Flexitron - The Story of SSBJ's WhizKid RS Hiremath - 618/WOD

This article is dated 2013. In a candid conversation over a cup (or cups) of coffee, RS Hiremath, Founder, Flexitron, shares his experience on building one of India's most innovative companies and designing products that won him national awards and international accolades. Towards the end of this article, a set of updates (as of Aug 2019) are noted.

A 9 years old boy was sitting with his grandfather who was spinning a charka to produce yarn from cotton. The same boy, while playing with his father’s cycle, was excited to see a dynamo powering the bulb to glow when he rode it. An idea was born.

40 years later, this boy gifted the most befitting innovation to the nation that Mahatma Gandhi would have been proud of today. It was undoubtedly the most important moment of his life when the then President of India, Smt Pratiba Devisingh Patil, formally launched the product, a spinning wheel that not only spins cotton but also electricity. The theory is very simple but the aggregates never matched. With progress in technology, his consistent trips across number of geographies to learn and his unrelenting efforts, the e-Charka finally made it to the stands. Spinning the 2 spindle e-Charka for 2 hours will produce 18 ‘Ladis’ ( 2400 mtrs ) of yarn and provide a light output for 7.5 hours. The LED light and the 3-phase AC version generator with no brushes are custom designed for this application and have a life of 35 years.

Previously, in 1995, this boy won a national award for the solar powered charger for hearing aids. In 2000, he won a national award for the talking maps for the blind. Further, in 2010, he won the Nina Sibal Memorial award. This boy, today, has more than 300 innovations to his credit. No, this is not about Thomas Alva Edison.

RS Hiremath was born in the Sainik School, Bijapur campus as his father was a teacher in the school. “When the first batch of school boys were wearing their smart uniforms and roaming around, I was roaming around with ‘nothing on’. I was just a year old kid.” recollects an unassumingly cheerful RS as we sat discussing about his journey of life and the extraordinary journey of Flexitron in his 4-storied office in Bangalore. He continued, “Observing the school grow from soil to magnificent structures to house the cradle of military leadership made a delightful childhood. When the 1st living space was allotted to my father at SSBJ, it came with sporadic electricity. The pitch darkness, howling wind and dim light of a kerosene lamp really drew me to the concept of ‘light’. The bug of light caught me young and got so deeply ingrained that lighting is a major part in most of my innovations leading to several products around this. Darkness truly teaches man the concept of ‘light poverty’. I am doing my very small bit to eradicate this poverty through innovations.

In line with his dreams to join the Armed Forces, he wrote the SSBJ entrance exam. It was only during the medical interview that it was learnt RS has color blindness. Considering it was still in early stages and the situation might improve going forward, he was allowed to join Class V. The library, he says, was his favorite destination. The magazines like National Geographic, Newsweek, Time, etc. made his day, each day. Even today, he continues to be a voracious reader of many of these world class magazines and books. Books, they say, are a man’s best friend. The science laboratories made him jump with joy. He thoroughly enjoyed learning everything that came his way. The experiences and exposure at school were helping him grow and evolve rapidly until one day, the destiny struck. At the annual medical checkup after Class VII, the doctor discovered that the color blindness has crossed the permissible level and that he can never make it to the armed forces. Dreams were shattered. Aspirations had fallen to ground. The fire within was dumped into ashes. Broken down, anyone would have been. Broken down, he was. He amazed everyone with his decision to leave the school and give a chance to another student to pursue his dreams. RS joined a different school but his association with the school and his batch mates was never lost. He continued being a spectator and his learning, perhaps, got a bigger boost. Never regret for anything that happens in life as everything happens for a reason, a good one.

RS's engineering days were filled with fun & learning. In close to 6 years of life at Gulbarga Engineering College, he had almost learnt Electrical engineering, Electronics, Civil engineering and of course the branch that he was allotted, Mechanical engineering. RS recollects that he would bump into any class and learn whatever is being taught. On the day of exams, he would sit with his friends and read the notes and write the exams with the sole intention of getting a passing grade. He had understood too early that the degrees and certificates are mere formalities that open the door of eligibility. The game begins after that. He was preparing himself for these games ahead of others who were yet to think of it. Archimedes was always ahead of time.

