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Spotlight: Cassetex - Cleantech Champions Working Towards A Solar-Powered Future

In this edition of spotlight, we chat with the team behind Cassetex, a solar-powered battery swapping solution that aims to ease the load on the energy grid in small towns in Bangladesh. The visionary team clinched the Global Grand Champion title in the 2020 edition of ClimateLaunchpad, the world’s largest green business competition. Watch their pitch here (8:43 - 13:41).

You guys recently became the Global Grand Champion at Climatelaunchpad 2020. Congratulations! Can you tell our audience a little bit about your experience in the programme, and what do you think helped you reach the #1 position?

Tauseef: Thank you for the well wishes. We actually rushed our application in the last few days before the deadline in July. To our surprise, we made it into the CLP programme which was being organised by a social enterprise called Gen Lab in Bangladesh. For us, it was all about going from one coaching session to the other and packing in the requirements and the deliverables between those sessions. I personally recall a session with Frans Nauta, the founder of CLP, who once said that putting an idea together in the most concise way without losing the essence of the business pitch you are trying to make is a really important skill. That was one of my most interesting takeaways from those sessions.

Gopal: We were very new to CLP - in previous years, we noticed there was no chapter in Bangladesh. When we got selected as one of the 6 teams from Bangladesh to undergo the bootcamp, we were happy to have Mr Frans Nauta, the founder of CLP as our trainer. We were very excited because it was a huge opportunity to learn from him. His teaching technique was also very interactive - if I sit in front of Mr Frans, I cannot move my head because each word he says is so impactful. 

To prepare for our regional finals, we tried our best to watch contestants in other regionals and also previous records of CLP from 2018-19. There was a big learning opportunity for us to see how judges are asking questions and how to respond to them. Our goal was actually to enter the top-16 and the Climate-KIT accelerator programme, not to be at the top, so we are very surprised and happy.

Tauseef: Our team worked very hard to iron out the details behind each of the 9 slides we were presenting. We had a treasure trove of documents. Every few steps, we created a new document. I think they were around five to six pages long and covered many aspects of planning this business. I think this is a treasure that will help us when we are setting up this business over the next few years. 

Now that we know about your experience in CLP, we were curious to know about your backgrounds and life journey – what were the steps that led you to Cassetex?

Tauseef: I studied economics but for the last 10+ years I've been working in the software industry. I worked in a company that used to build mobile solutions for rural health services which is where I first encountered “technology for good” - the biggest turning point for me. I started my own venture in industrial manufacturing software. I think transitioning from software to the manufacturing side led me to start collaborating with Gopal and our other team member when we got together to start developing solutions for sustainable mobility as a whole. 

In Bangladesh we have a diverse array of problems when it comes to transportation and one of them is the effects of transportation on the environment. Our team - me, Gopal and Ahmed we have a company called ‘Advanced Dynamics’ working to develop regenerative transportation which is essentially building solar electric vehicles in different sizes for different applications and also developing electric bicycles. As a team we have been working in sustainable mobility for the past two three years mostly on the manufacturing side and developing solutions for B2B clients. 

But behind the scenes we are always constantly thinking about what else can we put our resources into and that’s when Cassetex started.

"We knew that the last mile industry in Bangladesh was already very mature. There are more than a million of these vehicles already electrified. So, collectively Asia has made some great progress and Bangladesh is one of the contributors. We knew that manufacturing a new kind of vehicle in this market would probably not be a good idea. That is why we shifted our focus in to making the infrastructure more efficient."

Gopal: I was born in a small town in Bangladesh called Rangpur. After completing my B.Sc in Electrical and Electronics Engineering in Dhaka, I applied for a government fund to do some research on renewable energy and the smart grid. I focused on how to synchronize these renewable energy sources and grid just like how I can synchronize my rooftop solar with the national grid. That was 10-12 years ago, when it was not very popular. Now, the solar grid system is actually very popular.

I got a chance to represent Bangladesh in an international event called ISWEEEP (International Sustainable World Energy Engineering Environment Project) Olympiad. We brought our project to Houston, Texas, USA to showcase it with the other eighty to ninety countries. In 2012, we won the bronze medal, which was the third prize out of more than 78 countries. In 2015, we applied again and won the silver medal. Both our projects were focusing on renewable energy. This Olympiad focuses on 3 things –  energy, engineering and environment. It is similar to ClimateLaunchpad but more for science projects or innovators up to 18 years old, instead of start-ups.

