Startup mantra: BatteryPool aims to solve charging conundrum for EV fleets

BySalil Urunkar
Sep 11, 2021 05:24 PM IST

The Pune-based BatteryPool startup, founded by Ashwin Shankar, is solving challenges around battery swapping that can lead to downtime of EVs via its flagship product

PUNE Electric is the future of mobility,” say experts. Users of electric vehicles (EV) are presently concerned about the lack of charging infrastructure. One of the popular solutions being adopted by the industry is that of “battery swapping”.

Ashwin Shankar, founder of startup BatteryPool, with his employees at his offfice at Magarpatta in Pune. (SHANKAR NARAYAN/HT)
Ashwin Shankar, founder of startup BatteryPool, with his employees at his offfice at Magarpatta in Pune. (SHANKAR NARAYAN/HT)

However, not all EV manufacturers have common battery specifications.

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The Pune-based BatteryPool startup, founded by Ashwin Shankar, is solving challenges around battery swapping that can lead to downtime of EVs via its flagship product, internet of things (IoT) based, intelligent battery-swapping station for fleets and commercial electric vehicles.

In the beginning

After his schooling at Loyola High School, Shankar earned a Bachelor of Science and Master’s degree in electrical engineering from Purdue University and from Stanford University, respectively. Shankar then moved back to India in 2015. For a year, he was working at a technology policy think-tank, the Centre for Technology, Innovation and Economic Research (CTIER), where he explored technology and innovation in the automotive industry.

During the same period, there was an increase in the awareness about EVs following the Government of India’s announcement to go all-electric by 2030.

Says Shankar, “We were looking at the technology policy in the Indian context. Being in Pune we were looking at the automotive industry in terms of innovation and technological progress. With all the learnings, experiences and skill-sets that I had gathered over the years, EVs seemed an interesting space. I was thinking about entrepreneurship and decided to build my own startup company. BatteryPool was founded in January 2018.”

Lessons from the fleet

BatteryPool was initially funded through the Entrepreneurs-in- Residence (EIR) programme under the National Initiative for Developing and Harnessing Innovations (NIDHI) programme launched by Department of Science and Technology for nurturing ideas and innovations – knowledge-based and technology-driven – into successful startups.

Says Shankar, “While I was working at the policy think-tank, I had a chance to interact with NCL Venture Centre. I was subscribed to an email list and I got to know about the fellowship through them. It seemed like an interesting arrangement as there are not too many programmes that let you do that.”

After the DST fellowship, BatteryPool also got some other grants that allowed Shankar and his team to experiment. He says, “These grants helped us understand the EV space. We realised that in India the adoption of EVs is going to happen for commercial and fleet operations. We wanted to understand the challenges fleet operators faced. So, I put in my own money into a fleet of 20 EV two-wheelers. We gave those EVs to delivery professionals and small businesses in Pune.”

“Running this fleet for a year, we identified the problems first hand. From vehicles running out of charge in the middle of deliveries to drivers not being able to locate charge points when they wanted to recharge their battery packs, there were existing bottlenecks. At the backend we were building hardware and software products that helped us address these operational challenges,” he recalls.

Pivoting to tech-first

Within months of starting up, Shankar realised that the fleet business was operationally heavy. It was financially intensive, managing people and vehicles. So, around June 2020, Shankar decided to pivot.

Says Shankar, “During our fleet operations we learnt that delivery professionals can’t afford downtime. They always need to be on the move. One important realisation was that for fleet operators there is no standard battery pack. Every vehicle manufacturer has his own battery standard and so it doesn’t make sense to have a swapping solution where you are forcing a battery pack on an end user. We also noticed that fleet operators were have their own applications. Hence, going for an Application Programming Interface first (API) made a lot more sense than pushing an app on the end user. We had realised that we had a market for swap solutions. Fleets were also coming up in other parts of the country.”

Charging solutions

Says Shankar, “We are developing charging solutions for fleets and commercial vehicle applications. Delivery professionals can’t afford to wait three to four hours in the day for a battery recharge. Our flagship product for this segment is our battery swapping station where drivers can exchange their battery packs in a matter of seconds. What is unique about the battery swapping station is that we are battery-agnostic. We don’t push any battery pack on to the customer. We work around their battery pack specifications.”

