision, and you have no concrete parameter to help make this judgement.”

Since then, the two have relied on their past mistakes to make better decisions about the future. And while these challenges have become less fearsome with time, others are not so easily vanquished. “A major struggle continuing to plague our operations is the need to find good-quality vendors, who are as committed to running a sustainable enterprise that minimises wastage without compromising on the quality of the finished product,” Sanaa rues.

Best moments

Sanaa recently experienced a celebrity moment. “Just the other day I was at a friend’s wedding function and a random stranger came up to me and asked me if I was ‘The Papier Project.’ To be recognised and referred to as our dream is a milestone moment that we aren’t going to forget anytime soon. I had to come back and tell Ayesha that it really isn’t in our heads, there are actual people who follow our work, and there are patrons who are joining our movement to speak through paper. In that one moment, everything became real.”

Why ‘You’re going to fail’ is the best advice ever

While Sanaa admits that there are plenty of people in her and Aayesha’s lives who believe in them and have faith that The Papier Project is going to be a success, it’s the naysayers who have done them a special favour. “The best advice we’ve ever received?” Sana says. “To quit.”

Very early in our journey, when we were still struggling to find our feet, we had a very dear family member tell us that this idea was destined for failure. They believed, like a number of other people, that in an age that is dominated by the advent of technology, a venture such as ours will struggle to meet patrons who feel as strongly for the cause. Nothing can motivate me more than someone telling me that I’m going to fail. Their lack of belief in our dream and in our abilities to make this work was all that we needed to make sure we did everything in our power to prove them wrong. I sure hope we’re a lot closer to doing that today than we were back then.”

Sanaa’s own advice to her fellow dreamers is far less cynical. She says, “Don’t overthink it. As soon as you manage to zero in on what you’d like to do, jump in with all that you’ve got and don’t look back. Once you’re in it, you don’t have a choice but to give it your all and to do everything that it takes to make it work. Believe in the magic of new beginnings and have faith in your abilities to make it work.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

From the narrow streets of Ujire to some of the biggest stages of the world: Vilas Nayak’s got talent

The stage was set and Vilas Nayak knew the country was watching. All he had were a few flashes of his rehearsals, the eyes of those who believed in him glinting with expectation, and an empty canvas. The ones that waited for him to perform knew that his act was not going to get them at the edge of their seats or bite their nails off in nervousness like the previous acts such as the risqué aerial dance performance or the daredevil stunt biker. But for 30-year-old Vilas, an artist, this performance was nothing short of an acid test. Unlike most reality show success stories, this opportunity had not happened to him by chance. He knew it was coming and had meticulously prepared for it. He had quit his cushy corporate job and rehearsed for two years before getting on the stage he was on. More than a test of talent and a ticket to fame, it was a moment of truth for Vilas and all those who believed in him. What happened after that debut performance on India’s Got Talent Season 3 that took him to the finale is now a beautiful success story that thousands around the world and the country look up to!

How it all began
Vilas has travelled the world extensively and met every idol you can possibly dream of in person. He has an army of fans around the world. But things didn’t come easy. The genesis of this success story traces to Vilas growing up in Ujire, a town near Mangalore in coastal Karnataka, where he started sketching when he was only five years old. There were no fancy art schools or reality shows and YouTube videos to look up to. It was everyday faces and scenes like an auto rickshaw zooming past a narrow street amidst the background of the majestic Western Ghats that were his first inspirations. He grew up juggling art with studies and helping his father at the little shop he owned. The walls of his home might now be adorned with trophies and memoirs, but the first bicycle he earned for himself when he was in school is what gets his face beaming with pride.

Juggling art and academics like a boss!

A stray incident made Vilas realise that he could sketch really fast and that led to his first stage performance in the year 2004. Ever since, he was mostly away from school and college performing in various cultural festivals across the country. However, that didn’t stop him from becoming a rank holder during his graduation and post-graduation. He completed his graduation from SDM College Ujire and went on to study Masters in Social Work at Mysore University. Vilas says that moving to Mysore was a conscious decision as he was besotted by the rich cultural heritage and art inspiration the city had to offer.

At crossroads
Sometimes excelling at everything you do can leave you at crossroads. Vilas was left with two equally promising options, but a career in art did not look lucrative enough at that point in time. He recalls how in his hometown a career in art was only restricted to painting boards, the same means through which he’d earned his first bicycle, and it was something his modest background did not permit him to do. Hence, he started working in a garment export company. After two years, he moved to a HR role at IBM, where he worked for eight years. Everything seemed perfect, yet something was amiss. Constant dissatisfaction led him to quit his cushy corporate job and get back to where it had all started.

