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Issue Date: June 2009, Posted On: 5/29/2009


U.S. grads tackle India water problem

University of Va. business students win backing for Clean-India


By Jen Richman

 
 

From left: Clean-India founders Ravi Yekula, Baijnath Ramraika, Matt Dixon and Chip Ransler. Photo by Susan Wormington at The Darden School

CHARLOTTSVILLE, Va. – Four newly-minted graduates and at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business have devised a way of cleaning up the water in Tirupur, India. Ravi Yekula, Baijnath Ramraika, Matt Dixon and Charles Ransler hatched Clean-India, a company aimed at water detoxification used by large textile companies during the dyeing process.

The water is dumped into local waterways in Tamil Nadu, one of several states that cannot keep up with its wastewater problems. Tami Nadu, the eleventh largest Indian state, is crammed with about 800 small- and medium-sized textile businesses, many of which dump toxic water into surrounding lakes and rivers, said Yekula, Clean-India’s chief executive officer.

The garment makers of Tirupur churn out 25 million gallons of dye-laced water each day, he added.

It is common practice for garment makers to add de-coloring agents to the water in order to disguise the pollution. This practice compounds the problem by further polluting the water. According to Ramraika, Clean-India’s chief financial officer, 60 percent of India’s water pollution woes are concentrated in six states: Pune, Gujarat, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Punjar and Rajasthan.

Clean-India has created a bioreactor, a device that cultivates the type of algae that feeds on water pollutants, to combat the problem. The bioreactor operates in a closed-loop system, which allows Clean-India to generate its own source of algae to feed on pollutants. The indoor system relies on a very specific amount of internal illumination to grow the algae. Too much or too little light can throw off the specific potency of algae needed to kill the water’s toxicity. Sand is then used to separate the treated water from the algae. The process can last up to five days, depending on location, which effects the composition of the water, said Yekula.

Ganti Murthy, Clean-India’s chief technology officer, has a patent for the device. Dixon serves as the company’s chief marketing officer. Ransler is Clean-India’s chief strategy officer.

Clean-India has tested a $3,000 bioreactor prototype – which is central to the company’s mission to clean up India’s waterways – and it has so far proven effective. “We had favorable results there and that’s why we’re scaling up,” said Yekulah. 

Making use of the bioreactor is labor intensive not capital intensive, Yekula said. “We’re at the stage where we’ve scaled up to 2,000 liters per day,” he added. He projects that by summer’s end Clean-India will be cleaning 100,000 liters of contaminated water per day.

The water purification system can be scaled on an as-needed basis, freeing up as much capital as possible for use toward expanding Clean-India’s scope, according to Ramraika.

The plan is to build plants first in Southern and Western India, the regions where polluted water is most prevalent, Yekula said.

He believes Clean-India will need about $10 million to build 26 plants, which will clean 1.31 million gallons of water every day. The ramping up of the number of plants is part of Clean-India’s five-year plan. Yekula says the company is hoping to earn $1 million in revenue in its first year to help drive future growth.

Yekula estimates that it will cost the company about $1.60 per every approximately 250 gallons. Clean-India will do this by dispatching trucks to the nearest clean water stream. “We’ll take the water, treat it and give it back to the customers, with a 25 percent price reduction in terms of overall costs,” Yekula said.

In order to be profitable, Clean-India needs to have at least 11 plants operating, said Yekula. Of the 20 or 30 companies Yekula and Ramaraika have approached for venture capital, half are interested in helping fund Clean-India.

For now, Clean-India will rely on $80,000 in scholastic competition winnings that Yekula and Ramraika earned in March and April.

Ramraika and Yekula, both Charlottesville residents, will move permanently to Pune, the future site of Clean-India’s headquarters. The move will come as soon as they have their competition earnings in hand, said Yekula.

 Ramraika and Yekula are natives of India. Yekula came to the United States from his native Hyderabad in the pursuit of a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. He earned a bachelor’s degree in the same field from the Birla Institute of Technology in Rajasthan.

Ramraika, who is in his early thirties, has a bachelor’s degree in business and finance from the University of Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh and is a certified public accountant. The death of two close family members, cousins who consumed contaminated drinking water, catalyzed Ramraika’s decision to leave the world of finance.

Leaving his fingerprint on the fight against water pollution is important to Ramraika, who says he wants to one day be able to tell his children he crusaded against the “pitch black” waters of India.









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