Startup Saturday: Billion dollar chase for the next ‘Punicorn’ - Hindustan Times

Startup Saturday: Billion dollar chase for the next ‘Punicorn’

Hindustan Times, Pune | ByNamita Shibad
Jan 25, 2020 03:09 PM IST

The startup success rate is a humbling 10%. Of these 10%, less than half of one per cent will eventually be valued $1 billion dollars, or as is the nomenclature, a unicorn. Pune boasts two unicorns from the city’s startup ecosystem – Icertis and Druva. Namita Shibad, with expert aid, looks at three startups that could be the next “Punicorns”.

Inventing a cure underneath the... skin?!

Pune boasts two unicorns from the city’s startup ecosystem – Icertis and Druva.(Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Pune boasts two unicorns from the city’s startup ecosystem – Icertis and Druva.(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Ahammune, cure for vitiligo

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The money

Rs 2 crore from two grants

Undisclosed amount from angel investors

What’s the USP?

The new drug candidate basically cuts off the fuel that fires the immune system that kills the melanin cells, thereby causing vitiligo. Killing of these melanin causing cells causes vitiligo. This vitiligo relevant pathway has been tested on animal models of the disease that replicate human vitiligo, offering the translational advantage. No FDA approved drug for re-pigmentation

The key number

Unattended market with a forecast potential of $2.4 billion by 2024

Underneath the... skin?!

While pharma companies all over the world are finding solutions for almost all problems that afflict the human body, Ahammune is a small startup (incubated at Venture Centre), that first sought to find a cure for this skin disorder that is largely unattended to by Big Pharma. Says co-founder Parul Ganje, “In India vitiligo has a prevalence rate of 2%, but in Rajasthan and Gujarat it is as high as 8%. Though thought to be a cosmeceutical disease, the impact of vitiligo goes beyond, given the social issues a patient has to face. We decided to find a cure for this immune system disorder because no one has really focussed on it seriously.” Often, the path to drug discovery is long and treacherous. Several iterations, several misses, several big bucks and the solution, still elusive.

Parul Ganje, co-founder, Ahammune. (HT/PHOTO)
Parul Ganje, co-founder, Ahammune. (HT/PHOTO)

Auite audacious then for a small startup to go into such a territory? Says Ganje, “I have a PhD in skin biology and am quite aware of how people with vitiligo suffer. It was only natural that I take my learnings and hunt for a cure.”

Ahamunne has developed a drug that is formulated into a cream. “This cream has to be used for a period of at least three months before it starts working to change the pigments to natural colour. Our skin sheds its upper layer and that process takes a month till the cells at the lower layers come up,” says Ganje.

Ahamunne is currently undergoing clinical trials. Human trials are scheduled for next year.Ganje explains, “Large pharma companies have the wherewithal, the expertise and access to markets. While they too embark on the drug discovery path they are always on the lookout for innovations by smaller companies. If everything falls into place, we will leverage our innovation and licence our patent. Patents are the huge asset in the pharma world.”

The outside view

Ahamunne will need more funds. Drug discovery and trials are a money sucking machine. Having accessed two grants, sucessfull clinical trials should open up the government coffers. Ganesh Natrajan, entrepreneur and mentor, believes that Ahammune has the potential to be a unicorn, because, “It is a category creator both in Indian and global markets. And because valuation chases unique value propositions which benefit a large addressable customer base.”

Fuelling the future to be truly eco-nomical

Greenjoules , manufacture “drop-in” biofuel

The money

Greenjoules is looking to raise Rs 1,000 crore in the next 24 months.

Current funding not revealed


The biofuel is a completely interchangeable substitute for conventional petroleum-derived fuels like diesel and petrol. It does not require adaptation of the engine, fuel system or the fuel distribution network.

The key number

Diesel consumption in India is at 90 million kiloliters (1KL=1,000 litres) per annum

Fuelling the future

Greenjoules set up two years ago and is incubated at the Science and Technology Park. Currently petroleum companies purchase first generation biofuels like biodiesel (for blending into diesel), and ethanol (for blending into petrol). These biofuels cannot be used as 100% replacements and hence, must be blended with diesel or petrol. Besides, they consume vegetable crops as raw materials. Greenjoules developed innovative technology to make a biofuel that uses agri-waste, so there is no impinging on human/cattle consumption. Besides, it can be used as a 100% replacement for diesel. Viraraghavan (uses only one name), V Radhika, R Sethunath, VS Shridhar, and 21-year-old Shweta (uses only one name), founded Greenjoules to create the Abhilasha biofuel.

