Cell Propulsion: How three ex-ISRO engineers made electric LCVs with 250km range

Their debut products, the Oryx as well as the Beluga have already been pressed into service with certain B2B companies.

By:August 10, 2021 11:26 AM
The Cell Propulsion Oryx E-LCV

Cell Propulsion. The name suggests that this company perhaps makes spacecraft or satellites. While that isn’t what this Bengaluru-based company does, but it has been started by three ex-ISRO engineers. Formed in 2017, Cell Propulsion is into designing as well as developing electric commercial vehicles (eCVs – eLCVs, and eHCVs). Their debut products, the Oryx as well as the Beluga have already been pressed into service with certain B2B companies. We did ask them about the price of these vehicles but unfortunately, the company declined to comment on the same. However, we have got all the other juicy bits with respect to these vehicles. After all, this company recently raised $2 million from investors and is set to boom in the Indian market. We got talking with Nakul Kukar, the co-founder as well as CEO of the company, who explained the ideology as well as make-in-India philosophy.

Nakul Kukar, CEO, Cell Propulsion

Who are the investors and how much investment has so far gone into the company? Where is the company’s facility?

Recently we have raised $2 million, comprising debt and equity, in a growth round from existing investors- Endiya Partners, growX Ventures, Huddle Accelerator and Micelio. Around September 2020, we raised about $1 million as part of the pre-series A round, this brings the total funds raised till date to around $4 million.
We have set up our battery and vehicle assembly lines in Bengaluru in 2020. It has a manufacturing capacity of 10 vehicles per month. With this fresh round of funding, we aim to meet the growing demand for our vehicles & solutions and expand our operations.

How did the idea of forming Cell Propulsion come about? Please detail the journey from ISRO to Cell Propulsion? What takeaways do you bring from your previous organisation to this?

Prior to Cell Propulsion, Nakul and Paras had worked at the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) on their launch vehicle engines whereas Supratim was involved with launch vehicle payload fairings and mechanisms. Subsequently, Nakul and Paras had worked with an aerospace startup on the design & development of lunar lander systems and the design & development of solar-powered electric aircraft.

While working on the electric aircraft project, we realized there was a massive opportunity in India in the electrification of ground vehicles. Given the good understanding of EV technology and experience of managing complex technology projects, we decided to initiate this venture. We are also leveraging our network and experience in the space industry to aid product development and establish reliability & quality processes for our products and company operations.

Have the Oryx and Beluga vehicles been developed from ground-up? What were the challenges you faced and how much time did it take to make these vehicles right from the start? Please elaborate on the price, range, features of these vehicles.

Currently, we are deploying Oryx, an eLCV with a 1-ton payload, with the initial set of customers. The eLCV is a re-manufactured vehicle that has all new parts except pre-owned chassis and cabin. The vehicles are assembled ground-up in our facility with in-house developed and produced battery packs and BMS. The battery pack has a modular design with each module of 24V, 6kW-hr capacity and is AIS-48 certified. As our production capacity grows, we’ll install in-house production for electric motors and drives as well. The eLCV has a range of 150km (24kWh battery, 30kW peak power), is AIS-123 certified, and is being deployed with logistics companies in Bangalore.

Beluga, which is an eBus platform is being upgraded for eTruck applications due to the impact of COVID on bus market. It will now be used for a 20T GVW eTruck (200kW peak power, 250km range, 300kW-hr battery) with in-house developed and produced battery packs, BMS, electric motors and drives. The high voltage battery pack operates at 600V – 800V with a capacity of 200kW/hr. The pack will soon be certified for AIS-48 and subsequently, eHCV will be sent for certification. Both the vehicles come with 4G/LTE connectivity that helps acquire on-road driving data to measure vehicle performance, offer OTA updates to enhance vehicle performance, and monitor vehicle health.
We started full-time operations in 2017 and till 2018 we were developing core powertrain technologies for eCVs like battery packs, BMS, motors, drives, digital infra, etc. The development for eLCV and eHCV platforms began in 2019 with road testing beginning in 2020 post-COVID lockdown. Some of the key challenges that we have faced have been:

Setting up cell supply chain due to lack of local production

Availability of skilled talent to build high voltage, high power equipment for eHCVs.

 

Does Cell Propulsion have its own battery-making facility or the cells are imported and then assembled here?

We import LFP cells from our suppliers and develop & assemble battery packs and BMS completely in-house. Within this year we’ll begin producing motors and motor drives in-house as well.

Also Read Cell Propulsion starts Li-ion battery factory for its LCVs

How much localisation has the company achieved so far?

We are a highly vertically integrated company. We primarily only source Li-ion cells and miro-electronics from suppliers. All other parts and components for our vehicles are either sourced or developed locally

What are the future plans of the company?

In near future we plan to expand our business operations to other cities besides Bangalore. We are currently engaging with some big logistics companies in Bangalore by deploying our vehicles and charging stations. As a next step we’ll begin working with these customers in other cities where they operate for cargo transportation. We also plan to explore partnerships with financing organizations, insurance groups, solar companies, and DISCOMS for expanding our charging infra. We’ll also be increasing our vehicle production capacity and recruiting across all business and engineering functions to execute and achieve these targets.

What do you think about the overall electrification that India is undergoing right now? How will the EV adoption be in the mass market or HCV?

The advent and adoption of EVs are inevitable in India. It is encouraging to see that the Government is taking necessary steps to create awareness as well as encourage adoption of EVs. The policies from various state governments are also promising and are being developed on an incentive-led model that will enable both manufacturers and consumers. The recent modification of the FAME II policy is a great step forward for the e2W to not only encourage localization but also increase affordability. We anticipate similar incentives for eCVs, as this segment is the largest producer of emissions and largest consumer of diesel. Hence strong incentives to transform CV segment to electric will have massive impact both on the economy and environment.

The inherent simplicity of EVs also means fewer breakdowns and less maintenance, which lowers the cost of ownership. Since EVs have a simpler design, they can be produced more compactly. Another advantage is that they are quieter than vehicles powered by combustion engines. They are also much more efficient as they accelerate faster and a considerable portion of the energy can be recovered through electronic braking.

In India, more than 80 per cent of freight is moved by CVs and hence their large-scale electrification will help reduce diesel consumption to such an extent that fuel price fluctuations will stop impacting the price of goods for end consumers; besides reducing India’s diesel import requirements. CVs are the largest source of vehicular pollution, due to their low mileage diesel engines and also due to the way they are driven. Their electrification will naturally have a massive impact on air pollution and air particulate levels.

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