Since I am the eldest son, I have lots of responsibility in my family. I had to shift from my job to my family business in Rangpur. It is a logistics supply business, transporting and distributing food items like Horlicks and milk powders to the rural markets. We use electric vehicles for that. For the last 6 to 7 years, we have been using electric vehicles. I was the pioneer to introduce these electric vehicles in my business, which are also customised to our needs. 

About 3 years ago, I was also doing a personal research project - trying to convert a 4-wheeler Maruti suzuki gypsy to electric. I just bought a scrap gypsy from the local market and I threw out the engine. I was trying to build the electrical part and that’s when then I met Tauseef and Ahmed and we thought about doing retrofitting as a business. We thought that Cassetex can be a solution for last mile transport as we know the solar energy is very energy efficient.

Thank you so much for telling us about your backgrounds. Now, could you tell us what is Cassetex is all about?

Tauseef: Cassetex is a solar-powered battery swapping and charging service for last mile electric vehicles. Last mile electric vehicles are defined by their size and form factors. Sometimes they are 2 wheelers but most of the time they are 3 wheelers. 

In Bangladesh particularly, we have at least 1 million of these already electrified and spread across all over the country, except the major cities like Dhaka, Chittagong and Sylhet. Within the boundaries of the major city management, these vehicles are not allowed as their roads are usually more catered towards more higher speed vehicles. We have made great progress in terms of electrifying a very important transportation option. In a country like Bangladesh, where we are just beginning to develop our own electricity infrastructure, especially in smaller towns and cities, the distribution is very weak. You may have heard about the term “load shedding” which is very frequent all over the country. 

When about 80% of a city or a town’s transportation is completely dependent on the electrical grid, that puts a lot of stress on the grids and infrastructure.

Households and small businesses do not get the electricity that they need so what we figured out is that we don’t need to change the demand side of this problem. We should keep the EVs on the road because they help us clean the environment, but we should make them more efficient so that in 5 years or 10 years, they can run on their own and they don’t cause a negative impact on our nation, in terms of cost and infrastructure. That’s why we designed Cassetex. We figured out that the vehicles are very small, they don’t need a lot of power, they dont need a lot of battery capacity, so what we can do is to change these vehicles’ source of power to smaller sized modules or battery packs and encourage owners and drivers of these vehicles to exchange their batteries at the stations. And at the station, instead of taking power from the grids to charge the batteries, we charge the batteries using 100% solar power.

We figured out the math and we understand that even with very limited space, it is possible to support a small town’s fleet of electric vehicles with a couple of these charging stations. And that is Cassetex, which is essentially a service to these electric vehicles, to make them more energy-efficient and self-sustaining.

Congratulations on successfully creating such an amazing product. You mentioned in your pitch that you were testing in Rangpur. Is your business operating in Rangpur right now? Are you planning to expand it to the whole of Bangladesh?

Tauseef: We are starting off from Rangpur. That is where our R&D base is, and it has a very high concentration of such vehicles. One of the reasons is because alternative fuel supply is very weak in northern parts of Bangladesh so that is why electrical vehicles gained so much popularity there. We are starting our trial stations from Rangpur city, to test it out and understand the user behaviour. Like you mentioned earlier, it is a new paradigm shift for these vehicle operators, so we want to test in a closed town before slowly going to other cities.

What has been the biggest challenge in creating your customer base and educating your customers about your product?

Tauseef: We are starting off with the "easy bikes" in local language - 6 seaters, 3 wheelers, electric and they can officially carry up to 6 people, sometimes more. These vehicles have a split management structure. There is an owner of the vehicle who does not drive it, but just owns the asset. And there is also the driver of the vehicle who drives the vehicle on a rental basis from the owner. He earns a living through driving this vehicle and shares a certain portion of the income with the owner. So 2 key stakeholders in this business both have very critical decisions to make. For example, the driver is responsible for the maintenance and upkeeping of the vehicles, like charging the vehicle, while the owner is in charge of paying government fees, doing larger repairs and investing in, for example changing the batteries.

1) The first issue we have to deal with is that the battery technology they have been using for the past 10 years, lead-acid batteries, is a very tried-and-tested, trusted battery source. Similar battery technology is available in other applications - for example they use the same battery to start a vehicle or to provide backup for their houses. It varies in size and specification, but the concept is the same, so they know the battery very well and it is easily available everywhere, so if they have doubts about it, they can ask anybody around. 

