In 1989, Sekhar Nori joined the public sector Hindustan Petroleum Corp. Ltd (HPCL) after completing a degree in mechanical engineering from Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University (JNTU) at Kakinada, a coastal town in northern Andhra Pradesh. In less than a year, he felt there wasn’t much scope for real application of his engineering knowledge in the organization. “I did not like the job and had quit HPCL in 1990 though it was a great public sector oil company. I had decided to start my own business,” says Nori, 43.
He didn’t care much for the oil business, despite his year’s experience with the petroleum giant. “Knowing the problems associated with fossil fuels, I thought venturing into renewable energy would be a better option. It was then (that) the idea of solar energy struck me and I started working on solar energy applications,” he says.
In 1992, Nori became one of the first entrepreneurs in Andhra Pradesh to begin production of solar energy equipment—solar heaters and power panels. His company, Phoenix Solar Engineering Pvt. Ltd, successfully installed these devices at a number of commercial establishments, especially hotels, in Andhra Pradesh.
Skyshade founder Sekar Nori. Bharath Sai/Mint
The idea of entering the area of natural sunlight germinated while Nori was working on solar energy equipment. “This is because over the years I found that solar energy was quite expensive and would not be widely accepted unless there was government intervention through incentives or institutional backing.”
Nori then hit upon the idea of using solar energy much more effectively and in an affordable way as solar light, without any need to covert it into power. Initially, he focused on skylight domes to bring natural light into buildings. His company had built skylight structures for various buildings belonging to prestigious business houses across the country, including Larsen and Toubro Ltd, DLF Ltd and Raheja group.
“But then, I found over a period of time that even skylight domes have limitations and that they weren’t cutting down the heat coming through the sunlight,” he says. He wanted only the sunlight and not the heat. For close to two years, he experimented with the concept of “light pipes”, where light can travel through the pipes to light up building spaces.
“The challenge was how to put the sunlight into the pipe, carry it to various parts of the building and diffuse wherever required. I imported the required components for the experiments and then standardized them to begin production on my own,” he says.
The company, now called Skyshade Technologies Pvt. Ltd, has so far invested around Rs 2.5 crore on a light pipes manufacturing facility at Cherlapally, on the outskirts of Hyderabad. It now produces the critical parts required for the light pipes that include a light collector, light transportation device and light defusing device to spread the light at targeted spaces in a building. It also makes aesthetically designed shading solutions using high-strength PVC sheets in the place of crude shades of asbestos sheets and galvanized steel sheets.
The challenge was to bring out products that required advanced materials that weren’t available in the country. “Sourcing the proper material was a major challenge and there wasn’t any university or scientific institution in the country that could be of some help to us. That’s why it took over two years for us to come out with light pipes,” he says.
Marketing the products was also a challenge initially because customers didn’t believe in the products. Funding was another problem as getting loans from banks is a time-consuming process and Nori’s talks with a couple of venture capital funds fell through.
Nori doesn’t think his business will fail. He has gained a tremendous amount of knowledge in solar energy and its applications. “We will develop more products and even if a couple of them don’t perform to expected levels, there will be others. Light and shade are the basic human requirements and as long as we can offer affordable and effective solutions to address these requirements, I don’t see any possibility of my business failing,” he says.
Secret sauce “You need to have a great passion for an idea and you need to have a lot of patience to pursue it,” says Nori.
Starting capital: Rs 2 lakh.
Raising the money: Savings and money from family.
First customer: The first customer for the light-pipe products was PepsiCo.
Initially it was difficult to convince customers because the lighting products and solutions were new to the country.