You can’t have smart cities without smart transportation: Sanjay Puri

Indian American entrepreneur to launch Auto Nebula in Pune Jan. 28-29.

Sanjay Puri
Sanjay Puri

By Sreekanth  A Nair

Indian American entrepreneur Sanjay Puri is launching a connected car incubator called Auto Nebula, India’s first incubator dedicated to connected transport, in Pune, on Jan. 28-29.

The incubator will provide a range of incubation services, including seed finding, workshops conducted by global experts, mentor-ship and networking.

Puri, the chairman of the United States India Political Action Committee (USINPAC), sold and exited the IT services company Optimos, in 2014.

Ahead of the launch of Auto Nebula, in an exclusive interview with The American Bazaar, Puri shared his vision on connected cars and how he is planning to provide the much-needed support for bringing innovation into transportation technology by financing start-ups.

Excerpts from the interview:

You have just launched Auto Nebula. Why did you decide to enter the transportation domain?

After exiting my last venture, I thought that I wanted to do something that would involve working with people who are younger, smarter and who can really make a difference in the world we live in. I have lived the past 30 plus years in Washington, DC. Washington is a great city. But one of the frustrations of Washington is the traffic. Anyone who lived here will tell you the traffic is challenging at best.  And then I spend some of my time in India professionally. Whether it’s Pune or Delhi, traffic in those two cities also is just as challenging, if not worse than Washington. So looking at where I wanted to put my time and energy, I thought why not use whatever expertise and financial resources I have, and work with young, bright people in solving some big challenges that face the world.

I think transportation is a big big challenge. With the advent of technology of these self-driven autonomous cars, (we have) cars that drive themselves. Google has been testing them for several years. They are currently on the road, they have done over a million miles. Apple is going to have their EV electric car in 2019. Tesla has already got some versions of it out. So tremendous advances are being made.  But a lot of innovation needs to go to keep these technologies going for long and those innovations are going to be done through startups.  Just so you remember, Tesla was a startup, Google was a startup, Apple was a startup, Uber was a startup, it doesn’t seem that way, but they were all startups not too long ago. But this eco-system is going to need a lot of help. So we are looking at funding and providing the infrastructure and expertise to startups in this ecosystem, people who are going to builds apps, people who are going to build sensors, people who are going to build cyber security systems so the self-driven car doesn’t get hacked or taken off the road. Entrepreneurs who have great ideas, who need money to get those ideas to product, who need connections to get those ideas to the future, who need infrastructure, we are going to provide them all.

What is the range of your investment in the startups?

What we are looking at is $50,0000 to $100,000 range per company. We are doing this in India. Let’s put it this way: money travels a little farther in India than it does in some other parts of the world. But our intention is to initially do $50,000 to $100,000. We will be doing 10 companies in a batch. We’ll do two batches in a year, so about 20 companies. Our focus is really on quality than just pushing out quantity, because it’s still just a nascent field, It’s a growing field, and our bet is that hopefully, we will have some real pioneers, some real leaders, the future Ubers coming out of our incubator.

Is Auto Nebula going to work with other incubators?

One of the things that we are doing in Auto Nebula is, companies who have some unique product in the connected car space, or who have got an established product in the US that want to enter the India market, they also have an opportunity to incubate, or bring that product through our incubator to the India market in the connected car space. So we are currently in conversation with many companies in the US who want to bring their software, technology or apps to India; and they are using our Auto Nebula incubator to do that.

Do you expect many US players to be there in the Indian market?  The US already has a substantial presence in Indian automobile market.

I would say that almost every US player, every global player is now in India who got us committed a billion dollars in investment into India; GM has done the same. I mean there is not an automaker or an OEM player whether it’s Bosch or Nissan or it’s Chrysler-Fiat or any of these companies that are not in the Indian market. India is today growing at the rate of between 7.5-8 percent. It’s one of the fastest growing markets. Still if you look at the auto per thousand people, it’s one of the lowest still in the world. So, there is a tremendous upside for these companies but also from technology, a lot of R&D for a lot of these companies, were its Uber or GM, etc. is now happening in India. So we are seeing two full benefits, one is the R&D piece, the other is the domestic sale piece, and we are hoping to be right at the cusp of that. Bring expertise from R&D; bring the companies who want the India market.

Auto Nebula will be launched at a conference on connected transportation that you are hosting on January 28-29. Tell us more about the conference.

This conference is really about connected transport, or you can call it “connected cars” or “autonomous cars.”  As you know, technology in mobility is changing dramatically. It has changed from the time people started driving cars to now. You look at a Tesla: Tesla is basically a computer on wheels. And, as Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, said, “a car is the biggest mobile device around.”

And I think when you look at what is happening in technology, where the future of technology has been defined by companies like Google and Apple, where cars are going to be self-driven, or autonomous driven, where people have an option of just getting into cars and getting dropped off by self-driven cars, and not even owning cars. That is the future as it has been defined by a lot of companies.  It has serious implications in terms of safety. It has implications in terms of cost, efficiency, insurance, entertainment, leisure, etc.  India has some of the highest rates of accidents. India also has some of the challenges of infrastructure. We believe this revolution in transport, if you pair it with the smart city initiative that Prime Minister [Narendra Modi] is talking about… you can’t have smart cities without smart transportation.

That’s what we are trying to do at the conference, basically talk about smart, connected transportation that involves cars that can communicate with each other, transportation systems; whether it is trucks, fleet management systems, etc.

Who are the target audiences of the conference?

The target audience is really the eco-system of the connected transport community, which starts with automobile companies,  OEMs,  Tier 1 part suppliers, people that make the pieces that go into cars, technology companies who are providing the technology. As I said, a car is now really a technology device,  so the Googles, Apples, Ubers  etc. These are people who are into the sharing economy. Also people who make sensors, security devices, because when you make a technology device, it opens up for people hacking cars, etc. and then the startup community. Basically our focus is on entrepreneurs who have an idea, or who have a product, or a company that is in this space and need help and they want to build relationships, they want to hear from people, experts from around the world talking about this.

A startup competition is also part of the event?

We have a startup competition that’s called Ignition 1.0. Basically what we have done is we have reached out around the country. We have got about 150 to 200 startups that have responded to us. We screen them.

And there is going to be a competition. An eminent jury will decide the winners and they will get different kinds of prizes and awards.

Some winners might get to be in our incubator that we launching.

Who are the main speakers at the event?

We have Scott McCormick. Scott is the head of the Connected Vehicles Trade Association, the most preeminent association in the world on connected transportation.  We also have Blake Burris from Vinli. We have the head of Volvo in India, Kamal Bali. We have some key people from technology companies that are going to be there, head of auto companies, people from companies like Nvidia are going to participate. So we have real top names from around the world, and also people from India who are from this eco-system, that are participating.

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