EV start-ups feel the spark of recovery, kick-start post-pandemic biz plans

‘There is a much lar­ger perch to create components locally which will ultimately make long-term adoption of EVs successful. Diversification of nations for sourcing components is important’
Though electric vehicles are clearly the flavour of these climate-change challenged times, Covid-19 infected sales, just as it did with conventional automobiles. This pandemic-induced slowdown, when business growth was virtually zero, presented challenges not just for e-vehicle makers but also the many start-ups that had developed within the ecosystem to provide a range of services — from funding and research facilities to taxi fleet operations and battery-charging services. How are they doing with the recovery?

“The past 12 months have posed the toughest challenges for the entire urban mobility sector. It challenged the viability and health of urban mobility across the sector irrespective of the segment, whether B2C or the scooter segment or ride-sharing. In spite of that, all of us have risen both individually and collectively,” said Sanjay Krishnan, founder of Lithium Urban Technologies.

His company provides EV fleet management service. The Bengaluru-based company, which was set up in 2015, saw absolutely no business during the lockdown months of April and May but a small uptick with the gradual unlocking, launched new products in the market. The company also looked beyond city transport and went into new cities and services such as inter-city and airport services. The company has clocked 150 million ekms with 10 million ekms during the crucial Covid-19 period.

Though Krishnan said his company was well-capitalised and could weather the challenge, “at one stage, volumes for an extended period of time were almost zero but you had costs and bills”. This called for structural changes, he said. “We continued to invest, create and innovate during the period,” he added.

There’s some distance to comfort yet, however. Even today, Krishnan said, demand is of the “start-stop-start-stop” variety as different places open up but then governments clamp down. “But overall, the path is upwards. In the next six months, demand should be back somewhat to pre-Covid levels. The first quarter of the next calendar year, it should be fine though it will be at a different pace,” he added.

Another EV-related start-up that felt the impact of the lockdown is Micelio. Founded in 2018 and funded by the family of Infosys co-founder S D Shibulal and run by his son Shreyas, Micelio is both an investor and service provider. The Bengaluru-based company runs the Micelio Fund with seed money of Rs 140 crore focused on clean mobility, including drivetrain technologies, charging infrastructure, energy management and special purpose electric vehicles. It also has Micelio Discovery Lab, which provides collaborative workshop space for start-ups that use it as a hub for designing and prototyping new products.

At the other end of the company’s business is Lighting Logistics, which is a pure-play EV last-mile delivery provider, and Micelio Motors, a product company which is making its own electric two-wheeler, custom-built for last-mile delivery services. It manages an intelligent EV fleet for e-commerce firms, mom-and-pop stores and courier companies that helps collecting data on last-mile connectivity. It is also focusing on the current EV ecosystem to get an understanding of industry requirements. “We have systems, which capture data that provide value for products that we are developing and also for our customers for route development. In the last one and half years, we have had a lot of learning,” said Shreyas Shibu­­lal. The company has 1000 vehicles operating in Ben­ga­luru, Chennai and Hyder­abad. It, however, will continue to focus on logistics and not at people transportation.

For Charge-up, a two-year-old start-up in Delhi that provides battery-swapping facilities, business came to a standstill during the lockdown. “Our numbers fell to 370 swaps a month, but has steadily risen to 6,000 swaps now,” said its co-founder and chief executive officer Varun Goenka.

Charge-up provides a network of service and battery swapping stations for e-rickshaws and e-loaders and is aiming to have one station within a 2 km range for such vehicles plying in the Delhi/NCR area. It allows e-rickshaw drivers to use lightweight lithium ion batteries at zero upfront cost. “The rickshaw driver only needs to pay daily rental for the battery swapping and is able to get his vehicle back on the road in just two minutes. All they need to do is to subscribe to a daily battery rental plan. This allows them to visit the swapping station as many as two to three times a day and they are able to swap the discharged batteries with fully charged batteries,” said Goenka.

Battery swapping, he explained, saves time and enables drivers to increase their average earnings from Rs 850 to Rs 1,800 a day because, instead of the usual 80-90 km a day, they are able to cover up to 160 km. The payment packages for Charge-up had to be tweaked to get over the crisis created by the lockdown and help drivers. Despite a demand recovery in August 2020, drivers were running rickshaws for about 70 km instead of 150 km earlier. “We, therefore, reduced the charges per swap to cater to more drivers. On the plus side, the pandemic also brought more drivers and dealers to join the Charge-up platform, since we were offering assured business and highest returns on investment,” said Goenka. The company plans to take the monthly swap count to over 300,000 by March 2022 and set up 3,000 swapping hubs by 2024, servicing more than 200,000 EVs.

According to Shibulal, it is government policies that are driving EV demand in the passenger segment, with states providing additional incentives for the logistics sector. According to the ministry of heavy industries, EV demand in India has doubled in the past three years. India had 69,012 units of electric vehicles on the road in 2017-18. The number increased to 143,358 units in 2018-19 and then to 167,041 units in 2019-20.

Overall, the past year has forced the EV industry to think differently in terms of so­u­rcing components. “There is a much lar­ger perch to create components locally which will ultimately make long-term adoption of EVs successful. Diversification of countries for sourcing components is important,” said Shibulal. Currently, the components are sourced mainly from Chi­na. There are interesting start-ups that are coming up and creating battery and co­m­ponents where there is a high level of indigenisation in terms of resources, he added.

As far as the market is concerned, Krishnan says high petrol and diesel prices and the environmental, social and governance focus of corporations will provide the tailwind for adopting electric mobility. 

“Covid is just a blip. It will be behind us. Like air travel is back, we will be back over a period of time,” he said.

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