After engineering, RS got a job in the prestigious Karnataka State Council for Science and Technology that was housed in the IISc campus, Bangalore. With Rs 270 in his pocket, when he entered the city, he never thought that he would be churning Rs 14 Crores of sales every year, a couple of decades from then. IISc was the turning point of his life. His vague dream of empowering the people with power got a definition here. While working on the solar cells, he picked up the technology and design in great depth. RS's relation to the solar technology turned akin to a goldsmith’s relation to gold. With unmatched expertise, he started working on the ideas and it resulted in a technology that would revolutionize his life and the world in the days to come. RS learnt to recognize the pattern of crystal growth of cells. While machines took 1-2 days to discover the structure, pattern and growth of cells, RS started doing it in 3-5 minutes through his technology using the crystalline process which is his greatest trade secret. Manual cutting provided an edge on pricing Those days, the slicing is done using a diamond saw. The cost of slicing one cell costs an average of Rs 2-5 ( now, then it was Rs.50 to 55) while RS's ground-breaking technology brought down the cost to 10 paise. He discussed this technology with a visiting professor from US and put forward his plans to patent it. The professor opined that the kind of technology RS has developed is so unique that replicating it would be close to impossible. He asked him to rather concentrate on taking things forward than wasting time on the cumbersome process of patenting something so advanced that the Government would not understand and thus, deny the patent or keep it pending for ages. There are currently 18 patents pending at the Patent office , they remain pending due to non-availabiblity of examiners of various expertise in a single product. RS picked up one of the greatest advice in his life, “Time is a finite element, the most precious finite element of life.

When work gives you sleepless nights, the certainty of you not liking it is higher. When you keep yourself awake for work, life is fun. One should either enjoy what one does or do what one enjoys. In any other case, life would invite unnecessary troubles. RS was enjoying every moment of his incredible saga with the sun’s power slicing the solar cells into tiniest possible shapes for use in various applications. Work kept him so interested that he was absorbed in an altogether different world. Sometimes, it so happens that you wake up all of a sudden due to a dream and by the time you gain consciousness, you don’t remember it. RS had numerous such experiences in the early mornings at around 4am-5am that woke him up. On most occasions, he would not know what he was dreaming of but a few of occasions were successfully transferred into consciousness and today, these ideas have made all that he is. Perhaps, this is most literal meaning of dreams coming to life. Soon, he figured out that he belongs to the field of Solar Power and further, Alternative Energy Resources. Flexitron was born with a mission to offer world class products for the Society at an affordable ‘Indian’ price with the highest standards in Quality, Safety and Durability.

RS's roller coaster ride started. With each sun rise, Flexitron built products that would best use the sunrays to make life easier, efficient and economic. Flexitron’s focus right from the day one has been the bottom of the pyramid aka the Great Indian Middle Class and the rural economy. In 1989, solar technology was at nascent stages in India and the Government was setting up committees to study the technology. On the other hand, Flexitron had already started marketing solar powered products. The company was ahead of time. Flexitron became the first company in South East Asia to introduce solar powered radios. 1000s of these devices were sold like hot cakes in the northeast and regions across Indo-Nepal border. States like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Meghalaya and other places where huge population lived without basic amenities like regular electricity, pure drinking water and hygienic environment were the target markets for Flexitron to offer solutions to make their lives better. On the business front, Flexitron enjoyed instant cash for its products along with appreciations and blessings of people who were delighted to get a product that would have almost zero recurring expenses and entertain them all the time.

While RS was speaking about numerous innovations, I observed that a mini table fan was connected to his Apple Mac through the USB port. Surprised, I asked him, “What’s that?” My head spun for a toss when I learnt that this is a table fan designed by him mainly for students. The battery has a mind-boggling 8 hours battery backup and can get charged through solar power, regular AC power as well as the USB port of a computer like a Smartphone. He also mentioned about a study lamp running on similar capacities. What amazed me the most is that he plans to sell both these along with a solar panel to students at a price of Rs 1,350. Rupees One Thousand Three Hundred and Fifty Only. “The power scenario in the nation has gone worse and it is due to our own carelessness. In the coming years, there would be more power cuts and this device is an effort to ensure that a student does not suffer in such times. Power could soon be a premium product that a common man may not be able to afford if our state policies don’t see a revival.”, RS continued, “A family of 2 adults and 2 kids can have sufficient lighting for all their basic needs, excluding the refrigerator, washing machine & computer, without their electricity bill crossing Rs 100 if we employ alternate energy devices like solar water heaters, LEDs, etc. Every rupee spent beyond this is not only wastage of money but also the exhaustible non renewable resources and all this will cost us heavily in the long run.

