Download the latest issue of Business Today Magazine just for Rs.49
Clean, Green And Smart

Clean, Green And Smart

Powered by cutting-edge technologies, a clutch of Indian start-ups has developed out-of-the-box solutions to reduce pollution and generate clean energy.

Illustration by Ajay Thakuri Illustration by Ajay Thakuri

Green is gaining power. Not just in Europe, where the European Commission is planning to put together a war chest of 10 euro billion to develop and market eco-friendly low-carbon technologies, but also in China, which is determined to deal with serious pollution issues and is working aggressively towards green energy, clean air and electric vehicle expansion. Closer home, our green efforts need to improve drastically.

For instance, 14 of the top 15 most polluted cities in the world are in India, according to a recent ranking released by the World Health Organization (WHO). The index measured the presence of fine particulate matter known as PM2.5 and also took into account PM10, underlining the dangerously deteriorating air quality and its toll on the economy. Government think-tank NITI (National Institution for Transforming India) Aayog has already warned that India is hurtling towards the worst water crisis in its history.

As for clean energy, India's ambitious National Solar Mission aims to add 100 GW of solar power capacity by 2022, but the country's current capacity stands at a meagre 21.65 GW. Understandably, the government is focussing more on cleantech and green infrastructure, as are several tech start-ups across the country, offering solutions for a more sustainable future. Here are five greentech companies leading the charge.

Oizom: The Air Tracker

As per the WHO report mentioned above, globally, nine out of 10 people breathe polluted air and seven million people die annually due to outdoor and household air pollution. Therefore, studying toxic air and monitoring pollution is critical, says Ankit Vyas, one of the four co-founders of Ahmedabad-based Oizom Instruments. The cleantech start-up offers a host of low-cost and scalable solutions powered by Internet of Things (IoT) to monitor, analyse and identify key sources of air pollution in a given area, in real time. Oizom uses a hardware-software platform to track air quality. The hardware, called Polludrone, consists of solar-powered sensors which can track particulate matter, gases, heat, noise and radiation and can be retrofitted to all existing infrastructure. It can even be mounted on a utility pole. "This is a low-cost, IoT-based monitor that requires minimal workforce. On the other hand, most of the available systems are bulky, expensive, consume high energy and need constant monitoring," says Vyas, CEO of Oizom.

Ankit Vyas, Co-founder and CEO, Oizom (Photograph by Nandan Dave)

The data from Polludrone's sensors is fed to the Oizom terminal, a cloud-based analytics software platform, which generates air quality reports, issues predictions and alerts, does real-time pollution mapping and historical trend analysis, and also finds the sources of pollution. "These insights empower authorities, communities and industry segments to make data-driven decisions and implement policy-level changes," says Vyas. The Oizom mobile app also displays area-specific air pollution levels and offers data-driven suggestions to users. "The system ensures over 85 per cent data accuracy, one of the highest parameters in pollution monitoring," claims Vyas.

Oizom has partnered with municipal corporations and installed more than 150 devices across nine major cities in India, France, Saudi Arabia, the UK, Japan, Chile, Spain and South Korea. "In India, we are collaborating with smart city programmes and have our solutions installed in Delhi, Ahmedabad, Kakinada (Andhra Pradesh) and Mumbai," says Vyas. The Kakinada Municipal Corporation was, in fact, able to save nearly 50 per cent of its air monitoring expenses by using Oizom's solution, the company says.

The start-up raised $40,000 from South Korea's SparkLabs IoT Accelerator in 2016 and $67,000 from French Tech Ticket in 2017. Last year, it raised another $150,000 from Norway-based Katapult Accelerator and an undisclosed amount in seed funding from Centre for Innovation, Incubation & Entrepreneurship, a unit of IIM-Ahmedabad. Oizom is now in a growth mode and trying to tap more markets for its hardware and data as a source (DaaS) platform. "We are tying up with smart cities and looking to tap West Asia," says Vyas, adding that the company has been profitable for the last two years.

Varun Sridharan, Founder, Greenvironment (Photograph by Lantern Camera)

Greenvironment: Betting Big on Wastewater

According to NITI Aayog's Composite Water Management Index report, about 2,00,000 people die every year due to inadequate access to safe water and 21 Indian cities will run out of groundwater by 2020. The report also mentions that wastewater recycling could address the country's severe water shortage. However, 70 per cent of the sewage generated in urban India is not treated, thus polluting three-fourths water bodies. Founded by Varun Sridharan, Chennai-based Greenvironment is a key player in this space, tapping the growing need for water management, wastewater treatment and monitoring. "For sustainable water management in large residential communities and commercial buildings like IT parks, malls, hotels or other institutions, water treatment plants should be efficient and effective. Greenvironment India looks at this opportunity," says Sridharan.

The company operates in Chennai, Bengaluru and Pune and has done pilot projects in Dubai and Doha. The company's IoT-enabled smart sensors are connected to wastewater treatment plants to capture data on the amount of water treated, plant efficiency, pH value and other water quality parameters. The data is sent to a cloud-based platform, which monitors plant activities in real time, predicts faults and provides troubleshooting insights. "If the efficiency of the plant is more than 85 per cent, the system is working very well," explains Sridharan. "This is critical as 55 per cent water requirement of a residential/commercial building could be met through efficient wastewater recycling. But currently, only 10-20 per cent of the total requirement is being met through recycled water." Greenvironment has a subscription-based revenue model; charges start from Rs 15,000 a month."Our customers can reduce water footprint by 55 per cent and save 30 per cent on water cost," the founder claims.

