Forget chalkboards and textbooks. In many of today’s classrooms, conventional learning is a thing of the past and digital learning is in. This is thanks to several advanced tech devices such as “smart,” interactive projectors, IoT-enable tools, virtual reality, and others. As schools become more digitally efficient, one would assume the same technology would be used in labs and research centers at universities and educational institutes?
Four engineers from the National Institutes of Technology (NIT) in Rourkela, Durgapur, and Jamshedpur, noticed this gap in higher-level educational facilities and organizations and decided to do something about it. The team developed a business model to address the lack of decent laboratory infrastructure in India.
One of those engineers, Aniket Thakur, encountered this lack of technology at an early job in the industry. He was working at a steel plant’s quality administration in Jajpur, Odisha, and constantly traveling between Bhubaneswar and Ahmedabad — while carrying extremely important samples. He noted the poor state of laboratory infrastructure and control measures in the country.
“While operating in the quality lab, we also faced problems obtaining exact specified lab equipment for testing,” Thakur explained. This eventually inspired Thakur and the team of engineers — including fellow collaborators and NIT alumni Hitesh Kumar, Sunil Panda, and Amrit Raj — to open startup company, Labkafe. It focuses on catering to the diverse needs of laboratories for equipment and advanced research methods.
“It inspired us to build a portal to address the bottlenecks of procuring lab commodities,” Thakur says. He left his job in 2015 to start Labkafe in May of that year and is now the CEO. “We concentrate on resolving bottlenecks confronted in the procurement of laboratory supplies (equipment and fittings) in schools, colleges, healthcare, and research institutes by our platform,” he said. “We provide end-to-end turnkey solutions for laboratories.”
Labkafe is based in Kolkata, with additional branches that have opened in Ambala and Ranchi.
“We picked Kolkata mainly because we were operating at a steel plant in Odisha, and it was the nearest metro capital,” he said. “Secondly, as a bootstrapped startup, we required every penny to count, and Kolkata gave fixed costs, low rents, and low expenses with a high employee recognition rate.
Today, Labkafe is a lucrative business, boasting stock of more than 12,000 lab equipment items and 200 lab furniture ideas. However, that wasn’t always the case. It took a few hiccups before Labkafe found its flow and success.
“We started by offering industrial lab products to businesses only to realize the high competition, low margins, and complicated procurement routes,” said Thakur. Within eight months of starting the company, the founding team said they accepted orders for about Rs 10 lakh for industrial lab equipment and safety devices. But the margin on this equipment was small and it became remarkably challenging to crack the market.
Soon the engineers realized that the procurement and decision-making methods were a lot simpler for academic and research schools — the margins were also a lot better. This understanding, coupled with the fact that they were a startup with limited resources, led them to pivot and start targeting institutions, colleges, and universities. For informative and research institutes, the average order case was between Rs 1-1.5 lakh, Thakur said. The startup is now officially profitable, closing at about Rs 8 crore in FY19. They are also considering more important goals.
While Labkafe creates revenue mostly by selling products to institutes, over time, it has also produced specific lab combinations for Class 10 and 12 as per CBSE/ICSE/State board curriculums. This combination is quite popular among schools.
Additionally, the team contributes technical expertise to zero in on customer requirements.
“This helps us minimize competition, avail high perimeters, maintain a high entry barrier, get a high order net value and improve the brand value,” explained Thakur.
So far, Labkafe has assisted more than 500 institutes including DRDO, Air Force Gwalior, State Forensic Science labs, Indian Army, Baidyanath Pharma, NITs, St Xavier Group, IBSD, South Point High School, GD Goenka Group, Techno India, DPS Group, and KVs. The goals are only getting bigger.
“We are preparing to develop a global chain of Labkafe Innovation Centres, which will present a unified platform for efficient and activities-based learning to students, classes, and institutes,” said Thakur. “This will help millions of people improve the necessary skills, scientific acumen, and cognitive knowledge.”
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