When he had called me two weeks back to say he would be meeting me at the 5th Renewable Energy Expo at Pragati Maidan, I was almost tempted to say No. Here were a number of excellent conference sessions going on, in a range of exciting renewable energy topics, and why would a sane man miss them to meet someone who wanted to discuss some dry business stuff?
That was what he had wanted to discuss – or so I assumed. Grudgingly, I agreed to meet him, let’s say out of a sense of propriety than yearning.
Yashraj Khaitan is a student who had studied in Jaipur all his life before going abroad for his undergraduate program in Electrical Engineering at the prestigious University of California, Berkeley. He has just completed his UG, and by now, he has also completed developing a prototype that could make a big change in lighting hundreds of millions lives.
He has started a company Gram Power that has developed a unique battery for the non-grid rural areas. He would provide an LED lamp, cables and the battery for less than Rs. 4000 to the villagers. The inverter can operate many lamps simultaneously as well as charge phones, run fans, radios etc.. A household can use multiple inverters to increase the power capacity. The beauty about the charging of the battery is that it could get charged through multiple avenues – grid, solar, cycle dynamo etc. This is cool, because a villager could now pretty much pedal a stationary (or moving) bicycle to charge the battery, instead of only relying on the sun (not present during night) or grid (not present anytime at tens of thousands of villages).
And on top of this natty battery system (Li-ion), he has also put together an LED lighting system that consumes far less energy for the amount of lumens. The battery system can power 2-3 such lights and a fan.
Cutting a long story short, he has managed to put together an efficient power pack for the Indian villages. Cost? About Rs 3,500, far cheaper than what is sold in the market right now for a typical power pack. By the time the meeting with him ended, I realised what a well-spent one hour it was!
And here comes the kicker – Yashraj was keen on EAI helping him get his idea into the market as well as get access to funds so that he could start testing it for the Indian villages. An excellent effort from a chap who is just about 20 years old, and who had come back all the way to India to try his idea, rather than sit in the comfort of California. But right at the moment, he is as far away from getting funded as are the tens of millions of Indian villagers from having electricity for their homes.
This meeting made me think about a different type of funding system we would require in India for cleantech.
On the one hand, you have the VCs and the PEs keen on funding multi million $ cleantech projects. These folks do not have the bandwidth to cater to small entrepreneurs who have come up with such ideas with promise. In theory, there exist angel investors and seed capital companies, but few if any of them have a focus on cleantech. Inventors such as Yashraj get caught in the Valley of Dearth (Hmmm…remember, I coined this term :-)).
The last business revolution was the information technology revolution, in which we had been followers, pretty much slaving out the coding for someone else’s design – all credit to Infy and others for doing a fab job in that segment, but I’ll have to stretch the truth a bit to associate outsourced software programming to creativity and innovation. Do we want to be followers in cleantech and renewable energy as well?
Renewable energy and cleantech are two domains more closely aligned with nature, environment and society than is software, which is pretty much a geek territory with no little connection to what happens in the “natural” “social” and “environmental” world. As a result, effective innovations in cleantech and renewable energy will need a blend of both engineering/tech perspectives as well as a societal/ecological perspective. I would like to believe that we Indians have a better blend of these two than many in the west, who could be much better than we are when it comes to “pure tech”. And I would hence like to believe that India can be one of the leaders when it comes to technologies that enhance sustainability and green.
But then again, such leadership in original concepts and devices will require that inventors such as Yashraj are incubated and taken to the next stage. I hence propose that folks with money and marketing brains get together to form an Indian Cleantech Incubation association ( I started a page at CleanTick for Cleantech Incubators to understand this territory better). This association could nurture talent from all over the country – be it from a Berkeley educated boy or a villager from Bhimavaram – and take the inventions to the market. What do you think?
A bit of Googling made me realize that there were a few such cleancubators (cleantech incubators) already existing in India, in a variety of forms. For that matter, EAI has, by the way, started this in a small way through its EAI Inventor’s Zone, where Cleatech inventors can showcase their inventions here and get known to the people who matter. We are hoping that soon enough, this zone could play some sort of cleancubatory roles. There are cleantech incubators sprouting in IITs and IIMs ( see here and here) and I believe some of the large companies might be interested in such a role too. I was recently speaking to a couple of folks from Tata Capital, and they were very keen to take this idea further and see how the Tata Group could be a moving force in incubating cleantech inventors in India.
But I’d imagine that for a large country like India needing a diverse set of cleantech solutions, and all of them needed yesterday, we might need a more cohesive association to promote cleantech invention in the country. I look forward to your thoughts and insights on this.