- January 20, 2018
- Mrinmoy Bhattacharjee
Deepak Solanki has been passionate about wireless technology since his engineering days more than a decade ago. He followed his interest by designing a radio receiver and becoming the first in his hometown Jind to get a HAM radio license. He turned his passion into a profession when he launched his startup Velmenni in 2012. He designed LED light bulbs and other devices for transmitting Internet data faster than Wi-Fi, by tapping into new technologies Visible Lighting Communication (VLC) and of late Light Fidelity (Li-Fi) prominently. The former utilises only the visible part of the light spectrum, and the latter uses both the visible as well as invisible parts.
We sat down with this Emerging Indian Li-Fi Rockstar at his action-packed research lab in New Delhi, to know how the 27-year-old co-founder & CEO has been leveraging his setbacks and successes to scale new heights, for transforming the LED lighting and allied industry in India and worldwide.
What were your milestones in the process of becoming a startup tech entrepreneur?
During my final year of B Tech Honours degree in Electronics and Communication at Lovely Professional University in Jalandhar (Punjab), I interned with a research lab at IIIT Hyderabad, India’s only robotics-focused research centre, in 2010 for three months. My background was in mobile robotics, mainly in the self-driving car domain. I was involved in the localisation and mapping part of the research. We were utilising a laser-based communications systems and laser-based sensors to get the right location. In October I moved to France to intern with electronics startup Ikalogic for six months. My focal area was robotics. I worked there with a four-member team to design and develop a robotics image acquisition module, and also learnt to build a startup. The following year I returned to India to appear for my final exams.
Thereafter, I joined as a research associate at SINE (Society for Innovation and Entrepreneurship) at IIT-Bombay in the summer of 2011, as I was looking for an ecosystem where I could bring my research expertise to the table and provide a blend of scientific research and entrepreneurship opportunities. I learnt how to convert theoretical research into real products. I worked there for almost a year and then I thought to start my own company.
In the summer of 2012, I moved back to Delhi, where I launched my venture Velmenni as a proprietorship firm in September. I hired two interns from two different universities in Delhi. We were exploring different ideas to create a scientific research organisation. I wanted to tap into my wireless technology expertise for building new products around the niche and emerging wireless-based VLC and Li-Fi technologies that gained steam after Professor Harald Haas demonstrated his Li-Fi at TEDGlobal a year earlier.
How did you build the team?
At that point in time, it wasn’t easy for me to build a team, as I didn’t have financial resources to attract experienced techies. This reality led me to think to bring folks who shared my motivation and zeal to do interesting stuff. Besides, I wanted to complement my hardware competency with software specialisation. So I roped in software pro Saurabh Garg as a co-founder through a common friend in 2013. Saurabh was studying at a Delhi University college and was fascinated with my story. He lived nearby and come to my home and often worked with me until dawn. In the mornings, he used to attend his classes and I continued working in our lab.
What were your initial experiments?
We started doing certain experiments and found pretty interesting results. We utilised different kinds of light sources to send data; we transferred data from a laptop screen to our hardware device. This we did by building a device and creating software within a laptop to generate a dynamic kind of QR code for sending data to the hardware device. Basically, we were able to stream data through light.
How were you paying your bills?
I had saved a portion from my salaries drawn at IIT Bombay, but I knew it wasn’t enough to sustain. We figured that there’s a huge skill gap on the hardware front in India and we can fill that gap. We decided to design circuits and write code for creating products. In 2013 we started consulting with bigger companies to generate monies for spending on our research on VLC.
We received a very interesting problem statement from the traffic signal lighting manufacturer Onnyx. The company was facing issues with countdown timers of the signals that were commissioned in Delhi. Most of the time they had a 50% failure rate. They said to us that if we could fix the problem, we would have a contract with them for building and supplying the products. We solved and delivered the project in one-and-half months. We understood the real problem, changed the hardware, and rerouted software to revamp the whole system. We licensed it to them. We got the contract that generated continuous revenue every month for sufficiently meeting our needs. Later, we took more consulting work and built 20 products in the next one and a half year for different companies, in parallel to pursuing our experimentation on VLC.
From 2013 to 2014, we designed a VLC-based smart LED lighting solution. We named it ‘Jugnu’ (Firefly) as the insect and VLC blink on a certain frequency at night. Our bulb transmitted data through light on a lower data transfer rate up to 1mpbs. It enabled dimming and turning on and off of the light bulb using smartphones. Our product was integrated with sensors to generate data and send it to the cloud through our VLC network. We took an AWS (Amazon Web Server) and then created a data analytics system on it.
When did you decide to scale your startup, and what were the challenges?
