V S Hariharan: The journey of a solar entrepreneur

Third Wave Power, a Singaporean cleantech start-up, aspires to provide affordable and innovative renewable power solutions that serve portable energy needs in both urban and rural areas. A few months back they launched their flagship product, mPowerpad, a portable solar charger, that also doubles up as a radio, a reading light, an insect repellent and a flashlight!

Vinodini Chitrakaran, Guest Writer for Green Collar Asia met with V.S. Hariharan, Co-founder of Third Wave Power, who shares his experiences as a cleantech entrepreneur.

GCA: What was the main inspiration that led you to start this company? Was it something you always wanted to do or was it something that just struck you and took the bold decision to leave your job at HP?

V S Hariharan
Photo courtesy: Third Wave Power

V.S. Hariharan: There are two unconnected incidents that triggered this. One, I had had a good journey at HP but wanted to take a break from going after quarterly numbers and all that and just wanted to hang up my boots. Entrepreneurship was always in my blood; most of the jobs I held at HP were in new divisions and growth divisions. So when I left the company in January 2011, I wanted to take some time out. I knew that eventually I wanted to do something that had a social impact, both at urban and rural levels.

Second, like a god-send I got a call from Frank Levinson from Small World Group (SWG) in March 2011. Another ex-colleague of mine from HP, Chong Chiet Ping, had also joined SWG and knew that I had left HP. Frank and Chong were looking for CEOs for small clean-tech companies that they wanted to set up. So I went out to have a chat with Frank. He showed me a few ideas and asked me to pick one. Even though I really didn’t want to work the same 10-12 hours a day again, before I knew it, within the next 48 hours I was hooked and we were working with a lawyer, creating a company!

My expertise being more in sales and marketing, I started looking for someone who would be my better half in terms of designing the product. It just so happened that my co-founder Lim Chuin Kiat had also left his job around then. I had worked with him before in HP. So I asked him if he was interested to join me and gave him 24 hours to decide! He got back to me and we both went to Frank and agreed to get going. We put up the business plan to the Government-funded National Research Foundation (NRF) and it got approved. Actually I had decided to go on a 4 week vacation in April 2011. I went on vacation after incorporating the company and came back in May and started the operations. I would say that I was just lucky. I wanted to get into entrepreneurship, I wanted to do something with social impact; I didn’t think that I would get into it so quickly after leaving HP. It was just timing!

GCA: From inception to starting your full flung operations, do you say that it literally took a few days?

V.S.Hariharan: My discussion with Frank and agreeing to jump into it took about 3 days. And then for my design partner, everyday for two weeks, I was meeting and speaking to different R&D people I had worked with at HP. It didn’t cross my mind that Chuin Kiat would have left his job. After he said yes, it took us 24 hours to set up the company. Once that was done, I went on that four-week vacation I badly wanted to take and came back. Frank had some R&D engineers in the US who had started working on the design for an accelerometer. So we inherited that idea and by June 2011 we hired a few engineers. Chuin Kiat and the team designed the product very quickly and we had our first prototype by November 2011.

GCA: Did you have a venture capitalist backing you as well?

V.S.Hariharan: Actually at first we had a seed incubator backing us, Small World Group. The concept was that for every dollar they put in, NRF would put in five. This is in the form of convertible bonds, so we got a funding of S$ 800,000 at first. It’s a standard scheme run by NRF, which saw us through the first phase of product design and taking it to the market.

GCA: How did you originally come up with the design of the product?

V.S.Hariharan: Small World Group was a key catalyst that got us into working on a solar product. We talked about targeting the power starved rural and remote areas. With the fall in solar panel prices, the last 5 years have seen a proliferation of entry level solar products like lanterns and solar chargers.

