In the vast tapestry of ancient cultures, the worship of the Sun has always held a special place, symbolising the essence of life, power, and divine inspiration. But in our modern era of scientific progress, our fascination with the Sun goes beyond mere reverence; it has transformed into a quest for groundbreaking solutions. In a time of urgent environmental concerns, tapping into solar energy has emerged as a beacon of hope. As the world gathers for COP28, the discussion on harnessing solar energy takes center stage once again. And it is India, blessed with abundant sunlight, that stands at the forefront, offering an unparalleled opportunity to ignite transformative and affordable solutions that combat climate change and pave the way for a sustainable future.
Sugrah Mobility, a startup founded by Jacob Thekkekara, an IIT Madras alumnus, introduces a solution that has the potential to transform sustainable transportation.
Sugrah, a shortened form of the word Susthira Graha (Sustainable Planet) commercialised solar electric pedal-assisted 3-wheeler that does not require charging infrastructure. The company aims to make sustainable mobility and the green transition accessible to economically disadvantaged groups, such as street vendors and garbage collectors, who cannot afford high expenses. “There's a specific reason why we are into three-wheelers and last-mile connectivity,” says Thekkekara, who co-founded the startup with two other innovators, Azim Hashmi and Abdul Hadi Mutheri.” Our current product portfolio is solar-powered three-wheelers. Why solar powered is because the future has to be sustainable.” The innovator explains that there is a shared understanding on heightened need to prioritize sustainability and that the current internal combustion engines are recognized as an unsustainable path forward. “Electric vehicles, with their minimal pollution and absence of tailpipe emissions, appear to be the prevailing solution. However, challenges, especially in charging infrastructure and electricity sourcing, persist for electric vehicles," he points out. "That is where solar-powered vehicles offer a potential solution and pave the way for a future of 100% renewable energy in mobility. Notably, our prototypes have demonstrated significant success, covering over 1,500 kilometres solely on solar power."
Since the Sugrah vehicle is a solar-powered one, whenever it is outside, it automatically gets charged. "The vehicle has a battery pack onto which the solar energy is getting stored. And whenever there is no solar power, it takes from the battery," Thekkekara explains the mechanism.
Davis Jacob who heads the sales and marketing of Sugrah adds that in case there is no solar power available, then there is an option to swap the battery, too, while plugging one battery for charging.
Interestingly, the startup offers the vehicle at Rs1.35 lakh, which is much lower a price than regular L5 rikshaws. "The most expensive part of an electric vehicle is the battery,” says Thekkekara. "By having a solar-powered pedal-assisted electric vehicle, we reduced the battery size. When we reduced the battery size, we were by default reducing the price. We are in the L3 e-rickshaw category, which is less than one-meter width and certain power limitations (below 2000 watts) and speed limitations (less than 25km per hour)."
Garbage collection is one of the key segments in which Sugrah sees clients for its L3 vehicle. “For instance, a corporation like Kochi alone has over a thousand e-rickshaws for collecting garbage. You have to charge these thousand e-rickshaws somewhere, right? You have to plug it into a plug point and charge it for three to four hours. That is where we pitch in with a solar-powered product where, on the go, when you're collecting waste, it keeps on charging. So you don't have to worry about the charging infrastructure and other hassle that gets associated with a regular electric vehicle,” explains Thekkekara. Another big market is mobile advertisement where a digital board is mounted on the back of the vehicle. Mobile street vendors also will find the solution useful, according to the innovators.
“Also, this could be used in factories, go-downs and warehouses. Food trucks can be set up in our three-wheeler and can be taken from place to place.”
Thekkekara, who co-founded and had been the CTO of Pi Beams Labs—which later became Fyn, and is focusing on last mile delivery and logistics solutions— says that Sugrah is currently in talks with Kerala Agro Machinery Corporation Limited (Kamco), which is coming up with a platform where in which the, the farmer can directly sell his produce in the market rather than relying on the intermediate channel. “They're developing a mobile platform to store vegetables in a cool environment and sell them directly in the market. They were in search of a suitable mobile platform for this purpose. Currently, we are in advanced discussions with them regarding the provision of the base vehicle, which they can customize to create their cart,” says Thekkekara.
The concept of a solar-powered cycle rickshaw has been attempted numerous times in the past as well. However, none of these attempts progressed to the commercialization phase due to various drawbacks. According to Thekkekara, one of the reasons for these setbacks was the lack of attention given to evolving the chassis and drivetrain.
"In contrast, we have dedicated a substantial amount of time to address these shortcomings," he says. "Our focus has been on developing a robust chassis, implementing a proper steering mechanism, and establishing an effective braking system before incorporating additional electric drivetrain components. This meticulous approach, I believe, is a key factor in the positive feedback we have received from the market, particularly from the Camco team. They have recognized the strength and quality of our base vehicle, distinguishing it from previous attempts."
The startup which has won a Nidhi Prayas grant from the Union government and an IDEA grant from Kerala Startup Mission aims to become a global company of green mobility solutions. And, they see a booming market in Southeast Asia and Africa.
The Sugrah innovators are now moving into the quadricycle domain. "We are fast progressing as intended to introduce a four-wheeled version of our solar-powered vehicle," says Thekkekara.
"This model aims to enter the realm of personal mobility vehicles, offering a cost-effective, electric, and sustainable option for commuting to offices, dropping off kids at school, and going shopping. The emphasis is on simplicity, ease of manoeuvring, affordability, and minimal environmental impact."