Work

Here comes the sun-bag

Rashmi Pratap | Updated on September 12, 2014

Charged up: Gandharv S Bakshi and Lavina started commercial operations last year. Photo: GP Sampath Kumar

A Lumos backpack

A Bangalore couple stitch up a successful business in solar-powered backpacks and bags

The JSS Institution campus in Bangalore was the venue for a different kind of party last January. It was a get-together of sun worshippers, but of the kind that uses it to charge their nifty gadgets. In the spotlight was a range of USB devices — while one could keep your food warm even as you trekked in the Himalayas, another could turn your backpack into a WiFi zone or charge your smartphone to ensure you can click endless pictures of the beautiful scenery miles away from habitation.

The host was Bangalore-based start-up Lumos, which makes backpacks and travel bags that capture solar energy — solar panels are stitched into the fabric and so is a battery to store the charge. The bag’s USB port can be used to charge phones or keep coffee warm and soda cold.

In a country with abundant sunlight and a young population ever hungry for connectivity, it is no surprise that the backpacks are selling briskly — 40 per cent more every month — both locally and overseas.

“In India, Bangalore is our biggest market, followed by Delhi, Hyderabad and Pune,” says Gandharv Bakshi, who co-founded Lumos with his wife Lavina in June 2012.

The idea for the solar backpack came to Bakshi in 2011, when he was studying at IIM-Bangalore and was consulting at small and medium enterprises in the nearby industrial areas like Anekal, Jigani and Hosur.

“While travelling to the city’s outskirts, my phone would often run out of charge as I was a heavy user. That would lead to embarrassing situations when a customer called and my phone was unavailable,” he says.

Bakshi got himself a portable charger, but often forgot to charge that as well. It was around then that Lavina read about solar fabric and it led her to the idea of a bag that can charge phones on-the-go. To keep the costs low, she hand-stitched the circuitry into an existing bag.

“This prototype gave us the proof of concept — that it worked,” says Bakshi. At a mall a few days later, he ran into Siva Ramamoorthy, his former boss at Tejas Networks. “I told him about it and he gave us the first cheque of ₹4.5 lakh.”

With this money, the couple decided to test for customers. They began by assuming that consultants and salespeople would be the potential buyers. “But our assumption was wrong… It is the guys who cycle to work, usually IT professionals, or those who go on treks, who are more excited.”

Bakshi approached bag makers and electronics manufacturers to make the first lot of sample bags. But convincing them proved difficult. “Getting manufacturers interested and making them supply on time is a challenge. There is a non-commercial factor — if you try to involve them in the process, they get interested. Intrinsic motivation works. We told them we will not negotiate and they agreed,” he says.

The first lot of 20-odd sample bags was ready in 2013, priced ₹5,500 each. It was a hit with a growing community of cyclists in Bangalore. Around this time, Google India MD Rajan Anandan took an interest in the concept and invested ₹25 lakh in Lumos.

“We began commercial manufacturing in October 2013,” says Bakshi, whose suppliers can make up to 5,000 bags a month for now.

Among the bigger brands, Samsonite sells a solar backpack in India, while Voltaic Systems and BirkSun sell similar products globally. Given the limited competition and a zooming demand, Lumos is well poised to grab a big chunk of the market, especially among cyclists in European countries. It already gets 30 per cent of its orders from nine countries abroad, mainly Australia and Mexico. As its international sales are nearly doubling, Lumos is focusing on those markets for now. And as long as the sun is shining, Bakshi shall make hay.

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Published on July 25, 2014
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