‘Technology is the Biggest Enabler in Energy Sector’
The cheapest energy is the one you don’t use in the first place, goes an often-repeated quote on conservation of energy. But unless you know how much energy you use and how efficiently you use it, how can you think of ways of cutting your consumption? It is this thought that led to Ecolibrium Energy, an Ahmedabad-based startup that shows the way to hundreds of industrial firms in India. Ecolibrium sets up sensors in various parts of an assembly line in a factory and its cloud-based software system analyses the data to find power inefficiencies and recommends ways to plug them. A few excerpts from Ecolibrium’s founder Chintan Soni as he spoke to Employment News.
Question. How did you get idea for the business?
Answer: Determined to create something of high value and innovation, Ecolibrium Energy, is an answer to India’s ever growing energy demand and scarce response system. It all started in 2009 at Vibrant Gujarat Summit where looking at the conduciveness that state offered for entrepreneurship and plethora of their entrepreneur friendly policies, I resolved my dream to set up an enterprise and started exploring in the field of renewable energy. Later joined by my younger brother Harit, we realised that India has perennially been a power starved country, with close to 400 Million of its citizens not having access to power. To add on to this, we have the constant problem of black-outs and brown-outs. Approximately 43 percent of power produced in India is being consumed by Industrial sector, which means that an energy management solution for this sector would have impacted the energy demand for entire country at a large. This idea struck me like a thunderbolt – if we can bring intangible interventions through appropriate software and hardware Platform which can help industries and distribution companies to monitor, manage and reduce their energy consumption and energy loss. Therefore we developed a demand side management solution combining Big Data Analytics, communication and Cloud platform called “Smart Sense” where industries can monitor their daily electricity consumption pattern every minute, compare with energy rates per unit, detect the health of their machinery infrastructure by diagnosing any abruption in their key electrical parameters, set up their own law of parsimony based on real time trends.
Q: What was your mission at the outset?
Answer: Our journey started with getting the opportunity to be incubated at the Centre for Innovation Incubation and Entrepreneurship (CIIE) at IIM Ahmedabad where our first mission was to get our product credited as scalable and commercially viable with acceptance and recommendation from Business to Business fraternity. We bagged our first order (in the industry sector) with Odhav Industrial Estate to reduce energy consumption at an Effluent Treatment Plant. The company made the deal that that they would make the payment only if Ecolibrium’s model worked and delivered results. We fixed the inefficiencies in their motor and monitored it through the dashboard to understand their consumption levels. This project succeeded. They recovered the cost of our system in a matter of days. Also this was the point where our customers started understanding and acknowledging our value addition. We got our next order from Torrent Power, it was a pilot smart micro-grid project which they successfully commissioned. CIIE helped us immensely to become a brand in every possible way. We help medium and large industrial & commercial customers optimize their cost of energy through SmartSense, our Big Data Energy analytics Platform providing energy Intelligence and help them make smarter and informed decision.
Q: How many employees work in your enterprises?
Answer: Ecolibrium, started its operation with just three members on board. As the business grew we slowly acquired a team of experts – software developers, executors, electricians, energy analysts, sales professionals, data scientists and programmers. With addition of every new feature in our line of service, we seek perfection and help of experts. Today, we have a very young and multidimensional team of 75 members with a mix of domain and I.T experts. This is the time for millennial, they seek mentors not bosses. We hire people from tier-2 colleges as big corporates focus only on IITs and IIMs. Students in other colleges are as good as tier-1 institutions. They just need polishing and I personally like to train them.
Q: What kind of services do you provide?
Answer: “Smart Sense” our Big Data Energy Analytics platform is a one- stop shop for all energy monitoring solutions, operated easily through desktops and mobile phones. It is devised in such a way that an energy user can choose different services based on their daily energy consumption levels:
1. Commercial and Industrial Users : With rising electricity prices, demand charges, Time of the Day (TOD) Tariffs and penalties for non-compliance, energy, and especially electricity is becoming a major operating cost centre for any Industry or commercial building. SmartSense, enables you to take crucial operational decisions to optimise productivity. It gives you real time monitoring of asset efficiency and helps carry out predictive maintenance, thereby reducing losses and production downtime. Through SmartSense energy managers and plant managers can centrally monitor and optimize energy consumption across multiple locations.
