11 September 2022 17:39:59 IST

Akshaya Chandrasekaran is Sub-Editor, businessline. She covers education and start-ups for fortnightly supplement bloncampus, and writes features on brands and advertising. You can write to her at akshaya.c@thehindu.co.in and find her on Twitter at @akshayaiyerr

BatX Energies powers up Li-on recycling

BatX Energies Founders: (from left) Utkarsh Singh and Vikrant Singh

Imagine coming up with a breakthrough start-up idea in your final year of engineering degree that bolsters your confidence to opt out of college placements. And, this idea captures the attention of your college president who is also a business tycoon and he bets on your vision and becomes your first investor.

Utkarsh Singh (27) and Vikrant Singh (25) from BML Munjal University (BMU) managed to do just that with their start-up — BatX Energies. Akshay Munjal, the president of the varsity, was so taken up with the idea that Hero group’s Survam Partners invested ₹1 crore and led the pre-seed funding round. BatX Energies is also fresh off a ₹15 crore seed funding round led by JITO Angel Network in June 2022.

What is the idea that won investor Munjal’s trust? The premise — and the process — is simple: India does not commercially produce lithium-ion cells which are built into battery packs that power electric vehicles (EVs). This is because none of the rare earth metals such as lithium, nickel, cobalt, and manganese, which are used in the manufacturing of lithium-ion cells, is mined in India.

This makes India heavily dependent on China for imports. Moreover, the environmental concerns surrounding conventional lithium mining make it an unsuitable option in the long run.

Waste to wonder

As leading automakers around the world jostle for this coveted metal that is electrifying the EV industry, BatX Energies found a ‘rare’ opportunity — recycling lithium-ion cells in used batteries, found in abundance as e-waste, especially in India. The name BatX, a combination of the word battery and the ‘X’ of a closed infinity loop, symbolises their mission to recycle metals infinitely instead of mining for them at exorbitant costs.

The start-up founded by the duo in 2020 after three years of R&D is now 52 members strong and runs with a robust hub-and-spoke model. The used batteries are collected from three main sources — waste aggregators ( kabadiwalas), e-waste recyclers who discard batteries, and directly from electric mobility manufacturers. At its 4,000 tonnes scraps-recycling plant in Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh, the batteries are converted into a powder form (black mass) and processed further.

The used batteries collected from waste aggregators are converted into a powder form (black mass) and processed further at the scrap-recycling plant in Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh

The extracted materials are then sold to cell manufacturers , and the additional materials extracted such as aluminium and cobalt are sold in the local markets as well.

The government has been taking steps to mandate battery recycling which has given the start-up the right impetus. With the infusion of cash, BatX Energies aims to expand this year and utilise the capex to set up an exclusive chemical plant to refine the material for 99 per cent purity. They are also in talks with investors and VCs to raise close to ₹200 crore to scale up their recycling plant to 10,000 metric tonnes to begin producing all the materials needed to make a battery in sustainable ways.

How did the duo land this golden idea and manage to develop the technology to execute it effectively? Utkarsh, a computer science engineering graduate of BMU’s founding batch of 2014-2018 and Vikrant, a mechanical engineering graduate of the following batch (2015-19), paired up to participate in an intercollegiate fest in 2016. They were tasked to build an EV from scratch. In this grand pursuit, they realised, that not only was it hard to get lithium-ion batteries in India but there were also no lithium-ion manufacturers. It had to be imported.

But determined to find a way, they persisted. As luck would have it, the Hero group had set up a hi-tech material testing and research lab way back in 2015 at BMU where they could toy away with the equipment and let their creativity run wild. Soon enough, with the right assistance from professors and mentors, their idea came to fruition and they fabricated a lithium-ion cell in that lab in 2017.

‘Right place, right time’

Giving BMU proper billing, Utkarsh says, “We were lucky to be at the right place at the right time. Honestly, if there was no BMU, there would be no BatX. Being at BMU certainly gave us the push to become entrepreneurs and see our ideas through.”

Realising they were onto something with big potential, Prof Davinder Singh, CEO, Atal Community Innovation Centre - BMU Foundation, helped them secure grants and access to hi-tech machinery needed to develop the technology. “Team BatX picked an idea that was far-sighted and important in terms of making a big impact on the Indian economy as it’ll propel the shift towards e-mobility and provide a circular and sustainable battery system. They were our students and we could gauge their inclination toward entrepreneurship even while they were studying. So, we supported them to develop the required technology and connected them with the Munjal family office, who were their first investors,” says Singh.

The start-up founded by the duo in 2020 after three years of R&D is now 52 members strong.

Through the Atal Centre at BMU, they also got the opportunity to exhibit BatX Energies to the French government at a global start-up fest, Viva Technology, in Paris in June 2022. “For the initial two years, we ran our R&D in BMU labs. That is where we developed the technology. After the team expanded, we wanted to get everyone together, so we moved to Gurgaon,” adds Utkarsh.

With wisdom only visible in hindsight, Vikrant's advice to students with start-up ideas is to go for it. “I spent the last semester of my college in a lab developing a battery. Everyone thought I was crazy, barring a few professors who felt like I was onto something. So, if you decide to give your life to something, go all the way and believe in yourself, no matter what people think.”