It’s often said that manners maketh the man, but it seems that mentoring and exam marks are the forces which have most shaped Amrit Chandan’s fledgling career as an entrepreneur. Like his business partner Scott Hardman, Chandan’s a self-confessed petrol-head. No surprise therefore that when they chose their PhD subjects at the University of Birmingham, the former focused on zero-emission vehicles, and the latter on fuel cell technology.
And Blue Vine, their start-up which operates inside BizzInn, a business incubator scheme on Birmingham Research Park, specialises in providing technical market intelligence about the automotive, energy and technology sectors.
Launched in October 2013 – when both Chandan and Hardman were in the midst of post-graduate studies – it has already established an impressive client list in the UK and overseas, working with major corporations, start-up ventures, universities and business organisations.
To date, around 90% of Blue Vine’s projects have been in automotive, although that dominance is already beginning to change as the consultancy builds on its early achievements. Tata Motors is its best-known client, and Chandan and Hardman have just signed up with the Morgan Motor Company, but they’re now looking at a project to deliver supplies of clean water in Africa, and are in advanced discussions about potential work with Lloyds Banking Group.
Chandan is also studying wearable technologies and has just co-founded a company focusing on innovative solutions for domestic energy storage.
Project Aceleron is a clean-tech start-up, looking at how lithium batteries might be transformed into safe and efficient power storage units for developing countries, headed by Carlton Cummins, who works in the renewable energy sector in Barbados, and as a battery engineer for a UK-based motorcycle racing team.
It’s an eclectic mix of projects and sectors, as might be expected from someone who enjoys such diverse activities as Thai boxing, cooking, video games (Civilization is his current favourite) and Indian classical music. On the rare occasions that 27-year-old Chandan finds a quiet moment or two, he’s likely to be listening spellbound to YouTube videos where Ravi Shankar demonstrates his mastery of the 19 strings of the sitar.
However, although Chandan’s not averse to pushing the boundary rope back a few metres – quoting the late fantasy writer Terry Pratchett in his PhD thesis for example – the principles behind Blue Vine certainly won’t change. “Everything we do is underpinned by rigorous academic discipline and research, but at the same time, we believe that innovative technologies have to be disruptive,” he says.
“If you look at the automotive sector, it’s the OEMs [original equipment manufacturer] and the major manufacturers who are having to disrupt their own industry, whereas normally it would be the newcomers and the start-ups who’d be generating the disruptive ideas.
“Our first project was working with a small battery manufacturer from Germany. It sounds counter-intuitive, but they couldn’t get much support back home, because the German automotive sector was more focused on developing biofuels. “We also look at how supply chains operate, and did a project for Marketing Birmingham looking at the opportunities for companies in the automotive supply chains, and identifying their barriers to growth.
“We decided from the start that Blue Vine should have four main pillars: market analysis, market entry strategy, technical communications and technical consultancy, but within those categories, we also offer related services, such as identifying sources of potential finance and proposal writing.
“Five years from now, I’d expect us to have doubled in size in terms of personnel, increased our areas of expertise and be more involved in charitable efforts.
“We already give 10% of our profits to charity, and I’m keen to do more with the Prince’s Trust because mentoring has done so much for me. I also plan to become a JP, because I think it’s important to give something back to society.”
As Chandan outlines his vision in passionate fashion, the pathway ahead appears logical
and straightforward – but the route by which he reached the concept of Blue Vine was anything but. Chandan’s grandparents came to Britain from the Punjab when his father was a young child, and he recalls his granddad volunteering for double shifts to provide for his family.
“They worked very hard to create opportunities for the next generation, and my parents did likewise. My dad is an optometrist and runs his own opticians, and all his brothers run their own business.”
However, despite such evidence of an entrepreneurial mindset, the teenage Chandan never considered taking the same route to employment. “I chose chemistry as my undergraduate degree because I enjoyed it at school, but didn’t intend to do a PhD. I always thought I’d join a graduate training scheme in a large company, and probably become a lawyer,” he admits.
