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The IIT entrepreneur with an idea bank!

Last updated on: September 23, 2009 

The IIT entrepreneur with an idea bank!

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Manu A B in Mumbai

As a kid, he dreamt of the impossible. When he saw Superman, he wanted to be like him and do whatever he did. At school, his teacher told him his ideas were good, but there is still a lot more to learn.

He started thinking about the mechanics of engines very early in life, wondering how they worked and how processes could be changed to make things work better.

His father used to have long chats with him everyday on the achievements of great inventors like Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison. This made a profound impact on him and fuelled his imagination further. 'Why can't I be an Einstein?' he wondered. The ability to question and probe everything was his motivation to keep moving forward.

This deep interest in engineering brought Ankit Mehta to the Indian Institute of Technology. Ankit, a top ranked student at IIT Bombay, did not attend a single placement interview when his friends got the greatest offers from the best of companies.

For him, it was a pursuit of ideas, a journey to achieve what he had always dreamt of. "The journey was tough, it took us an year to actually give shape to the start-up company. The lack of experience, opposition from parents, and financial problems made it tougher to get started," Ankit says.

But the strong belief in the idea and support from friends, Rahul Singh and Ashish Bhat, and a grant from the government led to the birth of Ideaforge in 2007 when Ankit Mehta was just 24 years old.

Ideaforge got started with its pioneering work at the Technology Business Incubator, SINE at IIT Bombay.

"I have been very fortunate to get like-minded people like Ashish, who has been innovative and designing electronic gadgets ever since he was a schoolkid, and Rahul who gave up a plum post to be a part of this start-up," Ankit says.

Today, Ideaforge develops human powered cell phone chargers and fully automated Micro Air Vehicles (MAVs). With these chargers, you can charge your phone while in a car, bike, etc.

Ankit lives with an idea bank and that's why he calls his company Ideaforge. "I have ten more product ideas but finance is a major constraint."  Money has never been an incentive for this true innovator.

"The joy of creating a product gives you the satisfaction which no high-paying job can," he says happily. It gives him immense pleasure to work even if it means working till the wee hours. For him, every day is a chance to strive harder and make his dreams come true.

He has no regrets about giving up the luxuries, which many of his classmates are used to. "I have always led an austere life. I did not yearn to have money. I do not think having a car is a necessity. I have a minimum salary just to pay the rent and meet my daily expenses," he explains. "A start-up is a great way to be selfish," he adds.

Ankit Mehta, managing director, Ideaforge, reveals more about the exciting world of entrepreneurship. Read on...


Image: Ankit Mehta, MD, IdeaForge

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The IIT entrepreneur with an idea bank!

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Why did you choose to become an entrepreneur? What kind of difficulties did you face initially?

I was certain about what I wanted to do. I wanted to turn my ideas into reality. So after my graduation, I took up consultancy work at a firm in Pune to save some money to start off my project.

Rahul and Ashish were yet to complete their graduation. We used to spend a lot of time brainstorming on ideas, discussing its feasibility, making prototypes, etc.

Finally, it took us a year to get started with an initial investment of Rs 1.5 lakh (Rs 150,000) and a government grant. We registered the company in February 2007 and got incubated at IIT.

How supportive was your family?

My parents had lot of expectations from me. They did not want me to be in a position where I am today. They wanted me to take a stable job and get settled well -- like any parent would -- so there was lot of opposition.

My father was dead against the idea of me stating a company. He feared that I may not succeed. Though I could understand his fears, I could not stop myself from doing what I always wanted to do, I could not give up my ideas and settle for a routine high paying job.

He said I can always come back and start what I want to after I get settled well but my reasoning was what if I don't get the opportunity again. For me, more than the commercial success, it was the success of the idea, the making of the product that mattered the most.

Image: Ankit Mehta with Ashish Bhat and Rahul Singh

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The IIT entrepreneur with an idea bank!

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You were never scared of the risks?

I really don't know how to get scared. You cannot be fickle when you decide to become an entrepreneur. You have to be very tough, strong and confident about everything you do. Risks are the part of any start-up.

You either fail or succeed. If you fail, you have to accept it, but if you succeed, there is no limit to where you can reach. It is important to see the viability of the new idea, probe deep into the idea and understand how important it is for the market.

