Startup Chronicles: Uton Energia – A Viable Micro-Mobility Solution to Ease India’s Public Transportation Woes

SriHarsha Vardhan Kanumalla’s childhood fascination with automobiles led him to develop a race car and an electric car during his undergraduate years. His passion sustained through his professional years when he was employed in Bengaluru and had to suffer a tedious daily commute to work using the city’s public transportation system. Feeling frustrated with the lack of reliable public transport to cover the last mile to his final destination, SriHarsha started toying with the idea of building an affordable and convenient micro-mobility solution that would benefit commuters and serve the interests of India’s growing towns and cities.

Revving up the engine for a new era in urban transport

Believing the time was ripe to disrupt the country’s micro mobility space, Uton Energia was launched in January 2019. SriHarsha’s ambition was to leverage the technology used in electric vehicles to enable the convenient movement of people across cities in the most environment-friendly and sustainable way possible.

The idea for the startup’s name comes from the words ‘utility’ and ‘energy’, reflecting the company’s objective to foster innovation in the design of existing vehicles that will rethink mobility and enable India’s march towards sustainable mobility for all. The startup provides a solution for commuters to travel short distances—for the first and last mile—by developing a range of light-weight electric city bikes optimized for energy, resource efficiency and manufacturing scalability by focusing on quality and a streamlined design.  With this in mind, ‘Mute’, Uton Energia’s smart electric dockless bike was designed as a singe-seater vehicle option for commuters grappling with first-mile/last-mile issues, besides the rising levels of congestion on India’s roads. SriHarsha explains that his vision was to give easy access to an efficient and affordable transportation alternative that improves a customer’s commuting experience and paves the way to transform the urban transportation landscape.

Building a smart vehicle

The defining feature of Mute is its streamlined design that leverages Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) through its backend cloud technology. The cutting-edge technology enables a rider to ride seamlessly across the city. 

Mute is an attractive option for even B2C customers as its in-built predictive analytics and on-board diagnostic systems alert the user about potential vehicle failure. Further, the technology also monitors the health of the major components remotely, from the startup’s centralised data processing centre.

Consumers can book a Mute by opening its app near a Mute bike and unlocking it through the mobile and sensor. Mute is presently operational in Hyderabad and is planning to expand its B2C services and the sales of fortyfive to other metros and its B2C services to Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities.

The commuter is charged per ride, based on the distance travelled, rider behaviour and the way one parks the bike. In addition to sales, the company also generates revenue through commuter rides.

The company has a second bike called ‘fortyfive’ that is sold directly to consumers. Though the core technology for both the bike models remains the same, the predictive maintenance and fault detection in the after sales and service technology for fortyfive does away with the need for a dealership and comes with a three-year warranty to replace components.

The bike’s technological capabilities have been developed in a bid to eliminate the major challenges commuters face in urban India, such as theft, vandalism and parking problems. Equipped with 47 sensors and microprocessors, the vehicle’s movement is continually monitored. Alerts are sent to the user in case of any suspicious activity— such as an attempted theft or act of vandalism—by immobilising the bike and activating the theft alarm. The electric bike’s LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology assists the user with riding the bike, and its camera capabilities aid in parking the vehicle properly.

 The building blocks of a startup

SriHarsha explains that the company has been bootstrapped since its inception since family and friends largely funded it. The only outside funding has come from the Nidhi-Prayas grant from the Department of Science and Technology that helped the company build the vehicle’s prototype. The government grant came as a validation of the product’s potential capabilities to add value to the country’s micro-mobility space. The founder claims that the startup has been self-sustaining through revenues generated from the sale of Mute and is actively seeking funding from venture capitalists.

SriHarsha acknowledges the role of his friends in lending support on technical matters, easing his transition from a regular job to an entrepreneurial way of life.  Although Hyderabad is one of the most congested and polluted Indian cities, he chose the metro for its robust manufacturing capabilities and the easy access to a well-connected professional network. 

SriHarsha reveals that in the initial days of the company, the founder spread awareness of the product on social media platforms like LinkedIn and Instagram, highlighting the benefits of adapting to electric vehicles for people’s daily travels. The company is planning its future marketing strategy based on the data insights gained from commuter rides, such as ride patterns, age groups and other user-related information.

Opportunities and speed breakers along the way

Despite the various applications of the product, SriHarsha realised that immense opportunity lay in the B2C segment where commuters travel relatively shorter distances, both in the first-mile and last-mile parts of the journey.

Mute and fortyfive are also gaining traction in the B2C space in Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities without metros in the public transportation ecosystem.

Among challenges, the startup has had to contend with difficulty in finding skilled talent. Also, since it is a hardware startup, Uton Energia has faced a familiar pain point in this space—limited access to manufacturing in India. Additionally, the company has found it challenging to attract early-stage funding as investors typically shy away from startups that require heavy capital to widen the consumer base in the initial years. 

Moreover, since the product is manufactured in India, exporting it to other countries comes with its own set of challenges. 

Like its competitors Yulu and Bounce in the micro-mobility segment, Mute also encounters challenges, such as irresponsible parking, theft and vandalism. Uton Energia solved the problems resulting from theft and vandalism during the pilot stage, says SriHarsha.

On the path to becoming Aatmanirbhar

According to SriHarsha, Mute is manufactured out of India, primarily because the company wants to retain creative control over the product’s features and design. This would have been hard to accomplish remotely if the manufacturing had happened in an overseas location. However, the product’s cells are imported from the US and Korea as India has limited resources of lithium, a mineral essential for making batteries for electric vehicles.

SriHarsha believes that the day won’t be far off when India becomes self-sufficient in this regard as the government’s plans are already underway to build lithium-ion battery factories in the country.

The COVID-19 speed breaker

SriHarsha says the lockdown was an opportunity for his team to pause and take stock of the company’s internal workings. The team incorporated AI and ML into Mute(fortyfive) for predictive maintenance and fault detection. It will enable the company to solve almost all issues that users face remotely, thereby eliminating the dealership and service-related costs to the user and the company. According to SriHarsha, this approach would help the startup with the sales of the new product models that will be launched in Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities once business normalises after the pandemic.

As a result of disruptions caused by COVID-19, the startup also encountered major challenges related to manufacturing and procuring key components from the US and South Korea. Also, with lockdowns enforced at various national and international levels, the product’s work order has been stalled. Moreover, although most of the manufacturing is done in India, Uton Energia has suffered disruptions in the supply chain as India’s inter-state connectivity has been severely affected due to the multiple phases of lockdowns.  

Riding into the future

Notwithstanding the various challenges faced by Uton Energia in the current economic climate, the company has ambitious plans to partner with key players in the micro-mobility space in the US to transfer its technology to the American market effectively and, thus, expand its global footprint.

Ever since manufacturing and metro services came to a standstill, Uton Energia has pivoted to adapt to the evolving business environment. The company rents out its Mute bikes on a monthly basis to consumers to drive revenues in a time of crisis. Also in the pipeline are expansion plans within Hyderabad and to other major cities in the next six months. SriHarsha signs off on an optimistic note, “We aim to become the leading micro-mobility service provider in the country and also the only mobility service provider without any fleet in the next 2-3 years.”