Lessons from NeoMotion and Solinas

Read Time:15 Minute

Startup India: Opportunities & Excitement

Under the “Start-up India – Opportunities & Excitement” series, MMA organised a discussion recently. Mr Moinak Baneerjee, Co-Founder, Solinas Integrity Pvt. Ltd and  Mr Swostik Sourav Dash Co-Founder & CEO NeoMotion Assistive Solutions  shared their success stories and lessons in a conversation with Dr Sujatha Srinivasan, Professor Department of Mechanical Engineering Indian Institute of Technology Madras.

Dr Sujatha: Both of you have ventured into startups that tackle social problems. What motivated you to pick the problems that you chose?

Moinak: I grew up in the city of Durgapur in West Bengal where we used to have problem with water supply. I was a small boy then and was not trained to solve that problem. But I wanted to solve it. The main trigger point happened when I went abroad. The first day I was there, I asked them where I could drink water. They said I could just go to the tap and drink from there. I was surprised at getting drinking water from the tap. I realised there is something wrong in India. I met my co-founder and came back to India to solve the water problem.

Swostik: The work of NeoMotion, in fact, started in the lab of Dr. Sujatha Srinivasan at IIT Madras. I was interested in designing hardware. As a part of my final year project work,  I worked on a swimming pool lift for the physically challenged. I was in touch with a few wheelchair users. We applied all the principles, built a prototype, took it to a swimming pool and a few users tried it. The feedback they provided showed how important and meaningful it was for them.

I was surprised that such a simple mechanical device, which could be built by anybody, had not yet been built. A simple intervention can actually solve a large problem for the physically challenged. In 2013, I worked on this project. For the next two years, I was away working on a different subject. In 2016, we founded NeoMotion and for the last eight years,  it has been a fantastic journey. It’s extremely rewarding when you are able to solve a genuine problem of the society.

Dr Sujatha: Can you name one skill that you had to cultivate that was not really part of your engineering curriculum?

Swostik: The art of delegation and building a fantastic team. As we grow, it becomes very important that you have people who are smarter and better than you. I am always tempted to go and do it myself. But it doesn’t solve the problem in the long run. It’s important that there are team members. That’s the recent learning. Earlier, I worked with ITC for two years and got a good exposure to finance. Those financial insights have given me a lot of confidence to take decisions

Moinak:  To transition from an engineer to an entrepreneur, the most important skill, I feel is having a deep appreciation and understanding of the customer, so you can build better products. The second skill is understanding the problem that we are trying to solve for the customer. The deeper you understand the problem, the more intelligent ideas you get and the more intelligent products you can build, which will sell in the market.

Dr Sujatha: What are the challenges you have faced in getting those customers?

Moinak: 50% of our customers are from the government like municipal corporations and utility operators. We also cater to the private enterprises like L&T and others who manage pipelines, septic tanks and manholes. We first brought the technology for inspection and cleaning of tanks. It was very new and when you bring some new changes into the system, you always get a pushback and people do not like change. In the beginning, it was challenging to convince customers. But as we gave them impact and results over a period of time, things became easier and smoother. We got traction and we could get more and more users and customers.

Swostik: Our customers are people with locomotor disability. There are two segments that we address – the clinical side and the economic part of it. Our products are priced at one lakh rupees and that’s not something which everybody can afford. We cater to a small market, but we wanted to do a fantastic job in that segment before moving to different segments. We have in our pipeline the idea of offering the same mobility solution at a price point of 12,000 or 15,000 rupees for a larger market.

For this, the entire product development mindset has to be different. We know that there will be people for whom, we cannot solve their requirements right now. But in due course of time, it needs to be solved. Initially, we used to think that everybody should use our product but we realised that it would be better not to push our products across all segments and that there may be better players in different segments. We have evolved over the years.

Dr Sujatha: As entrepreneurs in the hardware space, what are some of the challenges that you have faced?

Swostik: First of all, we are in the social space and it is a new segment, a new category. Second, it’s a hardware. These are two very difficult problems to solve. I’ll share an example of the difficulties of being in the hardware space. I used all the principles that I learnt at ITC to evaluate and select vendors, who had all the facilities and capabilities. But even after following up for four or five months, there was no outcome. For them, we are an insignificant business. I don’t even contribute to 0.5% of their annual revenue.

So, we started working with people who did not have all the facilities and did not know everything, but they were good partners who spend time with you and who value your relationship. There is some mutual understanding and it will grow. That’s how we build our vendors. All our vendors are very small automotive players. This is one of the biggest learning – having the right partners. The second thing is the importance of building the database and repository of anything that we do. Specifically in hardware, database becomes very crucial.

