Startup Saturday Pune in April 2010 on CleanTech

It's an un-sustainable world!

This Startup Saturday was turned out to be very interesting for the theme was the clean tech.

So prior to this meet my notion of clean tech was constrained to something like cleaning up Gobar and converting it into clean, odorless and colourless biogas, or harnessing some electricity for street lamps from the scorching heat that we are suffering today. With this presentation my idea for clean tech has completely changed.

Anil Paranjape’s introduction to “Why CleanTech?”:
Anil has worked with Intel for 20 years and then switched to, Intel’s Entrepreneur in Residence when the Entrepreneurial bug bit him. Now he is out of that and managing his restaurants in Pune. He is also an investor, with interests in clean tech.

Anil started with a simple definition of clean tech, anything doing in a cleaner way or a less dirty fashion (may be cleaning your bedroom for starters!). The world is becoming unsustainable place and generations to come things would be worse. One thing Anil was able to thoroughly convince was his motto, ‘Sustainability has to come from heart.’

There was this interesting and interactive way with which Anil presented his thoughts. The presentation started with a series of MCQ like questions regarding the state of our whole eco system and the audience had to take a guess as to what we have made a mess of our ecosystem. There were lots of disturbing questions which made you think for a moment about the sorry state of the world we are living in. One question that caught my attention was “What’s the unhealthiest food for babies?” Quite surprisingly the answer turned out to be, breast milk (Smartly excluded from the answer options). Now with all the campaigning that has been going around to promote breast milk, this was a total surprise. The reason being that women living in poor conditions don’t have access to clean source of water and hence consume lot of unnatural chemicals, which in turn is consumed by the baby in form of breast milk.

Clean tech can be anything no matter how simple it might be, as long as it makes things cleaner than they are. For example saving electricity is more effective than the solar energy projects that we are running in the country. So an effective way to save electricity can also be categorized into clean tech.

My two cents on clean tech discussion:

Recently I had attended a talk delivered by Satish Gokhale at POCC meet. Satish Gokhale is the designer of “Tata Swach”. He mentioned that they are using rice husk ash and silver nanoparticles to purify water. Now Rice husk ash is a well-proven purifier since ages. Also I remember a story about Alexander the great. When Gastro broke into his camp and foot soldiers where dying in hundreds, the top brass was unaffected. The reason being, the top brass drank water from silverware.

Although a very scientific research was done on this project for a substantial time, the idea was derived from well know facts to solve a very serious issue at hand. Clean tech need not mean that you have some technology background to address an issue at hand; it can be sometimes plain common sense to solve problems with managerial oriented approach as well.

Another good example of clean tech I came across was about a group of a MIT LBNL scientists and fellow colleagues who joined hands to build a stove which would consume less than half the firewood a normal stove would consume. The stove is cylindrical made of sheet metal, two feet high and 14 inches in diameter and sells for $2.49. So what’s the big deal, you would ask?

There are about 2.2 million refugees huddled in makeshift camps in the Darfur region of western Sudan. In the camps, they are safe but the women folk have to venture out in search of firewood. Once they are out of the camps they are susceptible to physical abuse by Arab Militia. According to Ashok Gadgil key researcher of this project, this stove reduces the probability of women getting physically abused.
You can find more details here. They have won the “Popular Mechanics Award”.

Here we don’t see a path breaking technology, but it really addresses a very serious issue. “Sustainability has to come from heart” – The statement made by Anil from the very beginning of the presentation sounds very apt.

Bright Star Electronics

Bright Star Irrigation system
Bright Star Irrigation system

The second presentation was from Mr. Padmakar Kelkar of Bright star Electronics. So their product is a solar-powered pivot for irrigation.

A brief about the product:
According to Mr. Padmakar, this is a first of it’s kind solar-powered pivot in the world, although there are pivots existent, they are powered by external electric supply.
Their pivot is controlled by microcontroller and is smart enough to calculate the spread and distribution of the field. One unique feature they talked about was their end gun, which sprinkled into the corners of the field when they encountered one.

The advantages mentioned of pivot irrigation over flood irrigations are:

  1. Less water wastage.
  2. Even distribution of water.
  3. Improves cultivation upto 20%.

One of the major advantages they spoke about was that the pivot involves no involvement of human. So this way a farmer is not dependant on the field labours who usually are very inconsistent with their schedule. A farmer can put the pivot for charging during the day and the pivot would irrigate the farm in the night.

Market segmentation:

Currently the pivot is used to irrigate onion farms. They are running a pilot project on farms of Rawat brothers. Interested folks can visit the site and checkout what the pivot is?

Bright star expects the market size of close to 500 units in next three years in India. However they feel the greater potential for lies in the American and European markets, where the farms are huge in size and farmers sound financials to purchase their pivot.

According to their calculations ROI for a farmer purchasing their pivot is close to five years for a farm of twenty five acres. Currently there has been no subsidy offered by the government the reason being the equipment is meant for bigger farmers and government doesn’t offer subsidy for well off farmers.
They also presented a video which had Mr. Bharat Banka MD and CEO of Aditya Birla Private Equity analyzing the business potential of their product. He stated that the product has addressed the pain point effectively for two reasons.

  1. The product meant to be used for agriculture and water conservation being need of the hour this product should be valuable to the farmers.
  2. It is using solar power, which is a clean source of energy. Also it cuts off the dependability on ever unreliable source of power from the electricity board.

You can have a look at the video here.

Challenges they are facing:
The pivot was built for farms in the range of twenty five acres and above where as the farms in India are very fragmented. Even if a farmer owns fifty acres of land, the typical size of each farm would three to five acres.

So they are trying to target community oriented farming where a group of farmers plan to farm a single homogeneous plot of land. Also they are trying to respond to the market needs with a smaller version of their pivot which is cheaper and can work out well for a small plot of land. Since they have developed expertise in designing the controllers for the pivot, they are planning to sell the controllers to European countries where these can be used in externally powered pivots.

– Written by Chaitannya Mahatme

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