Roli Gupta, Co-founder, Oorjan (Photograph by Rachit Goswami)

The cleantech firm won last year's Grand Challenge-Karnataka Call One and received Rs 60 lakh from the state government. "We are now scaling up and are looking for fresh funding, but there are challenges on that front," says Sridharan. "Water is an essential commodity. So, it should be a separate investment category. As of now, wastewater treatment falls under cleantech and the energy sector gets the priority in this segment."

Saahas for Zero Waste

The trash we throw mostly ends up in landfills or waterbodies. But with better waste segregation and management, about 90 per cent of the garbage can be recycled and put to good use. A study by ReportBuyer estimates the global waste management industry at $435 billion by 2023. Technology companies are innovating fast for growth and profit. However, Saahas Zero Waste, a social enterprise from Bengaluru, is on a mission of sorts. Set up by Wilma Rodrigues, a former journalist, Saahas partners with bulk waste generators (those who generate more than 10 kg of waste per day), including large residential societies, IT parks, manufacturers, commercial ventures, reverse logistics players and municipal bodies, to ensure zero-waste to landfills.

"In India, we dump all kinds of waste together instead of separating wet and the dry trash and the reject. This lack of segregation makes it impossible to recover useful materials and everything ends up in landfills. In contrast, Saahas offers an end-to-end waste management solution, and the waste is segregated at client sites," explains Rodrigues. Post-pick-up, wet waste is made into compost or sent to biogas plants, while dry waste is sent to the company's material recovery facility for recycling. The 'dry' unit can handle about 16 tonnes of dry waste every day. "We also use an IoT-based application that records how much waste is collected from clients and generates reports on types of waste and area-specific details. The data helps us recommend solutions for reducing waste generation," says Rodrigues. "One of our core values is to leverage technology to ensure maximum resource recovery from the waste managed by us."

The company currently processes 35 tonnes of waste a day and plans to scale it up to 300 tonnes by 2021. "As of now, we have more than 80 clients across Bengaluru, Chennai and Goa, but we plan to achieve our aggressive growth targets by expanding operations pan-India," says Rodrigues. Saahas has raised an undisclosed amount from Indian Angel Network (IAN) and venture capital firms Asha Impact, Artha India Ventures and Upaya Social Ventures. It charges service fees, and posted Rs 10 crore revenue in FY2017/18. The biggest challenge, according to Rodrigues, is people's mindset towards waste management. To start with, most housing societies and commercial units do not segregate waste. In addition, many organisations are reluctant to invest in a waste management infrastructure or pay the price for effective services.

Oorjan Offers Rooftop Solar

India is home to the world's largest solar parks, but the growth of rooftop solar projects across residential and MSME clusters is lagging due to lack of awareness and limited access to finance. Mumbai-based cleantech start-up Oorjan has tapped this opportunity and brought IoT-supported rooftop solar systems to residences and businesses. Founded by IIT-Bombay alumni Roli Gupta and Gautam Das, Oorjan has done more than 100 projects across five cities, including Mumbai, Pune, Bengaluru, Chennai and Hyderabad, and is looking to expand. Its customers include residential complexes, individual households and companies, and implementation cost varies between Rs 2 lakh and Rs 5 lakh, depending on the panel size. The company has tied up with banks to help people with easy financing options. It also runs residential expos where the company instals the panels and users pay for the energy consumed instead of paying for the entire set-up. There is a solar SME platform as well, a business-to-business service to help solar entrepreneurs. "We provide technology, design panels and arrange finance, helping solar power reach end users for a small fee," says Gupta.

Visakh Sasikumar, Co-founder, PiBeams (Photograph by AR Sumanth Kumar)

Besides installation, Oorjan collects data from customer sites using IoT and analyses panel efficiency. The output is then transferred to its data monitoring app and users get alerts and notifications on troubleshooting. For example, if a particular system continues to underperform, both Oorjan and the user will receive notifications, leading to quick resolution. "IoT has made a big difference in the way we operate. It ensures a higher degree of customer satisfaction and leads to more business," says Gupta.

After leaving her alma mater, Gupta had worked in Silicon Valley for 10 years. "That experience taught me that one could solve any big problem with the help of a small but hard-working team," she says. Back then, solar was not a profit-making business, but things have changed since. "It is because solar is the most robust energy source (among renewables) and ensures a greener way of living."

The company has raised Rs 3.5 crore through loans, angel funding and crowdfunding, and is looking for another $1 million this year.

PiBeams: Multimode Mobility

Within a decade, more than 60 per cent of the world's population will live in urban areas, choking the traditional ground transportation. Consequently, electric scooters and other micro-mobility solutions are emerging fast for ease and convenience. Incubated at IIT-Madras, micro-mobility firm PiBeams Labs builds smart utility trikes (tricycles) for moving loads or vending merchandise. These battery-operated vehicles run on solar power or electricity, but manual pedalling is also an option. A different model can be used as a passenger vehicle. PiBeams is now adding IoT sensors to the trikes so that drivers will know the nature of goods they are carrying.

In March this year, the company raised an undisclosed amount in pre-series A funding from Eagle10 Ventures, Blue Hills Capital and several high net-worth individuals. It also raised around Rs 2.1 crore from various bodies such as the IAN and Keiretsu Forum.

Co-founder Visakh Sashikumar claims that the trikes cost less than e-rickshaws and are more efficient than traditional trikes used for carrying small loads. Factories and IT parks are currently PiBeams' customers. "We are also in talks with e-commerce players like Flipkart and Amazon for facilitating last-mile deliveries," he says.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Chennai