This article is part of an in-depth dive into electric vehicles in India. #EVinIndia is the first chapter of “Shaping sustainability”, an exclusive series from The Better India to give our readers an in-depth understanding of how Indians are making sustainability a priority in all walks of life. Find more stories from the series, here.
AAmid the talk of “sustainable energy” and “zero emissions mobility”, India has lately also started to focus on an overarching phrase called “net zero emissions targets”. The country aims to achieve its net-zero target by 2050. Leading the way, Mumbai has announced that it aims to become net-zero by 2040, a full decade ahead of the rest of the country.
One of the key sectors that will serve as a pivot in the fight against climate change is the electric vehicle (EV) sector. While India’s electric vehicle sector is still nascent, the country’s commitment to the [email protected] initiative – to achieve a 30% sales share for electric vehicles by 2030 – not only presents a bold goal that will put us on the path to our net zero goal, but also generate a cumulative investment opportunity of Rs 19.7 lakh crore (US$266 billion).
Sensing the magnitude of the opportunity in 2018, Vasudha Madhavan, a Bangalore-based investment banker, founded Ostara Advisors, India’s ‘first’ investment bank focused solely on the electric mobility and sustainability sector. .
Both Vasudha and Ostara oppose stereotypes and “conventional wisdom” – she works in an otherwise male-dominated profession and Ostara focuses on a specific niche. Otherwise, most investment banks specialize in offering services across multiple industries.
Their uniqueness can certainly add differentiated perspectives to our understanding. In this exclusive interview with The best IndiaVasudha talks about her own journey in this space, her motivations and her perspective on the EV industry in India.
Before settling in Lucknow and enrolling in a school there, Vasudha lived the first six years of her life in Chennai, Punjab and Odisha. “I attended school in Lucknow from Class 1 to Class 10 after which my family moved to Bengaluru,” she says. This, she notes, helped her develop “people skills” and exposure to diverse cultures.
Vasudha went to study at XLRI in Jamshedpur from 2001 to 2003. “It was my first time leaving home and the experience I got there was life changing.” Right after graduating from XLRI, she got a job at ICICI Bank and lived in Mumbai. After three years in the structured finance sector, she joined Citibank’s Corporate and Investment Banking team. The foundations for her later career were formed there, she says.
In 2012, Vasudha made her way into the world of boutique investment banks raising capital and providing services to private companies. “It was around this time, when I was introduced to various VCs, that I decided to work in boutique investment banking. It would allow me to work very sharply on a few sectors,” says- she.
Vasudha adds that she always knew she wanted to be an entrepreneur.
She eventually found her business in investment banking.
“My mother Sudha Madhavan is a children’s artist and author. She encouraged my younger sister and me to take on new challenges and break through gender stereotypes. She also gave me unconditional support to guide my entrepreneurial journey,” she notes.
The tough sites
“The fundamental skill in my area of work is to be proficient in the field of corporate finance and to be both familiar and knowledgeable with the industry you are dealing with,” she says.
“In 2017-18, I advised a company that was diversifying its mobility activity. The company wanted to get into clean mobility, and it gave me a great opportunity to study electric two-wheelers. It was during this transaction that Vasudha began to actively think about the space and energy implications of electric vehicles.
Working on what she says is India’s first electric two-wheeler acquisition deal has given her experience and knowledge of the industry like nothing else. At the same time, she is also struck by her lack of knowledge of the different aspects of the business “At no time did I want to give the impression of having half-baked knowledge of the sector. It, in a way, pushed me to work harder and learn faster,” she says.
It was a personal belief in the EV space that led Vasudha to take this step. It was a time when investing in electric vehicles or lithium-ion batteries was not common practice. “I also learned along the way that it was necessary to move away from being a generalist, as startups and investors interested in this space needed a specialist advisor. I had to get into the details – understanding battery chemistry, powertrain components, the role of technology in the EV, etc.
“Around mid-2020, I started to see a buzz around the EV space. It was starting to be a vibrant startup ecosystem with insufficient funding. There was a huge opportunity to attract more investors and to make good returns,” she adds.
“We’re just getting started”
The EV space promises a lot, but we’re at the start of the trend, and there are so many blanks to fill. The immediate and stark challenge that Vasudha points to is the rate of adoption. “More electric vehicles on the road means the industry as a whole will have the opportunity to grow. Investors also need to start seeing the value of investing in the sector and seeing the potential it has. If all of this happens, then the ecosystem is bound to grow.
“This chicken-and-egg problem manifests itself in other areas of electric vehicles as well, namely charging infrastructure. The lack of this has slowed the adoption of electric vehicles, and yet the reverse is also true. It requires innovative thinking and investment before immediate returns,” she says.
From the start, Vasudha started connecting the dots. She also mentions the need for a stronger industry voice. “Like the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM), the industry body for the electric vehicle sector also needs a cohesive voice that can bring together all startups as well as incumbents to deliberate on various changes at the policy level that could be beneficial,” she adds.
She continues: “Sometimes what I do is like looking at a crystal ball – looking far into the future to try to predict what’s going to happen and how things are going to play out.”
Where are the women ?
On why there are so few women in the EV space in India, Vasudha says it’s something she hasn’t been able to fathom. She is a firm believer that women should move into sectors other than consumer goods and services, where many of them have risen to the top.
“I would like to see more women entrepreneurs in the electric vehicle space, deep tech and hardware-driven sectors, as they are in the B2C consumer and beauty space. In fact, the first transaction I made in this industry was acquiring Ampere Vehicles, which was founded and built by a woman. Her entrepreneurial zeal and determination were inspiring. She built it from the ground up,” shares- she.
“We need more women to get into the electric vehicle business. This is an industry ripe for disruption and I hope more women entrepreneurs take notice,” she adds.
Another professional milestone that Vasudha is proud of is the recent successful fundraising for Altigreen Propulsion, a Bengaluru-based 3-wheel electric vehicle manufacturer. “This $40 million fundraising was critical to the business and is great validation of the work that the company, my own business, and ecosystem partners are doing,” she says.
Dr. Amitabh Saran, co-founder and CEO of Altigreen Propulsion Labs, says: “Vasudha has a good understanding of the electric mobility ecosystem, which makes her an invaluable advisor and partner for businesses and startups in this field. His ability to translate our fundamental value proposition to the investor defined during our recent fundraising process has been instrumental in attracting reputable global investors focused on sustainability and mobility to our business. It is indeed a specialization that few have in this country.
Geetanjali adds: “This is a sector that is ready for such great things. It presents a whole world of innovation opportunities, which will benefit from an irreverent and unencumbered trajectory of thought. It is possible to work to completely change India’s energy and mobility landscape.
Advice from Vasudha:
1. Be a relentless learner. Never hesitate to want to learn or acquire a new skill. Try to keep yourself constantly updated to stay relevant.
2. Work on developing your communication skills – this will come in very handy.
3. It is important that those working in this field are able to both make connections and help connect other people. For this, it is recommended to work on your networking skills.
4. Be persistent, whether it’s making connections or pursuing a lead. Don’t give up on an idea easily. Always be ready to fight for what you believe in.
(Editing by Divya Sethu)