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The machinists: Sarthak Paul Chowdhury (far left) is leading a team whose Indian members have an average age of 23; car image rendered by company.

The race for India's first super car

Can mean metal motors repair India's reputation as the graveyard of automobile innovation?
By Hindol Sengupta

Sitting in a bungalow outside Bengaluru, these 13 folks, really kids with an average age of 23, are telling me they are building India’s first supercar. I would have dismissed it as braggadocio, but I had found proof of their mission last year in an unlikely part of the world. In the tiny Swedish town of Lund, best known for one of Scandinavia’s oldest and most prestigious universities, I had discovered a group of researchers throwing their might behind an electric car that wants to offer “a more futuristic and less destructive driving experience”. Lewis Horne, the founder of the Uniti car project, believes “current design norms are outdated and excessively plastic”. He told me that the Uniti’s body could end up being made of a material developed by Mean Metal Motors (MMM). The two companies are also exploring partnerships on investment and market research, Horne said. 

That’s what brought me to this bungalow off Bengaluru—MMM’s digs, where its fresh-faced founders are planning a $4 million (Rs 25.26 crore) fundraising round to build their own supercar. To reach the place, you need to turn off a crowded highway onto a path where cows saunter around, and then, in the middle of this bucolic scene, there is a row of bungalows—the sort of recreation of suburban America that Indian tech startups go for. There is a front yard with a low, white mock fence, and a backyard where a basketball hoop wouldn’t be out of place. This is where MMM drew up the blueprint of India’s first “hybrid high-performance vehicle” or supercar, which can accelerate from 0 to 100 km per hour (kmph) in 2.9 seconds (tests so far have returned top times of 3.2 seconds to 3.5 seconds). The company has been largely hush-hush about the M-Zero, barring stray media reports. But the founders tell me a prototype will be ready by the last quarter of FY17 and will be cued up for production by the end of 2017.

The sobering fact: India is the graveyard of automobile innovation. The Mahindra Reva, India’s first electric car, which Fortune India had put on the cover a couple of years ago, and the Tata Nano, the world’s cheapest car, have both been feted in case studies, but have little to show in terms of customer love years after their launch. Hobbled by poor infrastructure and the primacy of low cost before everything else, this is a market that is firmly the bastion of the assembly-line mindset.

Sarthak Paul Chowdhury, MMM’s 23-year-old half-Kashmiri and half-Bengali CEO, who studied automobile engineering at the Manipal Institute of Technology, is taking on this perception. One of his key lieutenants, and the team’s oldest Indian member at 26, is chief technical officer Sudeep Thangiah. Thangiah specialises in developing structures out of carbo-flax. Think of it as the same stuff that your table mats are made of, except Thangiah’s version is improved with carbon, making it one of the most sustainable and inexpensive materials for car bodies in the world. This material is at the core of the M-Zero, and has made innovators in faraway Lund root for Paul Chowdhury’s team.

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Moonshot, by road Mean Metal Motors says its supercar will be made of a material that has never been used for similarly powerful models.

MMM is aiming to place the M-Zero in the cross-segment hybrid category, which means it will come at the price of a supercar but deliver the performance of a hypercar. “We are tapping into a $100 billion market. There is very little competition from any existing car in our price segment of $100,000 to $200,000,” says Paul Chowdhury. That’s a third of the average price of a private-use supercar (as opposed to the ones driven on racing tracks), think top-end Lamborghinis or Ferraris. 

The M-Zero is comparable to the high-end Model S (an electric car) and the differentiator is that it will be engineered to use gasoline too, making it a convenient option especially for buyers outside the U.S.

“Most companies aim to get to a fully commercial hybrid model in the next decade, but MMM is starting with a hybrid-only model. That’s our advantage,” says Karmesh Bhist, a co-founder at MMM. He points out that only four hybrid cars in the super-hyper category exist today: the Audi R8 e-tron, the BMW 760Li, the BMW i8, and the Jaguar XJ hybrid version. None of them yet has a wide commercial market. MMM believes it is tapping into a global niche. It will bring to the market the world’s cheapest hybrid supercar and aims to sell around 1,200 cars in the first year.

Gautam Pai, managing director of the Manipal Group, in whose college the founders of MMM studied, is bullish on its prospects. “There is almost no competition in the parallel hybrid market. The technologies they are using are very fresh and organic and promise a driving experience like never before,” he says.