Not an MBA grad, yet, his views on product marketing are no less powerful, “If you keep your ears to the grounds and get to know what the consumer wants, your work is done. Once your product is ready, ensure that you set the price. Don’t let the market or the consumer set it. Then, if your products are getting sold at your price, it shows that your product is a right fit in the market. If not, get out of the business before, one day, the markets throw you out.” Apple, perhaps, works the same way. Innovate. Give the consumer what he wants. Ask the consumer what you want. Customers, who are kings, won’t bargain when they are assured of their needs to be fulfilled.

Flexitron started powering devices and equipment in villages in a micro fashion and these innovations for the bottom of the pyramid became a super hit. To take an example, farmers usually carried rice to rice polishing mills. These mills would typically be about 15-20 kilometers away. Flexitron designed Solar Agro Hullers that would polish 3-4 bags of rice every day. Thus, the farmers saved the time, energy and money spent on the two way travel. The similar effort was put in to design Solar Oil Extractors that would mash the seeds to oil. Rope twisting machines were designed further that would convert coir to rope without much labor. A great problem with our farmers is that they all go to sell the agriculture produce at the same time and the prices quoted by the appropriate Government authorities is atrocious. There are numerous instances of farmers disposing the produce on the roads as the cost of carrying them to the point of sale becomes higher than the revenue. Flexitron designed Solar PV/Thermal Dehydration units which could be used by farmers to store some of their produce as long as they get the desired price. The farmers were thrilled as they were able to concentrate on their core activity, farming. No, we were not speaking about Santa Claus.

In another example, Flexitron designed electric cycles for rural vendors, a regular cycle with front wheel modified with a brushless electric motor. An 8 hour battery charging provides a 30kms range. Thus, the vendor’s range of business expanded and his income went up. Further, this technology was lent by Flexitron to a couple of companies that are seriously into the business of eBikes now.

Flexitron’s contribution to the jute industry in Bangladesh, currently the largest exporter of jute, is commendable. The jute industry needs 3 people at work. Typically, 1 feeds the raw material and 2 operate the equipment to get the jute threads as the output material. Collectively, the 3 were earning about $8 a day against the international average of $5 a day per head. Flexitron powered these equipments with solar power. Result – the revenues went up by 3 times. The equipment would not need an operator anymore. 3 men’s work could now be done by 1 man and a solar panel. Cost – a onetime expenditure of Rs 750 (approximately $15). Ironically, it’s lower than the $16 revenue the 2 free heads would make on the day one itself. Little acts go a long way in making big difference.
As RS Hiremath continued to introduce to me his world of products, innovation, social contribution factor of these marvels, science and technology, I was feeling analogous to a sage reciting the holy verses.
14 million people use Flexitron’s solar powered batteries to power their hearing aids. The number is astounding. Even more amazing is the fact that these batteries are manufactured by women who are deaf and dumb for use by the people who are deaf and dumb. RS's wife, who is a doctor by profession, has given up her career and takes care of this entire process. Before I could say ‘enough’, I was bowled by hearing that 2 batteries and a solar charger cost Rs 180. Rupees One Hundred and Eighty Only. Several companies, including those with Chinese partners, have applied for the global tender flouted by the Government of India every year (for over 11 years) and on not even a single occasion have they been able to quote a price lower than Flexitron’s. How could they? They still use a diamond knife to slice the solar cells !! Perhaps, this is one among the very few products in the world where an Indian company has maintained pricing supremacy.

Science, perhaps, is this. Space technology, meteors, satellite, chemicals, dynamite, nuclear power and so on, there is a big list of advanced technologies that we are proud of. However, hardly did any of these give even any happiness for a common man except momentary pride. Science is at its best when it makes our lives better. A scientist is one who applies his knowledge and science for welfare of the world. Having come from a rural background with enough experiences of seeing how people sustain below the poverty line, RS says that the technology is used to its best when it enters the lives of the ones who need it the most. Since childhood, he has been inclined to do something to make things better for these people. He has been dreaming to change the grassroots of villages through his ideas and innovations.