“We typically work with large fleet customers or large battery operators. Ours is a software-first hardware product which means that these fleet operators or existing battery swapping operators can just attach an application onto the swapping station. They don’t have to download separate applications. They can use their existing API to get access to the station,” Shankar said.

Battery agnostic… but not inter-operable

“Being battery agnostic does not mean that people can take any battery to any station for recharge. It is more that hardware and software can be used across different types of batteries,” explains Shankar.

He adds, “Traditional battery swapping operators in today’s market have a certain battery standard which they try to push to end customers. Fleet operators have to retrofit their vehicles and make sure that the vehicle is compatible with battery packs. Our business model and hardware is able to cater to different types of battery packs. Our hardware and software, the entire technology stack, is compatible with customer batteries. It is not interoperable, but it is agnostic in a sense that our hardware can work with any batteries.”

“Also, fleet operators have their own applications for drivers. Our swapping station ties into their application. The delivery professional uses their existing last-mile delivery application to access the station,” he added.

Software development

Says Shankar, “In the initial days, we were building the hardware first, but we knew that there has to be a software as it can’t be just a hardware kind of mechanism. From the swap station diagnostics standpoint, we wanted to know the health of the station. Whether batteries being deposited are in good health or not? So we needed software to talk to the batteries. This software would then determine which door should open and close and which battery should be accepted. The hardware communicates with battery ensuring a non-compatible battery is not being deposited.”

“It took us a year for us to come to a state to take our product to customers. The software development came quickly in two month. Iterations are happening till date and new versions of our software are coming up based on ground feedback and how the entire EV ecosystem is developing.”

Market and deployments

Delhi NCR is the biggest market for BatteryPool, claims Shankar. “Recently, we have signed large contracts/POs with one of India’s largest e-rickshaw fleets. We are also planning to introduce Smart Plug-In chargers for fleet/commercial EVs without swappable battery packs in the near future,” he stated.

“Commercial EVs are picking up in the last mile delivery, shared mobility, e-rickshaw segment in Delhi region. In Pune we are seeing a demand in the two-wheeler segment for last-mile delivery applications. Bengaluru is also an important market for us which will soon witness some deployments,” Shankar said.

“We have deployments in east Africa countries as well. In fact, our first customer is from Kenya. A large EV company there was looking for setting up swapping stations and we got their order.”

Challenges in deployment

Says Shankar, “From the product side, it’s everything about how the user interacts with the swapping station. Indian consumers interact very differently compared to the West. There are problems of low network coverage, power cuts. Considering these challenges, we had to build lot of things at the swapping stations on the hardware and software side. We realised the magnitude of this problem when we deployed some stations.”

“We need internet (IoT based-devices) to access intelligence to the swapping solution. We had cases of no good coverage even within cities, thereby impeding the network application. We tried to locally reduce the dependence on internet connectivity. So we did computing on EDGE which means a lot of intelligence happens on the hardware itself instead of relying on the internet.”

If power goes off in middle of a swap, what happens? Shankar says, “As of now we don’t have any solution for this. As an alternative solution, we record the swap, but there is no backup for station. We are planning to give a small battery backup where it will at least open the doors and give access to batteries, if not charge them. There is manual way of opening the swap station doors. We also give training to the operators and a super-admin access to the operators. We have a Standard Operating Procedure about how to install the station and check whether the station is working properly after deployment.”

Investor quote

“The EV ecosystem in India is evolving rapidly. The use case of going electric is well-known as running costs for fleet operators’ contract. By 2030, the fleet and commercial vehicle charging market size is set to reach $2.7 billion, as these will become electrified. BatteryPool is walking on a path to capture a huge opportunity with India witnessing a rapid shift to electric mobility in the 2&3 wheeler segment, which is where EV adoption will see tremendous velocity. We will offer our proprietary software & hardware solutions and embrace a collaborative platform as we build on our partnerships with OEMs and fleet operators.” -Arjun Seth, Lead Investor at Indian Angel Network

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