Increasingly, gadgets today are battery hungry and consequently, there is an increasing demand for charging solutions in urban as well as rural areas. For example, outdoor professionals who travel away from the power grid need chargers for their batteries to power their music players and tablets or laptops. In rural areas for example, smart phones and tablets are already being used. There are either power cuts or low voltage or difference in the voltage, because of which one cannot charge devices from the transmission grid.

mPowerpad
Photo courtesy: Third Wave Power

So a product idea for a charging system began to take shape, which could be portable, would have multiple functions to target a mass market segment and would fit into the continuum between sub S$ 25 solar products and the S$ 300 home solar systems.

We took this concept on paper and went out and tested it with a bunch of energy professionals. I ended up at an ADB conference in Manila in June last year and met a lot of people there. Based on what was already in the market and what was not there, we came up with the first product, the mPowerpad. We wanted to put in enough features to see if we could reach out to as many segments as possible and then use our learnings to make specific products for each segment. We originally started with about 10 or 12 functions and kind of sheared off a few to keep the features that made sense.

Secondly we noticed that most of the existing solar charging devices were compromising on the panel because they were all trying to create a form factor like an iPhone. A solar panel of that size is pointless because it would take 4 days for it to charge a phone. So we knew that we needed to start with a minimum footprint that made sense. We wanted batteries that could be charged in 6 hours of direct sunlight and the battery capacity to support multiple functions. Hence the tablet-sized form factor evolved. For instance, with one charging cycle, you can use an mPowerpad to charge a smart phone and use the reading light for 4-5 hours. Or it could last for 20 hours of just using the reading light.

The product also had to be rugged for use in rough environments. So we built it to be dust-resistant, water-resistant and bump-resistant.

Finally, we put a gesture based user interface, to make it completely solid state. It’s got no mechanical buttons and switches. It works intuitively.


Video link here

GCA: What market segments are you targeting?

V.S.Hariharan: We target 4 major market segments for mPowerpad- two are urban oriented segments for outdoor enthusiasts and field professionals while the other two are focused on rural and remote areas. We know that once we reach higher volumes, we can get to an affordable price point for rural homes. That’s clearly the goal of the company. We have realized that this can become an income generating device in rural areas, finding application in group lighting, phone charging and educational purposes, to name a few.

All these 4 segments are evolving and there will be staggered growths in different countries depending on the applications.

GCA: Where do you stand against your competition?

V.S.Hariharan: If you search on the web, you will find over 10,000 solar chargers, not one or two! That was actually our concern in the beginning. But my initial screening process of going and talking to channel partners and customers was very revealing. A lot of people had been burnt by Chinese products that did not meet the design promise, or had small and inefficient solar panels that took several days to charge, or were products that just stopped working after a week. We realized that there was a big quality-gap there. Then on the other end of the spectrum, you have some really good solar chargers made in the US. But again, they are focused mainly on the outdoor-hobby verticals. These products are well designed, but are meant for the US market. The battery capacities are much larger and the panels are smaller. It is meant to target users who always come back to a power grid within 2 days.

We had an opportunity to design something that straddles urban and rural markets. Rural was, in many cases, untouched and there were not many products out there. Our product is also easy to operate, which automatically appeals to a value conscious mass market. This is where we stand now, and as we progress down the roadmap, you will see products from us which are even more mass market.

GCA: For the benefit of those who want to launch a green start-up, what types of grants are available?

V.S.Hariharan: There are a lot of potential schemes and opportunities that people can avail of in Singapore, mostly backed by the Government and they are all interesting schemes. If you want a small amount of money you can go to any of the university incubators like Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and National University of Singapore (NUS), that have their own incubation units. You need to have a good idea and a good plan and you need to be able to articulate that plan. If you want a larger amount of funding, you have the Technology Incubation Scheme from NRF, which we went for. NRF has 7 shortlisted incubators in different sectors. Basically the way it works is, you need to present your idea to a commercial incubator; if they find it good, they ask you to put together a good business plan. They take this business plan to NRF and if they approve, you get the funding.