Flexitron has done a lot of work in villages in North Eastern India. The key reason for this, he says, is the support that the state Governments over there offered the company. These leaders were more sensible and understood the living problems in such difficult areas. In a village where Flexitron had a weeklong camp, one had to walk 11 kilometers back and forth to just get a match box. The distance was realized only on the next morning. People lived and continue to live in such areas where there is no access to even the most basic needs of life. It was difficult. It was fun. Flexitron did it.

Once, Flexitron received an order for 6000 street light units from the Madhya Pradesh Government to be delivered within a short span of time. A market leading manufacturer could not supply batteries to Flexitron as the time was too less. Confused, RS thought a lot and got in touch with his friend who owned a small battery unit in the outskirts where only a little manufacturing happened. RS went over, studied the entire unit along with the batteries manufactured by the manufacturer. After 3 days of rigorous mental exercise, RS said to the owner of the unit, “You make Rs 6000 per day here. I will pay you Rs 7500. I want to lease this factory for a week”. There was no active manufacturing happening and the owner agreed. The deal was done. The same quality batteries were now getting ready in a part time factory. When he went to the owner to make the payment, the owner said, “I do not want any money from you. Just tell me how to manufacture these batteries.

RS has numerous solutions which he has not been able to implement due to most reasons already mentioned. He says that he can light up 4 villages with the same volumes, density or strength with the price of 1 village using his LED and solar solutions. He says that a family of 4 can have pure drinking water all the year using Flexitron’s rain water harvesting system.

RS spoke and discussed these innovations to many leaders and Governments. However, he has a very strong stand against corruption and this never let his company or him grow. It was his policy that the moment someone hints at corruption, he goes straight into rejection. “There are absolutely no regrets”, he says, “Our focus has always been on innovation. We have been performing fantastically financially. We have sufficient reserves. We have numerous awards and recognitions to our name. Business has never fallen short. In fact, our products picked up from Bangladesh to Cambodia to Vietnam and kept travelling east. In a surprising case, Manipur Government bought our products and exported them to Bangladesh. These leaders had a vision and also realized that they would even lose whatever they are getting if they try to bribe us or ask for something out of the books. Today, I feel very happy that I did not get into the many traps that came up.

One such trap was laid in 1998 when the whole world was in the wake of alternative sources of power. Very soon, there were IPOs by related companies. They raised huge amounts of capital from the investors with premium valuations soaring beyond any logical calculations. The craze for alternative energy kept catching up in early 2000s. Flexitron was asked by one of India’s leading investors to go in for an IPO. RS had already made a name for himself by winning 2 national awards by now. An open ransom offer was made to him to go public. Rejection. That was all he did. Today, most such companies are in doldrums. Their market caps have shrunk by close to 90% in certain cases. Flexitron’s clear business values and RS's clean business ethics ensured that their focus today continues to be on innovations and not on addressing the investor complaints.

As a matter of fact, till date, Flexitron does not even have a website of its own. Though RS is a technology focused person with an Apple Mac, a Samsung Galaxy and various other applications, he exhibits huge confidence in saying that, “Internet will not help my business in a great way. Having a website would bring unnecessary traffic of unserious buyers with numerous questions. Price competition with lookalike products over the internet is not realistic. Our products are on a niche segment. China has swept the retail market in every segment where it is permitted. In fact, even retailing is not a good option for our products as the costs would increase and a common man impulsively purchases a cheaper product. Though this impulsive purchase would also mean an impulsive wastage in most cases, a common man doesn’t think twice in cases where the product is within his affordable limits and for which the replacement cost is not high enough to dent a hole in his pocket.

In 1999, Flexitron entered China. Today, they have several businesses there which run on different agreements and contracts. Flexitron also has an association with Philips for an LED centre in Hong Kong.