2) The other aspect that is also new is how they are paying for the battery. We are not only introducing an unfamiliar and new battery technology, but also a new kind of behaviour. All these years they are the ones who owned the batteries. They bought the battery from the market and put it in the car, but now in our model, they will not be owning the batteries. Now they are paying every time they are going to change the battery with mobile technology.

For a lot of people outside Bangladesh, it is hard to understand how they are going to shift from cash payments to mobile based payments, but if you come to Bangladesh, you can see that 95% of rural Bangladesh is extremely onboarded onto mobile financial services. bKash is the pioneer there, but I think now there are 3 other service providers and it’s become a staple behaviour, so we are not worried about how they are going to pay, especially when it comes to micropayments like $1 or $2 a day. The change in technology and behaviour is going ot be our biggest challenge initially, but once we reach a critical mass of 50-100 vehicles under our system, I think then it will get a little bit easier.

I think there are a lot of 3 wheelers in Dhaka called CNGs? They are powered by natural gas. Do you think the electric ones can possibly replace them to make them even more sustainable?

Tauseef: It depends on the form factors. The reason why the 6-seater easy bikes are not allowed on major roads in Dhaka city is due to the speed difference between the easy bikes and larger buses, private vehicles and the trucks. But the natural gas 3-wheelers that you mentioned are in par in terms of speed with the larger vehicles. Sometimes, they are even faster than passenger vehicles and this is why they have been allowed and the slower electric vehicles have not been allowed. Until someone introduces a form factor of an electric vehicle similar to the natural gas wheelers in terms of speed and structural safety, we don’t see that happening anytime soon. But we are also thinking that if these natural gas vehicles can be retrofitted into electric then maybe those could then be brought into the solar recharge network.

I think even for CNG and for your business as well, the cost is also a factor.

Tauseef: They are definitely more expensive! Even the base vehicle is more expensive, their operating cost is much higher so that is the reason why it is very difficult to shift them away because the owners have already invested so much that they wont want to shift to a new technology.

The CNG is the cheapest fuel available in the market but Bangladesh also produces its own natural gas which gets converted to compressed natural gas. We are already on the end of our supply lifecycle, maybe another 25 years, I don’t know but definitely not more than that. So now we are shifting to LNG, a new form of liquified fuel, in order to replace CNG. The major cities are going to be using LNG and they wont be shifting to electric anytime soon. So unless someone comes in and offers a really good deal, the LNG is the next option for the bigger cities.

That’s for sure. So then, can you tell us why your work is important and how would solar-powered batteries going to help in our fight against climate change?

Tauseef: We have already electrified a big portion of the transport options and just a few seconds ago, we were talking about LNG being introduced. One of the things that could happen, this is just a projection, is that if the electricity infrastructure is unable to support the electric vehicles and it gets very costly to operate them, in terms of other additional costs and government regulations and fees, we may even see some vehicle owners not wanting move to electric anymore and just move to LNG, which is probably a much more manageable option for them. We are worried about that.

The transport owners just look for the easiest option and won’t really think about the environment. If for example, electric charging becomes very difficult, they might track back to another fossil fuel source and all of the work we’ve done for the last 10 years in electrifying the transport system will go to waste and we will go one or two steps backwards. What we are trying to do is make charging infrastructure more efficient and more accessible, so the transport sector can go forward, instead of moving backwards.

Gopal: I was monitoring the local grid voltage for the last 5 to 6 mths. When the evening comes, the 220 volt goes down to 160. I know why this happens - all the electric 3-wheelers are going back to the charging stations and putting excessive load on the grid and it is dangerous for the home appliances. There is no solution that can solve it instantly, even Cassetex needs a long-time run to solve this problem. But the government is setting up new power plants and most of these are coal or oil-based, so actually the current solutions are not solving the climate problem. The government is pushing more diesel or gasoline-based power plants to solve this energy crisis. With Cassetex, we are trying to shift all the 3 wheelers load totally to solar. When we are shifting from 100% diesel or octane based power stations to 100% solar, it can have a huge positive impact on the environment. Cassetex might be the only way that we can sustain our environment and also the 3 wheeler market because there are a few rules out there that make it very expensive to purchase those vehicles now. So by shifting from coal-based or natural gas stations to 100% solar powered charging stations, we are shifting from lead acid to lithium ion batteries and actually preventing thousands of lead acid batteries from being dumped annually. All of you have 10+ years of experience in renewable energy and sustainable business which is very highly commendable. How do you think the cleantech industry has changed in Bangladesh since you first entered it? 

