Circular economy

India's new power couple

Preeti Mehra | Updated on November 30, 2018 Published on October 27, 2017
ThinkPhi’s ‘inverted umbrellas’ at a railway station in Karnataka
CREDIT Courtesy: ThinkPhi
ThinkPhi founders Samit and Priya Vakil Choksi fused their respective interests – computer science, and sustainable design
CREDIT Courtesy: ThinkPhi

The Choksis have dreamed up a clever device to harness rainwater and capture sunshine. And not only is it smart, it’s beautiful

When Samit and Priya Choksi returned to Mumbai after several years in the US and the UK, they wanted to start a company that would do more than just pay the bills. Samit’s background was in computer science; Priya had majored in architecture and sustainable design. In 2015, they launched ThinkPhi, a clean-tech startup.

Their declared mission? “To become the Earth’s most sustainable company.”

The couple initially set out to design a product that would save water in their drought-stricken region, but the concept quickly morphed into a Smart Infrastructure that harvested both rainwater and the sun’s rays. It was christened Model 1080 (the geometrical angles add up to that number), but it has been nicknamed “Ulta Chaata” because of its resemblance to an umbrella that has been turned inside out by the wind.

Sporting a sleek stainless-steel design, it is lightweight (50 kg), has a footprint that is only 50cm x 50cm and a canopy measuring 4m x 4m. The height can be adjusted to vary between 3.2m and 4m. Solar modules are integrated into the “umbrella” in a proprietary arrangement that allows water to pass through when it rains. The patented system captures and filters 45,000 liters of rainwater while solar panels provide 400 kWp (watt peak capacity) of renewable power and light.

The Ulta Chaata can be used alone or in groupings, a flexibility that makes it suitable for purposes ranging from sheltering parked cars (it can also recharge electric vehicles) to providing shade for people sitting or dining outside.

The company’s beta customer was the Godrej Group , followed by real estate developers Rustomjee and the Poonawala and Masina Hospitals. As business picked up, ThinkPhi expanded operations, sales, distribution and R&D thanks to funding from industrialist Nimmagadda Prasad.

ThinkPhi now has a staff of 12 that includes engineers, computer scientists and designers. Already they have added two new members to the Ulta Chaata family: The 1080WX and the 1080XXL. The 1080WX has a canopy measuring 5m x 5m, a water-harvesting capacity of 85,000 litres and 2.2 kWp energy capacity. This larger size makes it suitable for bus stops or work stations where people can sit at tables and recharge their electronics.

The super-sized 1080XXL (20m x 20m) was developed at the urging of Sanjay G. Ubale, CEO and Marketing Director of Tata Realty and Infrastructure, who envisioned adapting the Ulta Chaata for use at highway toll plazas. “He was a big part of the inspiration and asked us to try out the grand version,” says Priya. “This kind of interaction with industry leaders helps early stage companies like ours be more creative.” Along with Tata, Mahindra, Godrej and other companies are advising the start-up on value engineering and better material selection so that they can scale into new areas.

But while ThinkPhi is thinking big, it hasn’t forgotten the small customer. The company recently launched the 1080H, a home version that has been installed in several test sites in the US and Australia. This flat-packed kit version is easily assembled, generates up to 40,000 litres of water and provides grid-independent lighting.

Priya acknowledges that combinations of various other structures and equipment could yield similar results, but what makes the Ulta Chaata unique is its sophisticated all-in-one design. “Good design is not a First-World privilege,” she says.

Surprisingly, neither design nor engineering has been the company’s greatest challenge. “In fact, the biggest hurdle we faced was getting our company registered for Value Added Tax (VAT),” says Samit. “We didn’t want to get our hands dirty with ‘under-the-table’ payments; we were building a company around the environment, and it had to have a clean feeling.”

Despite great success, Samit says they may soon relocate to Singapore with an eye to expanding into the Asia-Pacific market. “Indian customers do not value innovative products when they are home-grown. Singapore is known for its creative talent, has a good environment for research and attracts considerable start-up capital. That will help us raise our next round of funding.”

This new infusion of capital will be vital to ThinkPhi’s next project, which involves the most crucial aspect of renewable energy: clean energy storage. The objective is to develop energy storage packs that are mobile, easy to install and that would help people deal with blackouts. “They will be seven times cheaper than diesel generators and totally clean,” says Samit.

With the increasing frequency of natural disasters, inventions from ThinkPhi could offer some relief to the millions left without electricity

preeti.mehra@thehindu.co.in

https://www.thinkphi.com/

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Published on October 27, 2017
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