Young entrepreneurs develop devices for smart homes and take on giants in the field
Picture this: It’s a busy day at work and you leave home early to beat the traffic. On your way, you suddenly wonder: did I turn the geyser off in the bathroom?
You are at work and the kids are at home studying for their tests next week. A thought strikes: are they studying or watching TV?
You are driving back home from work and it has been a long and tiring day. You think: I wish I could switch on the AC in the bedroom and cool it before I get home?
Do any of these situations seem familiar? If yes, imagine a scenario where you can control any or all of these devices using your smartphone or tablet and switch them on or off wherever you are.
Bah, I’m not Bill Gates or Warren Buffet you say! Well, thanks to three wonderfully talented and innovative students from IIT Guwahati, you need not be.
And a smart home – a home where any device that uses electricity can be at your command via a smartphone or tablet – is not just the privilege of the super-rich and the tech-savvy any longer.
It was in 2013 that three IIT Guwahati students – Dhruv Ratra (24) and Swati Vyas (25) doing Electronics & Communication, and Rahul Bhatnagar (25) doing Computer Science - came up with the idea of a smart home.
Together, the trio were exploring how wireless systems can be used to connect electronic devices at home and how they can mutually interact to perform various functions.
Encouraged by their mentors to incubate this idea at IIT Guwahati’s technology incubation centre, they were surprised and delighted when they realized that their idea had huge potential of becoming a commercially viable product.
Soon, Ratra, Bhatnagar and Vyas realized that such a product was already available in the market and big brand names like Schneider, Legrand and Honeywell were in the business of creating automated homes.
Instead of getting disheartened, the three engineers decided to treat this surprise discovery as a challenge.
“We decided to develop a product that can compete with the existing ones in the market. And our USP would be to cut the electricity cost and use higher quality manufacturing,” says Ratra, explaining a life-changing moment for the trio.
What started as a small idea four years ago at IIT Guwahati has today become a successful private limited company called Cubical Labs with a base in New Delhi.
Cubical Labs currently has products like Cubical Master (a central hub that interacts with the electrical switches to control various appliances), Cubical Switches (a device that is fitted behind the switch panel and lets you control all the gadgets connected to the panel through your smartphone) and Cubical Aura (a device packed with a dozen sensors and infrared blasters that helps in intelligent control of electrical appliances).
Their products have already been installed in approximately 1,500 homes across the country and they have advance bookings for at least 10,000 more units.
“We started off with a loan of 25 lakh rupees from IIT Guwahati in 2013, but we had a clear idea of where we were going right from day one. We developed wireless prototypes initially but it was only in January 2016 that Cubical Labs brought out its first set of products,” says Ratra, who plays a key role in product development.
Currently, he is most excited about their latest product, Cubical Aura, which he says is “a magical device”.
Describing the product and its features, he says, “It allows you to control all your electrical appliances using a smartphone. You can switch your lights, fans and ACs on and off, you can schedule timings to start and stop your water motor, you can control the TV and much more.
“The best part is that this can be done from any part of the world. If you have forgotten to switch off your electrical appliances and have gone out of the city, you can switch them off using your phone!
“What’s more, Cubical Aura can adapt itself to your usage pattern and temperature requirements and thus saves up to 20 per cent energy at home!”
With such an array of useful products, it is no wonder that builders soon queued up to install Cubical Labs’ products in their homes.
The builders who are associated with them presently include big names like Mantri, Antriksh and Omaxe among others.
The Cubical Labs team is hopeful that their products will soon overtake products by the established players. “A Honeywell product for a 3-bedroom flat costs Rs 3-4 lakh while ours costs Rs 60,000-70,000 and connects at least 30 devices,” says Bhatnagar with pride.
Explaining the reasons behind their optimism, Vyas says, “Our products are built for Indian conditions while the bigger brands are meant for western countries where the electricity supply is not erratic.
“Also, Cubical Labs has its own proprietary technology and doesn’t have to pay anyone to use its wireless protocol. Our product is completely wireless and can be easily retrofitted whereas other companies engage in a lengthy process of wiring.
“You can shift your retrofit products to a new location at a nominal installation cost, which is less than 5 per cent of the product cost. We also ensure that our after-sale services are very prompt and offer a one-year guarantee with product replacements.”
The team is now working on a gen next product to enhance security in homes. “We will soon be launching a product with motion sensors to prevent theft from homes. It should be out in the market in six to seven months,” says Ratra.
Their products are currently available only in metro cities like Bangalore, Delhi, and Mumbai and the team is in the process of expanding sales to Tier II cities.
After getting seed funding from IIT Guwahati in 2013, Cubical Labs raised funding of Rs one crore in December 2015 from different investors. The company subsequently went through a rough patch.
By October 2016, they found themselves in a financial crisis and didn’t have enough money to go into production to meet the market demands.
In December 2016, new investors came to their rescue and pumped in money which helped them sail through the rough waters. And that was just the impetus that the young entrepreneurs needed to turn things around.
Currently, Cubical Labs has offices in Delhi and Mumbai, a strength of 70 employees and has generated a turnover of Rs 6.5 crores this year with a projected cumulative revenue of Rs 25 crore in the coming year.
The company aims to make a foray into the hospitality industry for which they have developed ventilation and air conditioning systems that can cut electricity costs by 30 per cent.
They have already signed a contract with the Grand Hyatt in New Delhi and are in the process of negotiating with other major hotels chains in the country. “We are in touch with high-end hotels and are hopeful of signing on some big names,” says Bhatnagar.
While the company is poised to catapult itself into the next rung now, it was not an easy task for the three founders to turn their dreams into reality.
Vyas, who comes from Jaipur, worked in an MNC after she passed out of IIT. “It was a risky affair to leave my job and start something from scratch. My parents were not supportive of the idea because of the uncertainties.
“I gave up a big salary at the MNC and earned only Rs 25,000 at Cubical Labs. However, it is fully worth it and I’m am happy that I made the decision,” says Vyas with the assurance of someone who has lasted through the tough times.
As for Ratra, whose parents are in the services and are based in Faridabad, he already had a fellowship to do his PhD after IIT.
“I was planning to go abroad for my PhD until our project idea was formulated properly. I was in two minds, but the emotional connect to the project made me stay back. Fortunately, I was supported by my family and I do not regret my decision at all,” he says.
Bhatnagar, who interned at Amazon after he finished at IIT, was quick to make a decision to start his own company.
“The fact that we would create our own product from something that started as a research project was exciting enough for me to take the plunge,” he quips.
Obviously then, as far as these young entrepreneurs are concerned, three is a company!
This Article is Part of the 'Super Startups' Series
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