How do you sum up your experience as an entrepreneur? How do you compare it to a regular job?

It is a very exciting job. I may have to work long hours, struggle against all odds, but I enjoy it.

I would have got the comfort of a huge salary and other perks in a regular job, but the satisfaction I get now is something a job can never get me.  I just need a dignified life. I am okay without a car. I don't consider car a necessity. Good food and a reasonable way of living are what matter most.

How many hours do you spend at work?

We start the day at 10-11 and our work goes on till 1-2 a.m. We just go home to sleep and we are back here. We are a team of 10 members. The core team works late, we try to see that others don't work beyond 7 in the evening.


Image: IdeaForge's mechanical charger.

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The IIT entrepreneur with an idea bank!

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How difficult is it to convince people to work with you?

People see it as a great opportunity to work in a start-up. It gives them a sense of fulfillment, which no other job can give. There are parallel roles, people love the challenge. The risk and rewards too are equally exciting. And we do pay them well.

What role has IIT played in making you an entrepreneur?

IIT played a huge role in overall development. It boosts your confidence, to become better than the best. We have an amazing faculty, great atmosphere, you have 24 hours to do what you want to do. Sometimes you get intimidated seeing some dedicated people. The environment is very competitive, yet friendly.

The atmosphere opens up your brain so much. I have never had so many resources at hand to do what I really wanted to. Many of us realised our full potential after we came here. The exposure IIT gives is amazing. We represented India at the China robotics meet called Robocon and won an award.

What was your ambition when you joined the IIT?

I was always interested in engineering so I thought IIT is the right place for me.  By the end of the second year, I had made up my mind to start my own venture. I was very clear on what I wanted to do. I also played a role in setting up an innovation cell at IIT to help students develop the ideas along with the help of the faculty members.


Image: Ankit Mehta.

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The IIT entrepreneur with an idea bank!

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What made you think differently?

As a kid I was very fortunate. My teachers always encouraged me to think, appreciated my ideas and at the same time made sure to tell me that I have more to learn. The urge to learn more made me what I am today. It was a constant quest to learn about new things, I used to spend hours in the school library, reading and learning new things.

I used to think deep about how different engines work, how internal combustion engines work, I wanted to learn more about fuel cells. Later I realised that the ideas that I used to think about during my school days were actually implemented and they worked. For instance, a car that runs on nitrogen. I came to know about this much later. Many thought my ideas were convoluted but it was all a part of a huge learning process.

I always have this habit of thinking about how things are made. I look at a bridge and immediately I start thinking about how this bridge was made.

How important is education for an entrepreneur? How did you do in academics?

For me, education played a vital role. Education gives you tremendous confidence and knowledge is essential for making products. I was ranked third in the dual degree course in mechanical engineering.


Image: IdeaForge's environment friendly product.

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The IIT entrepreneur with an idea bank!

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Why did you decide to set up a venture to develop environment-friendly products?

The effort is to popularise clean technology products and lead the way to an environment-friendly world. Our mission is to make energy sources available everywhere.... be mobile.

It would be ideal if we were able to tap energy out of any source available at hand. It is a very exciting and booming business, which has a great impact.

How much have you invested so far? When will you break even?

We have invested less than Rs 1 crore (Rs 10 million) so far. Last year, we did well. Our business has been better this year. We should be able to break even by this year end.


Image: Charging the phone through the USB port of a laptop.

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The IIT entrepreneur with an idea bank!

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What are your products?

We have developed a mechanical energy storage and release device and applied for a patent. It will take about 18 months to get the patent for this. We have about seven different types of charging devices, which include a mechanical charger, a USB charger, a bike charger, a car charger and even a wall charger.

These chargers can be used with any handset. We have also developed fully automated Micro Air Vehicles (MAVs) like a small helicopter that can fly, take photos and videos. While on the on GPS-hold mode, it acts like a virtual pole in the sky streaming high quality live video to the ground station with all camera controls in user's hand.

These can be trained to even go inside buildings and take photos. In the age of increased surveillance, these products come in handy.

How different is the human powered charger different from other similar products that exist?

