While most people get easily intimidated by the equations and symbols that come with learning Chemistry in High School, Keshav Vijay realised it was his true calling. By the 10th grade, he decided that he was going to be a chemical engineer. “During the engineering college counseling, a lot of people raised their eyebrows and asked if I really was going to settle for chemical engineering with my cutoff,” Keshav shrugs, “What can I say? Chemistry is my version of coding!” he laughs.
The summer before final year—while ‘startups’ were still a buzzword, Keshav decided to explore different options, not particularly with the goal of becoming an entrepreneur. “I was a summer fellow at IIT working with a diverse team consisting of a post-doc, two Ph.D. Scholars and an M.Tech student.” The research group consisting of Dr. K. Sivagami, G. Divyapriya, Ramya Selvaraj, Aravind E.S. and Keshav would later form Team Enviro.
In early 2017, companies were trying to affiliate themselves with cleantech as more and more awareness was being spread about pollution and global warming. The American consulate partnered with Virtusa Polaris to conduct the Carbon Zero Challenge. The contest invited applicants to propose an idea that would contribute to the cause. Plastic pollution was booming, making it the obvious problem to solve for Team Enviro. “As a team, we strongly believed that decentralization was the future,” explains Keshav, “Empowered communities create large scale efficient systems.”
Amidst plastic pollution, multi-layer plastic a.k.a MLPs (the ubiquitous chips and biscuit packaging with a layer of aluminum on the inside), was found to be 60 percent of the problem. The remaining 40 percent is easily recycled through mechanical processes. “If you notice, the kabaddiwala only takes the second type of plastic because they can very easily be heated, converted into granules and reconverted into plastic material,” he adds.
What happens to the MLPs you ask? That’s where pyrolysis comes into play. If you had paid attention to high school chemistry (unlike most of us) you would know that it is the process of breaking down plastics at a very high temperature to create energy in the form of oil. “Plastic pyrolysis is not new in the waste recycling industry, however, it has gained a negative perception with over five hundred plants being shut down because they did not meet the norms,” reveals Keshav. The plants that did exist lacked efficiency, caused pollution and occupied a large amount of space. Inevitably, the MLPs would find themselves accumulating landfills and clogging the waterbodies. The research team took to the lab, a place they knew all too well, to devise a solution to the impending problem caused by the notorious plastic.
Team Enviro went through stages of pitching and prototyping with the jury and eventually got through the two rounds lasting six months each before being declared the winners of the competition. As a result, the team received funding of five lakhs and a place at the IIT Madras Research Park. “Till then we had been a group of research fellows with barely any thought about what happens beyond the four walls of the laboratory,” reveals Keshav with a chuckle, “Winning the competition pushed us to start thinking about our work as entrepreneurs.”
Team Enviro rebranded to become Samudhyoga Waste Chakra—hinting at the end goal of creating a circular economy. At the inception of the newly incubated company, Keshav took up the yearlong Young India Fellowship at Ashoka University. “I had already gained the technical knowledge about plastics so, during the fellowship, I focused on a systemic approach to plastics and its social, political and technological influences.” On his return, Keshav took up the position of Business Head and Dr. K. Sivagami as the CTO of the startup. The team was mentored by Dr. Indumathi Nambi, Professor of Civil Engineering at IIT Madras and N. Sriram, Ex-President of Harita-NTI Limited.
“Tamil Nadu has plenty of startups rising from academia, be it IIT or other University incubation cells,” says the co-founder, “We are fortunate to be a part of the IIT incubation cell as they always put us at the right place at the right time and have helped us with funding and gaining recognition till now.” Stepping out of these close-knit circles, Keshav believes that entrepreneurs from outside these academic incubation centers would find it a bit more challenging to gain access to funding in Chennai. “It still isn’t like Bangalore where if you slip and fall, you meet an investor,” he laughs, “But Chennai has a great talent pool, resources and a government that is increasingly incentivizing innovation. This is probably why it is now catching up to Gurgaon and Bangalore as a startup-friendly city.”
After spending four years on research, the company has come up with a 100 sqft plug-in pyrolysis plant that is currently installed at the Perungudi landfill. “The technology is currently emission-free and energy-efficient. We want to revolutionize the way people think of waste recycling, so the idea is to put the set-up in the back of a truck and treat the plastic at the site,” he explains, “About 800 liters of diesel grade oil is produced from 1,000 kg of plastic, which can be used to fuel furnaces and boilers.”
Waste Chakra is on a mission to derive value from waste of every kind. While the plastic pyrolysis setup is being tested and marketed to Chennai Corporation and several large companies, the startup is looking at the next biggest source of pollution—urine that gets mixed into waterbodies causing eutrophication (a process that causes excessive growth of algae because of abundant nutrients in the waterbody). “Most public toilets in the state are non-functional due to water scarcity,” says Keshav explaining the opportunity that the scenario provided to create EcoFert, the startup’s second product. “We have installed a silicon valve to the urinals at our department to collect undiluted urine which gets converted by our technology into struvite (a fertilizer in powder form), ammonia and freshwater.” A thousand liters of urine can produce about 850 liters of water that can be used for flushing toilets or gardening, 100 liters of ammonia and up to a kilogram of struvite. Similar to the plastic pyrolysis technology, the EcoFert is a compact plug-in system that is easy to operate with zero emissions and low energy consumption.
The startup has a strong technical team under its belt working on constantly developing the efficiency of its technology. The larger task at hand, however, is breaking the misconceptions that are associated with chemical recycling processes. “We engage in conversation about topics like plastic recycling and pyrolysis and give demonstrations on-site for both of our products,” says Keshav revealing that the circular economy approach makes the Waste Chakra technology all the more compelling.
The company is currently working with a range of stakeholders from the government and the B2B market. Samudhyoga Waste Chakra eventually looks forward to integrating its products with the Smart Cities India initiative.