An incident in 2018 caused Varun Goenka, now the co-founder of Charge-up, to come up with the idea for this venture.
Making his way in an e-rickshaw through the congested roads of Central Delhi, Varun was in a hurry to get to his destination. He had just moved to the capital for work from Guwahati, his hometown, and was still getting familiar with the many intersecting routes.
The EV all of a sudden came to a halt, and the driver explained to Varun that it was a battery issue, which would take a while to fix.
Unfortunately, Varun realised that he was just one of the many people in the national capital who would either be forced to switch vehicles in the middle of their rides or opt for conventional fuel vehicles instead.
While this seemed like a hiccup in the morning routine, it actually pointed to a larger problem in the EV space.
“When the battery runs out, it causes the driver to lose out on customers and indirectly impacts their ROI,” notes Varun, adding that while he hitched another ride and reached his destination, the incident made him research this issue in depth.
Today, Charge-up — spearheaded by Varun along with co-founder Ankur Madan, has enabled “over 2,000 drivers to cover more than 40 million zero-emission kilometres”.
Fuelled with a desire to create change in the EV space
“I discovered that in India, there are more than two million e-rickshaw drivers ferrying 60 million commuters every day,” says Varun.
In a bid to do something about it, Varun decided to couple the expertise that he had from working in the cleantech space with his knowledge of finance, and he came up with a solution — battery swapping. This, he thought, would allow EV rides to happen seamlessly.
So, in 2019, Varun quit his job to devote his time to this dream.
In 2021, he was joined by Ankur Madan, whom he met through a mutual friend. The two were united by a common ideology and started building Charge-up into the empire it is today.
The idea of battery swapping, they say, will revolutionise the EV space and reduce the anxiety that comes with drivers not being able to say yes to long routes for fear of the battery running out.
How does battery swapping work?
The duo knew that in order to disrupt the current way of operation in the EV space, they would need to pay attention to the root of the problem — the type of battery used.
After talking to EV drivers, they understood that conventional lead acid batteries were notoriously known to stop working after eight months, requiring replacement. They often leaked water into the vehicle and damaged the chassis.
As a solution to this, they decided to employ only standardised advanced lithium batteries that have shorter charging times, longer life spans and need low maintenance. This would make the battery swap process hassle-free.
“Once a driver subscribes to the swapping plan, they can then drive into the nearest Charge-up station when the vehicle battery drains out and exchange the battery for a fully charged one. There are around 200 battery-swapping stations across the Delhi/NCR region. The ease of the process makes sure that the vehicle can return to the road within two minutes,” says Varun.
He adds that the batteries are owned and managed by Charge-up and registered subscribers use them on a pay-per-swap basis or monthly subscription plans.
“This gives them freedom from purchasing and managing costly EV batteries. It makes things a lot more affordable and profitable for e-rickshaw drivers,” adds Ankur.
One of the drivers, Mohammed — a registered driver with the platform, recounts how previously he would spend 8 to 10 hours charging his vehicle battery and in the process lose out on a lot of business.
“Chargeup ke sath main two-minute mein battery dalwa leta hu or meri kamai dugni hogayi hai (With Charge-up I get a battery swapped within two minutes and so, my income has doubled),” he says.
The duo add that not only is the battery swapping great for the drivers but also for the planet at large. “Through this, we are saving 3000 tonnes of CO2 emissions,” notes Varun.
The road ahead
While increasing EV adoption through its services, Charge-up wishes to simplify the lives of drivers with its alerts and routing assistance, while boosting their productivity. In fact, they say battery swapping has contributed to an “80 per cent increase in the drivers’ income”.
The company recently raised $7 million in funds, which they say will be infused into “expanding the services to 20 new cities and to power 50,000+ drivers”.
“We are on a mission to power one million drivers by 2027,” says Ankur.
However, he adds that the journey hasn’t been without challenges.
“The venture was the first to penetrate the e-rickshaw market at a time when there was no precedence for battery technology, business model, or pricing strategy. There was also a lack of standardisation in battery technology. As batteries are dumb in nature, Charge-up built its model around providing a safe and reliable ride to the drivers,” he says.
The drivers associated with the startup too are thrilled with this innovative facility.
“Paani wali battery se paisa bachana bahut mushkil hojata tha. Chargeup ke sath main din ke Rs 1,500 kamata hu or saath main padhai bhi kar pata hoon (It was getting tough saving money while using the usual batteries. But with the battery swapping process, I earn Rs 1,500 a day and I’m able to study simultaneously),” says Puncham.
Another driver Jeetendar recounts how the battery he would use would often get spoilt within six months. “With the Charge-up batteries, my speed has increased and I am no longer in debt,” he says.
The duo are confident that with time the EV space will grow in the country, and they are also positive that battery swapping will accelerate this.
Edited by Pranita Bhat