This startup by ex-students of IIT Bombay now rules the market
He was a student, had just completed graduation, when together with his college friends, he started the company, ideaForge. Today, drones developed by them are used widely by Indian government for a range of reasons – from surveillance to disaster management. Ankit Mehta, Co-founder & CEO of ideaForge Technology Pvt. Ltd., talks to us about his startup journey…
Q: How did ideaForge happen?
A: In 2004, we made our first attempt to make a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle). We independently came up with the idea when we were trying to figure out how to make something, which is not a helicopter, hover. That was the first time we discovered the quadrotor platform, independently. Eventually, when we were trying to file for IP (intellectual property), we realised that it has been discovered in the past. So, that’s the beginning on the UAV side.
Why we wanted to start a company is because we have done a lot of technology. We were confident that if we can think about something, we will be able to replicate it in real life, even if it does exactly opposite of what we designed it to do. We knew we will be able to make it. We were good at prototyping, developing technology; but we didn’t have enough experience to create products. And that was our next zeal. We had a team, and we didn’t want to let go off the team. That’s because once the team breaks, then you never know whether you will be able to get it back again or not.
Q: Tell us about your journey?
A: After my graduation, I worked for about six months. During that time, I earned enough money to be able to survive for next six months or invest that money in prototyping if I had some means of survival which, fortunately, I had. One of my friends was also starting up at the same time and I decided to work for him. It is an interesting mix of what happened. I along with the entire founding team of ideaForge used to help my friend conduct workshops on robotics. On weekdays, we used to work on our projects and on weekends, we used to take his workshop. That’s how we sustained for a period of time. I invested all my savings in prototyping, the early technology that we were developing. Initially, we were not working on UAVs; we were working on chargers for portable electronics. We did sell a reasonable number of these chargers but it was difficult because of several reasons – purchasing power, too much pressure on margins and on technology side so as to make it more affordable; and things like that, which was something we were not very excited about. At that time, we were also working with IIT Bombay, trying to create some avionics solution for radio-control aircraft which could be automated. That’s how we started. In 2008, there was a competition organised by US Dept of Defence and Indian Army together. We participated in that competition alongside IIT Bombay and won a micro aerial vehicle competition alongside Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US, in the hovering category. That was a trigger for us; the fact that we could actually develop technology from scratch, at this level. People then started clamouring for an autopilot which we used in the competition. That’s when we decided to shift from a high volume, low margin business to a low volume, high margin business; and concentrated on unmanned systems.
There are now some very focussed companies or funds which have come in and want to focus on investing in companies which are creating something new. This, I think, is a change. There is lot more hope now than there was earlier
We pivoted when pivoting was not even a buzzword. But having pivoted, we developed the world’s smallest and lightest autopilot and the country’s first fully autonomous UAV in 2009. You might have seen a prototype of our UAV in the movie, 3 idiots. Since then, we have been pitching our solutions. We partnered with DRDO in the interim – this made sure that the early adoption of our system was smooth in various forces. The next stage was getting into specifications, which were very close to what we were already delivering, thus helping us penetrate more and more. I think, agility towards our customers’ needs is what has made us the leader in this segment in India – currently, we enjoy 90 per cent market share.
Q: Right now, startup is a buzzword in India with lot of youngsters venturing into this segment. You started when there was no such hype? How difficult was it then for students/youngsters to start an enterprise?
A: It was a nightmare starting then. However, ever since this e-commerce hype has reduced, it has become easier for hardware companies like us to do our business, At that time, everyone wanted to invest in e-commerce venture. We had to struggle real hard; we had to literally prove that we can earn money, make profits; and that we are way ahead of other companies.
Q: With focus now on startups in India, what do you think has changed over time?
A: People have now become more appreciative. But what eventually matters is not accolades but delivery on the ground. And people are still not willing to put enough money behind hardware companies, easily. That’s a fact. Indians are still hesitant to do that. However, there are now some very focussed companies or funds which have come in and want to focus on investing in companies which are creating something new. This, I think, is a change. It is a tough market. But a lot of new age people are coming in; there is lot more hope now than there was earlier.
We need to understand that hardware is not created overnight. It takes time, a lot of effort, several failed experiments. It is very important to have patience
Q: What advice would you like to give to today’s students?
A: It is very useful to find a team. If a team comprises a bunch of friends, then you don’t need any other network. It is good, just crazy. The amount of comfort that it will give you over a period of time, will help you to stay together. The fundamentals have to be right as well. Another thing is always look at long-term gains because whenever you focus on short-term gains, you ruin things. The moment you start thinking short term, everybody starts thinking the same way. And if you have long-term focus, others would follow too, and that really makes a lot of difference to what you can achieve.
We need to understand that a lot of these things, esp., hardware is not created overnight. It takes time, a lot of effort, several failed experiments. You have to go through an entire cycle before you can arrive at something which is reasonable. It is very important to have patience. Give it time. Not everything can be built by employing more people to do a task. That’s why geniuses exist, that’s why talent exists. So bet on yourself. Take difficult challenges. Have the staying power with the right backup.