Powered By:

hsbcinnovationbanking logo

From Being Unable To Afford To Study To World-Changing Innovation

Puneet Chhabra

ACUA Ocean

Powered By:

hsbcinnovationbanking logo

From Being Unable To Afford To Study To World-Changing Innovation

Puneet Chhabra


ACUA Ocean

Watch this episode on SpotifyWatch onListen on YouTube
Akash Mehta
Full transcript here

About Puneet Chhabra

The BAE HQ welcomes Puneet Chhabra, co-founder of Headlight AI, ACUA Ocean, and now Head of Software at QLM Technology (position started after the interview!).

After being inspired by the Mars rovers as a kid, Puneet set on the path to becoming an innovator yet he couldn't afford to go to the best universities. After a scholarship, he was picked by world-leading firms to do laser-based research.

Then he turned to the startup world and it's been a rollercoaster. He doesn't dress it up in this interview and see the amazing highs of his incredible work but also all the hard times too.

Puneet Chhabra

QLM Technology

ACUA Ocean

Headlight AI

Show Notes

Headline partner message

From the first time founders to the funds that back them, innovation needs different. HSBC Innovation Banking is proud to accelerate growth for tech and life science businesses, creating meaningful connections and opening up a world of opportunity for entrepreneurs and investors alike. Discover more at https://www.hsbcinnovationbanking.com/

Full video of episode

Watch this episode on SpotifyWatch onListen on YouTube

Puneet Chhabra Full Transcript

Puneet Chhabra: [00:00:00] Well, we really didn't have the money to fund that first year of education. So I had to go out there and find my way. You have roller coasters many times in a week. So the one day you're, you're absolutely fine. And the other day it's a nightmare. So the opportunity changed the world for good. And the environmental impact was something that really attracted me to aqua ocean.

Puneet Chhabra: Power, ocean going drones, uh, these surface vessels that. That's stay on water and float on water, and they can be remotely operated. And the idea was that they're powered with liquid hydrogen so they can stay out for much longer.

Amardeep Parmar: Welcome to the BAE  HQ podcast where we inspire connecting guide the next generation of British Asian entrepreneurs. If you were just on YouTube, make sure you hit that subscribe button, and if you're listening on Apple or Spotify, please make sure you us a five star review.  Today we have with us, Puneet Chhabra,  who's the founder, ex CTO of AcuaOcean and Headlight AI.

Amardeep Parmar: 

Puneet Chhabra: How are you doing today? Very well, thanks. Thanks for having me.

Amardeep Parmar: So you got such an interesting story, and I think you've got the [00:01:00] coolest product we've ever had on this podcast. And I can't explain it myself, so I'm going to let you do that later on. But if we rewind, when you were growing up, Did you ever think you'd get to where you are today?

Amardeep Parmar: Did you ever think you'd be building your own businesses and doing such incredible, innovative work? 

Puneet Chhabra: Definitely not building my own businesses. That was not something that I had thought of. I think growing up, the furthest back I can go that really hit me was, I think when I was in grade eight and I was sort of average student.

Puneet Chhabra: I was not doing great at math and, and I got introduced to sort of two sisters who were really, you know, hitting the peak of their careers. And I used to spend evenings with them and they would basically give me math lessons. This was at a time where NASA was preparing two rovers that they wanted to sort of land on Mars and one of them was called Spirit, the other one was Opportunity.

Puneet Chhabra: So I was just finishing my A levels and looking just at the machinery and how they would basically land it was fascinating for me. At that point, that was something that really stuck in my head that this is what I want to do. This was a time when we didn't have really [00:02:00] laptops or PCs at home so, but there was a mate of mine from school and he had a Windows 95 PC and I used to spend evenings with him playing Aladdin and also sort of accessing internet so that I can download books on robotics and kits so I could basically start.

Puneet Chhabra: So it was pretty clear to me that this is what I wanted to do. And what's interesting is, is that at that point, uh, I would also sort of pin down the universities that I wanted to go, uh, but I would also pin down the potential companies that one day I would work for. And it's really funny because BA systems was on, on that list.

Puneet Chhabra: And that's where I ended up after my master's, you know, working for four years. So I didn't think I would ever start a business. But engineering and standing robots and building them was something that I was quite fascinated.

Amardeep Parmar: And when you went to university, because sometimes when you're a kid and you're really excited about something, and then you go to university and it's like, oh, this isn't quite what I thought.

Amardeep Parmar: How did you find it? Because then it was went on to do a master's, you later on did a PhD. Was it everything you hoped it would be? 

