Startup mantra: Retrofit solutions to beat vehicle emissions
The founders claim that their retrofit device can capture 90 per cent of the particulate matter emitted from the genset in real-time ranging from PM2.5 to PM10
Pune: Amidst all the hype around electric vehicles (EV) and hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles, three entrepreneurs – Irfan Pathan, Rizwan Shaikh and Shantanu Sonaikar – through their clean-tech startup Pi Green Innovations have developed a retrofit solution for existing conventionally-fuelled heavy vehicles, diesel fuelled generator sets and industrial boilers in order to reduce and capture hazardous particulate matter (PM) emissions and pollution caused every day. The founders claim that their retrofit device can capture 90 per cent of the particulate matter emitted from the genset in real-time ranging from PM2.5 to PM10.
In the beginning…
The inventor or brain behind the CarbonCutter Rizwan Shaikh hails from Bhusawal, a small town located 400 kilometre from Pune city, in the Jalgaon district of Maharashtra. Irfan is from Kolhapur who did his MBA from MIT, Pune and Shantanu is a chartered accountant and investment banker turned entrepreneur.
Irfan was running his ready-to-drink cold coffee business when he met Rizwan at a forum. Rizwan showed a video of a wooden TV box sized box attached to his scooter and how it captured pollution. Realising the business potential in this idea, Irfan asked Rizwan to commercialise it.
Irfan said, “Rizwan is very passionate about his tech-work. When I asked him about the funding needed to make a prototype and commercialise the invention, he had no idea of the money we would require. So, we chalked out a business plan and decided that I would invest ₹17 lakh initially. We started our journey with a retrofit device for heavy vehicles and in the first three years my investment went up to ₹1.5 crore.”
Rizwan had a small business of air-conditioner repairs at Bhusawal. He said, “I developed this technology after watching the air pollution levels in Delhi. We can’t say there are no solutions to these problems. There are filter-based solutions, water scrubbing mechanisms, solvent-based solutions available in the market, however, the major problem in them is of sustainability. I made a device, much smaller in size, and which doesn’t require a filter, or water or any solvent.”
Explaining the technology used for the device, Rizwan said, “The device works on the principle of electro static precipitator (ESP). ESP has been in the market since 1920. The smoke particles are charged with negative or positive ions by amplifying the current to 1 lakh or 2 lakh volts because of which the particles get attracted to the plates of ESP. Conventionally, water or hammering is used to clean the ESP plates, which also is time consuming resulting in more downtime at industrial sites. The filter gets clogged and has to be replaced frequently.”
“So, the question before me was how to optimise the working of ESP. Intention was to have a technology which needs very basic maintenance, which is very low on operational expenses and can give sustained results in reduction of emissions for a longer period of time. I was looking to make it efficient without having any periodic maintenance.”
“We have introduced the self-cleaning mechanism due to which we are able to reduce the size of the ESP from a three-storeyed building to a 10-feet product. Since it can be cleaned every 10 hours, we need less surface charge. This self-cleaning technology, developed in the backyard of my house in Bhusawal, is a proprietary technology of Pi Green Innovations and the entire patent is on this mechanism,” claims Rizwan.
Proof of concept
Shantanu, who is the director, strategy and finance, at the startup, met Irfan for his coffee business consultation. Shantanu did a small fundraise from a set of HNIs in Pune for Irfan. When he got to know about Rizwan’s product, he was intrigued to get into this new business.
Shantanu said, “Rizwan did not have access to funds nor to heavy vehicles for his trials. He was doing trials on scooter. Our focus initially was to achieve proof of concept, instead of chasing investors for even the smallest amount of capital. We spent heavily on research and development, filing for patents, getting tests done with relevant agencies and getting some confidence out of the real efficiency that we are trying to achieve.”
Irfan said, “We failed miserably many times. There was no big team and we personally had to do all heavy lifting. Our machine failed in front of investors too. For two years, 2016 to 2018-end, we were developing prototypes for different products. We were then focussed on heavy vehicles but we could not easily rent trucks for trials. Some small manufacturing companies helped us, but they took huge amount money for trials. Components were also not easily available. Rizwan had to use a part of home-cleaning mop to make the first prototype. He had ordered 350 such mops, just for trials because the plastic stick was of perfect size which we needed. We realised nobody helps startups.”
The struggle for the entrepreneur trio did not stop at prototyping. Shantanu said, “We tasted success with a full prototype when we tested the heavy vehicles device with a reputed certification agency in Pune. We got efficiencies of above 90 per cent. A lot of research and development is still happening with the product and we got a lot of feedback too. We tried meeting OEMs, auto ancillary businesses, but we were stonewalled. Either the technology or design or operations were not accepted. Since we did not have tag of any big educational institution, it was hard selling. Getting entry in the OEMs and telling them that we have found a solution to problem which they are trying to find with a budget of crores of rupees, was difficult.”
The business graduated from the idea of having a retrofit for heavy vehicles to trying and addressing the issue of emissions from most of the sources which are huge contributors to particulate matter pollution. Pi Green Innovation team did prototypes and now has products for heavy vehicles, diesel generator sets, crematoriums and jaggery units.