Starting again

Vilas started from scratch. He put his heart and soul into practising art and then participated in a Kannada Talent Reality TV Show. Despite not having any shows or fancy contracts, Vilas sustained himself by earning from conventional art, until one day India’s Got Talent happened. It was the first time that the country was to witness speed painting. Vilas’s five feet Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan) Painting, which he completed in a record 2.5 minutes, had taken the country by storm. He made it to the Season 3 finale and was a favourite to win the show. Although he didn’t win, his art had already become a rage and every kid who was taking to art wanted to speed paint. He went on to win the ‘EC live quotient Most Innovative Act Award’ 2012 and is currently one of the most sought after speed painting artist in the world.

Vilas Nayak on Asia’s got talent
His performances on Asia’s Got Talent on AXN and Got Talent World Stage Live have caught the fancy of millions of art lovers across the world. He has performed for some of the biggest names including Sachin Tendulkar, Football legend Pele, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, APJ Abdul Kalam to name a few. He has mesmerised audiences in 23 countries across the world and is slated to perform in more. However, even this dream run has not been easy and Vilas faces the constant challenge of reinventing himself to stay on top of his game. Although speed painting got him fame, sketching continues to remain his first love and he spends long arduous hours meticulously sketching things that catch his fancy.

Art, academics, a successful corporate career and now a world renowned artist. How does Vilas manage to be good at everything?

“I loved everything I did and hence never shied away from working hard. Don’t let the greed for fame and money prompt your career choices. It is not as easy as it looks. Fame happened to me by chance, but I grew up loving art. At times I myself wonder how I create those art works in less than three minutes on stage! Sure there is a lot of hard work and preparation involved in it, but there is something beyond formal training I believe that makes us unique that needs to be realised by each person. When I am on stage creating those huge art works of art, I go blank. I wholeheartedly enjoy myself on stage and get engrossed in themusic that is playing in the background. That gives me lot of energy! I am thankful to God that I realised my true calling in life. For me following my passion, living my life to the fullest, and being an artist itself is a success,” he says unassumingly.

Vilas’s story is a great example of where staying true to your own self can take you. It’s all within you. Dream on!

Thursday, 12 May 2016

How these innovators lit up over 500 villages with just pine needles and rice husk

A couple that migrated to the Himalayas would gape in wonder at the lineage of golden-brown pine trees, each taller and more resplendent than the last, which created the most picturesque frame out the window in their new lives. And while they couldn’t believe how breath-taking the scene was at one moment, they couldn’t digest how heart-breaking the situation becomes at immediately the next, when the same pine needles triggered forest fires that destroyed livings and lives all the same, to a hair-raising extent.

Slightly east, in the state of Bihar, lived another boy who studied engineering from a premiere university. He was living out his prime in the situation that would be any millennial’s dream – with a high-paying job that he was not only good at but also loved, in New York city; but even a dazzling Times Square couldn’t shake off a disturbing image in the electrical engineer’s head – his own village back in India, completely in the dark, that continued to be deprived of electricity till that day.

The ironies in both the above cases were unsettling enough for these individuals to take matters into their own hands and initiate- rather, innovate – the change they wanted to see.

The Himalayan horror story with a happy ending:

Rajnish Jain and his wife lived at the OSHO commune and at a point, decided to move out and do something meaningful with their lives, back in 1996. As they settled in the Himalayas, they started getting under the skin of local day-to-day problems in the lives of the low-income villagers. While 85 per cent of villages in Uttarakhand have been granted access to the state electrical grid since 2005, the secluded hilly terrain had poor transmission infrastructure, and experienced frequent power outages, thus making that a very unreliable supply of electricity in the area.

Observing this dearth in the most rudimentary necessities of life in the 21st century, the couple decided to found AVANI, an organisation to provide solutions to various problems plaguing the community. They started off by electrifying 25 villages, with solar power. “But we felt the need to do things differently, because the government was sinking in a lot of money in solar and it wasn’t really working. We wanted to create something where people got the chance to participate personally as well as financially.”

Living in the middle of a forest which was full of pine trees, the couple observed that the fallen needles triggered off colossal forest fires and caused widespread loss of life and property. “Water, fodder, timber, herbs; all got destroyed. These were things that the village is heavily dependent on. We wanted to think of a way that these pine needles can be harnessed to create, rather than destroy. Using gasification –we came up with a technology that processed these pine needles to generate electricity. It was a spellbinding innovation; nobody believed we could do it.”

