All charged up and out in front of the pack

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All charged up and out in front of the pack
© Provided by The Times of India

Chennai: If India’s electric vehicle story is supercharged right now, Tarun Mehta and Swapnil Jain are among the boosters. Their nearly-decade-old baby, Ather Energy, which makes the 450 X and 450 Plus e-scooters, has made headlines with its fund-raises for the past couple of years. The latest came 10 days ago when existing investor Hero Motocorp pumped in Rs 420 crore, the fifth infusion in as many years, taking its total funding to more than Rs 950 crore. Hero is by no means the only investor – the list includes Tiger Global Management, Flipkart founders Sachin and Binny Bansal, and InnoVen Capital.

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But the real story of Ather Energy is how Mehta and Jain dreamt an impossible dream as students of IIT-Madras and how they returned to their alma mater to make that dream come true. Says Jain: “Tarun and I met while studying engineering design at IIT Madras, where we worked on several research projects together. After graduating, we took up jobs but resigned later to work on battery packs, which we discovered were among the most significant shortcomings in electric vehicles in India.” Eventually, the duo went on to design an electric vehicle from the ground up. “OEMs were only building or importing basic vehicles and this sparked the idea of developing an EV that is a viable alternative to petrol counterparts,” says Jain.

Mehta and Jain decided to go back to IIT-Madras for inspiration and help. “We reached out to our professor R Krishnakumar in late 2012 and he assured us all possible support and urged us to come back to IIT-M as project associates,” recalls Mehta. That back-to-school decision was a game changer for the duo. “We took up project associate work and it was like coming back as students – staying in hostels, working out of labs. Just 6-7 months later, we had built a prototype of both a scooter and a battery pack,” he adds.

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Ather Energy was formally incubated at the IIT-M Research Park in 2013. In 2014, Mehta and Jain received `45 lakh as funding from the technology development board under the department of science and technology, IIT Madras, and Srini V Srinivasan, an IIT alumnus and founder of Aerospike.

The initial years were tough. “One of the investors we approached asked us to retrofit electric motors into an Activa and start selling them,” says Mehta. “He also agreed to give us money to buy 50 used Activas to see how it works. …Suggestions kept pouring in: don’t make a product, don’t build technology, there’s no market for such a product in India.”

Today, Ather’s factory in Hosur cranks out 120,000 scooters a year and employs 400 people. The company has commissioned a second factory in Hosur and is investing `650 crore over five years. The target: to ramp up production to 400,000 units per annum. Apart from the EVs, the facility will also make lithium-ion batteries. Already Ather Energy is among the top four EV brands by volume and became the “largest EV two-wheeler company by revenue in October 2021 with a revenue rate of $100 million,” says Mehta. As for funding, the company has raised more than $158 million till date (more than `1,100 crore) and “will be raising funds as part of our Series E round shortly,” says Jain.

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