The product that we have developed is easy to use and it has double modes. You can charge the cell phone anywhere and anytime by simply rotating a handle on the charger. By rotating the handle for one minute, it gives about 3 minutes of talk time and about 30 min of stand-by time. You can also charge the phone even while talking on the roll-on mode.


Image: Charge your phone anywhere with this device.

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The IIT entrepreneur with an idea bank!

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How many people are using your products? How has the response been so far?

We have got a good response so far. About 15,000 chargers have been sold so far. We have also sold 3 aerial devices. Defence labs like the DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation) have bought these devices.

The challenge now is to develop high configuration devices. We would probably be the only company that offers good quality products at competitive rates. The level of autonomy in these flying devices is much better than the ones that exist.

How are the product priced?

The chargers cost Rs 200. It may be costly compared to Chinese products but we bet on good quality. Besides this, the chargers come with an adaptor which can be used anywhere in the world. And the charger can be operated with two modes. The utility value that we offer is much higher.


How do you see the company's role as in the clean technology sector growing in India?

We see a huge potential in this space. The need to sustain electricity especially in countries with power shortage is huge. We plan to build more human powered sustainable energy solutions.


Image: Micro air vehicle for surveillance.

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What are the major milestones that you have achieved?

We have been able to establish a good distribution network. Our national distributor is Brightpoint India Pvt Ltd. Today, our products are available through major retail chains like eZone, Hot Spot, RPG Cellucon, The Mobile Store and Exide's retail outlets and sites like eBay, indiatimes, homeshop18, et cetera.

We have started a pilot project with the Tatas so our products will be available in Tata stores as well. We will soon tie up with Airtel.

We have been able to reach out to the rural areas with a tie-up with ITC's e-choupal. We now have clients for all our products.

What are the reasons for your success so far?

I would not like to call our venture a success yet. But whatever we have achieved so far is thanks to a patient team, the ability to minimise costs and work with great focus and determination.

We were not a liability to our families; we did not have too many responsibilities so we could go ahead and take risks. More than anything else, we believed in our ideas.


Image: A charger which can be used in the bike.

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How important is innovation for an entrepreneurship to succeed?

Innovation is vital for any entrepreneurship to succeed. It is absolutely essential to create value with new ideas and offer a product that the market requires. An idea pays and it is the stepping stone to success. The product should have a good market value.

What are the most important things that entrepreneurs must have to succeed?

You need patience to go on persevering the goal. Impatience also as it helps to get things done faster.

A great team is essential.

One must be able think differently. You have to believe in the idea and it should, of course, have a logical end.

Make the right use of opportunities. There are billion ways of doing the same thing. One must make the right choice.

Make sure you get finance and see to it that you have someone to bail you out in the event of a crisis.

You must have the ability to listen to others' ideas, and you must be receptive to new ideas and not dominate others.


Image: Car charger: Charge your phone by plugging the charger into the cigarette lighter port in any car.

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Do you believe India needs more entrepreneurs? What keeps India from becoming a product giant like it is in services?

India does need many more entrepreneurs. It is not as it we are lagging behind in terms of innovation.

We have products like the Tata Nano built in India. But the basic problem lies in the system. We are very social-centric people. We believe a lot in social status.

Our efforts still remain on how to build this status by buying cars and apartments, and becoming wealthier. In this process, we have lost pride in doing great work.

In foreign countries there is added advantage of proving yourself and your capabilities, in India there is no such compulsion. As long as you earn well, you have a good social status.

What are your company's future plans?

We plan to scale up on the devices front. We also plan to build human powered emergency lighting systems for rural areas.

We have plans to develop more powerful aerial vehicles for military use. The military has stringent norms to be fulfilled. So we plan to build product that match the military's requirements.

We are also looking at the possibility of exporting products to countries like New Zealand, Austraila, Bangladesh, etc.

We hope to see that happening soon. We will continue to focus on renewable and alternative energy, and create a number of charging solutions for portable electronics and household electrical systems based on our invention of the mechanical energy storage and release device.

How do you spend your leisure time?

I find time to unwind, though I spend a lot of time thinking! I watch a lot of movies, go to restaurants and spend time at Crossword, the bookstore.


Image: Flying high: IdeaForge's micro air vehicle

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