That said, much of the M-Zero is still on paper—a moonshot that could easily fizzle given India’s bleak track record of product innovation. Does MMM stand a chance? I take this question to Rahul Narayan, whose company Team Indus is India’s original moonshot exponent: It is building the country’s first privately funded lunar lander that will head to the moon later this year as part of the Google Lunar X-Prize competition. Fortune India had Team Indus on cover too when they were an unknown outfit amid the glut of e-commerce startups in Bengaluru. 

Narayan acknowledges that building a mass product like a car, and making it globally relevant and competitive, is a daunting task. “Understanding what will sell worldwide or in Asia or even in the Indian subcontinent involves very complex market analysis that large companies are grappling with,” he points out. “On the other hand, a startup [has the freedom to] try its hand at putting a product into the market, looking at feedback, and then coming back with an improved version.”

Narayan says with the right product vision, a committed team, and a few believers, it is possible to execute most, if not all, greenfield programmes out of India. “The ecosystem needed to support the development of such products and the understanding of prototyping continues to evolve rapidly. But I can say that today it is easier than ever before to work on moonshot projects in India.”

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Let’s ungarble car jargon and understand the difference between a sports car, a hypercar, and a supercar. A sports car usually yields a power output of 250 BHP (brake horsepower) to 400 BHP, which translates to 0-100 kmph in 4.5 seconds to 5 seconds. A supercar, with a 400 BHP to 500 BHP engine, can hit the same speed in 3 seconds to 3.5 seconds. Any car that has 650 BHP to 750 BHP engine power and can breach 100 kmph in less than 2.5 seconds is technically a hyper car.

All three segments are now filled with gasoline-fuelled cars. The exception is Tesla. Its Model S, which is fully electric, has what Elon Musk calls the “Ludicrous Mode”, at which the car can do 0-100 kmph in 2.8 seconds. The Model S costs between $70,000 and $120,000. MMM is looking to price its car—which will be equipped with an engine that can deliver more than 750 BHP (500 BHP from the gasoline motor and 250 BHP from the electric motor)—at about a third of a comparable gasoline car, and cheaper than a top-end, fully electric Tesla. 

Paul Chowdhury says the M-Zero’s cost-efficiency comes from a material that has never been used to make cars of this power and speed before. Thangiah worked on creating the material at his alma mater Cranfield, the British university renowned for its centre for engineering, where he also successfully tested the use of the material in an automobile gearbox with help from the British motorsport engineering consultancy Perrinn. 

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A long journey MMM began as a common-interest group of remote-control car fanatics.

“In my line of work, the patent is given on the specific use of the material because that is where the innovation comes in. I am looking at getting the patent once the prototype is ready,” says Thangiah. 

That’s not the only innovation M-Zero is planning. It will also have a cloud-based operating system, which means every owner or driver of the car will have a unique log-in to the user interface of the car, which will be constantly updated with new features and new information about the vehicle as it is driven. MMM’s pitch says the log-in service called M-log will “help the company eradicate a lot of after-sales service costs”, and by gathering troubleshooting data and sharing them with the customer round the clock, it will help address problems before they lead to major breakdowns.

How did a bunch of college kids dream up a supercar in a country which is still struggling to get all-weather roads in many parts? 

MMM began as a college club, a common-interest group of Paul Chowdhury and friends who would experiment with what are known as RC or remote-control cars. Their first successes came in college competitions, racing their cars against teams from other colleges. 

“We used to be part of several online platforms where new ideas for high-performing cars would be discussed,” says Ranbir Grewal, a college mate of Paul Chowdhury and a director at MMM. “We began to post some of our ideas and at some point, it is not clear exactly when, we began to believe that what we wanted to do was build a supercar.” 
It was a chance encounter in one of the Internet forums that won the gang its first mentor—Pedro Almeida, a Portuguese automobile designer who spent a year mentoring MMM and overseeing design (though he didn’t invest any money). Through this Portuguese connect MMM also zeroed in on its chief designer Marcelo Aguiar, who, at 39, is the oldest member of the company’s global team. Aguiar applied for the job through social media. “The energy was inspiring and their mission was ambitious. I instantly felt it would be possible to succeed,” he says. 

Aguiar’s brief is to develop concepts and produce images from the 3D models that he builds. He is also responsible for incorporating the team’s feedback. It’s a race against time, and Aguiar knows the odds are stacked against MMM, but he tells me working with people much younger than him is a great stress buster. “We end up talking a lot about girls and Goa,” he says.