2. Power Distribution Companies : We help Power Distribution companies meet their demand side management goals by connecting with their high power consuming consumers and helping them the way they consume power. Whether buying or selling, there is no guarantee that a trading company or buyer are getting 100 percent Return On Investment on the cost invested (which goes higher than 6-digit figure) i.e. they are exactly getting the right units bought or sold.
As commercial buildings and industries are major energy consumers of any utility, and it becomes imperative for any distribution utility to increase engagement with these consumers through advanced tools. To usher in higher consumer engagement, SmartSense enables utilities with advanced analytics on energy consumption and billing of these consumers. It empowers them to take decisions on customer billing, grievances and outages, thus creating customers who consume smartly.
Q: How do you advertise your business?
Answer: Our work has spoken for us, so far. When we started, we literally went out under the sun to show companies where they were consuming energy, where the leakages are and why and how they could fix it. We installed our platform and asked company to recommend us if our model worked and delivered results. SmartSense has helped them reduce between 5 to 25 percent of their energy costs. Backed up by our clients, CIIE, our investors Infuse Ventures, International Finance Corporation-a word of mouth spread and one good assignment led to other. Today we enjoy a goodwill in the market.
Q: To whom do you attribute your success?
A: Perseverance, hard work, accountability and a dream to create something pioneering and valuable. But achieving any of this was never a bed of roses. Our Journey from ideation till the present day, is laden with vicissitudes, uncertainties, hopes, and downfall. After leaving my job at Schlumberger with basic outline for business and a family to support, I had to face my fair share of hardship. From getting incubated at IIM-Ahmedabad to proving our line of services in front of our clients- we did it with just three people on-board. It’s easier to get your first client but to have the second on-board is the biggest challenge. Ecolibrium which was functioning on personal savings and seed capital of 25 lakh from CIIE had to face the fund crises as the company started growing. We expanded our team; the burden of salaries was weighing. Investors agreed to loan up to Rs. 5 Crore but at an equity of 51 percent- especially at the state when we were sprouting on new ideas.This was not acceptable to me. I was crestfallen but I kept looking for options, meeting people, giving presentations, not because that I cannot go back to my job but I felt responsible for the people working for me.
Q: What made you choose your current location?
Answer: Opportunities and Government’s entrepreneur friendly policies. We are head quartered at Ahmedabad, Gujarat with operating centres in other metro and tier 1 and tier 2 cities. In 2009 while attending the Vibrant Gujarat Summit, I was inspired by states’ entrepreneurship support. I carried on my quest to develop a business idea in the field of renewable energy. My research was appreciated and accepted bythe Centre for Innovation Incubation and Entrepreneurship (supported by DST) at IIM, Ahmedabad. They helped us build our brand. Apart from infrastructural and networking assistance, CIIE helped us with meaningful advisory guidance in addition to rendering administrative support, which in turn helped us focus on technology and our business; these being the most important focal points for any start-up. We are a B2B service delivery company and Gujarat is an epicentre for many industries. Good ideas are tried and accepted. Geographically as well it is centrally connected with other industrial centres of India.
Q: What is very unique about your business?
Answer: We are pioneer in Big Data Energy analytics domain. SmartSense is a completely wireless and cloud hosted system, enabling the users to access the system from any location. The CEO of a Steel Plant can access his data from anywhere in the world. As the platform is wireless, its highly scalable. As it is cloud hosted, the Client does not need to invest and maintain an IT infrastructure. It’s a completely retrofit and a real time system, the client does not need to make any changes in their existing electrical network. Being a real time system, the customer can view the data every one minute and act on the alerts and recommendations. The System does not just show the data in raw form, our analytic engine and algorithms detect faults and issues generates recommendations to rectify the problems. SmartSense, not only enables the client to optimize his demand, but also helps him optimize his power procurement process. We have proven an optimization in the range of 5percent-25percent. We not only manage and optimize power but energy as a whole. SmartSense is a SaaS (Software as a Service) Platform and hence the ROI is very quick.