Tauseef: When you say cleantech, I understand that it encompasses not just energy, but also water and food. I think the majority of cleantech solutions have been focused on energy in Bangladesh and we are still trying to make gradual progress in the area. 10 or 15 years ago, we didn’t really hear about solutions like solar water pumps. It was just a topic to talk about but now there are implementations all over Bangladesh. There are more farmers using solar based water pumps. We have also seen large-scale public-private projects involving solar power plants. We know of at least 2 that have already started to supply power to the national grid and there will be more coming in. But apart from the energy sector, we are struggling to see more solutions, for example in the area of water. Just a quick add on to what you said, is the government also providing subsidies for renewable energy and sustainable businesses there?

Tauseef: They are providing support in collaboration with international NGOs and donor agencies. We know that the Asian Development Bank and World Bank and the government work together to introduce these technologies.

There is a report from earlier this year by the World Economic Forum which revealed that Bangladesh has the highest number of solar home systems in the world. There are 4M households that don’t take power from the grid, their domestic power supply is coming from a small solar panel on their rooftops.

The government did actually subsidise all of these installations. And more recently, in industrial and urban sectors, they are providing subsidies for renewable energies.

Are they in consortium with the private players as well? Tauseef: To some extent, yes. A lot of the private sector have a role to play here, the arrangement of finance in particular, the government alone does not want to take that responsibility. The private sector also has a better track record of managing such projects, so they can come in and provide power or solutions at a much cheaper rate than any government installation could. So that’s why these private sector incvestors and organisers are coming in and playing a big role. It looks like the cleantech industry has a pretty good future in Bangladesh. Tauseef: Yes, I think so. We are one of those nations that have a direct mandate in climate change. Maldives could be the first nation be hit and the southern part of Bangladesh is also going to be hit badly due to rising sea levels. We need to mitigate the effects of climate change. We also have very good engineering and science talents. If we have to develop cleantech, I think Bangladesh is a great testbed in terms of finding the problem and putting in the solutions. We’ve got problems in all kinds of areas like water and energy and even deforestation. We have opportunities for other startups to come in and put in their solutions.

What kind of technologies are available in the mobility market right now? To move towards cleaner mobility, what else needs to be done?

Tauseef: In general, the conversations on sustainable mobility are around how we can make the vehicle more efficient in terms of the energy they use and how these assets can be more efficiently allocated. The allocation problem is being solved by several of the mobility super apps like Uber that are operating in Bangladesh. We have our own local app called Pathao that does essentially what Grab does.

What we are trying to do, and what we think the focus should shift towards, is what kind of vehicles we are putting on the road. Outside the major cities, a large portion of both passenger transport and commercial transport has been electrified. We’ve moved a large step there. In those areas we need to find more efficient  ways of operating these vehicles. Their technology and infrastructure needs to be upgraded towards what is more industrially standard. On the commercial side, a large part of the pollution comes from public transport like large buses so that is the next step. We don’t have any electric buses or technology like hydrogen fuel cells. That extends to commercial trucks as well. We are still stuck at diesel whereas other countries are starting to move towards electric and hydrogen so we need to start thinking about those things.

In Singapore, I think the strategy is going towards becoming more car lite. But in Bangladesh, that is not really an option because public transport is not that developed. Those living in cities still depend on passenger vehicles to move around safely. So I think those transport solutions also need to start shifting towards electric vehicles. Our team is not a very strong advocate of hybrid technology anymore, because we think that it is a dead technology that is not worth spending on. We should just jump 1 step forward and move straight to pure 100% electric technology. So that’s Bangladesh in a nutshell. There is still a lot more to do. 

One of the things that we are particularly focused on is how to make energy regenerative within the transport sector boundary. In Asian countries, we should strongly think about implementing solar powered vehicles. Whatever the efficiency is today, it will double or triple 5 or 6 years from now, so if we can start doing it now, either as Cassetex is doing in that we are charging the batteries using solar power, or by having solar power directly in the vehicle. Whatever the modality is, that is technology that, at least in Asia, we should strongly think of.