The major reasons for Small Scale Industries’ failure in India are (a) unavailability of finance and (b) corruption. It’s incongruous that banks make every effort to lend to such people who say they don’t need it. You don’t need a credit card or a loan or a loan on your credit card but the bankers keep buzzing you. But then, if you go to the bank, on your own, asking them for a loan, there is hardly any response. RS was refused a loan of Rs 5,000 by a bank in the initial days and today he gets tired of telling bankers, standing at his doorstep to lend him funds, that he doesn’t need any. In the initial days, RS depended on local financiers who lent at higher rates of interest BUT without any collateral or a surety. Times were difficult in those days but right now, he says that it is not only convenient to get a loan from an NBFC but also sensible. The application, the documents, the verification, the processing, the processing fees, the run to sanction, the cheque, the credit and then the withdrawal followed by service issues, pre-closure charges, so on and so forth, an entire process like this is avoided by a phone call to a local financier who delivers cash at your doorstep in hours and everything else runs on mutual trust. Effectively, the cost of borrowing from banks for short term works out to be same. Financial requirements, typically working capital, arise occasionally for Flexitron whenever they get large orders. Considering that the cycle is short, they realize sales quickly and the borrowings are repaid. Today the company is cash rich and has ZERO liabilities.

Over the past many years of research, RS has been hitting milestone ideas and revolutionary products. In an attempt to patent marvels, he has been having a very bad experience. Patenting in India is a garbage process. 18 patents applications filed by him are pending for the inability of the Government to set up the examiners that could review the application. It is evident that the officials are unable to comprehend the process involved or the classification under which the patent should be filed or the kind of questions to ask the applicant. After a lot of struggle, 2 of these applications have almost reached the final stage – eCharka & 3-phase generator. Having learnt that this is similar to a garbage process, RS has switched his concentration from patenting to innovation again. The government has been one of the most insensitive institutions and most entrepreneurs like RS have been having disgusting experiences. Perhaps, we would not need enemies to destroy our nation.

With about 17 employees working on product development at Flexitron, RS believes in lean management. Flexitron lends technology, machinery and equipment to other individuals/companies who want to manufacture and sell Flexitron’s products. In most cases, Flexitron considers a partnership or shareholding in lieu of money. As on today, Flexitron has about 30 such entities in which it is invested. The company’s standalone annual turnover is about Rs 2.5 Crores while the consolidated group turnover is about Rs 14 Crores. About 200 employees work in these 30 entities. This is yet another glaring example of the significance of small scale industries.

RS says that one of the biggest concerns for our nation is our youth’s excessive dependence on IT and ITeS for their careers and livelihood. In fact, there is a dearth of leaders in our nation. In the process of keeping up with the world’s as well as worldly expectations, we have lost the Indian in us. Enormous opportunities in numerous fields are being thrown away by us as we all flock in towards one particular industry. While we all feel very good about sitting in an air conditioned office working on advanced technology, there is another house of thought that says that we have become glorified sophisticated clerks of the world and have stopped realizing our true potentials, our true values and our true strengths. The adverse impact of such steps has already been seen in the European and American nations. It’s always better to learn from others’ mistakes before life teaches you itself.

An avid traveler, RS has traveled 24 countries and plans to spend the coming 3 years away from India. While he desires to take a short vacation in the US before venturing into the phase II of life, he also plans to travel to South America and other parts to learn more. Afganistan is also on his list. He says that he would get a lot to learn from places where people live at less than $5 a day. Phase II of his life is to work for the society directly. In the first phase, we all work for ourselves and our family. Unfortunately, in today’s race, God comes calling even before we have completed the first phase under this definition. RS has worked in numerous nations lighting up some of the magnificent buildings, hotels and streets with his innovations. The west has already realized the importance of alternative energy. Flexitron sells products to these nations at a premium beyond 300% in many cases and they are more than happy to take them considering the long term savings in terms of recurring expenses and environmental savings these products offer. On the other hand, products are sold to the rural people at thin margins to make technology affordable. Robinhood? No, we are still with RS Hiremath.
Everyone in the world is a leader. Everyone leads their life.
Only the degrees of leadership vary. SSBJ shaped us to take up higher degrees of leadership by teaching us to lead ourselves effectively, efficiently and effortlessly. The genes in us were taught to observe, analyze and act, in the same order. Haste in life occurs when we act first, analyze what went wrong next and then observe the result helplessly.
Observe. Analyze. Act.

Updates (Aug 2019)
  • RS Hiremath stopped commercial activities in 2014
  • He has 600+ innovations on his name, and he has abandonded almost all of his patents, making them available to anybody for common good
  • He now operates globally, mostly from Denmark, traveling and working according to his choice of issues and people, conducting workshops to create social enterprises and encourage social entrepreneurs. This initiative has received a great response.
  • His new company's website is https://www.globalggw.com/ and yes, Flexitron does have a website now - https://www.flexitron.com/