Q: What are your responsibilities as a boss of the firm?
Answer: An entrepreneur of a start-up wears many hats. It’s hard to define a fixed set of responsibilities for him/her. It’s also a myth that you can be your own boss because you are also your own sales, marketing guy, product developer, an office boy, photo copier and much more. You work for an average of 10-12 hours a day. You think and act at brass level but also should be ready to on to grass roots when required. You need to understand every one you work with. You are always in direct connection with your clients. You are not allowed to be frustrated and leave things half done because there are many other people involved along with you. There are expectations of delivery and most important stickiness. You can’t give up. I am always been passionate about what I do, I am completely a people person. I like to take risks and am not afraid to fail.
Q: What made you choose this type of business?
Answer: After working in Telecommunication and Information Systems and getting two patents in telecom space, I was determined to explore energy sector in terms of IT and communication services. Both me and my younger brother considered many business opportunity like growing algae in waste water, make bio diesel from it and then clean the left over water for other uses. But an idea struck me like a thunderbolt – we realised India has perennially been a power starved country, with close to 400 Million of its citizens not having access to power. To add on to this, constant black-outs and brown-outs were commonplace. Nearly 43% of power is consumed by the Industrial sector, which means that an energy management solution for this sector would impact the entire country at large. Even being a large firm if you buy electricity or produce it, there is no guarantee that you are getting 100% ROI on the cost invested (which goes higher than 6-digit figure) because more than 30% of energy is loss during transmission. We wanted to bring intangible interventions through appropriate software and hardware development and help distribution companies and industries to reduce their power consumption and save on the operation cost.
Q Does your company help the community where it is located?
Answer: We are enabling Industries and Power distribution companies to help them optimize their power consumption level and reduce the loss and wastage of electricity. Currently if we are able to reduce 5 to 25 percentage of power loss. Now you can calculate how much houses can be lighten up using the same power saved, especially where it is needed the most like villages? This is our biggest goal and contribution towards community services. Glass ceiling is a term we keep hearing in corporate sector globally. I was in a white collar job and I understand females can make great leaders. That is why in our company we have 30percent more female workforce. This doesn’t mean men are not given chances.
Q: If you had one piece of advice to someone just starting out, what would it be?
Answer: If you have a goal that you want to achieve just give it all and keep patience. Be passionate of what you do. Hard work always pays off. Listen to everyone but take decision based on your understanding and gut feeling which definitely would come from experience and practice.
Q: what are the two challenges that you have faced in your business?
A: Challenges come at every stage, none of them are bigger or smaller. We still have challenges but we have learned to overcome them. I can only advice to not to pin-point them specifically and deal with them with priorities.
Q: What do you feel about the sustainability of start-ups in India?
Answer: It’s the best time for the start-ups as government and Corporates both are nurturing good ideas and ready to incubate potential business concepts. However anything new later leads to a rat race, once the market is saturated. But if your product is good, scalable and makes a difference, you will definitely sustain because you can create a niche from others. Early bird advantage also matters a lot. Therefore one should not stop innovating and enhancing utility of their products. One need to keep adding new feature gaging the need and problems of your customers before anyone else does it. Second challenge will be the human resource management as start-ups are mainly the work force of millennial. They are young, talented and aggressive to achieve more. They seek mentors not bosses. At Macro level, corporates like Oracle, Microsoft, IBM and many other MNCs, venture capitalist, individual and even celebrities are looking at start-ups as a good investment options.So, overall chances for sustainabilty is bright atleast for next good number of years.