V Radhika, Viraraghavan, V Shweta, VS Shridhar and R Sethunath of Greenjoules. (HT/PHOTO)
V Radhika, Viraraghavan, V Shweta, VS Shridhar and R Sethunath of Greenjoules. (HT/PHOTO)

“We first identified certain specific agri-wastes and mixes and developed a process that gives us this biofuel with zero effluent generation in its production, giving users the biggest bang for the carbon footprint reduction buck,” says Viraraghavan.

“In five years, I think we can cross the billion dollar mark. There are many forces that are working in our favor. India is introducing the Bharat VI fuel standard and we meet it. Companies are getting conscious about clean fuels. In its Biofuels Policy, 2018, the government has recognised “drop-in fuels”. We have a report from IIT Chennai IC Engine Labs that has found our fuel equal in performance to diesel on efficiency and consumption, among other metrics,” Viraraghavan adds.

Greenjoules set up its manufacturing facility in Chakan, Pune in June last year and has a production capacity of 150 KL every month.

According to Viraraghvan there are a few speed breakers the company faces. “The first problem we face is acceptance. Even though our product is tested and validated by IIT Chennai, meets with the Indian diesel standards (BIS:1460) and is is in use, companies, while accepting that they need to reduce their carbon footprint and adapt biofuels, are reluctant adopters. What we have noticed is that a manager is judged on operational performance rather than adopting innovative practices that will lead to greater efficiencies. As a result, though they can see it work they do not want to jump onto something new, especially if the fuel is not certified by the engine makers.”

“We need to work on getting large manufacturers of boilers and engine OEMs to ratify our fuel, then the users of their equipment will be more open to using it, Viraraghvan believes.

The other challenge is sales to petroleum companies.

While there is a robust program to buy Biodiesel and Ethanol, Drop-In fuels are not part of this program currently even though Government Policy recognizes these fuels as Biofuels. To facilitate that, Greenjoules is now approaching the Indian Institute of Petroleum at Dehradun to get their certificate as well. In parallel, we also need to advocate policy change with the Government, so petroleum companies start using Drop-In fuels like ours.

The outside view

Hardik Joshi, director, entrepreneur engagement and training, Science & Technology Park, Pune, believes Green Joules has the potential to be a unicorn because, “All the co-founders have led several teams and companies. The product they have developed is far superior to other solutions in the market and it is easily replicable, so it is possible for them to licence their technology. This is apart from the basic fact that the sheer market size provides potential for growth.”

Omni-channeling the unorganised sector

Gabbar Deals, omnichannel mobile retail

The money

In first five months - gross merchandise volume (GMV) of Rs 40 crore

No funding revealed

The key number(s)

Currently, Gabbar claims to have has tied up with 30 mobile phone stores in Maharashtra. The company has served 12,000 customers since launch five months ago.


Accessing the billion-dollar unorganised mobile retail space, transforming the manner in which business is conducted

Setting opportunity

Currently, offline stores complain about losing business to online portals. Online portals offer huge discounts and tackle humungous logistics to ensure viable economics.

Now, meet the omnichannel - where offline and online serve customer needs. Neeraj Raka of Gabbar Deals sees things differently and aims to capture “a huge opportunity”. No less than the mighty Reliance is moving to monetise, for itself, unorganised retail in India. However, at the micro-scale Raka does have first-mover advantage. Says Raka, “Our model is win-win for everyone - brand, retailer, consumer.

Raka explains, “Let’s say you go onto an e-commerce platform to buy a phone. The e-com platform/brand website will accept your order and then get into huge logistics acrobatics to deliver your phone within 24 hours, at the very least. This can go up to a few days too.”

In comes Gabbar Deals. “You buy a mobile phone online and Gabbar Deals B-to-C app ensures delivery within two hours. The delivery person is an expert, who can assist the customer. The customer pays the original online portal price. This is largely on account of the rationalisation of discounts being offered by online portals in this category,” says Raka. Customer satisfied.

Neeraj Raka of Gabbar Deals. (Shankar Narayan/HT PHOTO)
Neeraj Raka of Gabbar Deals. (Shankar Narayan/HT PHOTO)

Now, retailer. Says Raka, “Gabbar also helps negotiate commissions given by the manufacturer.”And platform where order was placed? “The retailer gets what he would otherwise, while the e comm platform and I share a commission percentage,” says Raka.

Will Gabbar Deals take on other categories? “That will have to wait. Our business model helps customers get the best deal along with service. We help online portals shed logistics cost while helping offline stores expand businesses,” is all Raka is saying for now.

The view from outside

Manish Gandhi, managing Partner, Venture Catalyst believes Gabbar Deals has the potential to become a Gabbar (unicorn), because, “They can change the way the mobile phone industry works by synergizing offline and online retail to get a win-win situation for all players.”

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