Four young engineers aim to create new social business opportunities by devising technological solutions for social problems.
Technological innovation has been an integral part of human civilization. Since the start of the modern age, people have been deploying technological ideas to solve complex issues in business, society and the environment. But it’s definitely not plain sailing to innovate. Yet young minds never cease to find feasible solutions to make lives better.
In Nepal, too, the emergence of tech-based startups in recent years has highlighted the innovative skills of young people to find various workable solutions. In 2012, a team of four young engineers Sunil Pariyar, Santosh Raj Neupane, Bharat KC (who has left the team to pursue higher studies), and Mensun Lakhemaru, conducted a survey among a sample of differently-abled Nepalis to understand their needs in order to help them in their mobility. After years of rigorous research, the team conceived a technological remedy by developing a smart electric wheelchair that they named ‘Leopard’. This technological solution created a springboard for the four youths to initiate a startup - Infinity Lab.
After the inception of Leopard, Infinity’s co-founders worked at various companies as engineers. “We worked for some time to learn how an organisation runs,” shares Sunil Pariyar, design engineer and co-founder at Infinity Lab. After gaining a few years of professional experience, they reteamed in 2014 and started planning their own business. Prajesh Shrestha, another engineer joined the team and after a few months the idea for ‘Leopard’ was conceptualised. Infinity Lab was formally established in 2015 with the aim to “specialise in simplifying complexities for different markets and provide technological solutions for local, commercial and industrial applications”.
The team members in the initial days basically focused on delivering tech-based services and research and development. The service delivery of the startup company includes setting up the electrical and security systems and machine installations in the factories of their clients. This has helped Infinity Lab to generate the revenue to finance its research activities. The founders state research is the core element of their company. Their research activity included researching heritage site information systems, industrial and home automation, public vehicle tracking and monitoring system and wheelchair technology.
Infinity Lab started research on a heritage site information system after the earthquake of April 2015 which they continued for 13 months. Finally, the company prototyped an augmented reality base technology. The prototype was shown to some government officials but it couldn’t progress any further due to the changes in the government.
‘Leopard’ - The Smart Wheelchair
Meanwhile, the company was also researching to find mobility solutions for the victims of the 2015 earthquake who lost their ability to walk. Eight months of independent research and funding from Independent Living Centre for Persons with Disabilities (CIL) helped them bring ‘Leopard’ to life.
According to CIL, 22,000 people lost their body parts during the earthquake. “The country needs around 500 wheelchairs every year. With our research, we found that differently-abled individuals actually need customised wheelchairs,” shares Pariyar, Co-founder and Design Engineer of the venture. “There is an absence of rest rooms for differently-abled while continuous use of normal wheelchairs caused pain in the arms,” says Pariyar.
“After analysing the probable demand and the specification requirements, we designed ‘Leopard’ so that it would resolve most of their problems,” says Pariyar. “The wheelchair features a urine store bag and solenoid braking, is designed for rough terrain and has greater slope climb. The imported wheelchairs don’t meet local conditions and are designed based on foreign road conditions,” informs Pariyar.
‘Leopard’ can run at a speed of 10 km per hour and gives a mileage of 25 km per battery charge. For matters of urgency, there is a GPS installed in the wheelchair that can be tracked through mobile applications. The app, too, is named ‘Leopard’. The mobile app also features a medicine schedule that can be easily used by the elders and differently-abled individuals.
“Because of our user-focused and localised approach, Leopard will face fewer threats from similar foreign products,” expresses Santosh R. Neupane, another co-founder and product manager at Infinity Lab.
With one prototype ready, Infinity is now in the production phase. But it is fully aware that they need product variation to cater to different needs. “The wheelchair we have made now operates through a joystick. Still, we need to bring variation in the product as there are individuals with different types of disabilities,” shares Pariyar. “Due to the absence of hands, many of our users will not be able to use joysticks. They will have to use other body parts. Many users are unable to sit. In such cases, the wheelchair will require lower seats. Some of them may have to work regularly in one setting. It will require other kinds of adjustments,” explains Pariyar.
Leopard’s price range starts from Rs 300,000 and will vary depending on the features. Till now, the team has received four orders. “We need time and working capital for office and factory set up. Currently, we are working on around 15-16 orders. If they are immediately sold, it will be a big financial relief for us,” says Neupane. The venture is setting up its factory in Bhaktapur.
Being a research and development company, one of the major challenges for Infinity Lab has been survival. The team has been proactive since its inception, and implemented various revenue generating options. However, after they were compelled to discontinue work on the heritage information system, the group believes that Nepal does not have a proper environment for research. The team had spent 13 months in developing the heritage information technology. “We couldn’t continue it due to the political instability,” says Pariyar.
Both Pariyar and Neupane insist that the government should provide an adequate platform for youths to create tech-based solutions. They believe that some of their products like the smart wheelchair should be promoted by the government with proper incentives.
Investment and Revenue
Infinity started with an investment of Rs 60,000. So far, it has sustained itself with the revenue generated by delivering tech services. During their initial days, they started with a water tank controller service but could not sustain it due to more competitive products from India and China. They then produced other customised technology for workspaces like document sensors and dusk to dawn light controllers. “These products helped our team to gather resources for our core research work,” adds Neupane “Our turnover for last year was Rs 1.6 million. This year, it is Rs 4.5 million.”
At present, Infinity is all geared up to set up a factory in Bhaktupur. They are also designing a workshop for the production phase. “We are planning to develop customised designs for Leopard- it will take around a year to design 12 different wheelchairs” informs Pariyar.
As they look ahead to fund their production of customised smart wheelchairs, they say that there is only a slim chance of getting new investment right away. “There are people and institutions who are interested in donating spare parts to us for our wheelchair product. But domestic investors shy away from investing in us since it will generate revenue a bit later,” reasons Pariyar.
Yet they are not deterred by the lack of funds. In the near future, Infinity aims to sell their smart wheelchairs in bulk to foreign companies. “We have approached a few companies from Japan and Taiwan,” informs Neupane. Domestically, they are planning to work out an installment scheme to sell the smart wheelchairs. “We are in talks with a few banks and we hope they will give the scheme the green light,” informs Neupane.
Presently, there are four staff at the venture, with all of them from an engineering background. “Our co-founders are from different backgrounds. It is because we want different types of brains and perceptions. We understand that the right combination in a team plays a crucial role in the company’s future,” says Pariyar. “Together, we brainstorm and research the conceptualised ideas and work on materialising them. It has helped us learn from each other. We also keep our working environment open and friendly as much as possible so that sharing becomes easy,” adds Pariyar. At stressful times, Infinity practices meditation techniques to relieve any pressure.
Infinity team is of the opinion that startups are one of the best platforms to start a career. Setting a fixed career goal and achieving it is a long journey for anyone who is ready for a job. “There are career problems for beginners and startups are a good opportunity to learn entrepreneurship related management skills,” says Pariyar.
Infinity pays all their staff and interns. “However, being a startup, there are sometimes delays in payouts”, informs Pariyar.
One of Infinity’s chief aims is to become a sustainable tech-based venture. For now, it is planning to expand the reach of its smart wheelchair within the next five years. In doing so, it plans to build a manufacturing unit with a production capacity of 30 customised wheelchairs every three months.