Puneet Chhabra: [00:03:00] No. Well, for circumstances, uh, my dad decided to move into Punjab and he basically settled there. He, we have rights and things like that, so he lost pretty much everything. So that was a, a turning point in our lives because we were basically moving from one city to the other.

Puneet Chhabra: So he decided that he wanted to go to South and settle there. Two main reasons. One, obviously we had family connections and we had some, my aunts there. But the other main reason was that there's so much emphasis on engineering and education in the South, which is slightly different to what is in the North.

Puneet Chhabra: So I, I can never stop thanking him for that decision because I grew up in a place where STEM and math, physics, biology was like really, really, so you had to work hard and my day would start like six, half past six in the morning. I would get up, uh, go out and prepare for the entrance exams, which I really didn't do that great at the start.

Puneet Chhabra: So I was, I was so excited that this is what I want to do. Right. And this is why I had, I had everything figured out. But when I actually started doing it as in, Oh, I knew, okay, if I have to [00:04:00] go, if I have to leave India and have to go abroad to sort of get the best education in this niche space. I have to go through certain exams, I have to sort of, you know, accelerate.

Puneet Chhabra: But the process was, uh, very grueling. And at that point, I also was very good at some sports. And I, and I think that was a distraction for me because I would, I would break out in the evenings and go out and play badminton. I did, I did really, really well. I played under 16 for a while. 

Amardeep Parmar: What's interesting there's a lot of people who do well in business later on, they have a sports background.

Amardeep Parmar: So obviously it teaches you a lot as well. So maybe it was a distraction in some ways, but it's also helped you get to where you are today as well.

Puneet Chhabra: I think so. I think there was one thing that I really lack. And again, looking back, uh, is, is that proper discipline. But again, I was surrounded by, by, by elders.

Puneet Chhabra: I was surrounded by people that had discipline in their lives. Um, and they've done so well. So. I, if I would have just put my, my head and my time to badminton, maybe I would have excelled. But I think the distraction was sports became that excuse to sort of get away from these big books and these [00:05:00] entrances.

Puneet Chhabra: So I really didn't enjoy that. Somehow I did figure out a university, which was not. The state where I grew up, it was another state and another language. Another, so this was in Tamil Nadu where they speak Tamil. Like I grew up, I could understand Telugu and I could speak Telugu. So Tamil was completely different, right?

Puneet Chhabra: So I, uh, I had, I had to leave home. So, so I went to university there and the university there was sort of, sort of kind of day boarding and spent four years. I used to come back home every six months on occasion. The journey was, was, was not that enjoyable, but when I got to the end of my, my bachelor's, I was like, yeah, the next thing I want to do is I want to reach out, I want to connect with people who are actually building things or doing robotic projects and, and if that's taking them out in the real world, then that's where I want to go.

Puneet Chhabra: So then that took me to the States, left, right, center, applying to big labs in, in, in, in the States. I got into two, but we really didn't have the money to sort of fund that first year of education. So I had to sort of go out there and find my way. [00:06:00] So I met a guy, Anuj Sehgal. He was, he's a really good guy.

Puneet Chhabra: And he had a robotic society. And the idea was that we were going to compete in a US competition, which was funded by the US Navy. So I was like, okay, that's my. way out because I want to go out and do the real thing. So this was my first taste of building something. And I spent six months there building things from scratch, you know, electronics and everything mechanical.

Puneet Chhabra: And we went into this competition and there was a guy from Lockheed Martin. Uh, he looked at our robot and he was like, well, he pretty much laughed at it because it was 1, 500 and we were competing with MIT's and Cornell's within a 50 grand worth of robots. But he gave us some few tips and I told him, look, this is my

Puneet Chhabra: aspiration. And this is what I want to do. And this is where I want to go and study. So he pointed me out to a scholarship, which was a European Union funded scholarship. And I had, I applied for it. And that brought me to the UK. And after that, I was invited by BAE Systems to do my thesis. I spent four years there.

Amardeep Parmar: And when you got to BAE Systems, what was that thesis about? Like, what were you [00:07:00] studying? What were you proving? 

Puneet Chhabra: We were looking at autonomous vehicles. That was one of the big sort of R& D funded. And it was, it was, this was way before where autonomous vehicles were mainstream and widely tested and Google was in it.

Puneet Chhabra: But BAE was backed by a lot of R& D funding to solve this problem. So that was part of a big team. So there was 100, 200 engineers and scientists. My project was to help these vehicles navigate safely, especially on harsh terrain. Did reasonably well. 

