In the words of Founder and CEO PK Sundararajan, the company realised that the earlier entities would be learning vehicles. The third generation BLU3 E20 is what you could call a ‘smart helmet’. It will flow cool, clean air into the helmet. With a single click on a large common surface, the user will also be able to play music, take a call, reject a call and so on. Besides, riders can also use a voice assistant (Google or Siri) to control the functions of the hemlet, or call the pillion rider for a chat. These are among the many features the company has managed to put into the new generation product. Investment in research and development of proprietary technology has paid off.
The Indian market may not have been ready until now, or the first two generations of the product may not have been compelling enough for a market that does not wear helmets by choice. While the Indian market was not lapping up its earlier generation of products, BluArmor kept going across markets from South America to South East Asia and beyond -- with better returns. BluArmor’s new offering may just be what it needed, and may have come just at the right time, to catalyse its growth in India (and elsewhere).
BluSnap was the first offering from AptEner MechaTronics. It is also the first of many to come under the BluArmor label. PK Sundararajan, who conceptualised the product, admits that BluSnap has been more successful internationally. The Indian market just wasn’t -- and perhaps isn’t -- ready, reckons the IIT Madras graduate, who holds a doctorate in engineering from the University of California. South America accounts for the lion’s share of sales today. Confident that Indians will eventually embrace the product, the team is working on the future generations of the biking accessory.
When the makers announced pre-orders of BluSnap in early 2018, there was a lot of interest in the Indian market. That was to be expected. But what followed wasn’t. The interest in a detachable cooler that can be snapped onto one’s helmet and thereby an ‘air-cooled helmet’ did not translate into instant sales.
A Cooler, Cleaner Ride
The first generation product admittedly had its limitations. It sold 5,000 units, mostly abroad. It was bigger physically, heavier and did not cool as well as the current product. The creators spoke with every customer who bought the product in India.
“India is that kind of a market. It will take time to adopt, but then the growth will be very quick.”
They then created the second generation product, the BluSnap2, shipping since March 2019. Sundararajan claims that the product is 30pc lighter, 40pc smaller and delivers 20pc better performance than the first generation. The first quarter has seen sales of 10,000 units. Sundararajan is projecting that over 1,00,000 units of BluSnap2 will sell in a year. By then, BluSnap3 would have hit the markets.
Evolution is the only constant. It has been, since the concept stage. BluArmor started off as one man’s vision to create an efficient blanket-like cooling solution for the body, in place of an air-conditioner that has to cool an entire room.
Creating a new product isn’t new to Sundararajan, nor is product development. He started off as a Design Engineer in 2002 at Texas Instruments. His last corporate assignment was as Senior Director IP at Cadence Design Systems, which he quit in 2016 before launching AptEner MechaTronics.
The Indian Consumer
Cooling is one aspect of the product, albeit the core aspect. Another key proposition in some markets is the prospect of a dust-free ride. This is highly relevant in some markets, but a non-factor in others.
“India is not an early adopter. When we get into Gen4 or Gen5 of the product, I expect to see a lot of traction in India. India is that kind of a market. It will take time to adopt, but then the growth will be very quick. We have to wait for it to evolve,” reflects the entrepreneur who proudly declares his purpose on LinkedIn as: ‘Make in India, for the World’.
He also points out to other conditions that could drive or slow down adoption. BluSnap works only with a fully closed helmet or ‘full-face’ helmet. In the US, it is against the law for riders to leave the visor open. There are markets like India where half-face helmets are not just legal and popular, but also preferred. The brand has also attempted the institutional route to catalyse adoption. This, across organisations that have a large number of delivery riders and also those with a large number of bike-riding employees.
“A lot of companies expect the delivery boys to make the purchase. Between a regular bike rider and a delivery boy, who is likely to adopt this faster?” poses Sundararajan. He has a point.
BluSnap has tasted ‘some success’ with roadshows at campuses, something it will do more of. It has also forged a tie up with helmet-maker Vega, through which BluArmor retails at over 100 Vega dealerships nationally.
The brand is also working with key dealers, understanding the importance of touch-and-feel in the nascent category. Online channels are used to drive buyers to these dealers to “Try-before-you-buy”. Riders are also doing the rounds of Bengaluru conducting field trials, a network Sundararajan recognises may have to be expanded across India. He is clear that BluArmor has to be part of the auto ecosystem. Social media “influencers” posting on the product has also got it some traction. But it’s a long ride ahead in India, and the team is ready for it.
“Any new developer in India has to believe, ‘I am in the game for five years’. It’s about having the runway, keeping the patience. The product category is here to stay,” he observes.
“The focus on international markets makes a lot of sense for us. That’s the quality I deliver. We can also upsell internationally.”
While the initial investment of Rs 4 cr came from a handful of angels, a subsequent round of Rs 10 crore gives the company the runway it needs, reckons its founder.
Over 85 percent of BluSnap2’s sales has also been from international markets. It is not unduly worrying the makers though, who quickly point us to see the positive side of that dynamic.
“The focus on international markets makes a lot of sense for us. That’s the quality I deliver,” emphasises the founder. He adds, “We can also upsell internationally.” Sundararajan claims that at its current price point, there isn’t a comparable product, globally.
In 2017, Steve Feher from the US, was in the news for having patented “the world's first practical air-conditioned motorcycle helmet”. The air-conditioned helmet branded ‘Mr.Cool’ is a totally different product but one that offers a solution to the same problem faced by two-wheeler riders. In some markets, it sells at over US$ 500. BluSnap2, which is sold at $60 in Thailand, sells at about $35 in India. It is a set of streamlined processes that makes manufacturing at this cost possible, needless to add, backed by research. It was 15 months after inception that AptEner launched its first BluSnap.
At its current scale, making BluSnap in India and shipping it across the world is working well for AptEner. But the makers are not ruling out a rethink and local production when the numbers rise, given attendant logistics expenses.
Currently, a team of 20 assemble the product at a factory in a relatively silent corner of the bustling Bommasandra industrial area on the outskirts of Bengaluru. They are all armed with a degree or diploma in engineering. Another team half that size are in the city, handling marketing, sales and customer care. The product’s reach spans the globe from Peru and Chile in South America to Papua New Guinea in Australasia. With demand peaking in markets typically in summer, the team is busy through the year. More recently, perhaps realising the need to push the pedal on the function, Sundararajan announced that they are looking for a marketing head. For the Indian market, a concerted push to raise awareness and enable product experience should help.
The Road Ahead
“The quality of cooling will keep getting better and size of the product will keep getting smaller. Today, it is a dust blocker. Tomorrow, it will evolve to become an air purifier. We’re also rolling in connectivity and assisted entertainment,” reveals Sundararajan.
That product will be out in the next six months. Or less. He expects it to sport a price tag of Rs.4,500 or so. That will create a portfolio starting with the basic BluSnap at Rs.2,299. That is also in keeping with the vision of creating a single device with all the accessories a biker might want. It’s what he calls a ‘Smart Helmet’.
“Our development roadmap can go hand in hand with the acceptance roadmap.”
He surmises, “Our development roadmap can go hand in hand with the acceptance roadmap. Right now, we are preparing the field for the opportunity.”