Lechal: A Make In India Smartshoe Startup Chasing Global Markets

The healthcare wearable technology segment is being eyed by almost all the major consumer tech companies around the world. Startups like Fitbit, Misfit etc. grew into multi national corporations solely by selling their gadgets to fitness enthusiasts. India too has its share of startups which are building devices for the masses. Such is Hyderabad based Ducere Technologies.

Ducere was founded in 2012 by Krispian Lawrence, a graduate of the University of Michigan and Anirudh Sharma, a graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with the aim of creating intuitive, unobtrusive and user-friendly wearable technology innovations. In 2014, the duo launched smart footwear under the brand name Lechal.

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What is Lechal?

Lechal is a haptic footwear device, that allows users to navigate directions in a hands free manner while tracking their fitness metrics. By pairing with the Lechal app via Bluetooth, a user can set a destination on Here maps, and in turn receive directions via haptic vibrations on his/her feet. If the wearer needs to turn left, the left side will gently vibrate and so on.

For users that desire fitness metrics, users can set goals, create custom fitness plans, track steps taken, calories burned and distance traveled. The app stores all of the data, making it easy to track progress and share with friends.

It also enables users to share their location with other users, thereby making it ideal for families who go out for outings with their children. However, the device was primarily made for the visually impaired to help them navigate directions.

Krispian Lawrence was a former U.S. patent prosecutor, and got 24 international and Indian patents connected to his company’s smart shoes.

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From India to 145 Countries – The Challenges Faced

The company had raised $2 million in angel funding in 2013, and began shipping its product in May 2015. But prior to that, it had already received over 50,000 pre-orders from 145 countries. But being a hardware startup in India, reaching here didn’t come easy.

The first set of challenges involved getting people on board, from finding the right talent to finding the right vendors. “But over time, as our media profile increased, a lot of things settled down. The higher profile also brought more like-minded individuals to us, rather than us looking for them.” says the team. Today, Ducere employs nearly 100 people in the country.

Also, the founders feel that product development was a challenge due to geographical constraints. The founders say, “The R&D phase was a huge learning experience because there aren’t a lot of avenues for innovative product development in India. We were also an unknown entity, so setting up business partnerships was challenging.”

Ducere was bootstrapping before raising the angel round, and is sustaining itself through product sales that happens via its own portal and distribution partners globally. It has also engaged into a few partner organisations that work with the visually-challenged.

Being a niche product, in a space where gadgets like Apple Watch, Fitbit, Moto 360 etc. are catering to the fitness enthusiasts, Lechal has been able to carve a slice for itself as well. The year 2015 turned out be the turning point for the then 4 year old company. The duo showcased Lechal at the global stage for innovation – International Consumer Electronics Show (International CES) in Las Vegas, United States and received a phenomenal response. Later they launched the product for the media and opened for pre-orders on their website.

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When asked about the problems the company faced during global expansion, the team said “Lechal faced it’s set of challenges and hurdles while entering the global markets. Some factors like understanding the global consumer preference, language barrier, finding reliable and trustworthy partners, brand dilution, etc remains constant.”

Moving Forward & Upwards

The company wants to grow organically. It aims to be in online and offline stores in India, the Middle East, US and UK by the end of 2016, and tackle Australasia and Europe soon.

“Our immediate focus is mass production and distribution of Lechal. From a product perspective, we plan to expand the footwear line this year. We also have other products in various stages of development, all of which are wearable tech, none of which are footwear. Organizational growth is also on the cards.” says the team.

Evaluating Scope

According to WHO, there are around 285 million visually-impaired people in the world with mostly being in India. This is yet a misleading figure from the product’s potential stand point since the same report also says that 90% of the world’s visually impaired live in low-income settings. And a $150 footwear would be too pricey for most.

However, taking into account the fitness wearable aspect, the smart shoes & insoles might have more takers there. As per a report by Mobility research company CCSInsight 411 million smart wearable devices, worth a staggering $34 billion, will be sold in 2020. Globally there is a huge demand for smart fitness tech. As for India, the team mentions “Interest in wearable technology is particularly high in India among consumers less than 35 years old, and that’s a huge section of a very, very large population. More than 70% of early adopters have evinced interest in buying functionality for everything from navigation to personal safety to health and fitness. For these consumers, wearable technology crystallizes a completely connected lifestyle.”

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Wearable Devices

The above chart shows the market share of wearables in India in Q1 2016, captured by different wearable makers. According to the International Data Corporation (IDC), the wearable market in India reached over 400,000 units in the first quarter of 2016, driven mainly by fitness bands with 87.7% market share whereas smart wearables.

Penetration of wearable devices is low as compared to that in US and China. The market is still nascent, which presents a scope for more companies to come and acquire new users. India’s own wearable company GOQii has a 18.1% market share, which does show the receptivity of the Indian consumers towards homegrown device makers. Let’s look forward to seeing more such innovative hardware firms emerging out of the country.

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