Theirs is one more of the growing number of laboratory research projects getting translated into a business proposition. Kavitha Sairam, a doctorate in biotechnology from IIT-Madras, and Anant Raheja, a doctorate in nano-fibres also from IIT-Madras, have co-founded Fib-Sol Life Technologies Pvt Ltd, a company that has developed a water soluble, nano-fibre based product into which can be embedded microbes that can be used in agriculture.
Kavitha was keen on doing something on bio-fertilisers so that organic farming can take off in a big way. But the problem she faced was in stabilising the microbes. It was then that Anant, who was working on nano-fibres, suggested using nano-fibres to embed live cells.
Higher load of microbes
“What we found was that if you take these fibres and embed the microbes, you are able to load thousand times high number of microbes per gram compared with conventional powder materials or liquids,” says Anant. Till date, people were using traditional materials such as lignite and peat to stabilise the microbes. With their product, only 5 gm of the material is needed for an acre of farm. “Instead of carrying a 5-kg bag of fertiliser, you can just carry a 5-gm tissue roll of this membrane, which provides the same efficiency, same benefit because of the higher load of microbes,” adds Anant.
According to Kavitha, field trials of their product have been carried out – and continue to be done – on crops such as tea, wheat, rice, soyabeans, tomatoes and bananas, in different parts of the country. The initial results, especially in the tea plantations in Valparai, have been promising, with both soil quality improving and crop yield increasing.
Both Kavitha and Anant credit two faculty members of IIT-Madras – TS Chandra of the Biotech Department and TS Natarajan from the Physics Department – for the initial support and encouragement they gave. “We raised ₹1.06 crore from the grants and awards. Till January, we were operating thanks to the funds from the awards and grants,” says Kavitha.
Anant adds that Keiretsu Forum came up with a generous equity term, through compulsorily convertible preference shares, that has helped them. But more than the money that Keiretsu has put in, the founders value the mentorship the forum members provide and the network connections they have provided. The mentors and Keiretsu Forum members also helped two Ph.D scholars turned entrepreneurs in pricing their product appropriately to make it acceptable to their target customers.
According to Anant, they are able to produce close to 200 units a month. “The product is ready to go. The challenge is on the production side where we are trying to scale it up and get it out commercially,” he says. Fib-Sol has taken up a new space where it can increase its manufacturing capacity to around 20,000 units a month.
Kavitha explains that their product is a tissue paper like membrane, into which are embedded the microbes – around 100 million cells. “The material is made up of a biodegradable polymer entrapped with agriculturally important microbes,” she adds. The membrane comes in a sachet. All that needs to be done is to dissolve the membrane in water which can then be poured on the field.
Who would your customers be? There are two segments, says Anant. The first one are the customers who are going to use bio-fertilisers, and the other segment, are the people making bio-fertilisers, bio-actives, fertilisers and pesticides.
For the manufacturers in the industry, this is a light weight way of delivering their products to the market. It saves them cost, improves brand equity and gives an efficient technology, he adds. Fib-Sol will either sell the membrane with embedded microbes or provide just the membrane for the bio-active manufacturers to embed the microbes on their own.
Taking to next level
Fib-Sol’s technology, according to Anant, can be used in other sectors such as ceramics, for coating purposes, catalysis and in wound dressing.
“Those are areas in which they have application, but we don't have any product today. We are working with some companies to develop those technologies,” he adds.
The company is interacting with a number of global players such as the Royal Academy of Engineering, UK, and Great Giant Foods, Singapore, as its products have a global application. It will look to raise more funds, maybe a year down the line, as it builds the team, increasing its marketing and sales capacity and also increasing manufacturing capacity depending on demand.