“Then I started putting my CV online, and found myself being constantly rejected by software, without even getting an interview. I became frustrated, and decided I didn’t want to be the one jumping through hoops, I wanted to be the one setting the hoops.
“The research element in chemical engineering was very lab-based, so even though I got a first-class degree, I knew I wanted to do something more practical if I went into more advanced research, which is how the idea of a hydrogen fuel cells project came up.
“I realised I had to investigate something which was novel, and which the automotive industry wanted to know about. The university was also promoting the concept of entrepreneurship through various events and conferences, and the more I thought about it,
I decided that was the pathway to take.”
The four years of study which followed certainly gave Chandan insight into the sheer hard work which running a business would require. “It was a real roller-coaster,” he admits. “There were some great openings for travel, and because I was always keen to try anything new, I ended up presenting white papers at ten different academic conferences.
“Getting in at 7.30am and leaving at 6pm was very demanding though. Now, I look back and realise it was character-building, and also taught me the merit of perseverance, but at times I felt as if I was banging my head on a wall.
“I wanted to say ‘yes’ to as many opportunities as possible, even though it wasn’t clear where they might lead, but gradually you learn how to prioritise. During the research, Tata offered me a job in India heading up the fuel cell research, but I’d decided I wanted to set up a consultancy by that stage.”
From the outside, the timing appears both ambitious and distinctly brave. Chandan was still in his third year of post-graduate, and Hardman in his second, but their personal chemistry, and shared love of all things automotive, was critical.
“We saw it as our chance to avoid the rush-hour,” says Chandan. “I didn’t have much in terms of risk or dependency, and we both saw huge scope for transfer technologies. You see so many good ideas in universities which don’t reach the outside world. I wanted to do something which would make a positive difference to the world. My family had always encouraged me to be the best I could hope for, and I already knew that I wished to live a life with no regrets, so I went for it.”
Chandan’s conversation is punctuated by references to the support he received from the University of Birmingham, and various mentors who have clearly done much to develop his mature mindset. John McKenzie, the Birmingham-based regional international banking director at the commercial arm of Lloyds Bank, was one major influence.
“The British Banking Association was sending its people out to work with the wider business community, and John was tremendously helpful, about finance, about business and about how everything interacts,” says Chandan.
“Dr Sukhdev Gill, who is a specialist on the aerospace and defence sectors, and spent a considerable time at QinetiQ, has been very influential from a technology perspective. He helped us on a pro-bono basis when we established Blue Vine, and still does.
“On the leadership side of my personal development, Dr James Wilkie, who is the CEO of Birmingham Research Park, has been very generous with his time. I asked him if he could help, and was delighted when he agreed.”
However, Chandan’s evolution – from student to academic researcher to business-focused entrepreneur – also includes influences of a more personal, and deeply felt, nature from his years at Birmingham’s King Edward VI School. “I didn’t have a great time there,” he confesses. “A lot of the pupils came from affluent backgrounds, and I didn’t. I loved being in the choir at primary school, but at King Edward’s I was told I hadn’t got the right ‘image’ for their choir. My dad sent a polite letter of protest to the school, but unfortunately nothing changed.
“I sailed through my exams in the first few years, but then began working less and less, and when I came to my AS levels, I got Ds and Es. My parents were incredibly supportive, as always, but the school suggested I should consider dropping out.
“Those results were a transforming moment. Right from the day I received them, I realised I needed to be more driven, more focused and to work harder. I re-sat those exams, got 100%, and from then on, I’ve always given my absolute best to everything.”
Chandan’s determination to help others with their personal journeys is reflected in the presence of several student interns within Blue Vine, and in August, marriage added a new dimension to his life at home in Handsworth Wood, Birmingham.
So just about the only topic which remains to discuss is how Blue Vine gained its name. Maybe a favourite tune plucked from Shankar’s long back catalogue? Or perhaps a reference to an event in Punjabi history? Even the new Mrs Chandan’s favourite flower? The truth though is rather more prosaic. “We chose the Blue as in blue-chip, and Vine because we were looking to transfer technologies, and then grow them, and a vine seemed an appropriate image,” says Chandan.