Marico Innovation Foundation (MIF), founded in 2003 by Marico Ltd’s chairman Harsh Mariwala, mainly to nurture innovation across business and social sectors, is looking at the potential and possibilities of innovations in the plastics sector.
MIF’s CEO Suranjana Ghosh told businessline in an online interaction that the foundation has identified plastics as a sunrise sector. “We (Marico) are a consumer company that uses a lot of plastic. We want it to be part of the solution and not just the perpetrators of the problem. So we worked with the Indian Institute of Science and Praxis Global Alliance to come up with a report or playbook called the potential and possibilities of plastic,” she said.
The report focuses on the entire plastics waste management value chain and the solutions to be able to mitigate those problems. “As part of that in the playbook, we have actually identified 15 different innovative start-ups in India that are using innovative technology to be able to solve the plastic problem,” she said.
Whether it is in terms of reuse or reduction or recycling or alternate materials, these 15 innovators cover that broad spectrum, Ghosh said, adding that the report was made public in January this year with MIF focussing a large part of this year’s activities on it.
MIF is of the view that it will be able to mentor market access, a level of funding support and special projects where it will be able to deploy technologies.
“We have technologies that are as diverse as AI-based waste sorting systems, which can actually sort waste at the speed of six tonnes per hour. And because it’s ERP, it can identify brands by colour. It’s a 2D and 3D-based technology,” she said.
It is fast making the entire process of sorting efficient, which is currently a big problem. Then, there is Padcare, which basically recycles sanitary napkins into corporate products such as stationery items.
“We are trying to see how we can build more of these collection centres. There is another company that basically uses industrial waste plastic and converts it into construction materials. So, these technologies extend the shelf-life of plastic and prevent them from getting into the landfill,” Ghosh said.
Another start-up is creating plastic alternatives from seaweed, cultivating a variety that will be able to provide alternative packaging material.
Roping in corporates
The foundation will likely begin the third phase of this in January 2024. “It is a circularity project that we are really hoping will solve the plastic issue in either tier-II and III cities. We are currently in the process of evaluating which one to go for,” the CEO said.
MIF is trying to rope in corporates for this. It has literally reached out to most of the corporate firms. “For example, a lot of restrooms across the country have sanitary napkin collection boxes. McDonald’s has expressed interest in placing such boxes in its restaurants. If that happens, Padcare will be able to get a lot of material,” she said.
MIF, which onboards early stage start-ups at threshold levels of ₹70 lakh to ₹1 crore until they become “Soonicorns”, is looking to help start-ups that have a societal impact in creating either livelihoods or mitigating some sort of environmental problems.
Zero equity support
“Our process is rigorous and the definition of innovation is watertight. We’re looking at something which is first of its kind, unique in its category with the technology being backed by science and should be difficult to replicate at least for another one,” Ghosh said.
The nature of support that the foundation offers is mentorship with zero equity. “It’s beyond capital as we work on everything that we would have identified as a challenge for that particular entrepreneur,” she said.
Each challenge that MIF would have identified in agreement with the start-up takes between six and eight months to close before it moves on to the next one. “We allocate a very specific domain expert mentor either from the vertical universe or externally so that they’re able to then handhold the entrepreneur and give them a very bespoke sort of solution to being able to overcome the challenges that they’re facing,” the foundation’s CEO said.
MIF, a philanthropic organisation, has created two unicorns so far — S4S technologies and Atomberg. “Both of these hit the ₹100-crore mark while we were mentoring them. S4S created a dehydration technology inventing new food processing machines for farmers’ use. It helped create about 400 women micro-entrepreneurs in the agri space,” Ghosh said.
The foundation is looking at partnerships with leading corporate social responsibility arms, who are also first in the agri domain. “We have never worked in a partnership-based model before. So this is again a first for us,” the CEO said.
MIF is building a network of last-mile delivery organisations, including Farmer Producer Organisations so that it can provide its innovators access to markets — small and marginal farmers. “We understand that in order to create more demand for the innovators products, we need to be able to fortify the market access aspect as well,” Ghosh said.
MIF is exploring partnerships with other agri focus network groups to attract more innovators. “Agri will become more sub-sector focused. We want to shortlist a few crucial sub-sectors from a food security standpoint or technology standpoint of view. We plan to take these up in the next financial year,” the CEO said.
The foundation is getting a lot of information on niche sub-sectors but it wants to see which needs its support and how it can scale them up. One of the exciting innovations is by a firm start-up called Greenpod, which has come up with patented sachets that extend the shelf-life of fruits and vegetables. “This at a fraction of the cost of any cold storage solution. The sachet activates a defence mechanism slowing the ripening process and minimising microbial attacks. No toxic chemicals are involved in this and there are no emissions,” Ghosh said.
Such solutions will help tackle the cold storage infrastructure issue. “Even if you have cold storage that runs on renewable energy, you don’t have that infrastructure across the country which is why almost 30-35 per cent of all produce in the country is going to waste,” she said.
Then, there is another start-up UrbanKisaan, which does hydroponic systems and high-yield farming in urban settings with minimum water, she said, adding that it has entered into a joint venture with an Oman-based institution to scale up production.
Another promising firm is EF Polymer which has developed an agriculture polymer that absorbs water 100 times its weight. This helps the water retention capacity of the soil. It improves soil fertility and reduces leaching of nutrients, Ghosh said, adding that the company has begun supply to the US, which is proof of its potential.