Amardeep Parmar: So that's really interesting. And obviously BAE is like a huge like company that's very corporate, but then now what you're doing is so different where you're now working at startups and you've created a few of your own.

Amardeep Parmar: What was the idea that made you decide, actually, I want to do this myself. I want to build my own company. Where did that, how did that happen?

Puneet Chhabra: A motivation came from my seniors and my managers at BAE Systems. So some of them were successful, you know, postdoctoral candidates at big universities and come up with some blue sky ideas and they would basically go out and pitch for funding [00:08:00] and that changed the world in a small way.

Puneet Chhabra: That to me was very powerful. And I think the only thing I thought I could do that was actually excel and be a master, be an expert in a, in a field. This is when I came across a project, which was basically looking at map, you know, carbon content in the environment, using forest, using sort of optical sensors and lasers.

Puneet Chhabra: And there was a lot of going on there. And this, by this time in my career, I was more focused on the software and how do you create AI or how do you write software, intelligent software to make these machines more intelligent. So I think that this was. A really good transition. So I, I spend five years working on, on these technologies.

Puneet Chhabra: So I was finishing my, my PhD and entrepreneurs reached out to me and, and they said, we have a cohort that is starting. Have you ever thought of starting a company? Now that the, the projects I was working on or my research obviously had a lot of applications, autonomous vehicles, remote sensing for, you know, and carbon monitoring for the environment.

Puneet Chhabra: And I was like, okay, maybe. Entrepreneur First is an opportunity for [00:09:00] me to find my co founder, try out some ideas that I'm going to go out and pitch to investors. 

Amardeep Parmar: Obviously coming from an academia background is very different to working in a startup. When they approached you, was there any hesitation? Did you feel like maybe this isn't the right thing for me?

Amardeep Parmar: Did you want to stay in academia for longer? How was that? How did you feel at that stage? Obviously, opportunity came along like, I'm not sure, or it sounds great?

Puneet Chhabra: Leaving academia was, was difficult, but I could clearly see the opportunity and I was fairly young in my, in my career and I was like, you know, this is my, my chance, uh, to give this a go and, and, and, and try it out.

Puneet Chhabra: So at first I said no to entrepreneur first, and then one cohort went by, um, and thought, okay, I should probably give it this, you know, another, another chance, because I knew that I was not really great at finance or, or some of the sort of fundraising side. And I definitely needed, Uh, help there, but by then I was, I was really very clear on, on the ideas and innovations.

Puneet Chhabra: Uh, so, uh, I think this is why I, I decided, and I didn't really have like concrete [00:10:00] ideas of, this is how, what I'm going to build a business on. But this is where EF was really sort of exciting for me because it's, it's an exploration stage for three months that, you know, you go out and, and, and try your ideas, um, and you get the support to sort of see if it really, you know, you can take it forward.

Amardeep Parmar: How did you find the actual experience of being on that cohort? Was it like quite eye opening? Did you meet interesting people? Because a lot of people might be listening right now thinking they might one day want to join that sort of cohort and learn from that way. Do you think that really helped you in your journey?

Puneet Chhabra: For sure. Since I've left EF,

Puneet Chhabra: a lot of people have asked me, how do you find a co-founder? How did you decide on a co founder? Because we were a group of 90 people and a lot of talented people in the, in the room. So I think it's, it's about sort of really understanding where your strengths are and where are the holes and where are the gaps and, and, and how would you compliment it?

Puneet Chhabra: Obviously you want to be sure that you want to work because it's, you're building up a relationship with your co founder, then it has to be a personality. Uh, so that's something that's where [00:11:00] you, they give you some time to sort of understand each other. And there are lots of exercises. So I think, you know, you just have to go out and give it a go, but just be with, you know, with an open mind.

Amardeep Parmar: What were some of the exercises that helped you pick your co founders?

Puneet Chhabra: Similar to sort of speed dating, where you're sort of, you know, telling them what your ideas are, telling them how would you change the world. And there were a lot of sort of icebreaking exercises, like in terms of games and round table exercises to get to know each other's strengths.

Puneet Chhabra: But then very quickly, they usually, you have to move to an idea and then explore. So, I mean, you've got to be, I mean, one of the exercises we did was we had to pick five people that we think after a couple of weeks, we see them as a potential co-founder, but you have to attach that with a, at least two or three ideas because, you know, just pure the diversity and of the talent there.

Puneet Chhabra: But also you have to be very clear when you get into it. Like, do you want to be a CTO? Do you want to be the tech guy or be the CEO? 

