Startup mantra: Pune’ Spruce Up tech to do the dirty work
Spruce Up believes it is a disrupter; not just in terms of the technological landscape of Indian manufacturing, but also in the socio-development milieu where the millennial Indian startup likes to be positioned.
Cleantech, hardware, technology, manufacturing, are all the cue words that Spruce Up founder, Abhishek Shelar has banked on to make the Forbes Asia 30- under-30 (Asia Entrepreneurs) list.
Shelar, an IIT Bombay alumnus, Shelar hails from Aurangabad city and first came to Pune in 2008, to study at Fergusson College.
He then went on to IIT Bombay in 2010, where he was awarded an Undergraduate Research Award for his work in finding a low-cost method for manufacturing titanium dental implants.
He set up his first company in 2013, Siddheya Precision Works in Shendra MIDC, Aurangabad.
Shelar than got accepted at Harvard for a Master’s programme in Technology, Innovation and Education. At Harvard, Shelar incubated as a consultant for the start-up U-Doodle.org at the Harvard Innovation Lab under the Venture Incubation Programme (VIP).
His course ended and he decided to come back to India to start a new venture.
In the beginning
After coming to India, Shelar set-up Spruce Up Industries, a company to provide value innovation solutions to key societal problems.
Says Shelar, “I don’t come from any industry or manufacturing business background. My dad is an orthopaedic surgeon and we have a hospital in Aurangabad. I wanted to do something better for the country and I feel connected to nature and the environment a lot. In 2015, the Indian start-up ecosystem was very thriving. Along with Startup India scheme, the Swacch Bharat programme was also going on. I had seen tourist places where there is always trash, litter and I always thought why there isn’t a big vacuum cleaner. The monumental Swacch Bharat Mission is being run by a “jhadu” (broom). There was a technology mismatch and so I thought this space requires mechanisation.”
Jatayu – Scavenger of nature
With these goals, within nine months of his homecoming, Shelar successfully invented patented technologies and developed a prototype of the first machine. This machine was robust, stronger, and suitable for harsh Indian circumstances, capable of handling wet and dry garbage of varied types. It was developed at less than half the cost of machines available worldwide.
As a tribute to vultures - scavengers of nature- he named his machine Jatayu, after a mythological king of vultures.
On a separate note, amidst everything that was going on with the company, Shelar was detected with cancer in 2016, and had to undergo chemotherapy for four months. Those four months he would take chemo every alternate weekend and would have to work extra. Bearing all its side effects, he kept working to make the machine efficient and best suited for India. Today he is cancer-free.
Bootstrapping Spruce Up
Spruce Up was financed from Shelar’s father’s retirement funds and life savings, and further, putting the family house on mortgage. Shelar recalls, “I was operating out of a small room in Pune. After a year, I had two more people join me. The team grew systematically over time. There were a lot of challenges and a lot of learning went into doing this.”
B-to-G: Business to Government
Says Shelar: “We are operating in one of the toughest spaces because we are operating in Business to Government (B2G) domain. The waste sector, heavy machinery and hardware sector is also hard to do. We have to visit government offices several times to sell the product. Also, this is not a very fundable space. Investors like to invest in explosive ideas. This is by no means an explosive idea from an investor’s point of view. So, we had to invest and become very sharp and shrewd about bootstrapping. Doing this kind of a complex endeavour on a bootstrapped budget was big challenge for us. That forced us to focus on fundamentals. Over the five years, our product quality and conduct became very sharp and we were successfully able to deploy 100 machines from Nagaland to Jamnagar and Uttar Kashi to Chennai. One machine was sold in New Zealand also,” he said.
Product design learnings
The first machine – Jatayu HD – was, by Shelar’s own admission, the most compact, modular and powerful machine. The prototype was made in six months, but minimum viable product took two years.
Setting up of production, distribution and vendor network took time. The actual production started in 2017 and the first sale happened in 2018.
“After deploying 40 machines which ran for 15,000 hours we understood a lot of small things. We realised that India needs a truly fully contactless machine. There is a lot of garbage and worker hygiene is a very big concern. Hence, we launched a new model called Jatayu Super,” said Shelar, adding, “Wherever possible we use top Indian brand products of international repute. Second preference is international products, but made in factories within India. Last preference is fully import for materials where there is no substitute. So, we try to reduce the import and have kept it at only 10 per cent of the product. Another problem is that the acid content in solid waste builds up over time and it corrodes the vehicles. So, we had to make our machine body out of aluminium, while other parts are made out of stainless steel,” he added.
Explaining the structure of the Spruce Up team, Shelar says, “We are an OEM (original equipment manufacturer). We develop and maintain the technology. We have all the protection rights, trademarks, copyrights, licences. We ensure the machines are regulated. We set all prices, we give service. We have a research and development team, vendor development team, sales and marketing and after sales. We have production partners who do our production.”
The Indian challenge
Says Shelar, “With any air machine, filtration is required. India, as compared to US or Europe, is a very dusty country. The fine dust chokes all filters and reduces the machine performance. The filtration technology is very difficult because there is very severe dust loading. Many competitors use this cartridge filters to clean, but they are not so effective. European companies use a water sprinkler (fine mist which captures the dust). In India, we get hard water supply and don’t have enough water supply. We have managed to overcome these challenges using very Indian condition-specific modifications in our design. We have looked at some technologies from military and defence applications and used such technologies.”
Sanitisation workers are a political constituency in Indian politics. Explaining that the contactless machine does not replace humans or employees, Shelar says, “There are three million workers in the waste collection sector, and still 30 per cent of garbage doesn’t get collected. Waste pickers are not willing to put their hands in rotten garbage. They are requesting for contactless machines to do their job in a safe way. Especially in the post-Covid scenario, garbage has become even more dangerous from the health point of view. We believe that the more garbage is being lifted, more lives are being saved and more skills are being upgraded. A ‘jhadu’ equipped worker gets upskilled as a machine operator. Besides, all the garbage is being tracked and hence, there is accountability in the workspace. The workers are given more dignified work. New technology is a force of nature. It will come, it will find its balance. That is how we see it.”
“Civic bodies, at present, are using our machines only for uncollected garbage. Also, cleaning is just one part. Post cleaning, there is maintenance, washing and beautification. So, the sanitisation workforce can be utilised for this hygienic work. I believe humans are not replaced, but they are uplifted and upskilled due to contactless machines like Jatayu,” Shelar added.
Shelar said, “We will have three variants of four models – a product suite which can handle various kinds of requirements. We are also launching an electric litter picker-cum-disinfection system-cum-corner sweeping machine-cum-air blowing machine. We are bringing our super powerful vacuum in the small form factor which many universities, SEZs, corporates can use and keep their premises clean. It’s a multi-utility machine which lot of entities can use. It’s more accessible. Especially during Covid-times, many people want mechanisation, more cleanliness, there is more focus on that.”
Clean city campaign
While Shelar refuses to name the city, he revealed a data-based clean city campaign which will be launched soon with the help of the Jatayu machies. “We have a partner company specialised in cleaning cities. The project includes geotagging garbage points and reporting the frequency of garbage generation, tonnage expected at a given location. The control room at the civic body office will be able to come up with a systematic plan of eradicating garbage.”
“Jatayu has made cleaning highways very easy for us. We can now clear dumpsites near cities and toll nakas safely and hygienically and monitor the work remotely to ensure maximum productivity. These machines have powerful suction pumps which have the capacity of removing garbage in substantial quantities in one go,” said Vijay Oswal, director, Markolines. Markolines, a Mumbai-based company involved in corridor management and maintenance services, is using the Jatayu machine for road cleaning and maintenance in Chennai.