A shiny white sphere speaker floating magically above its magnetic base like a spacecraft hovering above earth. Insoles that double up as fitness trackers. An automatic dosa maker. The line-up for Amazon Launchpad, a curated collection of products from start-ups now available on the Amazon India website, provides a quick snapshot of innovators. India head Amit Agarwal says the timing seemed right because we’re finally more encouraging of risk-taking; the social stigma associated with it is slowly receding. Product start-ups are quirkier than ever before.
If you’re a technology writer you may not think these products are edgy enough to include in your year-end gifting guide (can anything compete with the latest offering from Bose?). If you’re me, it’s a great place to see what tech-savvy India is conjuring up for city slickers. If you don’t care about gizmos and if you’re not from south India, there’s always the “ready-to-use filter coffee decoction”, also listed as a unique product from a start-up. If you’re a cynic (you prefer realist, I know), you believe that the idea and execution of most Indian tech products continues to rely heavily on China.
You might be occasionally surprised.
Wearable tech pioneer Ducere Technologies, which produces Lechal insoles and buckles that can turn your shoes into smart shoes, first experimented with producing in China. Now their assembly line is based in Hyderabad. “India is a fantastic place for up to a million units a year,” says co-founder Krispian Lawrence. “You control your entire item, nobody else knows what the entire product is and you control quality.”
If you’re an entrepreneur and angel investor like Sharad Sharma, you will promptly point out that the real innovation is happening not in your India (of 50 million families with an household income of more than $7,400, or about Rs5 lakh) but in another India (of 100 million families whose annual income lies somewhere from $3,300-3,400 and one that is on the cusp of entering the formal economy). “This is where the real action is. Launchpad will be important three years from now when it can penetrate this other India,” he says. If you dream the digital dream as Sharma does, connectivity equals creditworthiness equals overnight access to a virgin market. Here, innovators focus on areas such as health and education (an inexpensive RO water filter, for example), because that’s what people want to improve first when they have money to invest.
If you’re an innovator creating for urban India, you’re just grateful that someone’s finally assisting you to get the word out about your amazing-but-unheard-of product to a large number of people. Since Amazon has tied up with key groups in the start-up ecosystem, it’s easy enough to qualify if your product is of a certain standard (and for a monthly fee of Rs5,000). You must also fulfil other criteria, such as proving to Amazon that you can meet deadlines.
It’s not easy to meet deadlines in modern India, especially when your shipment dates happen to coincide with the early days of demonetisation and the death of J. Jayalalithaa, the chief minister of the state where you assemble and test your product. Somnath Meher, co-founder of Witworks, the start-up that created the smartwatch Blink (with its own operating system Marvin), recalls the delay when these events occurred in tandem.
He says that though lots of students tinker and make things, there are no role models for product start-ups that have managed to scale operations successfully. “We’re still very service and software driven. Even when we were raising funds, we were told: ‘You seem sensible enough, why don’t you solve this last mile problem for delivery? Why do you want to make products?’.”
Some entrepreneurs get past this block by telling a story that goes beyond the product. Vishal Gondal, founder and chief executive officer of GOQii (pronounced Go-Key), knew that it would be difficult to convince connected Indians to buy his Made in China fitness band over any other well known brand. So he offered buyers a personal trainer subscription plan with the device. “We built a health ecosystem and opted for the service model over the hardware sale model,” he says.
Amazon helped Gondal spread the news much before Launchpad, and the newer start-ups listed are likely to take inspiration from GOQii. Sharma points out that other recent changes in the start-to-finish cycle have also helped product start-ups. It’s easier to raise funds now thanks to the rising popularity of crowdsourcing websites such as Kickstarter. The growth of the Maker movement across India and the setting up of fully-loaded tech shops where innovators can prototype their products and interact with likeminded folks has had an impact too.
Aditya Agrawal, co-founder of ICE, a company that makes the quirky Ice Orb Floating Bluetooth Speaker, says they got the idea from friends who were working with levitation technology. “We began wondering how we could use this technology differently in making tech products,” he says. The company launched its product in the US first and it was a favourite online Christmas gift idea last year. “This is freakin’ awesome,” said technology YouTuber Lamarr Wilson in his video review.
A bigger, badder version of this speaker is now available in the US, where popular Launchpad products include self-cleaning fish tanks, a contraption that allows you to pour a glass of wine without pulling out the cork (intrigued?), a toilet bowl with motion sensors that lights up when you want to go in the middle of the night and a smart pet feeder that takes charge when you’re not at home. That’s probably the future of big city innovation everywhere. Meanwhile, I’m just happy that there are entrepreneurs who want to create for the connected, cynical India that has access to the best toys. It can only be good for our spirit of innovation.
Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable. She tweets at @priyaramani and posts on Instagram as babyjaanramani.
Also read: Priya’s Mint Lounge columns