Amardeep Parmar: But people don't understand what a CTO is. Could you just give an idea about what your role is in these companies?

Puneet Chhabra: I mean, it's a chief technology officer in [00:12:00] my case because of my fundamental research, a lot of the technology and a lot of the ideas and innovations strategizing in terms of, okay, how are we going to build a MVP or a minimal viable product.

Puneet Chhabra: What does that look like? You know, which domains that you're going to be going to basically tackle and take this product to, but then you need help. And this is where a CEO who's probably comes in from a finance or a business development or an industrial background where, you know, they've seen problems, real world problems, and there's all those using technology.

Puneet Chhabra: So again, as a CTO, you could be basically doing from Technology roadmap, strategizing team building to a point where your CEO is actually out on the road fundraising, you're basically running the company. Right. So that's, that is a, a big, big task. And I've seen some, some really good examples of how sort of CTOs have actually done that and, and build some really large teams out.

Puneet Chhabra: So bulk of it is about hiring and running the, the team behind the scenes. 

Amardeep Parmar: And the  first idea that you really took forwards and like, dive into, [00:13:00] what was that, what was that first real product M V B.

Puneet Chhabra:  Because of my strengths and my research in terms of what I spent, we were targeting the autonomous vehicles, basically, you know, the bad weather, like these vehicles, they, they have to operate in bad weather.

Puneet Chhabra: So we were basically looking at it. Okay. How can we optimize these vehicles for bad weather? And that was my, one of my initial ideas that we actually took and we tested out. This was very early days. And one of the key lessons I learned was that you got to look at, you know, the, Is it a hair on the fire problem for, for the end user?

Puneet Chhabra: Uh, and a lot of times, you know, there were, there were other bigger problems that, uh, the AV and the robotics community was trying to solve. And this went on from infrastructure to big data to actually sort of AI. perception. We, we tried this, uh, we pitched these ideas internally to some of the VPs and we nearly succeeded there.

Puneet Chhabra: This was just before Christmas and, and then me and my co-founder just sat down and was like, okay, you know, we, we're going to, we're going to fail if you don't pivot. We [00:14:00] came across a, an article, uh, in, in the, in the paper that talked about how underground minds and underground environments are really sort of dangerous for for men and women to actually work in and technology and robots were being used in, in, in that space.

Puneet Chhabra: So that kind of stuck in our head and we suddenly started looking at technology that could go on to robots or drones that could be deployed and operated remotely that would potentially sort of save lives and they could be deployed. So we started looking at that space and that was our pivoting point where we focused a specific problem, which hadn't seen innovation for quite, quite, quite a long time.

Amardeep Parmar: I love the phrase you use  earlier about the hair on file problem. I think sometimes people have these bright ideas, but it's not a big enough ,enough problem for people to really want to pay for it. They think, oh, okay, yeah, that's a cool product, but will we actually make a difference to this? Is it worth spending money on?

Amardeep Parmar: Whereas what you pivoted to, obviously, if it's saving lives, it's a huge difference. And in terms of own motivation, when you're going for these different pivots, how did that change? Because [00:15:00] obviously going from one idea, which you think. wasn't necessarily a hair and fire problem to the one where you're like, this product could save lives.

Amardeep Parmar: How did that feel for you?

Puneet Chhabra: I think it was, in many ways, it was very fulfilling. And now you just don't do that because you have a gut or a hunch, you know, you have to test it out. And, uh, this is where, uh, um, joining an accelerator was, was a really eye opener because if you, for me at least, because coming from academic backgrounds, it's all about sort of, you know, uh, following a process of sort of looking at what was the prior art in that space.

Puneet Chhabra: And, and then you figure out, okay, where are the gaps and how would you, so that systematic approach of, of trying to solve a problem is, is you could apply it to sort of, you know, any walk of life. But, but this, this idea of, of pivoting, we, we did the same thing, like we had to validate it. And there is a very interesting book called The Mom's Test.

Puneet Chhabra: It's about asking the right questions about a product and then validating your assumptions. So we, we got to work and we started looking at, okay, how [00:16:00] big is this a problem? Uh, suddenly we realized, you know, have you have over like 500, 000 kilometers worth of sort of underground infrastructure that needs to be monitored.

Puneet Chhabra: So we started speaking this, the key personnels in this space, and we started sort of going on the phone with them and, um, pitch them our idea like, you know, and suddenly we hone in on something that. One of the, uh, customers said, if you could solve this, that's the holy grail of what we're trying to do.

