Powering Electric Mobility With Battery Smart
Pulkit Khurana, Siddharth Sikka,Co-founders, Battery Smart
Winston Churchill once said, “success is not final; failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts”. The story of Pulkit Khurana and Siddharth Sikka, co-founders of Battery Smart — a battery swapping network for electric vehicles, is a case in point. Before Battery Smart took off in 2020, the duo had founded another start-up, Pods, five years ago. “We were running an intra-city bus pooling app for office commuters, and bootstrapped it for 18 months,” says Sikka. However, they were pitted against Shuttl, and could not rival it. The ill-fated venture ceased operating — something the two have no qualms in admitting. “After Pods, I joined Shuttl to see how that space pans out, and I ended up working there for four years,” adds Khurana.
Despite their diverse professional backgrounds, the IIT Kanpur graduates have always been mobility enthusiasts. Sikka, a chemical engineer by education, has been a public policy consultant as well as a political consultant. His CV includes stints at UrbanClap (now Urban Company) and Schlumberger’s Dubai operations for a couple of years. After Pods, Sikka moved on to become a founding director of ABM, a Delhi-based political and policymaking think-tank. “It was at ABM where I worked with Niti Aayog on a couple of projects in the electric mobility space,” says Sikka. On the other hand, Khurana, a civil engineer by education, began his professional career in management consulting, and after collaborating with Sikka, worked with Shuttl. “During my tenure, I was bidding for a lot of electric bus tenders for state transport undertakings and was also involved in discussions related to EVs,” he says.
That was 2018. “People were reluctant to become early-stage adopters of EVs because of the lack of charging infrastructure in the country, and companies did not invest in charging infrastructure because of lower utilisation,” says Khurana. Along with Sikka, he then started brainstorming for their second venture. “We realised there were 2.5 million electric rickshaws in India. These were three-wheeled vehicles powered by lead acid batteries, but they were not recognised as electric vehicles.” This was despite close to 70 million people using it for the first and last-mile commute. Khurana and Sikka traversed multiple cities for a couple of months to understand the problems of these rickshaw drivers. The most prominent was charging downtime. “Drivers spent 10-12 hours every night charging their batteries, and another 3-4 hours to top it,” says Khurana. Additionally, lead acid batteries required replacement every six months, making it a recurring capital expenditure problem for the drivers. The duo zeroed in on battery swapping — which would also streamline the larger vision of faster EV adoption across the country.
This led to the creation of Battery Smart that started operations in June 2020. Khurana and Sikka identified the unorganised e-rickshaw market as the first one to dabble in. “Our objective was to create a product that would be applicable across all form factors. It had to be an interoperable model,” recalls Khurana. They created a universal battery form-factor working with battery OEMs, and today Battery Smart serves two-wheelers, three-wheelers and cargo vehicles. Drivers reach Battery Smart’s partners (which could be a mom-and-pop store, for instance) and they swap their discharged batteries with charged ones—making it a two-minute swap. They leveraged a revenue-sharing, asset-light model—enabling them to scale their operations rapidly. “Most of our customers prefer monthly subscriptions (`4,000-5,000). It typically costs an e-rickshaw less than `1/km to operate with Battery Smart. For drivers, it has unlocked additional incomes by up to 100%,” claims Khurana. Battery Smart currently operates in 10 cities, in more than 200 locations. Till date, they have done a million swaps—with around 11,000 happening every day.
Khurana takes care of battery development, while Sikka is in-charge of operations and supply chain. A pandemic-era company, they spent time building the product at the back end, while also taking feedback from e-rickshaw drivers. By August-September 2020, they started signing up partners, and since then, according to Sikka, there has been “no looking back”. “Barring the second wave, there hasn’t been a single month in which we haven’t grown,” he says. Not only have they breached the $2-million figure in annual run rate in revenues, they also occupy more than 50% market share in this nascent yet burgeoning category.
But the journey was not without its challenges. “Our biggest challenge was to identify a battery that was interoperable,” says Khurana. Getting it right was crucial, as the company now serves 120 models with a single type of battery. Additionally, utilising assets efficiently and the proliferation of different types of batteries was a task. The company invested in technology and partnered with asset-leasing companies to counter the same. “We have partnerships with solar and storage application companies where these batteries could be deployed for a second time. We have also partnered with recycling companies so that batteries could be recycled in a sustainable manner,” explains Khurana. During the usable life, the batteries are covered under warranty by the company’s manufacturing partners, and damages are addressed under service-level agreements. Battery manufacturing partners also provide insurance on their products, and ensure thorough quality testing mechanisms for safety of batteries.
Another problem was to increase awareness among drivers. “When we started, only 60-70% drivers had a smartphone, and only 50% used them. We have been able to educate drivers about using smartphones,” says Sikka. For the handful of drivers who don’t use smartphones, notifications are sent via SMS and IVRs.
The company aims for a 20-fold growth in 2022 and is looking to increase its presence in 25 cities—serving approximately 100,000 drivers in the process. “We have registered 60-70% growth every month during the last six months, and if we maintain this pace for the next 12 months, we will hit our target,” claims Khurana.