Clean Water, Green Water

Clean Water, Green Water

Taking a cue from the digestive physiology of a cow, ECOSTP is treating sewage water and finding takers

Co-founders (clock - wise): Tharun Kumar, Praseed K.K., Simar Kohli and E. Muralidharan / Photograph by Lantern Camera Co-founders (clock - wise): Tharun Kumar, Praseed K.K., Simar Kohli and E. Muralidharan / Photograph by Lantern Camera

At its core is water treatment, but the process is unique. Bengaluru-based start-up ECOSTP Technologies converts "bad water into good water using the cow stomach mechanism".

A large part of sewage water in India is untreated, so the solution lies in sewage treatment plants (STPs). But conventional STPs, says Tharun Kumar, one of the four co-founders of the company, "need power and that too, in most cases, thermal power". The start-up offers a 'Zero Power Zero Operator' option, based on how a cow's stomach functions. "A cow's stomach has four compartments which help it digest grass using anaerobic bacteria and convert it to milk. Similarly, we use four chambers and anaerobic bacteria to convert bad water into good water. You could call it biomimicry," says Kumar.

The prevailing wastewater treatments across the world are based on aerobic bacteria-based treatment, which are very power hungry. The start-up has arrived at a combination of intelligent deployment of anaerobic bacteria and wall structures of the treatment plant. "The first chamber, stage 1, is where all sewage lands and get settled at the bottom. From this chamber the water flows using gravity to the second chamber through a series of pipes. The second chamber has multiple minichambers. Third chamber has gravel filter. In the last chamber, water flows upwards, again using gravity."

An anaerobic bacteria catalyst seed made from cow dung substrate is added (one-time addition) and the end result is that "sewage is converted into water, some gas, and very little sludge (digester)." The system does not need power as it uses gravitational force. "Water flows through Stage 1 chambers vertically and horizontally through pipes. Water flows vertically through Stage 2, through slow sand filters, and then horizontally through Stage 3 plant gravel filters." The water that is obtained is not potable but can be used for other purposes such as car washing, gardening and in toilets. "The water can be made potable but that will need more filtration, which would require use of motors," says Kumar.

Apart from Kumar, ECOSTP's other co-founders also have expertise in water management. E. Muralidharan, who was associated with NIH Georgia Tech, US, has expertise in bio-engineering. Simar Kohli is a hydro-sociologist, film-maker and educator and also founder of Lifetide - a collective for creating water abundance, creating films, publications and events on water, while mobilising citizen change agents. The founders look to her as a "water evangelist warrior." Praseed K.K. is the product and project head, having worked with product engineering, services and service delivery organisations.

Expansion Plan

In the very first year of being established in September 2017, the start-up signed up two clients and had a total revenue of around Rs 12 lakh. In 2018/19, it has added 19 clients and posted revenues of Rs 1.18 crore. Kumar says they hope to add 64 clients in 2019/20 and increase revenue to Rs 3.5 crore.

While on a visit to Hyderabad to meet a client and to reach out to some prospective customers, Kumar tells Business Today that "our biggest competition is conventional aerobic bacteria (which need air and therefore use of motor) motor-based STPs, and with formidable players like Thermax and Ion Exchange. But the bulk of the competition is the hundreds of small players."

Another challenge comes from the process that ECOSTP follows. "We need double the space of conventional STPs." But, explains Kumar, their STPs are built in setback area or below the road, so no space is lost. "Our competitors need less space but the area is blocked and tends to be smelly and has noisy motors."

What about the revenue model? Kumar explains: "We have two options. One is to sell the complete 'end-to-end product' and another is to license the core technology. We adopted the latter keeping rapid scalability in mind. We sell the ECOSTP Kit. All that the customer needs to get done is add concrete (the civil works).

The ECOSTP product, says Kumar, has 20 per cent lower capital expenditure (such as cost of building the STP) and 93 per cent lower operational costs (since power, chemicals and operators are not needed). Their clients are mainly residential complexes and commercial buildings.

One of ECOSTP's customers is Gandhi Chowdhary, Managing Director of Sri Maruthi Builders and Developers, a Hyderabad-based apartment complex builder. He is currently setting up his fifth project - building 260 apartments spread across five blocks - and is installing an ECOSTP unit. "I learnt about them from one of my customers and when I saw the model, what impressed me was that there is no power consumption, and unlike the traditional STPs, we do not have to run motors.

Even the operational costs are minimal as there is no maintenance staff needed and only once in two years or so the working needs to be reviewed at best, which ECOSTP can handle, if required." The plant at the apartment complex is under construction but Chowdhary is convinced of its efficacy, and wants to set up the same in all his other ventures. He, in fact, wants the ECOSTP team to make a presentation to the association of builders so that others can also learn about it.

More customers will give a boost to the start-up, which was "bootstrapped with a total of around Rs 5 lakh invested by the founders," says Kumar.

While revenues matter, what the ECOSTP team seems more excited about is the pitch that they are able to make: water treatment with power saving. "We have so far treated 12,000 kilolitres of water but saved 20 MW power so far, and this is a moving number."

The company is now raising resources to fund future expansion and for this the founders are talking to various angel investors.