Puneet Chhabra: And that stuck with us, me and my founder, and we were like, okay, we're going to sort of focus on this. He became, went on to became our, our, our champion. It was a reasonably big utility company. 

Amardeep Parmar: Was his headlight AI as well? 

Puneet Chhabra:  Yeah. Yeah. His headlight, yeah. 

Amardeep Parmar: And obviously you held out AI went for several years and you're now a non executive director there, right?

Amardeep Parmar: What was that journey like over those several years of going from the idea to then trying to scale it and then try to go further? Like, what were the emotions you went through? What did you learn from that? 

Puneet Chhabra: You have roller coasters many times in a week. So the one day you're, you're absolutely fine. And the other day it's a [00:17:00] nightmare.

Puneet Chhabra: So I think that, that those emotions, you've got to be prepared for those. We learned a lot in terms of sort of how we build a team. Uh, there was a point we were a team of 12. We, we also had huge successes with, uh, with grants. So, so within the UK, and that was something that was one of my main roles within the business also to sort of bring in some new ideas.

Puneet Chhabra: And so I think the, the journeys were about, okay, how do we bring money in? So, you know, and not just from VCs, but also through sort of grants and some of the grants that we've had huge success with was, uh, actually working with a problem that the end user already had. So, so that was sort of a really sort of a great experience in terms of

Puneet Chhabra: we knew that we were trying to solve a problem that, you know, there is buy in at the end. So we've, you know, we, we got to the point where fundraising was, was quite, quite challenging. And you have to sort of, um, think about, okay, how would you get around that? And this is where, um, sorting, if you have a product, you've got to sort your bread and butter out.

Puneet Chhabra: So then that at least keeps you going. And one of the things looking back, I think we did, we didn’t do right. [00:18:00] Was we were basically, we were, we were spread out, we were, you know, it's thin and we were doing a lot of things. The other thing we were trying to do was we were trying to fix the product and make sure that it's a hundred percent at times, you know, product can work 75 percent of the times, and you have to be honest with the client saying, look, it breaks down 25 percent of the times, but this is how we're going to monitor and fix it.

Puneet Chhabra: But you got to sort of emphasize on the fact of, okay, you know, let's do the business development and get the sales in because then that's where the, the, the challenge comes because if that doesn't happen, then you're struggling. 

Amardeep Parmar:I think it's something a lot of perfectionists struggle with, right? So if you want to get it absolutely perfect, but then sometimes, like you said, you need the validation.

Amardeep Parmar: You need customers to use it because if customers aren't using it, you don't actually know what the problems are. And it might be your time to fix this one tiny thing that customers don't actually care about when, when they start using it. It's actually something smaller that is a bigger deal for them.

Amardeep Parmar: And along that journey as well, you also had. Acua Ocean as well. So how did that come into it? How did you manage those different roles and transitions?

Puneet Chhabra: Yeah, so Acua Ocean [00:19:00] is a really, really interesting company that was introduced to by a friend of mine. And the idea with Acua Ocean was power ocean going drones, these surface vessels that stay on water and float on water and they can be remotely operated.

Puneet Chhabra: And the idea was that they are powered with liquid hydrogen so they can stay out for much longer. And the attraction there was purely from the point of view of monitoring the environment and collecting data. So these platforms are an internet of things and they've got devices, they've got sensors and they're collecting that data.

Puneet Chhabra: So from a technical point of view, that was very exciting challenge for me because, um, how do you solve it? How do you sort of get these out and safely and operate them safely? So, but the environmental impact and the, the opportunities changed the world for good was something that really attracted me to AcuaOcean.

Puneet Chhabra: But the other really attractive part was the founders. So my other founders were, one of them was, was an expert in the drone space for, for oceans. And my other founder was, was an expert on marketing and business development. So I was like, okay, [00:20:00] there's, there's a lot I can learn from them. 

Amardeep Parmar: Can  you just talk a bit more about how accuration will change the world?

Amardeep Parmar: When it, when it, as it scales, what's the impact it's going to make? Why does it excite you so much? 

Puneet Chhabra: It's very expensive to have really large patrol vessels that protect a certain sort of region. You could also think of marine protected areas, which are where you're sort of protecting those areas because you have illegal fishing going on.

Puneet Chhabra: So right now, the only way to protect those areas or even to protect the borders of some countries is have sort of big frigates and big, big ships. And these are all diesel powered. So they, are more than 90 percent of these vessels out there are diesel powered. So they are, they have a huge impact on global emissions.

