In its first avatar, Vortex, founded by Lakshminarayanan Kannan, 42, was part of the TeNeT Group set up at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, with a focus on telecommunication and networking. Sometime in 2006, it decided to design a hardy ATM or automated teller machine for rural people.
But its first concept was actually more of a cheap cash dispenser: A gadget that would connect to a community computer that in turn would hook up to a bank's network. Operated by a local entrepreneur, the gadget could then dispense cash. But the multi-purpose computer was typically also used to download forms, retrieve agricultural or send e-mails. Security of applications proved to be a killer and Vortex was soon back to the idea of a simple ATM.
"We thought that it would be easier to change ourselves than the ecosystem," says Kannan, who is also the CTO. Thus was born the Vortex ATM, a sleek machine that costs half as much as the ones that urban consumers are used to. It also uses onethird the power required by a regular ATM, has a battery back-up of four hours built in, does not need airconditioning, and, best of all, uses fingerprint identification rather than have the user to punch in a personal identification number as a check.
"The villagers loved it, particularly the women, because they did not have to read and remember big numbers that traditional ATM cards require," says Kannan. The ATM can also dispense used notes -banks desperately want this feature.
From 2008, some 50 Vortex ATMs have been established in remote areas, helping in National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme distributions. The State Bank of India finally validated Vortex's effort by placing an order for 600 ATMs, of which a hundred have already been deployed. "At least three more banks are talking to us," says Kannan, excited about the Indian rural opportunity.
The start-up's bright future helps it with a wildcard into this list of businesses not older than three years.
FOCUS: Tech solutions to help banks reach the unbanked
FUNDING: Venture funding (Ventureast, Aavishkaar, Bamboo Finance)
ADDRESSABLE MARKET: $40 million by 2012
REVENUE: Nearly $1 million
BIGGEST RISK: Cash flow management
THE BEST ADVICE I GOT AND FROM WHOM: Profit is a matter of interpretation, reality lies in managing cash flows - Ashok Jhunjhunwala, Founder of the TeNeT Group at IIT-Madras