India's Water Comrades Fighting Through the Crisis
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India is the third largest groundwater exporter, but 21 cities are expected to run out of water by next year! Taking up the challenge, innovative companies are disrupting the ecosystem in search of better times. We bring you five start-ups that are safeguarding our precious resource.
When Vivek Shukla, Co-founder and CEO, SmarterHomes, ran out of water for three days at his apartment in Bengaluru
sometime ago, he decided to come up with a smart solution that can be cost effective and impactful. Shukla was paying around Rs 2,100 every month for this basic necessity. Without a metering system in place, the bill of Shukla’s apartment complex would be a common flat rate for all residents. He recalls, “There used to be 200 odd tanks each day in our apartment. I was worried over paying the entire amount even though we are not consuming water on a regular basis, either due to travelling or spending the day at office. Everyone’s level of water consumption was different yet we had to pay the same amount.”
Another problem faced by high-rise apartments was to find out where to install the meter as changing the entire plumbing would mean an additional cost. This was when SmarterHomes founder Vivek Shukla decided to rope in his longtime colleague and neighbour Kasturi Rangan to address the problem. There are nearly 600 million Indians under “extreme water stress” and about 200,000 people die annually due to the lack of access to clean potable water, according to a 2018 NITI Aayog study. Foreseeing a waterless planet, INDRA, which partners with customers by helping the industry and society meet water demands, came up with the idea of treating industrial waste water. Likewise, finding a lake burning for 18 hours straight behind his house in Bengaluru motivated Tharun Kumar, Co-founder, ECO STP, to search for alternative ways of treating waste water. ECO STP disrupts the current model of using chemicals or energy to treat water. Kumar and his cofounders, who he met in his society and around, made a personal investment of Rs 5 lakh each.
In South India where water crisis has hit the hardest, four young men resolved to turn their college project into a business plan to launch Uravu Labs in Bengaluru. Uravu Labs, meaning ‘Spring of water’ in Malayalam and ‘Relationship’ in Tamil, sets its journey for saving water from air. Swapnil Shrivastav and his co-founder reimagined a solution to source safe drinking water from air and run on solar thermal energy. As the problem remained the same even after their graduation in 2016, they did a pilot run in north Gujarat and Rajasthan. Their model witnessed a growth of 150 per cent in 2018-19.
EVERY DROP MATTERS
SmarterHomes devised a smart meter called WaterOn that can be installed in the duct of homes without disturbing the entire pipeline structure. After running a pilot test, the highest water bill recorded in a month amounted to Rs 3,900, the lowest water bill was Rs 200 while the average monthly water bill was Rs 1,400 (as opposed to a monthly bill of Rs 2,100 irrespective of usage). Shukla and Rangan invested Rs 4-5 lakh each and prepared a timeline to make a prototype. Using their experience from designing remote monitoring solutions for solar power plants, they designed a smart meter to record the consumption of water for billing purpose. Installation of WaterOn is simple - cut the pipe, paste the adapters and fix the meter at every water inlet. Shukla emphasizes, “Each resident has an app which reflects the real-time data of his water consumption, facility management and consolidated data. It also sends out an alert in case of overflow or leakage with an option to stop the flow of water immediately.” After receiving the funding, SmarterHomes expanded its operations in South Africa.
INDRA’s decentralized waste water treatment packaged solutions is modular, scalable and smaller in footprint that can cater to domestic as well as industrial waste water treatment and recycling needs. Its systems are backed by INDRA SMART automation and INDRA SPECTRUM analytics platforms, enhancing system efficiency and delivering real-time feedback. It results in minimal sludge generation and water recovery of more than 95 per cent.
Image Captions (L - R): Praseed KK, Operations Head, ECO STP; Selvakumar AB, Director–Sales, WEGot Utility Solutions; Pardeep Garg, Co-founder & Chief Technology Officer, Uravu Labs; Sundeep Donthomshethy, Chief Information Officer, WEGot Utility Solutions; Tharun Kumar, Co-founder, ECO STP; Swapnil Shrivastav, Co-founder & Chief Executive Officer, Uravu Labs; Kasturi Rangan M R, Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer, SmarterHomes Technologies; Venkatesh R, Co-founder & District Educational Officer, Uravu Labs
NATURE IS THE BEST HEALER
Who says technology can’t be fun? This start-up treats waste water on designed technology inspired from cow’s respiratory system. ECO STP uses its patent-pending technology to treat sewage in a decentralized, selfsustainable way in underground chambers without power, chemicals or human intervention. With mentorship from Biomimicry Institute, ECO STP utilizes functional principles and strategies of micro-organisms and ecosystem found in a cow’s stomach. They biologized the same method to convert ‘bad’ water into ‘good’ water using exactly the same process. The solution can treat waste ranging from 1 KLD to 1 MLD. They offer custom-made DIY kits with autocad drawings through which engineers of the respective companies can create the STP.