Puneet Chhabra: So we are approaching this is just have these vessels, which are powered by liquid hydrogen, and they can be out there for over 60 days. So they've got. a lot of power, plenty of power on board sort of support big sensors. They can be remotely operated. So you're taking the crew out. So it's, it's, it's safer.

Puneet Chhabra: And for the cost of a big frigate, you know, you could have sort of hundreds of these out there protecting [00:21:00] and collecting data, ocean data that then helps you quantify how much carbon you're capturing and helps in reducing the emissions. 

Amardeep Parmar: That's really interesting. Just think  about that's how because obviously a lot of people here would have watched blue planet and things like that, where you see how the impact society is and the human population is having on the world and all the fishing problems over fishing.

Amardeep Parmar: And it's just even I'm getting the mental image of my head of all these unmanned vessels just floating around and let's say there is somebody trying to poach, then I guess it would trigger an alarm and then they could then people deal with it. How does that work? How would that patrol?

Puneet Chhabra: Yeah, I think it's, you've hit the, you've hit the spot on in terms of illegal fishing being, being a, you know, a massive, massive problem.

Puneet Chhabra: I think this is, this is why there are several aspects to this, this technology. There's, there's remote operations, there's, there's autonomy, but there's also these vessels have to be safe to be out there for, for, you know, over 60, 60 days of, of, or 70 days, there has been such vessels, which are powered through solar, uh, through [00:22:00] wind, and you have different classes of these vessels.

Puneet Chhabra: So they carry different types of sensors, uh, underwater. But if you're looking at, uh, an example, so for example, if you look at the Scandinavian region where they're trying to build massive offshore wind farms, they spread over a hundred square kilometers. Now, if you want to protect and sort of survey those, those regions, you need continuous

Puneet Chhabra: presence. And this is where, you know, you cannot have manned or crude vessels out there, which are basically running on diesel out there sort of patrolling and protecting those waters. So I think the impact is, is huge. You have countries that are coming together, trying to build green corridors. You've got one between sort of Norway and Scotland, and then towards Canada.

Puneet Chhabra: So the idea there is, is, is how can we leverage and how can we use alternative fuels to look at creating this next generation of vessels? And obviously you have the remote operations and AI and autonomous capabilities that are maturing as well. So this was also one of the reasons why this Acua ocean was such an [00:23:00] interesting project to take on

Puneet Chhabra: was because of the, you are basically looking at mega trends coming together, like AI, Internet of Things, hydrogen technology. I think that's, that's was one of, one of my main, main sort of pulls towards AcuaOcean

Amardeep Parmar:. I'm thinking you mentioned about a hair on fire problem earlier, and it's almost like AcuaOcean is solving a world on fire problem, right?

Amardeep Parmar: This is a huge problem for everybody. And a society. So I guess even with the clients who's going to be using this, it could be governments could be big organizations, it could be charities, nonprofits. And I guess that's different to who was using your previous technology as well. Right. And what do you think that the experience that headlight AI taught you about business that helped you go into acquisition and make fewer mistakes.

Puneet Chhabra: One of the things that we also learned at Headlight, which was in many ways out of our control, was you could have really good technological innovation. If you don't bring in business innovation, you're, you're, you're struggling. And what I mean by that is, you know, sometimes [00:24:00] It's not just about taking your best technology to your clients and saying, look, we've created, uh, you know, this is this amazing thing.

Puneet Chhabra: Sometimes it scares them. Uh, I'll give you an examples early in, in the development of our version two of a product at Headlight. So we developed this pro, we developed Telesto, which is a prime product, which has got multiple sensors and some laser scanners. And we basically get the data, we push the data to the cloud and, and outcomes a really structural report.

Puneet Chhabra: You know, where are the defects? Where are the problems? But we also locate these assets because that was something that has never been done, especially at long distances. So if you're a construction company and you want to build something in Brownfield or Greenfield, wherever, and you want to know what's down there, most of the times you actually go to the asset owner and you say, look, Can you tell me what's down there?

Puneet Chhabra: And sometimes all they bring back to you are, are as build maps. Now they are as accurate as, as somebody could just draw them. So most of the time they don't know what's really down there. And that's a big problem. So we, we honed in on that because that was a holy grail and that was told to us that [00:25:00] large assets, which are running for long distances.

Puneet Chhabra: Nobody knows where they are. So we try to solve that problem where there was a bit of autonomy, but when you took technological solution to the client, most of the times they were scared, just looking at, and they thought this is probably going to put them out of job. So you see, you have to tackle that, that cultural element of, of how do you make that sale?

