Once working to provide technology to maintain temperatures for Intel chips, two friends Himanshu and Nitin, both IIT graduates with some rural background, have now developed a new cost and energy efficient refrigeration system and bulk cooling system for Indian food processing and dairy sector which can become a boon for agri sector. This technique was honoured with Platinum award at the New Energy Global Cleantech Start up Festival.
In an exclusive interview to AgriNation, Himanshu and Nitin speak their heart out to Chandan Sharma.
How did the idea of ‘Cold Vault’ technology come in the mind?
The absence of home inverter like option for commercial equipment such as Bulk Milk Coolers (BMC) which are used for milk collection at source by Indian dairy farmers forced us to think towards this. We saw that the milk collection through cold chain is less than 15% in India vis a vis 85% in European Union and 95% in USA. Cold chain adoption by India dairy industry is low because of extremely low reliability of electricity at collection points and high cost of providing backup by diesel generators, particularly at farm gate. Therefore, we set out to develop a technology so that cooling equipment can operate without requiring a diesel generator. We leveraged two-phase thermal storage technology to develop world’s first retrofittable energy storage product, which can fit to any existing BMC or any other cold room equipment. We have products addressing cooling needs of dairy and F&V sector. Several units are operational in the field.
Why did you decide to work on this technology?
It’s due to the our experiences we had in our lives. I grew up in rural Rajasthan in Malpura in Tonk District in an Indian Council for Agricultural Research Campus (ICAR) institute my father was an agriculture scientist and studied in a local school with children of small farmers as friends and has seen the abject poverty closely. While Nitin saw vegetable rotting issues at his grandparents place who managed a vegetable wholesale business in rural Uttar Pradesh. The issue of food waste, rising prices of commodity items and farmers’ suffering motivated us to re-think the purpose of our expertise and to concentrate our efforts to solve the problem.
How much investment you have made to develop the technology? When did you start work on it?
We have invested over 2.5 years to develop this technology. For the first year we did not get any support but hired a small team of engineers with our own money to make initial prototype of the product. Now we have a team of about 20 people and have got some support from Shell Foundation and Sangam Ventures for it.
What was the prime motive to develop the technology – to serve the rural India or just business?
During our interactions, Nitin and I learned that dairy farmers are struggle to get the right price for the milk sold to middlemen or in open market, if they are not part of an organized dairy market. One primary reason for that is the milk quality. It deteriorates very quickly if it is not cooled to 4 °C within couple hours of milking.
We did a market research and found that number of farmers who are dependent on milk for their income is far larger than that of those who are dependent on the farm. Adopting a cold chain for milk cooling at the collection point can increase their income significantly. For example – we found that milk is sold to middlemen at a price less than Rs 25/L while companies like Amul and Mother Dairy sells the same at more than Rs. 40/L . Therefore, farmers who can sell 10L per day milk can almost double his income if they adopt Bulk Milk Coolers as a group.
However, dairies and milk farmers are slow in adopting cold chain technologies because of the associated operating costs. We found that usually there is a cut of electricity in rural areas in access of 6 hours. This means daily cost of Rs.1000 for diesel generator operation. Having a grid feed cooling backup option can make benefit farmers in a big way.
Operational cost of our product, Cold Vault is mere Rs 200 as compared to Rs 1000 for the diesel generators for 6 hours operation. Moreover, we can integrate our product with the solar photo voltaic systems as well for areas where grid is merely available.
What kind of hurdles you faced during the working of the idea and getting patent?
Developing new products is not easy. It requires technical know-how, competent team and perseverance. We spent last 2.5 years on many trials and experiments. It is hard to find qualified and experienced people in India who are willing to associate with a startup, especially for hardware technologies without backing of big investors. However, against all odds, we have built a very capable team which is very motivated to work on this product. We knew that our concept is very unique as we are quite familiar with the worldwide efforts in this direction.
How many patents do you have?
For our technology we have already received a US patent. We have one more that is pending. We had very little pushback or queries from the USPTO as our concept is very unique in the world.
What are your future plans?
Currently, we are commercializing the product for dairy sector and working with several state government stakeholders for farm gate cold room installations. We are expanding our manufacturing operations. Under the current setup, it will require 28000 diesel generators, but using Inficold technology they all can run on grid even if they have power cuts and save more than Rs. 1500 per day. In addition to saving the money, farmers and companies will be able to reduce pollution by cutting CO2, SO2, and NO2 gas emission, which are not good for their people around and the environment. We are also finishing R&D for integrating these units with Solar. It will be a viable option for farmers who are far away from grid and have often large power cuts.
We hope to be a significant player in cold chain market with world leading products and technologies that can prevent 40 percent of the food from becoming waste in India.