‘Probiotics’ has been invariably heard in the context of food. Introduction of live ‘good’ bacteria in foods for imparting specific beneficial outcomes is gaining ground and many of us have downed a bottle of probiotic milk or yoghurt hoping for health pluses. As the ‘opposite’ of antibiotics, these probiotics are believed to have no side-effects and hence the market push.

A Chennai-based start-up called Proklean Technologies looks at probiotics differently. It uses the army of bacteria to work in industries. Thus was born, about nine years ago, an entire new world called ‘industrial probiotics’.

The Eureka moment

As it so often happens, Dr Sivaram Pillai, a biochemist, discovered the industrial applications of probiotics rather serendipitously. Just as he was wondering what to do with his discovery, he bumped into a friend, B Chandrasekhar, who, having given up a career as an engineer, had become a leather tanner.

Soon, Pillai’s bacteria were set loose upon Chandra’s leather and as they had guessed, the microbes ate up all the fat in the leather. Arey wah! After all, the leather industry spends a fortune in removal of fat from wet leather.

They set up Proklean Technologies in 2012 and were soon joined by another friend, Vishwadeep Kuila, an expert in sales, branding and marketing. The company’s plant in Chennai primarily consists of a tall tank into which the plant operator introduces a “tribe of bacteria” and a lot of jaggery water for the microbes to feed on — and the company is in business.

In quick time, the company realised that its microbes can do useful jobs in many industries, and indeed, any industry. For instance, in textiles they can replace toxic chemicals, in paper they can do de-lignification and bleaching, in crude oil they can replace surfactants (which are chemicals that latch on to oil molecules and pull them out of the pores they exist), in natural gas to remove sulphur, and practically everywhere, just to clean greasy machines and oily floors.

By the way, the company now has plans to go B2C, and will soon bring in a retail consumer product for cleaning floors in houses. Proklean’s leather industry products are being sold by Stahl of Germany, a global leader in leather chemicals.

But the biggest impact of industrial probiotics lies in its economy in the use of water and hence the products boast of a big environmental influence.

Kuila notes that generally green products are less efficacious and if they are not so, they are costly. However, Proklean's products are both green and economical, he says.

Proklean Technologies has been funded by Chennai Angels and Infuse Ventures, which is a venture fund set by IIM-Ahmedabad. And now, the company is just about to raise $8 million.