Uravu Labs has created a model with a panel installed on the rooftop that attracts water at night and uses sunlight through the day to heat it up. A condenser then cools the water and supplies to the user through pipes. Shrivastav mentions, "Our hunger to introduce a viable solution came from our extensive study of several research papers published by NASA for their MARS project.” Their prototype generates as much as 5,000 litres of drinking water a day from kiosks. He says, “We can it down to Rs 50-60 paise a litre by using solar power.” Committed to the mission, WEGoT Utility Solutions offers IoT based device that tracks and records the water consumption of each user and generates a monthly bill accordingly. The device is well integrated with the mobile app that shows individual data. Abilash Haridass, Co-Founder, WEGoT Utility Solutions, elaborates, “Through its monthly subscription ranging from Rs 149 to Rs 299, the pack provides information and options for personal usage, remotely shuts off the device when not in use and generates reward points.” The company has multiplied its revenue from Rs 4.5 crore in FY2018-19 to under Rs 8 crore in Q1 2019 whilst hoping to close the year with Rs 30 crore.
ATTRACTING FIRST CUSTOMERS
INDRA made its pilot installations at KJ Somaiya Campus, Mumbai, for sewage waste water recycling and reuse and at Sands Synergy, Mumbai, for textile dye effluent treatment for process reuse. The company installed its first commercial plant in Godavari Biorefineries, Sakarwadi, Maharashtra. ECO STP participated in BHEL’s tender for installing water STP and since then there has been no looking back. The company has also received approval from the Ministry of Micro, Small & Medium Enterprises. The team of Uravu Labs says, “Honestly, we were on a mission to convince people around us that what we are doing is productive. A popular query we received was if our model would dry out the atmosphere. We were providing an alternative to RO for Tier II, III cities through an environmentalfriendly option.” WEGoT Utility Solutions installed its first set of device at a commercial building in Chennai.
Till date, it has installed devices in over 25,000 apartments. SmarterHomes took one-and-ahalf year to get its first product right after which it installed its first device in a building housing 250 families in Hyderabad. Shukla recalls, “We had begged the families to try our device but since then we have continued to grow. For our clients in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, we have provided a prepaid model which allows users to recharge their device before using water.” The company took the highway and has sold 33,000 units in FY2018-19 and 29,000 units in just Q1 2019.
COMING THROUGH CRISIS
A major challenge for companies was to convince people. Rangan from SmarterHomes explains, “The idea was ahead of its time in 2012 when we started but people are now proactive and aligning with our mission.” Krunal Patel, Co-founder, INDRA, shares, “When we started our journey at the incubator centre of Somaiya Vidyavihar, we had no knowledge on how to manage our finances, reach out to vendors for procurement or win clients’ trust. Few years down the line, word of mouth and referrals worked in our favour to kickstart our business.” For ECO STP’s Kumar and partners, the biggest challenge was to convince their families about giving up a secured job and risking it all for a startup. Shrivastav from Uravu Labs was clear about his model. He elucidates, We didn’t want to make our model too
costly; that is why we relied on natural energy. We shifted our prototype from electricity to the nexus of solar and air. After constant revision of the model, we were finally successful in creating one which doesn’t require any separate infrastructure or pipeline connection.”
To create brand awareness, ECO STP was aggressive on e-mail marketing, door-to- door sales, recording testimonials of satisfied clients and maximizing the reference-based reach. WEGoT Utility approached property builders, commercial complex owners and industries where water consumption is high. From Global Entrepreneur Summit 2019 to meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi to presenting the model to Jal Shakti Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, WEGoT is sure riding high on the mission. SmarterHomes, however, has taken the digital route to market its product. During early years of business, the company used to print brochures and distribute them in apartments.
AWAITING SUSTAINABLE FUTURE
SmarterHomes is constantly improvising on the device to prepare a column that records each person’s water consumption level every day. “We will also be introducing a ‘dial out’ option replacing the current notification/alarm option in case of water overflow or leakage so that an immediate action can be taken,” says Shukla. Amrit Om Nayak, Co founder, INDRA, shares that they have recently tied up with Mitsubishi Motors for making quality equipment and service for the plant. They also plan to work with state pollution control boards and scale up in the near future. He explains, “Water is a difficult sector as despite increasing demand, there is no standardization in policy making for this
segment.” Kumar of ECO STP mentions, “78 per cent of India’s water goes untreated; here is the plan that we target to recycle. We are also expanding our business in South Africa, the Philippines and the Middle East as we already have an established client base there.” Installing a water meter in India’s tallest residential building in Kolkata, WEGoT Utility Solutions, standing true to its name WEG – Water, Electricity and Gas – is working on an expansion line to conserve these resources, too. Is water then the new gold? There can be no argument that, in an era of chronic water distress, the country now needs more new-age firms to step up the pressure to preserve this precious resource.
(This article was first published in the August 2019 issue of Entrepreneur Magazine. To subscribe, click here)