In mid-2014 we realised that we needed to put more effort on Li-Fi or VLC to scale it up. We wanted to stop our consulting as it was consuming a lot of our time. We started talking to a lot of different investors to expand our team that stood at four. But nobody understood what we were doing. They thought that our technology was crazy. Many angel investors were investing in the E-commerce, startup and direct consumer spaces. They wanted to invest in ideas similar to those of Flipkart and Snapdeal, as the platforms had grown by then. The investors were reluctant to invest in high-end technologies that were expected to give them a return only after five or six years. They told us that our technology was way too ahead of time and advised to approach big companies and lighting technology majors like Philips. We took their advice and went to the lighting companies to raise funds. Philips told us that they can’t take those decisions in India as their teams in Holland, the US or the UK take such calls. Havells wanted to have a smart lighting solution based on Bluetooth mesh and not on VLC.
With your hopes dashed in India, how were you able to knock on the right door?
After losing a few months in pitching to investors in India, we thought to explore other regions such as the US and Europe. We found the easiest way by applying to an accelerator or incubator. We started applying to a couple of accelerators, and we received a positive response from the hardware-focused accelerator Buildit, based in the small European nation of Estonia, in July 2014. They offered us money in form of a first seed investment. It was a small amount but we also got an opportunity of handholding by the best of hardware experts from around the world with experience in building and scaling up startups. We moved to the EU nation to attend a three-month programme scheduled from September to December 2016. We received a good response from different investors from the Nordic countries. We presented our ideas before Estonian and Finnish angel networks. Meanwhile, we also incorporated our Estonian entity Velmenni OU in October 2014.
What did you learn at the Buildit accelerator programme?
The accelerator helped us in creating a very good network. We learnt a lot of things on the business side that we lacked. We understood that we have to create a business interest from the market. Actually, the whole Li-Fi and VLC ecosystem were lacking in evoking interest from investors. Everyone, including Prof Haas and US-based Oledcomm, were focused on the research side as market traction for VLC and Li-Fi was missing.
During the programme, we were pitching our technology to industrialists and others. We came to know that they and other manufacturers in the US, Europe, and China are moving to the smart industry platform or Industry 4.0 that integrates various smart technologies within production units. But the businessmen were always facing an issue with radio wave systems, as they were trying to develop a smart manufacturing platform.
Among them was Tallinn-based sheet metal working major Favor, who was encountering the same problem; their radio wave system didn’t work efficiently because of electromagnetic interference in these industrial areas. They started doing it with cables: by running Ethernet cables with each of the different kinds of machines and sensors which were generating data and eventually data analytics on the cloud. They asked us if we can do the job with VLC. We said why not? We got this project at the end of 2014 and worked for six months till mid of 2015. We did our first POC (Proof of Concept) for them and met with success. The POC was important for us to be able to demonstrate the suitability of our technology for the specific application and taking the technology to any level. We got to know about the limitations of our technology, ways to improve and scale it, and if it can build up a product.
We have integrated VLC mesh technology, against the most-applied Bluetooth mesh and Zigbee mesh, for the project. We were fascinated as the project generated our first revenue from Li-Fi [smiles]. We were the first in the world to come up with an integrated VLC machine in our space.
When you say that you were the first in the world to come up with an integrated VLC machine in your space, how unique was the achievement from that of Li-Fi pioneer Professor Harald Haas of pureLiFi?
Professor Haas was focusing on a different aspect of the technology; creating an ad hoc network similar to Wi-Fi that enables multiple users to access data through a single router. His focus was always on communication from light source to end users. But, we assessed that it wasn’t the time for us to run the same experiment. This technology could be scaled up only when it was miniaturised and integrated into smartphones and laptops. It was possible if we had a lighting partner, a phone manufacturer and a laptop maker. Besides, a single player can’t drive this; the entire industry had to collaborate and create a standard for driving the technology. And as a startup with limited resources, we were unable to do it. We thought to figure out a niche application and prove to the market the suitability of the technology with respect to the particular application. And then tell investors or companies to take it to the other level where we can have a generic kind of scenario of accessing the Internet with more high-speed data network systems because that’s the future! As VLC and Li-Fi technology was evolving, we thought that our focus should be on areas that really need this technology. Homes don’t really need Li-Fi; a Wi-Fi router is sufficient enough to cater to the needs of a person in the home.
VLC and Li-Fi are complementary systems to Wi-Fi in an enterprise space. A single Wi-Fi can give 300 Mbps for $20. In India, the ISP provider doesn’t provide 100 Mbps in homes, only 40-50 Mbps, and that too in certain areas. So, our focus was on the right kind of application independent of consumer space. Besides, entering the consumer space meant convincing big players, raising monies, miniaturising technology, and other resources in the disposal. This would have taken us into an entirely different direction.
What was your next step?
While we were working on the project, we had to raise more money to scale up further. We wanted to expand our team of four members and engage in more R&D activities. In Estonia, everything was good, but the engineering talent pool was small. So, we came back to India. I began to work on fundraising and Saurabh on the technology front. Again, we took to consulting with a photography lighting and wireless concern to be able to run a bit more. After Diwali, we attended one of Europe’s largest annual startup and tech events, Slush (See the Image Below) in Helsinki, Finland in November 2015. We were shortlisted in the Top-100 out of 1,700 applicants. We reached the finale of top-3 in the pitching stage. We presented the first demo of our technology before an audience of 5000 people. We excited them [smiles].