Shantanu said, “The National Green Tribunal, in 2019, mandated to have retrofit for diesel gensets. The National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) further opened up an avenue for us. We have applied for patents in India, US, China, Japan, Singapore. India, and Japan patent is pending, while we have got approval in other countries. We also started our commercial manufacturing in October 2020 and till date deployed 150 genset retrofits in Tamil Nadu, Delhi NCR, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and Goa. In Maharashtra, we have only five installations.”
Explaining the certification process, Irfan said, “Earlier there was only a test to be carried out to become eligible to sell the product. In this test, our product was tested for longevity by subjecting it to non-stop 100 hours operation at the certifying agency. Beyond these 100 hours, the agency again conducts a rigorous test for 25 hours. Now it is certification based. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) in February 2022, has come out with a policy on what kind of devices can be qualified and certified. We are expecting to get our certification from the Pune-based for genset retrofit device in a month.”
Shantanu said, “Environment is regulation based and our business is dependent on regulations of government and its enforcement. Carbon cutting device or a PM capture device will not in any way give any kind of return on investment (ROI) to businesses. These are not wind or solar kind of investments where one invests and gets returns. It is an expense, an investment for environment with a regulation. Our business, in a way, depends on enforcement by each state.”
After the certification mandate, Pi Green Innovations is looking at a multi-billion-dollar business opportunity just in the Indian market. The startup has shifted its base from 4,500 square feet unit in Moshi to 50,000 square feet new plant at Kuruli near Pune.
“Initial resistance from OEMs has waned. OEMs are backing the retrofit solutions and are ready to collaborate with us now. All state pollution control boards were directed to ensure retrofits on all diesel gensets in their respective area till 2024. Enforcement of this order has been the highest in Tamil Nadu so far. Delhi, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat are picking up,” Shantanu said.
Shantanu said, “We will utilise the funds raised for business growth and expansion to international markets. We have started expanding our sales operations in other states. We have a team of 30 employees and 70 contract labour, of which four are in Tamil Nadu, three in Delhi, three in Gujarat. We have also developed channel partner network. We don’t want to limit ourselves to Indian markets. We are now looking at other countries like Bangladesh, Nepal, Vietnam, South East Asia, especially for industrial boilers segment and Europe market, especially in Poland for the chimney device segment.”
“Even if we are power surplus country, a diesel generator set is needed for standby. Solar powered solutions will take another 15 years, till then existing machines have to be used. New gensets are emission norms complaint, old ones are not. They need to curb emission and hence need retrofitting. We have seen diesel gensets as old as 43-year-old still being used. Also, even if the alternate fuel or renewable energy-based machines come, supply chain issues persist across geographies. The idea is to complete the lifecycle of the older machines like genset or boiler. We can give hope to people that they can use their existing product for a longer time,” Shantanu said.
Shantanu said, “Investment in retrofit emission control devices (RECD) is an alternative to investment in new asset. As per a recent regulation, the PM emissions from industrial boilers up to 5 tonne per hour has to be restricted to 80mg. India being dominantly a MSME market, there are about 10 lakh small boilers in India. This is an exciting space which is evolving. We are in talks for pilot in Delhi and Gujarat for this and then we will start rolling out the product also.”
Towards green mobility
Banking on retrofit emission control devices for eco-friendly, sustainable future
• ₹1.5 crore – Irfan Pathan
• ₹2.25 crore –Harshal Morde, director, Morde Foods
• ₹1 crore — JCSS Consulting
• ₹30 crore – Investment fund of Opus Consulting
Sales and revenue
•150: Diesel genset retrofit units sold
•125 kVA to 2,500 kVA: Range of diesel gensets installation
• ₹20 crore: Turnover in last 15 months
•70 per cent: Business from Tamil Nadu
•35 lakh: Estimated diesel gensets in India
• ₹25,000 crore: Market opportunity in India
•After-treatment solutions for crematoriums expected in next 3 months
•A pilot run underway at a crematorium in Bengaluru
•Heavy vehicles retrofit pilot underway with Bengaluru Municipal Corporation for 2 buses
•More than 1 crore heavy vehicles and commercial vehicles plying on Indian roads.
•Not all are eligible for scrapping. It all depends on maintenance, not just age of the vehicle or machine.
•After-treatment solution for jaggery unit installed in Chaufula in Pune district
Awards and features
•Bagged award at UNDP Air-pollution Solution Challenge 2019, New Delhi
•Finalist at Smogathon 2018, Poland
•Production capacity: (Existing) 50 machines per day; (Expected) 300 machines per day
•Retrofitting duration: 3 hours to 24 hours
•Retrofit can be done anywhere in the tail end; not necessarily near the genset.
•Retrofit device cost: About 15 to 17 per cent of the genset cost
•India – 1,784 (DPIIT recognised – 870)
•Maharashtra – 342 (165)
•Pune – 116 (62)
Source: Start-up India Portal, Government of India