A 'Shell' for Indian start-ups to solve energy challenges of the future

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At a time when Royal Dutch Shell plans to become the world's biggest power company in the next 15 years and is focusing on a future after fossil fuels, the Netherlands-based firm is increasingly engaging with young energy technology companies in India. 

Green propulsion systems for satellites specially designed electric vehicles (EVs) for last-mile connectivity and battery management system which makes feasible the mass adoption of EVs, are some of the innovations developed by start-ups that the oil & gas giant is nurturing at the Shell Technology Centre Bangalore (STCB). The other innovations include re-purposing of batteries to create low-cost energy storage for the masses and plug-and-play electric scooters for micro-delivery service providers. 

These companies were part of the Shell E 4 (Energizing and Enabling Energy Entrepreneurs) programme and were housed at STCB, one of the three main technology hubs in Shell's global network of R&D centres. If found relevant, Shell, which had an annual revenue of $388.4 billion in 2018, could look at potentially deploying these technologies as a partner as well as customer. Additionally, the hub could provide access to Shell's global network of partners and customers in India and abroad.

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"We are a big energy company and have a dynamic research programme. But we also have a realisation that we cannot do (everything) ourselves. The world is changing so fast that we see the need to collaborate with other ecosystems," says Sada Iyer, Leader at Shell Technology Centre Bangalore. "Shell E4 is very much part of that collaboration. The initial focus was energy-focused start-ups and now we have branched out to the future of mobility like EVs and scooters and also to the digital type of technologies, which are all about optimising energy use and battery storage," says Iyer.

Incubated firms get access to STCB's infrastructure to support product development and testing. They are also provided dedicated workshops with access to major facilities that would enable research & development on products along with rapid prototyping via 3D printing. 

One such company is Mumbai-based Manastu Space, which is addressing the problem of carcinogenic and highly toxic hydrazine-based propulsion systems. Currently, satellites carry a highly toxic and carcinogenic propellant which will be banned by 2021 internationally. Manastu Space, established in 2017, has designed a green propulsion system consisting of hydrogen peroxide-based green propellant, engine associated with it and catalyst. The system, which is said to be 40 times less toxic but offers 25 per cent higher performance, results in up to 30 per cent cost savings for satellite manufacturers. Tushar Jadhav, co-founder and chief executive of Manastu, said that the company was in talks with Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to explore partnerships.

Shell is also nurturing energy storage technology companies. IgrenEnergi, which is part of the Shell E4 programme, has developed a breakthrough battery management system (BMS), which makes feasible the mass adoption of EVs. Its BMS delivers 20-40 per cent improvement in battery life, charging time, and enables business models like battery swapping, rental and offline charging, among other things. Its proprietary deep-tech innovations combine advanced power electronics, edge-computing algorithms and Internet of Things with cloud intelligence to energise the mass-market viability of batteries and EVs. 

New Delhi-based Ziptrax aims to provide low-cost, infinitely serviceable battery energy storage to the masses by re-purposing Li-ion batteries for second-use applications for e-mobility and energy storage. The company does this using a proprietary artificial intelligence and machine learning technology. Ziptrax claims that its batteries provide superior benefits of Li-ion battery at a lower cost which can replace lead-acid batteries.

Shell is also looking at tapping companies that are using electric vehicles addressing the problem of micro-mobility or last-mile connectivity. Bengaluru-based TresMoto designs custom-made high-powered electric scooters for a variety of fleet and shared applications. Its first offering is a plug-and-play scooter for dockless rental and micro-delivery service providers. These are connected scooters supported by modern-day services and sub-systems. Similarly, Gurugram-based Mobycy is looking at solving India's last-mile connectivity problem during daily commutes between metro stations, home and office by providing especially designed electric scooters – Zypp. These scooters, which can be accessed on the Mobycy app, are unlocked by scanning a QR code to start the ride. The firm is now recording over 50,000 monthly rides.

Currently, a number of these start-ups are working with Shell to run pilot projects while some others are co-creating solutions for the company's customers.

"We need solutions in the energy space and I need more start-ups working in this area,” says James Unterreiner, general manager, Shell E4 Start-up Hub.

Shell works with a selected cohort for a period of six months. The programme also offers a fixed-sum investment of up to $20,000 per start-up, in exchange of a small equity. In addition, these firms have the option of raising additional funding from Shell Ventures, the Dutch major's corporate venture capital arm. The firms also have the opportunity to pitch their ideas to potential investors brought in towards the end of the programme, Unterreiner adds.

In May last year, Shell Ventures and GXP Investments led a $7.6-million investment in California-based energy storage start-up Axiom Exergy.

"So the idea is that no matter wherever the stage of the innovation or the start-ups are at, they have ways in which they can connect with Shell," says Unterreiner. 

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