Moinak: Hardware businesses are capital intensive. With software, you can go through an agile method. If you build something and find it is wrong, you can just throw it and move out. But with a hardware, things are different. The prototype may go through multiple iterations. We must be clear on why we are building it, what are the specs, what type of market we are targeting and who the end user would be. Because if you are not very clear with these ideas, you may end up spending lakhs of rupees building the first hardware prototype and then you may realise there is something wrong. You have to build again from scratch. A startup which is in the initial stage cannot afford to do that.  

Dr Sujatha: So, you have to be very precise on why you are manufacturing and do a very good back work. And as Swostik said, it is important that you build your supply chain in a proper way, over a period of time. Tesla has a very good product but their main USP is how they build their supply chain.

Swostik: As we build a wheelchair, it needs to be delivered to a person either in Chennai or other locations in India. If something goes wrong over there, the only way to solve it is to go there and work on it. As we build customized wheelchairs, the testing validation before we send it to the customer is crucial. All the first 25 units that we deployed in the field had to be replaced, though we had done a lot of lab tests, accelerated tests and so on. But on field test is on field test and it is very different. The good thing is we had controlled it to a group of 25. We were mentally prepared and became richer with the learnings. How quickly you do your controlled pilots will determine your speed to the market.

Dr Sujatha: What are the challenges that you both face as non-Tamil speaking entrepreneurs, having established your businesses in Chennai?

Moinak: I did my Bachelor’s degree in Chennai. Though I don’t speak the local language, I have never faced a problem because of that. Tamil Nadu is one of the most industrialised states in India. The startup environment and the infrastructure push that we have here, compensate for any other difficulty.

Swostik: I feel very comfortable being here. I think the transparency and genuineness in the conversations here is very high. You can have an open conversation and be sure that you are not being taken for a ride. I come from Odissa and my dad has been in banks, transferred to different places. So, we have been to different places.  The hardware ecosystem in Chennai-Hosur belt  is fantastic. The prices might be slightly higher than what we have in a Punjab or a Pune belt. But the quality here is good and it’s a good place to start.

Dr Sujatha: How do you see the evolution of your business plan?

Moinak: The business plan that we came up in our first year was very different with what we have now. It evolves. When we thought of solving the problem of manual scavenging and the problem of leakages in pipes and sewer lines, we thought that our customers would be only government and we would be a pure B2C business. Then we realized that it’s a much bigger and more diverse range of customers that we have and we can be B2B also. We have separate business models for the government and the private. Last year, some bigger utility companies and municipal corporations and gated industrial complexes approached us. They want us to inspect and clean their pipelines and manholes. As more and more customer segments are getting added, we understand the market much better.

While we are now solving the problems of water pipes, sewer lines and manholes, in the future, we can take this or similar technology and implement something for the oil and gas or chemical industries. As we come up with more and more use cases, our business model keeps evolving. That will only help us to grow over a period of time.

Swostik: I would like to discuss two broad areas. When we built our first products and launched them into the market, what we truly achieved was not just the introduction of one product and its impact, but a broader understanding of how to cater to our users. We learned to develop products for them, manage the engineering process, establish manufacturing capabilities, hire team members, set up after-sales support, and create a distribution and retail network. In essence, we constructed an entire channel and devised a go-to-market strategy.

Our first product allowed us to build this entire chain and put all the pieces in place, creating a powerful platform with interconnected components. Now, our focus is on introducing more products within this channel and making new additions. Once you’ve successfully done it once, the system, method, and everything else are known. Furthermore, we’ve identified a niche in which we operate, where no one else is present. This clarity has led us to believe that in the broader mobility space, we can introduce approximately 15 additional products using the system we’ve developed. That’s the first lesson and evolution we’ve experienced.

The second realisation we’ve had is the importance of innovation in everything we do. For instance, every wheelchair we manufacture is customized. When we started, everyone advised against customization, fearing it would hinder scalability. I am now 100% confident that we can scale because we’ve developed a process. It took time, but we established that process, and it is now our value proposition. Previously, wheelchair assessments were always conducted in a clinical setting, requiring the end user to visit a clinic in person. We’ve developed a process that allows us to conduct these assessments remotely, regardless of the user’s location within the country, as long as they have an internet connection and 45 minutes of their time. We innovated in various aspects. People questioned how we would provide after-sales support across the country, but we’ve addressed that by partnering with courier services wherever needed. We’ve introduced various elements, such as financing options. For example, we’ve teamed up with Zomato to offer financing at 2000 to 3000 rupees per month, making our products accessible to a broader audience. So, these are the two major areas we’ve focused on, and I’m confident that we can leverage them to continue growing and achieve the impact we set out to make.