They set up a 9 KW pilot that turned out to be successful, fully operational, and generated 9 KW of electricity, out of which, 1.5 KW was consumed for running the system and a continuous output of 7.5 KW was available for use. Soon, with the green signal, they established a 120 KW commercial pilot.

The benefits of this energy are manifold. “We are reducing carbon emissions on many counts. First, by churning out a clean fuel, second, by swiftly and timely collecting the needles and curbing forest fires, and third, by reducing the consumption of fuels like kerosene and diesel, which are exhaustible, expensive, and polluting.”

Around 7,500 farmers in the area benefit from reduced threat of forest fires. The locals also earned 20–25,000 which is more than what they can earn through schemes like MNAREGA.

Another great turn of events was that the residue from the biomass was charcoal. “We decided to bricket it and supply it to households for cooking. Women, who would walk at least 4 km daily to collect fuel wood, now received fuel at their doorsteps.

Funding from Acumen’s investment will allow Avani to scale to 20 power plants in the area with each 120 kW Avani gasification plant serving approximately 3,000 people.

When Bihar got a bi-lateral facelift

Manoj Sinha, the electrical engineer hailing from Bihar but living it up in New York, had myriad sleepless nights imagining his own village unelectrified.

“Our country doesn’t have enough power generation capacity; we don’t have excess power. Four hundred million people in India, mostly spread across roughly 125,000 villages, are without electricity, which makes our country one the largest population of unserved people. Twenty per cent of that population resides in Bihar. The supply side of the equation is definitely lacking. Overall, 85% of the state’s residents are not connected to the state’s electric grid. Distribution is also taken for granted for people who get it. They think it is for free; so if a supplier keeps pumping electricity, without getting their due payments, you are bound to withdraw. The vicious cycle thus continues,” explains Manoj.

That was when he decided to think up a solution, albeit keeping his day job. It was when his friend and Co-Founder Gyanesh Pandey quit his job as CEO of a company, that Manoj decided he needed to be all-in, too.

“That was a pivotal point. I could have stayed back and made millions, but decided to return because this way, I know I will die a more peaceful death knowing I tried,” recalls Manoj, of choosing the road not taken.

Altogether three co-founders, the third being Ratnesh Yadav, stared tinkering with different technologies, and stumbled upon Gasification, which was written off by people because it was ahead of its time, and had certain failures, without people having given it another chance to get to the root cause of the problem and fix it accordingly.

“We dabbled with solar at the start, which was turning out too expensive at the time. So, instead, we decided to mobilise local resources, and arrived upon biomass as the way to go. While we were at it, we knew we had to have a plant that was simple, so that locals themselves could run it, considering hiring high-calibre engineers to come down from cities for running these power plants was not viable,” Manoj says.

What was best available around them to constitute the biomass was husks of rice, Bihar’s staple diet, that came as waste from rice hullers. Besides, wheat husks and corn cobs were also harnessed. Their experiment flourished beyond expectations, and they scaled their operations by setting up 84 such small indigenous 25 KW plants, which generate power six hours a day for 340 days a year. Each plant serves around 400 households, and in all, they electrified 300 villages and touched the lives of over 200,000 people.

They also received UNFCCC certification for reducing the carbon imprint by eliminating the use of 42,000 litres of kerosene and 18,000 litres of diesel, and preventing 215 tons of carbon emissions yearly, which also significantly reduces indoor air pollution and improves health conditions in rural areas.

When we started, this sector of mini-grid was unheard of at the time. We provide a service that the government cannot in remote areas. “People pay bills regularly, unlike how they defaulted with the government, because we deliver what we promise. They now have electricity for 95 per cent of the time between 8 am and 10 pm.”

Now, they have entered the solar market again as costs have reduced. With this dual technology, they will become the first company to supply two forms of clean energy to rural households round the clock, with solar powering their day, and husk energy lighting their nights.

They also monetise the waste of the waste, that is, the residue generated after processing the biomass, by recruiting 50 women at every plant who make incense sticks out of the matter discarded. This is further retailed to cities in Bihar, under the brand name ‘Ganga Agarbattis’, to enable an inward flow of cash from urban to rural areas.

Providing a means of livelihood to women fundamentally changes the family dynamics. When a woman is empowered to fend for her family, she is more respected and gains more bargaining power.”