After losing control of most of his first generation of businesses under the Essel Group, including road infrastructure, solar projects and entertainment,  71-year-old Subhash Chandra is gearing up for version 2.0 with focus on new age businesses including digital education and metaverse.

“I have made some mistakes and I accept it. But if you have the mettle in you, you can build new businesses again. There is no dearth of opportunities in this country. Creating something new motivates me even now,” Chandra told BusinessLine.

“Over the last two-three years, I have been studying the opportunities that are coming up in new technology platforms like metaverse. I have renamed it as mayaverse,” he added.

One of the things Chandra plans to roll out is virtual cinema that will give metaverse experience to viewers in the next two years. “We will use metaverse technologies that will make cinema viewing experience immersive like never before. We want to have such cinema centres in multiple cities,” Chandra said adding that he is already mentoring few young entrepeneurs to build the metaverse platform. 

Other focus areas include tapping into the online education space under Zee Learn, digital publishing and scaling up news channel WION.  

Chandra said he has been particularly focusing on building the digital domain for Zee Media, where Essel holds nearly 8.5 per cent shareholding. Chandra targets to grow the users on this platform from 300 million to 1 billion users in the next two-three years. “And also have all those customers as D2C customers.  Their data should all be available with me which can be monetised,” he said adding that talks are on with Microsoft to set up a digital publishing platform for Indian news outlets.

Debt reduction

Chandra’s Essel Group has been under financial stress over the past couple of years. The company has done asset sales across multiple group entities to reduce debt burden. In August last year, Chandra had said that the group has settled 91.2 per cent of the overall debt with 43 lenders, and the remaining dues are in the process of being paid. Chandra said that except for one or two accounts that have got stuck in legal issues, the remaining debt will be settled.

The biggest hurdle to these plans, as Chandra himself admits, is Essel’s pending dues. Zee Learn, for example, is also facing lenders’ ire. “We had a head start in the education space and the company can do really really well, but the issue is we have the same lender as Dish TV who wants all the dues to be cleared at the same time. The debt for the company is not much, around ₹300 crore, hence we are trying for refinancing,” Chandra said.

Experts are unsure on how successful Chandra will be in his new ventures. Karan Taurani of Elara Capital, said, “The domains of digital publishing, news, especially metaverse, are attracting a lot of interest from global tech giants like Facebook and Google who may have an edge due to their technological offering. The market will become competitive in these domains very soon so substantial investment will be needed in order to build technology and  human capital.”

“For ed tech, Zee Learn is certainly a brand, but it has mostly focused on brick and mortar, pre-school education. Pivoting to digital will also have its challenges with ed tech majors such as Byju’s already cornering a big share of the market”.