Saurav Kumar, an ardent sci-fi fan, and Abhilekh Agrawal, a specialist in creating scalable systems and architecture design, met each other at various hackathons in the US and noted both were equally passionate about information technology. And, the absence of a business use-case at the beginning was not a deterrent.
With Kumar's strong foothold in machine learning and natural language processing and Agrawal's firm understanding of software architecture, Cube26 (formerly Predict Gaze) was born in 2012 in the Silicon Valley, with a simple idea - making current devices smarter. Both Kumar and Agrawal were alumni of Cornell University.
"The idea of Cube26 started from the basic thought that original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) around the world are looking for new ways to stand out from the crowd as hardware specifications were getting commoditised. We believed we could leverage our expertise in machine learning and natural language processing to add gesture control features, to help OEMs market their product with software differentiation," recalls co-founder and chief executive Kumar.
The mobile technology-focused start-up has developed applications like Look Away to Pause for Micromax, which lets users pause and mute videos with gestures, and Blink to Capture for Panasonic, which maps the face and detect the eyes of a user, enabling him/her to send out the selfie click command by blinking eyes.
Huge traction from India for such applications, owing to the increasing number of smartphone users and disruption in the mobile market in the country, prompted Kumar and Agrawal to come back and start Cube26 operations here in 2013.
"We saw a lot of uptake for these applications and went on to explore other features of the mobile phone - OS (operating system) and utility apps. We have customised OS and apps for various OEMs like Panasonic, Micromax and Lava. We realised we need to add further value to the mobile system by giving a non-intrusive brand experience and helping brands get a larger user base," he adds.
Mobile technology has revolutionised the world in previously unthinkable ways. With over a billion users worldwide and 2.5 million apps, smartphones have become an integral part of day-to-day lives. According to a study by Cisco, their number in India is expected to swell to at least 650 million in the next four years.
"The mobile technology market is already headed towards personalisation. Mobile brands are constantly looking for ways to personalise apps and provide a seamless experience to customers. Hence, software is going to play a key role in the future of mobile technology and this is where we plan to disrupt the market and the way it has functioned till now," Kumar says.
Cube26 has created an app store that can be embedded by any of the OEMs in their phones. At present, Micromax and other major OEMs are using it to allow users to search through a plethora of apps in an engaging and non-intrusive way, along with allowing brands to reach their target audience. Cube26's software resides on five million devices (or around four per cent of mobile users in India). It is planning to significantly increase this number by 25 per cent over the next two years.
The next lap
Cube26 had in October raised capital of Rs 50 crore in a seed round of funding, led by Tiger Global Management and e-commerce marketplace Flipkart collectively. It plans to utilise the money to leverage software expertise across devices and expand its team.
Nishant Verman, head (corporate development), Flipkart, says to cater the increasing smartphone market, along with doing innovation in-house, Flipkart also has to look for innovation outside. This is where its investment in Cube 26 comes in.
"We believe Cube26 has the potential to transform the user experience across devices with its software expertise. Technology innovation will be key to India's growth and we are looking for the next big software innovation from India. And, this investment is a step towards the same. Cube26 has demonstrated a robust business expansion plan behind innovations that we believe can win," he says, adding Flipkart will be playing a strategic role in guiding Cube26 on its decisions regarding product development, industry mapping and marketing strategies.
Seeing a huge opportunity in the Internet of Things (IoT) devices market in India, which according to a research by Gartner will reach at least $35 billion by 2020, it has recently launched IOTA Lite, a smartphone-operated smart bulb under the IOTA (IOT-Architecture) category.
IOTA Lite, which Cube26 claims is different from its existing counterparts in the market in terms of software and features, comes with Bluetooth connectivity. Along with changing colours, brightness, modes through the app, the bulb syncs with the music, forecasts weather and helps with calls and message alerts. While other smart bulbs available in the market are in the range of Rs 4,000 to Rs 5,000, IOTA Lite costs Rs 1,899. IOTA Lite is available exclusively on Flipkart.
"The IOTA category will enable us to conceptualise, roll-out and market innovative, smart devices in the niche IoT market. With it, we want to make connected devices handy in terms of the software performance, access and affordability. We are looking at hardware as a software industry and that's where the differentiation comes in terms of features and uses," Kumar says. Cube26 has around 30 B2B (business-to-business) partnerships across categories like travel, entertainment and the mobile space. Though most of its partnerships are in the mobile space, few companies that it has partnered within other spaces include Flipkart, Myntra, Zo Rooms and Quikr.
"With significant amount of its revenues being churned out via tie-ups, with brands for user acquisition and monetisation, we are clocking over Rs 1 crore in revenue per month," he adds.
Founders: Saurav Kumar and Abhilekh Agrawal
Area of business: Mobile technologies, Internet of Things
Market size: Indian IoT market to touch $35 billion by 2020
Fund-raising: Raised Rs 50 crore from Tiger Global and Flipkart in October
Revenue: Rs 1 crore per month
The success of Cube26's model hinges on building high-quality and engaging product experiences for the smartphone user, thereby driving scale and meaningful monetisation for the OEM. As such, attracting the right talent, capital and system partners will be critical.
On the software side, key challenges are to get to scale rapidly to drive meaningful revenue for OEMs and app ecosystem players. Monetisation options are increasing for OEMs and app developers. Cleanmaster and Apus Launcher are two examples of Chinese companies which recently announced India-specific monetisation and ads strategies. Defensibility in this space can be driven by tying key local players in the system into Cube26's software and a pipeline of high quality products. On the IoT product strategy, it is still at a nascent stage in India, as well as around the world. We are in the midst of massive shift in consumer behaviour and, hence, achieving a product-market fit will require rapid iteration. Cube26 must keep innovating and luring Indian consumers with unique experience features and affordable pricing. Partnerships and software will help them move to the next phase of growth.
Akshay Bhushan is an early-stage investor at Lightspeed India Partners