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Tarun Mehta: All charged up

  • Ather Energy’s co-founder and CEO Tarun Mehta talks to Mint about electric scooters, new production plants, and figuring out what customers want
  • In October 2013, Mehta and Jain approached an angel investor, ‘who was very keen to put money because he liked our passion’

Tarun Mehta.
Tarun Mehta. (Jayachandran/Mint)

If you happen to run into a bespectacled young man when scouting for an electric scooter at Ather Energy’s experience centre in Bengaluru’s Indiranagar, there’s a good chance you may think this unassuming young man is a salesperson, albeit a bright and tech-savvy one. But Tarun Mehta, 29, not only owns the experience centre but is also the co-founder of the electric vehicle (EV) start-up Ather Energy Pvt. Ltd.

“The core riding experience is so powerful that once you test ride an Ather, we spoil the petrol vehicle experience for you," says Mehta. His enthusiasm is borne out by the fact that “600-700 people visit us (at the Ather showroom in Indiranagar) every week." The company is in the process of opening another one in Chennai. Further, the government has addressed concerns about the cost of purchasing EVs in the current Union Budget by providing income-tax benefits to buyers. It has also incentivized local manufacture of components and development of manufacturing hubs for such vehicles and components.

This spells more good news for Ather Energy, which already manufactures in Whitefield, Bengaluru. There is currently a three-month waiting period, down from 10 months when the company first started delivering electric scooters. But that waiting time might increase, since the company will shortly launch in Chennai too. “With our current manufacturing capacity in Bangalore, this plant can produce up to 25,000 units annually by early next year. Our second plant should come up by the middle of next year," says Mehta.

Entrepreneurship was not a given for him, though he was born “a Marwari who grew up in Gujarat", a reference to the innate business prowess of both communities. Like most children of his age, he enjoyed comic books, superheroes, computer games and cricket, and also became the class monitor “because I think I got good grades".

Even preparing for the Indian Institute of Technology joint entrance examination (IIT-JEE) was an accident. “I finished my class X and went for a three-month vacation. Then some random relative one day said, ‘You aren’t preparing for anything—your cousin is. Why don’t you do the same?’ That very day, Mehta called up his mother to let her know he would appear for JEE. “Even in those days (in 2005) not many cleared JEE. I think only six people cleared IIT in the entire city (Ahmedabad) during that year. I joined an IIT-JEE coaching centre. I had already missed several classes by the time I joined," Mehta reminisces. He cleared the exam and joined the mechanical engineering branch.

It was at IIT, Madras that Mehta met Ather’s co-founder, Swapnil Jain. They were in the same department and same hostel. In his second year, Mehta joined the entrepreneurship cell (E-cell) at IIT, Madras. It was in this “small place" that he began “becoming comfortable with startup jargon like VC, private equity, angel investor, Series A, etc."

The defining moment came when the E-cell organized a 10-day trip to Stanford University, USA. Mehta was excited—it was his first foreign trip. “While I thought I was just getting a nice paid vacation, Stanford turned out to be a beautiful experience. It was probably the most important experience of the five years of college," Mehta says.

The reason: He had read enough about angel investors in Chennai but hadn’t met a single entrepreneur from IIT. “In Stanford, anybody I spoke to seemed to be an entrepreneur, and some of them actually made it big. While I was there, I started reading up a lot of history of Silicon Valley, and it just blew my mind. In the 10 days there , I think I attended more than 30 talks from entrepreneurs, VCs, etc.," Mehta recalls.

However, Mehta and Jain were “not even thinking of electric at that time". In fact, both of them were “extremely uncomfortable with electronics and software" when they started, as much as they were comfortable building stuff by hand—prototyping, machining, lathing, building, buying components, and figuring out a basic production supply chain.

Though the word “electric" was not on their mind, it was around this time that Mehta and Jain began talking about a startup idea—building engines for power generation for rural markets. Jain came up with the name “Ather Energy"—“Ather" represents “pure" (in Greek), and the duo felt that “Ather Energy" would represent the purest form of energy. Still, the idea was not making EVs, but creating a clean power generation engine for rural India. However, they found it difficult to raise money for the idea and took up jobs as engineers.

In 2012, Mehta joined Ashok Leyland, and Jain, General Motors. But Mehta did not stop thinking about battery packs for electric scooters. Simultaneously, he was trying to convince Jain to leave his job and work on this idea. “Every month or so, I would go to Chennai (from Bengaluru) to spend time with him (Jain) to convince him to quit his job," says Mehta.

Meanwhile, a batchmate of Mehta’s allowed him to use his lab space for “experiments". “Every Friday night, I would come to the lab, sleep there and wake up on Saturday morning to start working. We used to research and work until Sunday evening, and go back home on Sunday night," he recalls. In those six months, he got a lot of time to read about EVs in India and China, and also kept “close track" of companies like Tesla, other Indian companies in the EV space, and developments in battery technology.

In February 2013, Jain quit his job, followed by Mehta. Their “low" salaries made the decision easier, and both of them approached a professor at IIT, Madras, asking for his help to build Ather EVs.

Even “at this point we were not talking entrepreneurship—we simply wanted help to build EVs," insists Mehta. “Two factors helped us. First, there was little and poor EV competition at that time. Second, the massive unwillingness of petroleum OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) to do anything electric provided us with a huge opportunity," he says.

At IIT, Madras, Mehta and Jain were putting things together. “We bought a whole bunch of electric scooters—unscrewed and unwrapped them, collected data, and eventually came up with our view of what an electric scooter should be like," he recalls. This sketch and the original spreadsheet became the starting point for Ather Energy as it’s known today.

In October 2013, Mehta and Jain approached Dr. V Srinivasan, co-founder of big data startup Aerospike, and an angel investor, “who was very keen to put money because he liked our passion. The investor suggested they start a Kickstarter campaign and get a few thousand orders first. Instead, Mehta met 50 people who owned EVs, trying to understand what they disliked about the electric scooters. “We then wrote a spec sheet about what a good electric scooter could be—75 kmph for our top speed and 60km as range. We wanted to price this at 1 lakh," he says.

But why would anyone want to buy an electric scooter that was priced higher than a petrol one? Surprisingly, Mehta’s benefactors bought the idea. “Around 25 of them paid us money upfront. The first person I spoke with—a professor at IIT, Madras—wrote a cheque for 85,000 on the spot. Later, several other professors at IIT invested in their personal capacities, ranging from 30,000-85,000. We collected around 5 lakh," says Mehta. The angel investor gave them 25 lakh, and the two co-founders formally took up an incubation programme at IIT Madras. “They (IIT, Madras) gave us another 15 lakh, which lasted for a year," recalls Mehta.

By November 2014, Ather Energy had a “proper specsheet" of what needed to be built, which is when Flipkart founders Sachin and Binny Bansal invested in the company. Mehta likens them to “saviours" because they were almost out of money. A few months later, Ather Energy had a Series A round of funding. In December 2016, Hero MotoCorp Ltd invested around 200 crore and in 2017, they invested another 20 crore. In 2019, Sachin Bansal invested another 220 crore.

With these funds in its arsenal, Ather Energy has made much progress not only in increasing interest in its electric scooters but also in introducing more innovation in the manufacturing and distribution processes. For instance, today, “an Ather Energy electric scooter consumes 2.7-3 units of power that costs around 25-30 paise per km—8-10 times cheaper than petrol," claims Mehta. He also likes the fact that there’s a lot of interest for contract manufacturing Ather scooters. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense for Ather to run massive plants with thousands of employees. It makes sense for us to bring partners who can run the assembly on our behalf," says Mehta.

Ather Energy is also the first two-wheeler maker in the country to offer a lease on a personal scooter. The risk to lease is much lower “with a connected product like ours" he explains, since “you know the exact battery condition, the kind of roads it’s travelling on, the engine condition, discharge cycle, usage profile, etc. You could theoretically generate a residual value of your asset by examining it on a day-to-day usage basis." Ather Energy is now trying to offer this model as a “kind of a platform—with its batteries, software, core vehicle design, and the business model innovation".

“We began with a battery pack. Then we built a vehicle with our own battery pack and our own charging infrastructure. If these platforms do really well, we could just actually accelerate this transition even more," Mehta says.


What is your favourite vehicle?

Ather 450.

Where do you like to go on long drives?

NICE Road, Bengaluru. SP Ring Road, Ahmedabad.

What is your business mantra?

Optimize for strengths.

Favourite books/movies?

‘The Silmarillion’/’Harry Potter’.

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