Dr Sujatha: That’s wonderful. It’s not just about innovation in the products, but innovation in the processes, innovations in financing and innovations in every aspect of the business. What would be your advice to entrepreneurs, more so in the hardware space?

Moinak: I believe entrepreneurship in the hardware space, though challenging, is entering an exciting phase. It’s the perfect time to become an entrepreneur, especially in hardware, for three key reasons.

First, there’s a substantial flow of capital into the Indian market, providing ample investment opportunities. When starting a venture, securing finances is the initial requirement, and there’s a considerable amount of funding available to leverage and kickstart your business.

Secondly, India’s rapid growth is propelling it toward becoming a $5 trillion economy within the next three to four years. A purely software-based economy won’t be sufficient to achieve this $5 trillion economy; thus, hardware infrastructure development becomes essential. This transformation must be accompanied by policy changes at the government level, creating opportunities for hardware startups.

Lastly, there’s a phenomenal surge of talent in India. Building a successful venture necessitates a strong team. Going it alone is tough, so assembling a talented team is crucial. The quality of individuals entering the workforce, including engineers and managers, has improved significantly due to changes in India’s education system. With more people entering the scene, the likelihood of connecting with potential co-founders, heads of R&D, or supply chain leaders is high.

These three factors combine to create a highly opportune moment for young individuals to embark on an entrepreneurial journey, especially in the hardware sector.

Swostik: What I’ve learned for entrepreneurs would be two things.  First, you need perseverance. You must commit your next four or five years of your time, irrespective of the outcomes. Second, be very open. Listen to and understand trends. See what’s happening. Do your course corrections based on the observations.

Dr Sujatha: What kind of support would entrepreneurs like you need to succeed?

Moinak: Financial support is very important. Being in the right place at the right time is essential. You may have a brilliant idea and a pressing problem to solve, but if the venture capital environment or culture in your location isn’t mature, securing funds for your business can be challenging. Timing aligning with the problem statement and the surrounding business environment is crucial.

Secondly, institutions like the IITM Research Park or incubation centres, which offer initial support, played a crucial role for us. I believe fostering this kind of culture should not be limited to big cities but should extend to smaller cities where a significant part of the population resides. Establishing ecosystems that encourage entrepreneurship and provide initial support is vital. They can offer guidance and hand-holding during the critical first one or two years for budding entrepreneurs.

Thirdly, government policies play a major role. A decade or so ago, startups had limited access to initiatives like ‘Startup India.’ These government programs, provide grants for startups that don’t have VC funding and enable them to develop their first prototypes. Expanding such policy changes at the state level across various regions in India that haven’t yet experienced the benefits of entrepreneurship is crucial.

Swostik: Personally, I would like to add that when we began our journey, it would have greatly helped me if I had access to someone who had already embarked on a hardware startup journey, perhaps seven or eight years into it. Meeting someone with that kind of experience would have been very helpful. We often encounter individuals well-versed in building software-based companies, but finding those with hardware startup experience, proved challenging. Any mentor I met, I’d ask if they knew someone who had successfully launched a hardware startup in the past 10 years. Unfortunately, I could not get anyone. Such a network would have been very helpful to me during that time.

Dr Sujatha: What has been the most satisfying aspect of your journey? Where do you see yourself and your venture in the next five years or 10 years?

Swostik: We have an internal WhatsApp group called Testimonials. Our end users keep sharing photos and tell us what all they were able to do with our assisted devices. We get inspired and that’s what drives us. The goal is to build a large institution which surpasses what, as founders, we started- a great hardware company which solves the mobility problem in India. We are proud to say that our products are designed and made in India.

Moinak: The real validation for an entrepreneur comes when you see the impact firsthand. For example, our team members who inspect and clean the pipelines send us the pictures and share the joy of residents who get water in their houses after three years.  As an asset management company, we have deployed our technology in 12 major Indian cities. Our vision is to go to  the Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities. We have landed on the moon but still practice manual scavenging in India. We can help government or the utility companies with our technology so that each and every citizen of India get clean drinking water. We must also do away with manual scavenging. This is possible only with the use of technology.