There are similar investment options or grants available for SMEs from Spring Singapore, IDA and the Economic Development Board. I have generally found that both government departments and the commercial incubators are very supportive- I won’t say it’s easy, but if you have a good idea, have passion, and present it well, you can get support for it.

GCA: Where is your product being manufactured?

V.S.Hariharan: Different components are sourced from different parts of the world and all the electronic parts are actually off the shelf. Only the solar panels, the sleeves and the moulds are custom designed. The assembling and integration of the final product is done in Johor Bahru, Malaysia.

GCA: How long is it going to take you to break even and start making profits?

V.S.Hariharan: Our goal is to break even by end of 2013.

GCA: What’s been your experience so far as an entrepreneur and what kind of challenges have you faced that made you want to tear your hair out?

V.S.Hariharan: Not one but many! But still, it has been a wonderful, fulfilling journey, the last 4 weeks being the most enjoyable. Now I know it’s serious and here to stay.

mPowerpad
Photo courtesy: Third Wave Power

At first, we got all sorts of comments: why didn’t we design it thinner? Did we need all these functions? Were we going after too many customer segments? We got past that hurdle when we first showed this product at the Clean Energy Expo Asia tradeshow in Singapore. We got an overwhelming response with over 200 press articles, and over 30,000 Google hits.

The second challenge was to raise funds to meet our expansion plans. Feverishly, between November last year and February 2012, we knocked at many doors to raise about S$ 2 million. The good news is that we are done now and we have closed the financing.

The third challenge was beta testing of the product to see what would be the feedback of customers.

The fourth challenge was figuring out where to manufacture; we had cost targets to meet.

Then we were anxious about how the product would actually perform in the market. Were we going to get back unreliable units? Would there be quality problems? Would all those who promised to buy really come back for more? Anyway, the last one month has been the most exciting because now we have several channel partners buying from us, including repeat orders. Now we feel the momentum. Incidentally, our geographical scope has expanded to include Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Korea and the US as well. Initially we were only thinking of selling in Singapore, Malaysia and India. It’s all coming together and we see potential for global play.

We have built a good team across all functions now. All this happened in a year.

GCA: In a span of about one year, you created a product concept, developed prototypes, ran a market test across geographies, started manufacturing and selling globally! How did you manage to get all this done so quickly?

V.S.Hariharan: This was possible because of the fantastic team we have. They are experienced, highly self-motivated and independent. They love what they do and this makes the teamwork great.

We are also lucky to have had great support from all sides. Our incubator Small World Group gave us a head-start on the technology apart from mentoring. Our partnerships during the prototyping process with another Small World Group Inubatee, our partnerships in manufacturing, our marcom agency, PR agency; they all have worked well together to help us build this ship.

GCA: As an entrepreneur if you were given 3 wishes, what would they be?

V.S.Hariharan: The thing I would love is to add more hours in the day! Secondly, when I go talk to people, I wish they would give my product the highest priority. For me this is a core part of my life, but for others, sometimes, my product may not be the highest priority. Third, I wish there was a consultant who would just solve all the tiny, nagging problems for us! But in reality, solving some of these operational hurdles has to be learnt the hard way. Nobody teaches you this.

GCA: How do you keep yourself motivated and what words of advice would you give to new entrepreneurs?

V.S.Hariharan: I would say keep going; the important thing is that when the momentum picks up, you need to ride on it. You will have enough negative things to deal with in a day, but there are positive things as well. The positive is all the wins that you have, even the little wins. Celebrate them! Sharing it with everybody else is key.

Third Wave Power was co-founded by VS Hariharan and Lim Chuin Kiat. mPowerpad retails at S$ 139 onwards.

Comments

  1. Alessandro Antonioli says:

    Dear V.S.,
    it’s great to hear stories like yours. Hope to meet you soon in person.

    Alessandro

  2. Harikumar says:

    Hi Hari,
    Fantastic concept. I am sure that you will be going great heights.
    Cheers
    Hari

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