Rob Katz

Creating a World of Smart Energy: Interview with Kushant Uppal, Intelizon

ZonlightMore than 1.5 billion people in the world live without access to electricity. India alone houses more than 35% of the world’s population without electricity, approximately 579 million people. Kushant Uppal is working to change that. ?

After earning a MS and Ph.D. from the University of Southern California, Kushant spent 15 years developing energy technology products in Silicon Valley. In 2006, Kushant began to realize that energy efficient products are both a key to rural productivity and a tremendous market opportunity. This drove him–and his family–to Hyderabad , India, where he launched Intelizon, a company dedicated to bringing energy services to rural India.Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to speak with Kushant about his company, base of the pyramid strategy and the move back to India after 15 years in the United States.

Rob Katz, What prompted you to start Intelizon?

Kushant Uppal, Intelizon: In 15 years of professional life, I had created high technology products and saw the impact it had on productivity in developed nations. I saw an opportunity to use technology in impacting people’s lives in the developing/rural markets.

RK: How do your products work?

KU: Our first product, ’Zonlight’, is an out of the box solar LED-based task light. It requires no solar panel installation and is an ideal replacement for kerosene lamps, torches, candles and emergency lights which are prevalent in the rural and semi-urban parts of the world.

All of our products, current and future, use the most advanced components with our system integration expertise to serve the energy needs of the rural and semi-urban markets.

RK: How do you describe the market for your company’s products to potential investors?

KU: It is an untapped, multi-billion dollar opportunity where one can get great economic as well as social returns.

RK: How does Intelizon’s business model relate to the “base of the pyramid” concept?

KU: Intelizon is focused on creating products which will give people and opportunity to improve productivity. Most people at the base of the pyramid manage to get the basic amenities like food, water, clothing and shelter. Growth in life requires basic infrastructure and energy is a key element. We are in the business of creating energy solutions which will provide predictable and high quality light and power to people and give an opportunity to improve incomes.

RK: Who is your typical customer?

KU: Our products will cater to all the income levels at the rural and semi-urban household and commercial segments. 70% of our ’Zonlight’ customers are farmers and laborers who have an income of Rs1000-Rs2000 per month.

RK: What are the main barriers to success facing Intelizon?

KU: The main barrier and opportunity is in creating awareness. The awareness needs to be created at all levels – private, public and government organizations – to promote the type of technology and products that we are creating.

This will help overcome the 2 main challenges:
1. The markets we are addressing are large and dispersed and reaching customers is non trivial.
2. The products we sell have a higher upfront cost compared to conventional kerosene or diesel based solutions. The ROI is anywhere from 3-12 months but the consumer is used to sub-standard technology and quality products at low upfront prices.

RK: How has it been moving from the United States back to India, after living in the US for so long?

KU: I have lived in the United States for 15 years and learnt a lot and loved every moment of it. Moving continents with family is never an easy decision. Thanks to great family support, I continue to enjoy every moment of making Intelizon a big success.

RK: What do you tell people who say that the poor are not a good market?

KU: They are missing the single biggest opportunity in the history of mankind. Let me point out that just a decade back the BRIC countries were considered poor and not worth investing- I would like to hear anyone tell me today that BRIC is a not a good market.

RK: Where do you plan to be in 5 years with Intelizon?? 10 years?

KU: Our vision statement is ’Create a world of smart energy’ and it starts with replacing kerosene and diesel with Intelizon products. We want to be a household name over the next decade.