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Business of survival

education Updated: Sep 22, 2011 11:45 IST
Ayesha Banerjee

It was the devastating tsunami of 2004 that got Anil Sethi thinking about commercialising solar cell technology that had the potential to save countless lives.

The CEO of a Switzerland-based company, Flisom, which manufactures thin-film solar cells, Seth says “it was the day after Christmas when I heard the news about the tsunami that hit Indonesia and claimed over 250,000 victims. Many of these were children and many of the deaths were not caused by the waves but due to lack of clean water and medicines afterwards.” What was tragic, says Sethi, was that the medicines and drugs were available but due to a complete shutdown of communication facilities because of power disruption in the affected areas, the emergency response agencies had no idea where to take the medicines.

At that point, Sethi realised that the power his company was creating could save countless lives should such disasters occur. “This was the driver for my eventual full-time involvement in starting and running the business operations of the company, since I believe that even failure in this would be preferable to succeeding in a mid-management position in a large corporation,” says Sethi.

What got him interested in clean technology that harnesses the power of the sun was a chance meeting with a group of leading scientists in thin-film solar cell technology, including Dr AN Tiwari, a Ph.D from IIT Delhi in photovoltaics, who is continuing research work in Switzerland and is a world record holder in creating the thinnest of film solar cells with 14% efficiency.

For Seth, the cause is key. A CA and ICWA from Nagpur, he did his MBA from the London Business School in the UK and then joined a start-up in Switzerland and went on to IBM in a business development role. The meeting with the scientists changed the course of his life. “Everyone talks of clean energy from alternative sources for environmental benefits. The only point that will drive end-users to go in for clean energy is if it is cost-competitive or cheaper than electricity from nuclear and fossil fuels. Today it’s three to four times more expensive,” he says.

Large-scale thin-film solar cell production, Sethi hopes, will mean cheaper power which can be made accessible to people in the remotest of areas and connect them to the rest of the world.

When asked if there is money to be made in this business, Sethi responds, “More than the money, this is a new industry which has the potential to change geo-politics, since today energy is centered in specific geographies and most conflicts in the world are oil-related. With photovoltaic ( PV) technology, end-users would no longer have to depend on governments or electricity utilities for their electricity supply. They will be able to generate electricity from their rooftops!”

It’s people who count for Seth. PV would enable effective communication in disaster-struck areas. “In addition, energy from the sun is completely renewable and clean. It would help in driving growth and development without leaving carbon or other harmful emissions, thereby leaving a better and cleaner planet for our children,” adds the father of two.

What's it about?
‘Green’ entrepreneurs are people who pursue business goals keeping in mind the sustainable development of society. They are actually change agents, who are showing the path to others as to how sustainability can be kept in mind even when prioritising profit maximisation, says TERI University registrar Rajiv Seth

Clock Work
7 am: Wake up, exercise and check mail. Work on presentation for client interested in a joint venture
10 am: Reach office, check appointments for the day, fine-tune presentation
2 pm: Break for lunch
3 pm: Meet client for presentation, hold discussions.
6 pm: Break for tea
6.30 pm: Take client to solar cell manufacturing unit for product presentation
10 pm: Take client back to hotel for dinner and drinks

The Payoff
Green is in and these entrepreneurs are smart to know such technology will be in great demand in the future. The National Action Plan on Climate Change enumerates eight missions in which the government would encourage green entrepreneurship. The Solar mission offers opportunities for technology development and innovations in this important field. There is a focus on energy-efficient technologies, in which government incentives and sops will be available to encourage green ideas

Skills
. Excellent entrepreneurial and managerial skills
. Good communication skills to tell others about your great idea

How do i get there?
The Centre for Environment Education and the Teri University offer programmes related to the environment, and to sustainable development. B-schools are also looking towards greening their curricula. Teri University’s MBA in business sustainability attempts to incorporate sustainability issues into each course and specialisation

Institutes & urls
An MBA/engineering degree can be combined with degrees from
. Teri University
www.teriuniversity.ac.in/
. Centre for Environment Education
www.ceeindia.org

Pros & cons


.

Great satisfaction in running a business that has adopted environment-friendly practices


.

It is not easy setting up and running a business which has to comply with strict regulations

Even eco-tourism holds promise

Spreading awareness and educating people is important too

What’s the scope for environment-friendly entrepreneurial businesses in India and abroad?
In the last few years, awareness of environmental and societal concerns has grown so rapidly, that green businesses are becoming more and more mainstream.

Consumer preferences are changing. They want products and services which they perceive as being eco-friendly. Venture capitalists are looking to fund ideas which look at solutions to make the planet a better place. Some years ago one might have said that these opportunities exist only in developed countries, but today, the developing countries have leapfrogged into a time when green businesses are growing rapidly in scope.

How do green entrepreneurs contribute towards the cause of the environment?
Whether you consider solar energy technology ventures, wind turbine manufacturers, jatropha farms or eco-tourism ventures, the entrepreneurs who are investing their talent, expertise and effort, are all contributing towards the cause of the environment. They are entrepreneurs who are pursuing a business keeping in mind the fact that we cannot strip the planet of its natural resources without giving back to it. Each venture might contribute differently, but what is clear is that they are transforming the way we look at businesses and are bringing in all-important aspects of sustainability into profit-making.

What academic qualifications would one require?
Any degree which has built-in elements of ecological and societal issues, and which addresses elements of sustainable development in a multidisciplinary manner would give a potential green entrepreneur the grounding he needs. It’s important that the academic programme creates a thought process which triggers green ideas.

What are the subjects that one should take up in high school?
A few years ago I might have said that science subjects would lead to green ideas. This is not so anymore. Transformation is taking place across layers of the society. Green solutions to the problems of the world are not just technical solutions but other things too. A good example would be those who have gone in for eco-tourism, where tourists are made to understand the ecological footprints they are creating, which is harmful for the planet, and how they could find ways to reduce it. Almost every subject stream is moving towards incorporating courses which make students more aware of environmental, social and economic problems.

How much of capital does one require for a green venture?
That might vary from idea to idea, and from business to business. But the bottom line is that there is money available to fund green ideas which could evolve into green businesses.

The mindset one should have?
I would say that there would be three types of green entrepreneurs:
Passion driven — those with a huge urge to drive or take part in the sustainability transformation process
Need driven — where the lack of or the high cost of resources drives one to look for alternate resources, eg. renewable energy as a source for electricity, because of the non-availability of grid supply.
Money driven — where the entrepreneur realises that profits can be made from a green solution.

Dr Rajiv Seth, registrar of TERI University interviewed by Ayesha Banerjee

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