Gopal: I think the technology is available. I would like to give 2 examples, such as, in the last 10 years, we have shifted from CRT TV to LED TV, from the incandescent light to LED, and from the hard disk drive to the solid state drive. All these things are related to efficiency and energy consumption, so when we think of shifting from CRT TV to LED TV, it was a whole lot more expensive, but now you cannot find CRT TV on the market, it’s all LED TV or LCD TV. 

In the same way, if we think about these gasoline vehicles and electric vehicles, we are actually not using the technology that is available. When you just don't use it, the market will not grow, and when the market does not grow, mass production will not be available, and when mass production is not available, production will not cheaper. So we have to shift.  We don't have the time to think of whether we shift or not, or whether we will use our gasoline vehicles for the next 10 years - we have to shift right now. 

All the companies producing these electric vehicles will have to scale up their production to reduce their cost, so that the masses can use it. At least for the next 50 years, and then we can find that there are more energy efficient solutions like the fuel cells. Until that technology comes, we have to shift to electric vehicles. When we are shifting to electric vehicles, we have to think about renewable energy. When we are thinking of off-grid solar or other off-grid solutions like wind or hydro electricity, we also have to remember that these sources are not plug and play - you can’t get solar directly supplied to your house. You have to store the energy. This is where the battery comes in. Most of the investment in the renewable energy sector goes into the storage problem, through batteries. There are different types of storage - you can see stationary storage or lithium or other solutions. When we are talk about the mobility market, when we charge these batteries using solar power and use them in the vehicles directly, we are actually reducing storage costs. We don't have to use excess batteries to store the renewable energy. We can use the stored energy directly. So through this swapping system, we are actually cutting down the price of this renewable energy.

Disruptive innovation is definitely the way to go. Lead the change. Thank you so much for sharing about your work and the challenges you’ve faced. After all that you've achieved, what would you say is the biggest learning point in your career so far?

Tauseef: I think this is something that i’ve faced in all kinds of projects that i’ve been involved in, is we need to believe in the product that we are selling, and take our time to nurture ourselves, instead of waiting for somebody else to help us out. Whether we are doing this while working at another company, or we are doing this as our start-up, I think when the time comes for us to share that product with the customers, the customers will be very encouraged to take it on. For me at least, this applied to both services and products that I worked with. So I take a lot of ownership in the things I do.

What advice would you give to entrepreneurs who are looking to start their own company?

Tauseef: I think everybody will say this but, this is the important part, if you already have money in your pocket, then try to do something that breaks barriers. But if you don’t have that advantage, then find a product that will give you cash and will help you build other projects and businesses. So this is very straightforward, find a way to earn cash that will project you forward. I don’t have other magical advice, that’s it.

What is the one quote you live by in your daily life?

Tauseef: For me it’s Sherlock Holmes, I think he said this to his partner Dr. Watson: “work is the antidote to sorrow”. And how I view that is that if there is anything that happens, anything wrong, and it’s always gonna happen, you just forget about it and get back to work.

Gopal: All I can say that we can’t wait to actually save us or to save our world. We can’t wait for some superhuman or alien or angel, we can’t wait. We have to do it ourselves.

What is one book or tv show that you would recommend, as required reading or viewing for a budding entrepreneur? 

Tauseef: I think something that comes off the top of my head - an autobiography by Robert Kuok that was published around 2 years ago. I think he's very well known in Singapore and Asia. He's the founder of the Shangri La hotels. It doesn't have any magical words, it’s just his story and I think that everyone should read about it - it has so much history and knowledge in it.

Gopal: I can't actually answer this question. But I will say if someone can visit the previous participants on the ClimateLaunchpad, their features, their videos, their successful stories, that can be helpful. 

Tauseef: I think that Gopal is very shy so he doesn’t want to share this but I think I know that if he thought a little harder, he would ask everybody to watch the movie Wall-E, because I think that's his favourite, and the messages that are in the movie are something he believes in, so on his behalf I can say Gopal would recommend that.

Thank you so much for that, we'll be sure to rewatch Wall-E!

Join us on October 29, Thursday, 4pm GMT+8 to hear Team Cassetex engage in a dialogue with the South East Asia & Oceania Champion, Team Elevenstore (sodium-ion batteries for electric vehicles). Register here to attend.

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