Puneet Chhabra: And that was very tricky. That was very challenging. How do you bring that, uh, change. Sometimes, we provided them with analytics and information that they didn't want to know. And that, and, and, and there was a lot of sort of senior executives, which were like, okay, not on my watch. And I don't want to know, like, that something is this wrong.

Puneet Chhabra: And then we came back scratching our heads in terms of, okay, how do you tackle this? One thing we learned, and this helped me when I, joined Acua. This is where I learned at Acua, was you probably do that through, uh, through articles and, you know, very sort of dedicated marketing campaigns and, you know, thought leadership and, and sort of those that.

Puneet Chhabra: So I think that was something that was quite [00:26:00] unknown to me at Headlight, which I really learned at, at Acua. 

Amardeep Parmar: And has that been working effectively at Acua? 

Puneet Chhabra: It has been working relatively well in terms of making the clients more aware of that. Yeah, you know, we've got the experts and we're working with the experts and you know, we know what we're doing.

Amardeep Parmar: When we talked earlier  as well, you said about how you wanted to show the realities of entrepreneurship and how it's not always like sunshine and rainbows. What are some of the harder moments you've had and how did you get through those? 

Puneet Chhabra: There's, there's, there's a mix of things and it basically tests your, your personality and your character.

Puneet Chhabra: Um, obviously you'll have fallouts with the, with the team and you'll have fallouts with, with your co founders, but you have to just remember what the end goal is. And then the end goal is the success of the, of the business. And, and, and I think for me, that kept me going. And the hardest part was we grew a team to the point where we, you know, built some really cool product out, but there was point in the business where we could no longer sustain a team.

Puneet Chhabra: Tempting. To think like, okay, I'm gonna basically grow my team very, very quickly. But you also have to think about, okay, uh, you know, you'll have to let people go. There's a lot of [00:27:00] dark times in, in terms of making those decisions into we were spreading ourselves too thin. And that was because we were, we were already serving a client, right?

Puneet Chhabra: And they, we didn't really have a, a year by year recurring contract with them. But we also had another potential client, which was in a completely different domain, right? And then we were doing grants at the same time, and we had taken on those grants and we were successful with them. So that meant that we had to grow our team.

Puneet Chhabra: So, so we, we, we changed our gears and we were like, okay, all fronts, like, let's go, let's go. And some of those grants were so focused on the product. They were not 100 percent focused on the product because we took on this new client, which came with their own requirements. And I think that was a mistake.

Puneet Chhabra: If you're hiring and if you're taking on other, other projects, it has to be focused to the core product that you're trying to build. And Yeah, and then make sure that that product is out there and the revenue that could actually sustain your team, because if you can't get to the product, you can't improve the product, then you will struggle with fundraising.

Amardeep Parmar: So  what are you working on now? Like, what can people who are listening to this right now be thinking? What are you coming out in the future? What should they be paying attention [00:28:00] to? 

Puneet Chhabra: The  project I'm working on now is actually looking at capturing methane and carbon content from the environment using optical sensors, accurately measure them, map them out.

Puneet Chhabra: And this is a big problem in the oil and gas sector, and it also links to the Acua ocean project because you've got the vessels which are out there. So, so this project is about refining the software and creating this, this, this laser camera that allows you to capture and pinpoint where the leaks are and, and with the environment, what happens with how quickly these leaks can spread.

Puneet Chhabra: This is a big problem in the, in the oil and gas space or big industrial sites where you can't see those leaks and they keep building up over time and suddenly, boom, you know, there is, there is an accident or a hazard. So there are technologies out there which are using camera systems and sort of so capture them.

Puneet Chhabra: So this is a really interesting problem. Again, uh, this project is, which is something that I'm taking on, which has gotten a solution of this problem has got an impact, you know, in improving and changing the world. 

Amardeep Parmar: Part of this role is getting some [00:29:00] stability as well, right? And how is that in terms of mental decisions that decide, okay, I'm going to take on this role.

Amardeep Parmar: What's great, I guess, is that it's also a line of value so much, right? So that's a problem you're going to try and solve that's saving lives, protecting the environment. Was it a difficult decision to make or how did you come to, I'm going to take on this project too?

Puneet Chhabra: It was hugely, hugely influenced by, by circumstances.

Puneet Chhabra: And obviously I've been doing startups for a few years and, and not every startup is going to succeed. I mean, you know, many, many of them fail. I think I wouldn't consider headlights to be, to be a failure in, in, in that sense. We've created products and we've won awards for those products. There are utilities that use those products even today.