His colleagues sound more serious. Says 26-year-old Harshit Srivastava, who studied design in Milan before joining MMM: “I was quite determined to bring about a revolutionary change in the automotive industry in India.” Another Milan-trained designer, 26-year-old Kshitij Srivastava, who applied to MMM after seeing the company’s YouTube concept video, adds: “I knew since 8th grade that I wanted to make cars. The MMM journey has been very exciting.”  

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For the first two years, the founding team of MMM took no pay. Instead, on the side of the M-Zero project, they built a business building go-karts and organising go-kart competitions, a spin-off from their RC car days. Those gigs brought in revenues of Rs 1 crore last year and profits of around Rs 30 lakh.

In 2015, Purushothama Kini, who works as sales director and business development head of Asia-Pacific, West Asia, and Africa for the German industrial textiles and engineering company the Bernauer Group, put in angel investment of $50,000 in MMM. “No other Indian company has tried to enter this space, and I was drawn by the innovativeness of the idea,” Kini says. “The automobile market is looking for breakthrough technology and marketing. The MMM team has tremendous passion. I see them as a billion-dollar company in the next five years.”

KINI CALLS MMM’S STRATEGIES and collaborations for cost-saving “disruptive”. Apart from the Uniti project, the company is partnering Silicon Valley startup Divergent Microfactories to try and 3D print the bodies of its cars. At Cranfield University, it has an agreement to test prototypes and use Cranfield’s extensive industrial-scale facilities to develop the car’s parts cheaply. Then there are the tie-ups with U.S. motor company Electric Clean Technologies and Germany’s Flick & Partner to make the M-Zero’s hybrid motor system. 

Georg-Friedrich Graf, founder of Flick & Partner, says his company is working with MMM to build an electrified or hybrid power-train. The ultimate goal is to help MMM keep costs low by developing a “purpose-design” vehicle from scratch.

“As an Indian company, MMM is located at exactly the right region to develop future mobility solutions. India is one of the most interesting future markets for e-mobility vehicles, and having the development and manufacturing know-how in their own country would be a real game changer for MMM. Sarthak seems to have realised exactly that,” says Graf.

He cautions, though, that the biggest challenge is to move the project from a prototype status to a real, small-series production vehicle. “A hybrid powertrain is particularly complex and demands expertise in various fields. And supplier companies in the automotive business are usually quite hesitant towards startups. MMM needs to bolster the business side as well as the team to tackle those challenges.”

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“The energy was inspiring and their mission was ambitious. I instantly felt it would be possible to succeed.” —Marcelo Aguiar, design chief, MMM

One man who knows a lot about delivering unprecedented automobile projects from India is Chetan Maini, the founder of Reva, who has been in touch with the MMM team. Started in 1994, Maini sold his flagship Reva to 26 countries in several versions. In 2011, Reva was bought by Mahindra & Mahindra. Maini says while the M-Zero idea is “extremely bold”, Paul Chowdhury and his colleagues face an “ecosystem challenge”. “Suppliers, suspension design, chassis design—there is no ecosystem for any of this in India, so all of it will have to come from outside.” 

Mike Hong is director at Mountain View, California-based Clean Wave Technologies, which develops and manufactures some of the world’s highest-performance, most cost-effective electric drive systems. MMM could not find the solution to getting to 250 BHP from the electric motor till it began working with Clean Wave. “We are now optimising the power combination between engine and electric,” Hong says. “We also need to work on the battery pack capacity and specs, but our system is so compact and light, it gives more flexibility to MMM to utilise the space and control weight better.” Hong believes MMM is on the right track by focussing on lightweight technologies; BMW is doing something very similar by exploring carbon fibre-reinforced polymer for its ‘i’ series.

Maini adds that in the supercar market, brand history and country of origin are critical, so MMM will have to present an “unbeatable value proposition”. But he clarifies that lack of pedigree is not necessarily a bad thing. “When we started selling the Reva in Europe in 2003-04, there were no electric cars there. But we sold the highest number of cars in that period in Europe and in 2005 in Britain, again a country which at that time had no history of electric cars. So, novelty can be an advantage.” Indian handcrafting could give the M-Zero a premium feel, says Maini. Though 3D printing is useful, it will need a lot of finishing by hand for it to have the look and feel of a supercar.

Meanwhile, MMM’s founders are not neglecting the need to build a real business with real revenues. They are finalising a deal with Chhattisgarh-based metals company Vaswani Industries to manufacture a series of electric scooters. “It will show that we have bandwidth beyond cars,” says Paul Chowdhury. Ultimately, that may turn out to be just a pit stop before MMM hits top speed.