VayuJal: Potable water from the air

This continuously improving product could be the answer to the water crisis we are eventually going to face. Read how Ramesh Kumar is trying to solve a humanitarian challenge.

The mildly spoken Ramesh Kumar Soni shyly discloses, “I am the first engineer in the family, and will be the first IIT graduate as well. My father is a farmer and a jeweler, and we come from a small village in Rajasthan where drinking water is a perennial problem.”

In 2010, when the fresh-faced high school graduate was searching for the right engineering course to enroll in, his friends and advisors encouraged him towards nanotechnology. And so, his search brought him to SRM Engineering College in the outskirts of Chennai, where he sailed through a four-year program.

After college, he continued to work on research-based projects at various institutes—the IISc, IIT Chennai, and other places, but soon realized that these internships really didn’t shake out to some concrete outcomes and were quite short-lived. “Some of these projects were all of sixty days! What can you do in that timeframe?” he recalls.

He then went to IIT Chennai and began volunteering at the labs, and started working on surface material research with Professor Pradeep Kumar, eventually landing himself a job at the campus, with an offer to club his research into a graduate and eventually a Ph.D. program.

“I began formal work in atmospheric water condensation capturing and surface material composition in 2017,” the young entrepreneur continues, “and our first small milestone was to compose a unique surface that could increase condensation by 15 percent—not a huge number, but promising, nevertheless.”

Over the next two years, he and a small team continued to tinker, engineer, and put together the first Atmospheric Water Generation unit. “This was a great way to manifest our thinking into a physical design, and realization dawned that this product will always be a continuously improving entity,” he says.

He and the team approached the venerable Engineers India Limited to offer a pilot, and were eventually awarded to build a 2000 liters per day unit, but to use renewable energy like solar instead of grid electricity.

Not surprisingly, the cantankerous bureaucracy and paperwork delayed the award, and VayuJal, in turn was impacted by the pandemic and some internal process issues.

Ramesh didn’t let this deter him and used the time to build smaller units—30 liters, 100 liters, and eventually 400 liters a day machine. “This gave me the confidence that the engineering is sound, and the systems we put in place are scalable and repeatable,” he smiles. It also exposed him to the critical aspect of customer support and service, and he managed to solve them without any surprising challenges.

With five different capacity units, VayuJal is catering a wide range of demands—the 30 liters per day (LPD) unit meets the needs of a small family or office. “One of our customers uses the water for his daily bath, and declares that the quality of water has been very beneficial for his skin,” laughs Ramesh. The larger units cater to college hostels, restaurants, hotels, and large IT campuses.

With scale comes complexity—engineering, supply chain, people, and funds. “We are right now working through an order volume of four to five units a month, but can easily foresee a near-term scale of twenty or thirty units a month,” discloses Ramesh. The unfazed founder considers this as a great opportunity to standardize and economize on the shop floor.

While the science depends on humidity and temperature ranges to produce water, Ramesh is optimistic that the VayuJal unit will fulfill needs in almost all ranges. “Yes, we may produce less water in Jaipur, but it will be significantly more water production per day, and culturally, a family in Jaipur is conditioned to be conservative with water. This helps us meet their needs as well.”

The units need cartridges that have to be replaced every six months, and that allows Ramesh to study how well his products are performing in the market.

All the five product categories are now driving up demand, and Ramesh is working fast to build out remote teams to handle service clusters. Alongside, he is putting in systems in place to reduce purchase friction—monthly payments, credit card acceptance, and self-service.

“We want to grow 10X in 2022, and that is an exciting goal,” declares the young first-time entrepreneur. “Sales is looking up, and we think we can achieve 100 units a month capability in less than 24 months.”

Ramesh Kumar doesn’t care for his company to be valued at this stage, and is exploring credit facilities to scale his operations. “We’re confident sales will drive revenue, and a simple loan will help us scale rapidly.”

Apart from operational issues, Ramesh is clearly focused on the future. “Like Google, we want to be a part of the future—continuous tinkering and micro-innovation around power consumption, surface innovation, service delivery, and even water-as-a-service are all concepts we are working on,” he says. “We are just getting started, and are excited to see where tomorrow leads us to.”

 

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