Actually, VLC and Li-Fi were not moving in the preceding three years in the market. As the technology evolved over the years followed by my Slush presentation, the market started re-evaluating it. After the conference, we generated a lot of interest from European and Indian VCs and angel investors. The interest and awareness generated at the conference eventually helped us in raising two rounds of investments in June 2016 and December 2017.
At Slush, we were approached by aeronautical giant Airbus as I clearly mentioned in my presentation that aviation is one of the application areas we were pushing because inside an aircraft there are a lot of regulations on radio frequency and there was a need of a wireless communication. At present, every data communication is done via data cables.
How did you excel onboard the Airbus Bizlab aerospace accelerator?
The Airbus guys told me that the company was running a corporate accelerator programme Bizlab to bring external talent into the organization, as they weren’t innovating as a company. We went through their screening process and were selected from the five companies from across the world. I joined the six-month programme at one of their global manufacturing hubs in Hamburg, Germany in January 2016.
I met their cabin communications team for performing a PoC for them. At the end of the programme in July, we created a virtual A350 structure with wood and implemented our technology. We streamed high definition video through Li-Fi inside an aircraft. On our own laptop, we plugged our receiver and integrated the transceiver with LEDs; we showed them that we can achieve a very high bandwidth with the technology, and access any local data which is stored inside an aircraft which can be streamed to the users through Li-Fi, replacing Ethernet cables. Aeroplane manufacturers like Airbus and Boeing work on technology to reduce even 100 grams in aircraft. Our technology could do away with the cables and reduce a ton of weight for aircraft. This meant more fuel efficiency and more luggage space that translates into generating and saving monies for Airbus.
Has Airbus executed your Li-Fi technology in their aircraft?
The technology needs to improve for attaining the best performance. In the aviation sector, the sales cycle is very long and the certification process is time-consuming. We presented our technology at the Aircraft Interior Expo in September 2017 in Las Vegas. We received a huge interest from attendees. Now we want to do a mock-up in the largest aircraft A380. In the long run, besides data, we can do other things in the aerospace. Aircraft have thousands of sensors that generate data to enable decision making in flying, controlling temperature, and pressure. If we are able to stabilise our technology, we can make it all wireless, thereby making aircrafts lighter.
What projects did you work on after completing Airbus’ accelerator programme?
After completing the programme in July 2016, we were receiving at least 10 e-mails requesting commercial discussions and collaborations from Africa, China, and Europe. We had a limitation owing to the size of our team. We didn’t have a 1,000-member team to be able to work on multiple projects. So, our strategic decision was to work with only some of the bigger companies.
Did any of these bigger companies belong to the lighting industry of India or overseas?
We began working with a few lighting companies in India and abroad in 2017. The companies have seen the technology in action. We have signed a few NDAs (Non-Disclosure Agreements) with them. We are doing four projects with lighting companies, two each in the south and north India.
What are these lighting companies aiming to gain from VLC and Li-Fi technology?
These companies in India and abroad want to create value for users in the office and retail application areas. Earlier, they were just looking at the smart lighting solution to save energy using LEDs for customers in the office space. Of late, they want to provide secured high-speed data connectivity, and our Li-Fi can deliver it.
In the retail sector, the likes of Wal-Mart and Big Bazaar are looking for precise indoor localisation. The lighting companies, whose clients are these retailers, have tried the existing technologies like Bluetooth Beacon to achieve it. But this technology suffers from accuracy problems. They also tried the integrated Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for achieving better accuracy. Our VLC can do two things: asset tracking and navigation with data analytics of gaining the user behaviour.
Li-Fi will change the retail experience by creating a lot of value in the sector, especially in hypermarket, departmental store and supermarket chains. It can map the whole environment of a retail store. This will enable customers to open his or her Li-Fi-enabled smartphone app and navigate to the right location with the help of the signal from a light source. Retail chains will have a bigger value proposition; they will be able to track customer’s movements, know how the user is behaving, how much time he or she is spending while standing in a particular location. With data analytics, retailers will be able to conclude what users are interested in and accordingly run customised adverts.
Asset tracking will be a boon for companies. For instance, Amazon has started its Amazon Go, the fully-automated retail stores that eliminate any form of physical intervention. Folks can shop around with ease and payments of their bills are deducted from their Amazon accounts. This process involves the complex integration of lots of stuff like cameras and sensors, and way too expensive. Our Li-Fi is cost-effective.
What’s your next move, what’s your vision?
We want to scale up Li-Fi with the right kind of application and commercialise it by 2019. We want to build a research organisation in India, as I didn’t find any scientific research companies on the product side when I was a student.