India’s energy entrepreneurs
Shell launched its E4 programme in India to help start-ups accelerate the transition into a lower-carbon future. Four participants tell Inside Energy about their ideas and the pressing energy challenge they hope to solve.
By Soh Chin Ong on Jul 12, 2019
Ashtesh Kumar, 25
Co-founder, Manastu Space
Manastu Space wants to develop safe and sustainable propulsion systems for rockets and satellites.
“As a child I would watch space flights from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) on TV. I remember being in complete awe of Kalpana Chawla, who was India’s first female astronaut.
Later, while studying mechanical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, I met Tushar Jadhav, a senior student who was leading a team to launch a satellite. I joined this project which was being funded by the university as well as the ISRO.
Tushar and I worked well together. We shared a dream to democratise space and make it accessible to all. Many of earth’s problems can be solved from space.
For example, satellites can be used to provide Internet access for the 3 billion people who currently don’t have it. Satellites can also be used as early warning systems for natural disasters like tsunamis or cyclones.
We formed Manastu Space to fulfil our vision. Our first task is to develop a satellite engine powered by a fuel that will make launching affordable, energy-efficient and safe. In time, we hope to scale the engine up to fit a rocket.
Most rocket fuel is currently made up of highly toxic and carcinogenic substances like hydrazine.Our fuel is made with hydrogen peroxide and alcohol – chemicals safe enough to be found in the house.
This fuel is 25% more energy efficient. It can also be broken down to release water, oxygen and heat – essential to sustain life.
This means it could be used in future to land people on Mars. Not necessarily to live there, but to discover solutions for earth.
Our dreams may be in space. But we are grounded by our desire to solve earth’s many problems.
I might not get to become an astronaut. But I can certainly help develop the ecosystem for the astronauts of the future.”
Suruchi Rao, 33
Co-founder, Ossus Biorenewables
Ossus Biorenewables attempts to harness energy from industrial waste water, sewage and contaminated water.
“I decided to start my company after a chance encounter in Mumbai with a civil servant.
He told me about a sugarcane farmer whose family had been making alcohol from sugarcane molasses for generations. That was until the authorities shut down his distillery and fined him heavily for dumping contaminated wastewater into an open stream.
The farmer had no idea why he had been fined or where the waste water had gone. He had been paying a man periodically to get rid of it.
That story made me realise people do not understand the value in waste water.
Less than 0.3% of the world’s water is returned to its source. We rely heavily on rain, assuming our water supply will be refilled constantly. When there is a drought, we never ask if there is a way to use water in a sustainable manner.
I had just completed my PhD in bioprocess technology at the Institute of Chemical Technology in Mumbai where I worked on a project converting crop waste to biofuel.
I was inspired, therefore, to develop a technology focused on waste water.
In this technology, microorganisms consume the organic matter and generate electrons, producing reconstituted clean water and biohydrogen, as a source of power. Metals are also extracted from the waste water.
Communities and industries end up with clean water, as well as metals and biohydrogen – a sustainable, carbon-negative and high-density energy carrier – which they can sell.
Things have been moving fast in the last two years since I started. My parents have been very supportive.
My mother, who is a lawyer, is co-founder of the company. She takes care of the business, while I take care of the tech. It’s been a winning formula so far.”
The digital connector
Raj Saxena, 39
LogisticsNow provides digital data that helps businesses transport their goods more cheaply and efficiently.
“I was born in Delhi. My father was a senior executive at Indian Railways and we lived in eight different states in India. My childhood memories are of trains and trucks and cargo.
I also spent seven years in the USA, first at university, and then working for an American IT company helping clients manage technology and supply chain matters.
During that time, while visiting India, I saw that the logistics ecosystem was completely different from that in the USA.
Companies lack access to accurate data that helps them decide how and when to move goods, through data such as weather patterns and traffic conditions.
I saw problems but also opportunities. So I moved back home.
I travelled from Punjab in the north to Kerala in the south. I talked to truck drivers, factory owners and logistics companies.
In many places, I saw fruit and vegetables strewn on both sides of the road. But, a few hours away, I would see trucks parked up idle. The drivers would have been sitting around for days with nothing to do, not earning any money.
This happens because the farmers and drivers have to rely on middlemen when they do not have access to real-time accurate information.
That made me realise, in some cases, poverty isn’t necessarily caused by people not having food or work. It happens because systems are not fair and equitable.
Across most sectors, companies face similar issues. They lack useful information to make good business decisions. These experiences eventually inspired me to start my company.
Logistics should be something people take for granted, the way you assume flicking on a switch will give you electricity and turning on a tap will give you running water.
I know we can make a difference, not only in India, but around the world.”
The problem solver
Daniel Raj David, 24
Co-founder, Detect Technologies
Detect Technologies develops drones and sensors to monitor leaks and corrosion in pipes and other large infrastructure.
“When I was a kid, physics was my favourite subject. I loved Newton’s Three Laws of Motion, which says each action has an equal and opposite reaction. I could see those rules being applied in everyday cause-and-effect situations.
I find meaning in solving real problems. Sure, I want to make the world a better place. But there is no point in having a dream or vision if it doesn’t address a real market problem.
That is how Detect Technologies was formed. My three co-founders and I were studying at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras.
We realised the country’s oil and gas industry had no safe and cost-effective technology to monitor pipe leaks.
Damage assessment is mainly be done manually by humans and it normally takes three to four days just to assemble scaffolding for the workers. After the work is done, the scaffolding is dismantled and thrown away.
We wanted to fix this. With the help of our professor and a team of some 20 students, we started work on a sensor that could operate at high temperatures.
That work would eventually lead to our first innovation, a Guided Ultrasonic Monitoring Pipeline System, or GUMPS. We launched it in 2013 and since then, some around 80% of the energy companies in India have signed up with us, as have many others in the steel, chemical and fertiliser industries.
We are only three years old, but we already have around 100 employees in our offices in Chennai, Mumbai and Gujarat. In the last three years, I have travelled across India, as well as to Europe, Canada and Malaysia exploring new business opportunities and markets.
We are achieving only 10% of what we are ultimately capable of. And it takes a long time to build a legacy.”