Software development may hold the glamour but one startup believes that the grunt and dirty work of hardware production is just as important.
--BY NIKEETA GAUTAM
The Nepali tech scene in recent years has largely been dominated by the rise of software, mobile apps and website developers. However, only a handful of young IT-minded groups have actually gone on to build the hardware. Among the few startups developing the components to run the front-end products is a company called Digitronix Nepal which has been active in electronic hardware research, design, development and manufacturing over the last four years. Jointly founded by Krishna Gaihre and Saban Kumar KC, Digitronix Nepal is engaged in manufacturing the hardware for different types of machines. Gaihre is the Co-founder and Chief Technical Officer of the company while KC also heads it as the Co-founder and Coordinator.
In 2013 Gaihre and KC came up with the idea of establishing a company to produce electronic hardware. After two years of research and projects, they formally registered their company in 2015. Both professionals have M.Sc degrees in Engineering in Technology and Innovation Management from the Institute of Engineering, Pulchowk. Both believe in using time wisely. Since their student days, these two like-minded partners have delved into their studies and research not only to complete their college assignments but to also build something new to create solutions for people in their daily lives. Some of the products Digitronix Nepal have developed include Real-Time, Temperature and Humidity Display and Logging System, automated machines for threading beads and smart curtain control systems to open and close curtains via smart phones and voice commands.
Apart from designing and manufacturing hardware, the company provides technical training and assists different colleges in their teaching programmes. "Currently, we are trying to integrate the academic field and the professional field together. Though many developed countries are successful in consolidating research, design and development of hardware and software, Nepal lacks a skilled workforce in the development and manufacturing of electronic hardware. Due to this, since the beginning we have been encouraging a new generation of tech students to learn about hardware and electronics. Our aim is to create more enthusiastic and inquisitive young people in this field," shares Gaihre. Likewise, KC views that software development has taken a big leap in Nepal over the last 10 years as it does not have geographical limitations.
According to Ghaire, designing and developing hardware is difficult compared to the production of software. “While software can be tested in computers, for hardware development a PC is not enough. It needs to go through rigorous processes and standard testing,” he says.
He believes that, similar to the software sector, hardware development has immense potential in outsourcing. “It is like a design and we can pack it in a zip file and market it and outsource it,” Gaihre says, adding, “So if we are able to explore and create an outsourcing environment then a large number of opportunities can be generated from the field of hardware design.”
Exploring the FPGA Potential
Digitronix Nepal currently has a team of five professionals. Similarly, the company also takes interns from the colleges according to the projects.
Currently, the startup is working on Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) projects. Basically, FPGA is a customer or designer configurable chip or an integrated circuit. It can be implemented in areas including communication systems, automotive, high performance computing and signal processing. The latest communication system such as 3G, 4G or other latest systems are also based on the FPGA and Application Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC).
“The use of FPGA circuits and chips has been increasing rapidly globally. We can work on FPGA research and development to push the scenario of engineering to a new age of development with state-of-the-art technologies,” mentions KC. "In FPGA, designers can have more flexibility and time to develop, implement, test and even decide to apply for technology patents or market the design. However, in other readymade hardware, the system is limited and they consume more time and costs," he adds.
According to Ghaire, China and India have been ruling the market in South and South-East Asia in terms of hardware manufacturing. “Nepal can get opportunities and market shares if hardware design and verification industry can flourish here. We have the geographical advantage of being located between the markets of China and India. Meanwhile, the location independent factor like in the field of software development also adds to the potential for the hardware industry in Nepal,” he shares.
The startup has been collaborating with the Silicon Valley semiconductor producer Xilinx Inc. to foster an FPGA design environment in Nepal. The US company is regarded as the inventor of FPGA. Digitronix Nepal has been receiving support from the Xilinx University Programme (XUP) to conduct academic activities. The XUP provides genuine license of software and sends hardware to the academic institutions that are members of the Xilinx. According to KC, who mainly handles the academic trainings of Digitronix, eight engineering colleges in the capital valley are members of the university programme. The startup offers internships to enthusiasts and students to proceed with R&D works related to FPGA.
The startup also has been organising various seminars, orientations, workshops and other events collaborating with the engineering colleges in the capital valley. It has organised events including seminars on research and development of FPGA, National FPGA Design Contest 2016, Interaction Programme on FPGA Design through XUP and Second National FPGA Design Competition 2017 till date.
The company also recently introduced its course on the online learning platform Udemy.com. The courses are related to FPGA, Verilog HDL Programming for beginners with Xilinx ISE Design suit. Likewise, Digitronix has also been collaborating with Nepali professionals working in multinational hardware design companies such as Xilinx, ARM, Intel, Nvidia for research, design and development of programmable logic devices.
Challenges to Overcome
As per KC, many engineering colleges are closing electronics engineering programmes because there are not enough students. Though the electronics hardware business is quite challenging and risky, KC believes that Digitronix Nepal, since its initiation, has been playing an important role in changing the scenario in both R&D as well as in the academic field. "We have been getting the guidance of Deepesh Man Shakya who is a Senior Engineer at Xylinx, Ireland. Apart from that, we also search ideas online and improvise the methods and techniques in our own way," he says.
Citing the scenario of developed countries where both the government and private sector invest in hardware manufacturing companies, KC wants coordinated efforts to help foster the sector. The startup, in a bid to do this, has been approaching academic institutions with projects and other related works. "The amount of government funding is negligible in the field of science and technology in our context," says KC. He criticises the government for not supporting activist and social entrepreneur Mahabir Pun’s idea to establish a National Innovation Centre. “Such an institution will provide a platform to many technology enthusiasts but it feels that our government has no concern to support innovative citizens,” he laments.
Both founders of Digitronix Nepal stress on how important it is to build a supporting legal framework in order to make hardware research, design and development a lucrative sector. “The legal hindrances create difficulties in marketing the design and providing services on local and global levels,” they point out.
Growth Prospects and Future Plans
Digitronix is the only company in Nepal that works in the FPGA area. "We are growing not exponentially but gradually. It is still a complex issue to measure the market of our products," adds Gairhe, saying, "The reason behind this is the preference of companies in Nepal for exported machines over the locally developed ones. We are trying to convince the domestic customers to penetrate the Nepali market."
Established with a seed capital of Rs 100,000, the startup has been designing professional projects engaging students and college professors using their own resources and also some hardware donated by the Xilinx University Programme.
The startup is in a break-even phase and has been generating revenue from college training sessions and professional projects. "In terms of manufacturing and design, we don’t have regular clients as we work as per the orders placed by industries and companies. Depending on the nature of a project, it takes us around one to six months to complete a task," says Gaihre. According to him, a few home automation companies, manufacturing companies and security companies have been and are the clients of Digitronix so far. The founders regard the FPGA inventor company Xilinx as their role model institution. They have plans to collaborate with multi-national firms to design and market their applicable products.