Puneet Chhabra: Acua is a, is a continue long running project and I'm still involved with it. This is going to bring stability to what I really want. I think once you've got that itch of setting up a business and then going out and testing your ideas, you probably will come back to it. And I would. So I think one day I would probably come back and do this all over again.

Puneet Chhabra: Uh, but right now it's about sort of [00:30:00] making sure that, you know, I'm, I've got the stability and, and, and the technology I'm working on is, is, is, is something that I've been working on for years. So that's, that was an easy decision. 

Amardeep Parmar: I think one of the important things as well for people listening is that when you start your own startups and create your own businesses, you can always go back and get the more stable role if you want to.

Amardeep Parmar: And the skills you learn from your startups make you more valuable in that space too. So it's something to really pay attention to. Your company built, was so innovative and doing so many incredible things, but it doesn't mean you can't also do that for a larger company or work with them and have that stability.

Amardeep Parmar: So, I think sometimes think we're either an entrepreneur and you're working on your own business. All your work the nine to five, but you can do both and you can, it's all about your different sex at different points in your life. I mean, it's really important to show that as well, where sometimes people like, Oh, quit your job and like be forever on sports.

Amardeep Parmar: It depends on your life and depends on your circumstances. So I'm happy that you found the stability you need right now. So we're gonna have to move on to quick fire questions. So the first one isWho are three British Asians you'd like to shout out that you think you're doing amazing work?

Puneet Chhabra: One would [00:31:00] be Lopa Patel and she's doing some really, really great work in bringing Asians together and, and, um, so I think I would definitely give her a shout out. Uh, the other person is, is Dev. Uh, Amratia, uh, he's a founder, a co founder, 

co founder of a company called nPlan . Be quite motivated in terms of what he's done and how he's built his company.

Puneet Chhabra: And he's also been an AI advisor for the government, uh, in the past. So his journey and, uh, and how he's set up, uh, his, his, uh, company and, and with his founder is, is quite inspiring. Third person I would, I would like to mention my wife, uh, she's, uh, Kritika Chhabra. And she's, you know, she's, she works for a law firm.

Puneet Chhabra: She's a designer. And I mean, she's been an inspiration in terms of sort of. supporting me through my PhD years and, and through my startups. So yeah, I'll mention, I'll give her a shout out. 

Amardeep Parmar: Okay. We usually say that it's cheating to shout out your spouse and unless she has a business that people can follow, but I'll let you off this time because of our time.

Amardeep Parmar: The next question is if people are listening right now and they want to reach out to you for support or for guidance. What should they reach out to you about? 

Puneet Chhabra: If they want to sort of get into sort of how you want to start [00:32:00] a company or how they've got ideas that they want to validate, I'm there to support.

Puneet Chhabra: I think one of my core strengths also is, is on, on validating some of their sort of ideas and they're looking at pivoting. So I'll be there. Um, grants is something that reach out to me. I've been very successful with some of them, so I'd be more than happy to sort of support them. So the companies that are actually.

Puneet Chhabra: 

Amardeep Parmar: Is there anything  you're looking for support with at the moment? What could somebody in the audience potentially help you with?

Puneet Chhabra: I think I'm looking throughout my network and somebody could help in terms of organizing, you know, the days and sort of get into more discipline, both physically and sort of organizing work and things like that.

Puneet Chhabra: So that would be something I'd be really looking forward to. 

Amardeep Parmar: So it's  been really enjoyable to talk to you today, I've really loved it. Have you got any final words for the audience?

Puneet Chhabra: If you have an idea and then really feel that, you know, you haven't got the confidence to go out, you would never find out until you actually go out and try it.

Puneet Chhabra: So it's always, always be brave. Go out and try it, but have a safety net and that could be your education or, or a job that you can always fall back to, or a skill that you could fall back to. 

Amardeep Parmar: Hello. Hello [00:33:00] everyone. Thank you so much for listening. It meets a huge amount to us and we don't think you realize how important you are because if you subscribe to our YouTube channel, if you leave us a five star review, it makes the world of difference. And if you believe in what we're trying to do here, to inspire, connect and guide the next generation British Asians.

Amardeep Parmar: If you do those things, you can help us achieve that mission and you can help us make a bigger impact. And by doing that, it means we can get bigger guests. We can host more events. We can do more for the community. So you can play a huge part. So thank you so much for supporting us.

Coming soon...

Other episodes you may enjoy: