For this startup making cars greener is a billion-dollar dream

7 Dec, 2016

Hybrid cars have so far made little impact in bringing down vehicular emission. The ever-increasing vehicular emission accentuates the climate challenge to the point that it threatens the human existence while automotive world has by far made only some reluctant steps to address this problem. The global auto giants' alternative to gass guzzlers – hybrid cars – hardly touched the mass market despite their lofty promises such as 40% emission reduction and fuel saving in equal measure.

Consider this: of 2.87 million cars sold in India last year barely 1,000 were hybrid variants. The largest selling model among them Toyota Camry Hybrid at Rs 32 lakh was ten times more expensive than the largest-selling petrol car Maruti Alto.

In the absence of a viable alternative, the danger of vehicular emission assumes alarming proportions. "Somebody has to plug this huge gap." This thought has inspired four industry veterans – three are PhDs in engineering from prestigious American universities and one is a top finance professional – to come together to start Altigreen Propulsion Labs, the startup behind the low-cost solution to convert small cars and pickups into hybrid vehicles.

In four years since Altigreen was founded, the company has filed for nine patents in hybrid technology, won three of them, launched a prototype and run pilot projects. The company is now readying for the soft launch of its solution and planning its mass marketing in the next financial year.

"From proof of concept in 2012, we have reached a stage where we have pilot trials," said Amitabh Saran, co-founder and CEO, Altigreen.

Yes, unlike consumer internet startups that massively scale up within a few years, Altigreen's progress has been slow and gruelling involving numerous scientific experiments. However, the founders have the strength of patience; each of them has over two decades of professional experience.

A PhD in computer science from University of California, Saran had spearheaded R&D projects in HP, TCS, Philips and NASA. In his most recent avatar, he was cofounder of Buzzintown.com which got acquired by Yatra.com.

The CTO Lasse Mocklegaard and vice president engineering John Bangura are from the US. Mocklegaard earned a doctorate in automotive controls and worked many years with Ford, John Deere and Cessna. Bangura's PhD is in electrical engineering. He spent 20 years in developing high performance motors and electronic systems for aerospace and hybrid vehicles for Kawasaki, Rolls Royce, Goodrich, Boeing, Airbus and Bombardier and holds several patents.

A BITS Pilani and IIM Ahmedabad alumni Shalendra Gupta heads corporate functions. He had worked with SBI Capital, Deutsche Bank and Siemens Communications in the past.

"Diverse customer profiles are coming back with feedbacks which are incorporated into the manufacturing process," Saran has said as Altigreen lays ground for full-fledged production.

The HyPixi Solution This hybrid system with multiple patents is called HyPixi; it is named after the French engineer Hippolyte Pixii who invented dynamo, setting off innovations in the field of electric power generation.

HyPixi is an aftermarket kit. This includes a motor generator, a battery pack and a hybrid controller that will put the otherwise wasted kinetic and electric energy, back into the wheels. Petrol and diesel engines are on an average only 25% efficient, according to Saran.

The proprietary electronics of HyPixi undertakes power management and houses the hybrid control drive. A lot of data on driving behaviour and energy usage is captured by the smart hybrid monitor device which is linked to mobile and web apps to show a fleet's savings, green driving score and proactive maintenance alerts.

The device is currently being tested in cars and mini trucks run by six large customers including taxi fleet and staff transport operators and last-mile delivery services, said Saran and Gupta.

The company has tied up with automobile service networks which have trained its personal to retrofit HyPixi into the boot of the vehicle. The founders say it takes only four hours to complete the retrofit work.

Unlike pure plug-in electric vehicle technology that depends on power grid for charging, all that the HyPixi does is to put to use regenerative energy. This offers a 26% improvement in mileage and 20% reduction in CO2 emission, according to the founders. They say their claim is backed by multiple tests conducted at Automotive Research Association of India (ARAI) labs.

Altigreen has got the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MORTH) approval for HyPixi and is currently doing a test-marketing. It remains to be seen whether customers are ready to shell out Rs 60,000 to Rs 1,00,000 for mileage improvement. The company promises a full payback within two years.

Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and Electric Vehicles in India (FAME), the centre's incentive scheme for hybrid and electric vehicles, is expected to bring down the retail cost by about 15% for HyPixi.

"In the first year – that is 2017-18 – we expect to sell 3,000-4,000 units. From the second year it should go up to 3,000 a month," said Gupta.

Funding Jigsaw Even as Altigreen enters large-scale manufacturing and marketing, a piece of the puzzle is yet to be solved; that is funding. Saran said the company is in advanced discussion with a couple of venture capital firms to complete a $7 million round .

Earlier this year, it had raised $2 million from Rajeev Chandrasekhar's Jupiter Capital. "Our existing investors are keen to back us as we look to get on board one more VC investor," Saran said. Besides Chandrasekhar, Altigreen has early backers such as Chetan Maini and Ajay Sarupria.

Maini, a pioneer in electric vehicle manufacturing and green mobility, finds Altigreen has a large business opportunity in converting existing vehicles into less polluting and more fuel efficient ones. Maini, who built electric car Reva, sold it to Mahindra & Mahindra. After leading Mahindra Reva Electric Vehicles, Maini moved out of the company. Altigreen happens to be one of the two alternative mobility companies that he is involved with. The other is electric car fleet operator Lithium Urban Technologies.

"In a market such as India, cost to performance is critical. This is a green tech which is easily adaptable for its cost. It will see faster adoption," hopes Maini, who sits on the board of Altigreen.

Altigreen's HyPixi has a predecessor in KPIT's Revolo. KPIT which began work on a similar project about four years ago later pivoted to electrification of buses. Two buses ferrying Indian parliamentarians are fitted with Revolo.

The launch of alternative mobility product that targets India and other developing countries coincides with the rise of a string of electric mobility startups. Bangalore-based electric bike startup Ather Energy raised around $45 million from two-wheeler market leader Hero MotoCorp, Tiger Global and others. Ratan Tata and Kris Gopalakrishnan have backed Coimbatore-based Ampere Vehicles. Pune-based Tork, which is building electric motorcycles, got funding from Ola founders Bhavish Aggarwal and Ankit Bhati.

Tired of waiting this long for traditional auto giants to reinvent their product lines, the world is preparing for disruptions in automotive technology by rank outsiders. Tech companies Google, Apple and Foxconn are challenging incumbents with alternative vehicle projects.

With patents, products and ambitions, Altigreen positions itself as an innovator for the developing world. Saran would shrug off market projection as 'just a spread sheet.' But he stuck his neck out to say this much: "I would be disappointed if we would not touch $1 billion in the first five years cumulatively." Well, that is as tall an order as bringing CO2 emission a few notches down.