When Mainak Chakraborty and Sreekrishna Sankar, two alumni of Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore, decided to plunge into the world of entrepreneurship, the duo wanted to do something around the concept of ‘technology-for-good’. Before zeroing in on the exact business idea, the duo started scouting for problems people are facing today — problems that are huge, have a huge social and environmental impact, and most importantly have a role for technology to play.
“Being in Bangalore, one of the first problems that came to our minds was waste. As we dug deeper, one thing led to other, eventually forming the basis of what we are doing today,” says Chakraborty, the brains behind GPS Renewables — a startup that develops clean and low-cost bio-energy technology for organic waste treatment for urban areas.
The startup was launched in 2012 by Chakraborty and Sankar. In the past, Chakraborty has worked as Product Engineer and Engineering Architect at various product startups in Bangalore. His partner Sankar comes with four years of strategic consulting experience with Oliver Wyman, and has been working around the concept of technology-for-good for a long time.
Headquartered in Bangalore, GPS Renewables’s inaugural product is BioUrja, which it claims to be the most efficient and most compact organic waste-to-energy solution for urban establishments.
“BioUrja was conceptualised to enable urban bulk waste generators to have an economically viable waste treatment solution of their own. While such solutions had existed before, they were too huge from a space context, and unviable at a captive scale,” adds Chakraborty.
GPS has made that possible by innovating on various aspects of the solution — ranging from microbiology to bringing in IoT approaches to bio-energy to reduce operational expenses and increase the efficacy of these solutions.
“Going ahead, we are scaling up to provide integrated solutions for entire cities, especially vertical cities with a space crunch,” he says.
Save space and energy
The BioUrja system is a dry anaerobic digestion system that digests organic waste and generates biogas, which is a gaseous fuel composed of methane and carbon dioxide. The high speed digestion mechanism of BioUrja system helps to generate more biogas per day, therefore resulting in more savings for the clients. This prefabricated system is compact, utilises minimal space and can co exist in any urban location.
“Unlike traditional solutions, BioUrja suite is a complete solution consisting of a smart input system with shredders, an automated pressurised gas storage system, digestate treatment solution (per international pollution control norms) and gas piping to the kitchen along with burners — making the transition for the customer hassle free,” claims Chakraborty.
All BioUrja systems function 24×7 and deliver peak performance consistently, he adds. This is achieved through a proprietary remote monitoring system that tracks operational parameters of the system. The data, transmitted to GPS’s servers, then analysed by the operations team to identify any issues and pre-empt possible digestive breakdowns.
Chakraborty believes the reason why we have a waste problem today is because biogas hasn’t worked the way it should have. Had biogas been effective, a big chunk of the problem could have been taken care of.
According to him, there have been many legacy technology problems with biogas, such as huge space footprint (making them unviable in urban areas due to lack of space), huge water footprint, low efficiency and efficacy (because industrial/hospitality and banking sectors never championed biogas).
“More than 25 per cent of any city’s waste across the world comes from its bulk waste generators. A compact and reliable captive biogas plant for such institutions can make business sense, and also solve a big problem for our cities. This is a gap yet to be tapped in an organised way across the world, and that is what GPS is trying to address through BioUrja,” says Chakraborty, who is also co-CEO of the startup.
All of the startup’ plants for captive usage (for urban establishments) are prefabricated. They are either fabricated at GPS’s fabrication facility in Bangalore, or outsourced to partners in case of excess demand. The IP pieces, such as monitoring suite, is always executed by GPS Renewables.
On the client side, there is no civil work involved. Once a plant has been fabricated, it is dispatched via road/sea to a client site. A GPS installation team of two members then visits the client site to position the equipment per a shared layout and closes the assembly of the final pieces in four-five days.
An IoT-powered plant
The plant health monitoring is the heart of the system, as biogas plants are prone to digestive problems, especially in case of inconsistent feeds such as urban organic waste. There are many ways to keep track of the health of such a plant, including complex procedures such as gas chromatography. Such procedures are not viable at a decentralised level due to their cost and also lead times.
“This is where the GPS IoT approach comes in. GPS has defined the health of biogas plants in such a way that it be can tracked remotely through a suite of sensors and a proprietary health checker. The communication is bi-directional and informs the GPS team not just about health status, but also safety and other operational aspects,” adds Chakraborty.
The communication happens via SMS/GPRS. A dedicated bio-maintenance team keeps track of the health-related data for each plant and their data trends, and in case of deviations from the norm, decides on appropriate pre-emptive/precautionary actions.
“These actions are suggested to the plant operators, who are mostly client staff who have been trained by GPS. Commonly-used additives are kept at the site, while others are dispatched as per the urgency of the situation,” he elaborates.
As of now, GPS Renewables has over 30 projects and handles over 50 tons of waste per day. Its clientele includes prominent names like Infosys, Akshaya Patra Foundation, Manipal University, BITS Pilani and TVS Motor Company.
In addition, GPS has clients in Bangladesh, Japan and the US. It also has active sales channel partners in Qatar (for MENA region), Malaysia, Singapore and Turkey.
BioUrja is currently sold as a product for an upfront fees along with an annual maintenance fees. GPS is now transitioning towards a utility model, under which it will be selling gas, instead of systems.
In 2012, the startup had raised a meagre US$40,000, and is currently out in the market for fresh funding. “While GPS doesn’t need funds to expand its BioUrja product sale business, we are starting off with our fund-raising process to build a urban waste-to-gas utility model for entire cities. Our aim is to get there faster than others and become the first truly global biogas company,” he says.
Indian startups need longer gestation period
Talking about the startup ecosystem in India, Chakraborty said that ecosystem needed to support startups with higher gestation periods is missing, as most of the money and resources are chasing startups which can scale up faster — even if the technology quotient is minimal or the idea is a copy of an existing idea in some other country. While equity in spaces such as biosciences is hardly there, even debt is almost impossible to get for new ideas, as banks here take a few years to “warm up” to new ideas.
“To worsen things, there is hardly any industry-academia collaboration in place in India which further increases the gestation periods and/or cost of technology development. This is exactly why when we were starting up, for our initial advice, we had to go to AIT, Bangkok, who were much more supportive as compared to the top research institutes in India,” he continues.
“On similar lines, we are overcoming the debt problem (for setting up utility projects) by reaching out to HNIs for project finance, the way a wealth manager in a bank would reach out to them and create an investment portfolio based on the client’s risk profile. We are doing the same for waste-to-energy projects,” he concludes.