28 April 2016 12:55:28 IST

Out of the box, but little in the pocket

Cleantech is witnessing innovation. What the budding sector lacks in funding it makes up in mentoring

Videos of chewable plates and spoons have been doing the rounds on social media, earning the inventor, Narayana Peesapaty of Hyderabad a considerable amount of wow. Three years ago, Gujarati potter Mansukhbhai Prajapathi came up with a refrigerator made of clay called ‘Mitticool’.

These are just two products that were lucky to get noticed. There are many, many more. Suddenly (or so it seems) the cleantech area is teeming with funky innovative ideas.

Last week, I was invited to be on a panel to select the winner and runners-up for a cleantech award given by TiE. Five inventors, who had made it to the last round, made their pitches.

Ideas everywhere

But the winner’s idea turned out to be the least innovative and most obvious. G Mahesh Kumar makes aluminium-coated, shiny, flexible material to be used for bags, sacks, umbrellas, roofing canopies — the reflective surface blocks heat, keeps the interior cool — not different from Mitticool, but flexible, and meant for more applications. A vegetable or fish vendor can preserve his products better, spending nothing on energy.

The runner-up, J Chandrasekharan, makes water filters using clay for the process. He also produces modular toilets, which can be assembled and dismantled, using plastic waste.

Then there was Karthik Narayanan, who has come up with a contrivance that can produce methane — a cooking gas — from a mixture of kitchen waste and cattle excrement. Dr Jaswant Singh’s venture was the more sophisticated ‘plastic-derived fuels’ plant, which is often in the news these days.

Chalasani Veerabhadra Rao sketched out a ‘perpetual motion machine’ that can produce more energy than it consumes. But this product required convincing, because it flies in the face of conventional scientific wisdom. Perpetual motion machines, first attempted by Bhaskara (‘Bhaskara’s wheel’) in circa 2nd century BC, have been the holy grail of mechanical engineers — machines which, once you start them off, keep themselves in motion forever.

Cleantech abounds with ideas. A start-up called, Karma Recycling, that offers to buy back your used mobile phone, tablet or laptop to recycle and sell them. In the three years the company has been in existence, Karma has (according to its website) bought 2.75 lakh-odd devices, paying ₹15 crore for them.

Then there is this company, Gibbs Geothermal. It uses the lower temperature under the ground and uses earth as a ‘sink’ by sucking heat from inside the buildings, thereby keeping the buildings cool. Incidentally, both Karma and Gibbs have been funded by Infuse Ventures, a venture capital firm run by IIM-Ahmedabad.

What comes around

An emerging, truly sunrise industry, new ideas, venture funding… get a feeling of déjà vu ? The world of Information Technology too owes its success to such born-in-a-garage ideas and their backing by Silicon Valley venture capital firms. Is history repeating itself?

Perhaps not. It is difficult to see cleantech as IT-2.0 — the returns are neither that great nor do they come so fast. Therefore, it is not likely that venture capital firms will be as keen on cleantech as they were with the booming IT industry.

Lessons Learnt

However, there is another kind of support taking shape — mentoring. Having gone through the IT-cycle, the ‘mentoring, networking, incubating’ part of the ecosystem is more robust. Apart from the likes of The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) and the Founders Institute — which provide mentoring, networking, incubating and seed-funding — there is a growing number of incubators and accelerators. Today, educational institutions, and even companies (Bosch, for example) have incubation programmes. Ventureburn.com lists at least 20 .

It is this part of the ecosystem that helps an entrepreneur encash his ideas. There was one common thread among all the five pitches made for the award: absence of a clear-cut go-to-market strategy. Cleantech may not see the kind of funding blizzard that IT tapped into in the Silicon Valley, but there is always crucial hand-holding available. The world is indeed on the cusp of witnessing a burst of ecopreneurship.