Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

India's deeptech sector is on the cusp of commercialisation

India's deeptech sector is about a decade away from becoming mainstream, but several promising startups, from robotics to space exploration to biotech, are ready to do business

Harichandan Arakali
Published: Jul 3, 2024 04:06:07 PM IST
Updated: Jul 3, 2024 04:17:50 PM IST

A collective effort to make it easier for businesses to support local deeptech startups will also contribute to the development of the ecosystem.
Image: Freepik.comA collective effort to make it easier for businesses to support local deeptech startups will also contribute to the development of the ecosystem. Image: Freepik.com
 
Let’s start with a quick update on some of the deeptech startups we featured in our special issue on the sector last year. In the last six months, at Ati Motors, which makes autonomous mobile robots for industrial applications, customers have begun to use the Bengaluru startup’s products in every market the venture targeted, including the US, India and Southeast Asia.

“The US traction has especially been very good and we have succeeded in putting a team in place with an office in Detroit,” CEO Saurabh Chandra says. The number of Ati’s robots deployed has hit the 100-unit mark.

CynLr, another industrial robotics company out of Bengaluru, is running commercial pilots for its “general-purpose visual robotics solution”, called CyRo, at General Motors and Denso.

“A pipeline of automotive original equipment manufacturers and Tier I vendors in the US, EU and Japan are evaluating the same for adoption,” co-founder and CEO Nikhil Ramaswamy says. CynLr has also set up a subsidiary in Switzerland and expects to open an R&D lab there by September, and another in Michigan, US, by December.

Eyestem, which is developing a treatment for the dry version of a condition called age-related macular degeneration, has been given a regulatory go-ahead for human trials. The life sciences startup, incubated at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platforms (C-CAMP), has teamed up with the LV Prasad Eye Institute to test its proprietary product, named Eyecyte RPE, to see if it can help replace lost or damaged retinal pigment epithelium cells.

A collective effort to make it easier for businesses to support local deeptech startups will also contribute to the development of the ecosystem.
Image: Freepik.com“We want to reach a much larger patient base than most cell and gene therapies worldwide,” Jogin Desai, founder and CEO of Eyestem, says. The aim is to use this cell therapy platform to develop products for large-scale availability, he says.

At Bellatrix Aerospace, founders Rohan Ganapathy and Yashas Karanam are transitioning their venture from a maker of in-space propulsion systems to a space taxi business for a variety of Indian and multinational customers. They’re looking to raise more money, as they move to set up a bigger, state-of-the-art factory in Bengaluru.

These companies aren’t outliers. India’s deeptech startup sector, while nascent, is seeing several startups a hop, skip and jump away from commercialising their products. And influential decision-makers are taking notice—from experienced venture capital investors to government technocrats at the highest level.

“If you look at the top 50 deeptech companies in India across segments, I would say the technology is developed. There’s no tech risk per se anymore,” says Rajan Anandan, managing director at Peak XV—formerly Sequoia Capital’s India and Southeast Asia unit—who leads the VC firm’s deeptech efforts as well as its seed and early-stage programme, Surge. “What is now required is just scaling up commercialisation.” And this is reflected in Peak XV’s own portfolio startups as well, he says.

For example, at Ethereal Machines, founders Kaushik Mudda and Navin Jain are pioneering on-demand CNC “machining as a service” for multinational customers—out of a factory in Bengaluru (CNC stands for computer numerical control, a precision manufacturing technology).

Also read: Building India's deeptech infra not a choice but a critical necessity: Zinnov's Vikalp Sharma

Mudda and Jain, on June 13 announced raising $13 million in Series A funding, led by Peak XV and Steadview Capital, to build a much bigger plant and add more of the proprietary 5-axis machines they designed and developed in-house.

At Newtrace Energy, founders Prasanta Sarkar and Rochan Sinha have developed a proprietary membrane-less electrolyser to produce green hydrogen for industrial use. They can make about 20 of these in a year for now, each of 1 MW capacity, at a pilot plant in Bengaluru. They’re working towards both ramping up sales of these products and building larger, 10 MW electrolysers.

As a nation, we also need to talk a lot more about the work our top deeptech-focussed academic institutions are doing so that a broader audience is aware of their efforts, says Arpit Agarwal, a partner at Blume Ventures, who leads the Bengaluru VC firm’s deeptech investments. Such conversations will lead to a wider understanding of what it takes to translate technology from lab to market, he says.

A collective effort to make it easier for businesses to support local deeptech startups will also contribute to the development of the ecosystem.
Image: Freepik.comSome of these institutions include the IIT-Madras Research Park, IIT-Bombay’s Society for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, the Foundation for Science Innovation and Development (formerly the Society for Innovation and Development) at the Indian Institute of Science, the Venture Center in Pune, C-CAMP in Bengaluru, and in general the work done by the Department of Biotechnology’s BIRAC (Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council).

Second, “very often, and I think we can’t fault the businesses for this, there is a tendency for businesses to buy what is available cheapest and not necessarily where they are able to support local startups”, Agarwal says.

A collective effort to make it easier for businesses to support local deeptech startups will also contribute to the development of the ecosystem. And finally, Agarwal would also like to see a greater proportion of graduates from science and engineering colleges joining deeptech startups. “When this happens, there is a full life cycle ahead of them,” he says.

“Especially if there are academics or PhDs in science and deep science and deep technology, it’s a great time to start up in India,” Anandan says. “Our ecosystem is coming together and if you’re Indian-origin academic anywhere in the world or you’re a scientist (from India) anywhere in the world, come back to India and start up,” he adds. “We’re excited about what’s going on here.”

In the pages that follow, we bring you profiles of some of these startups that have overcome phenomenal challenges, and developed products that are almost ready for the market. Like Agnikul’s rocket. From this point onwards, deeptech companies that are close-to-commercialisation will face more traditional challenges such as execution and fundraising because they’ll need factories, Anandan says. However, if homegrown deeptech is to make a meaningful contribution to India’s progress, he adds, “the thing is, we don’t need just 50 companies. We need 5,000”.

(This story appears in the 12 July, 2024 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)