Special Startup Series: Innovating universal chemical detoxifier

Bengaluru based startup, Innovations for Next Generation is developing a unique detoxifier to clean and recycle water contaminated with highly unsafe chemicals used in the research laboratories and industries

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Image-The detoxifier installation at Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru.

The problem of water pollution has reached an alarming stage, especially the urban areas which are facing much more dread of water contamination and scarcity. It is not limited at this but slowly extending its poison to rural areas as well. Since there exists no technology that could treat chemically polluted water instantly generated at laboratories and industries, it is left untreated into natural water bodies leading to surface and groundwater contamination.

In such a backdrop, the Bengaluru based startup, Innovations for Next Generation is developing a Universal chemical detoxifier which can detoxify most of the chemicals generated at laboratories and industries. Founded during September 2018 by Padmanabha B.V in Bengaluru, the startup initially started with detoxifying mutagen chemical named Ethidium bromide which is a used to visualize the DNA under UV light. While it should be ideally discarded with utmost care after use but unfortunately ends up in polluting surface and groundwater.

“Most of the laboratories do not follow the proper procedure leading to surface and groundwater contamination and the problem is not just limited on such chemical but it remains same for almost all the chemicals used at laboratories and industries,” says Padmanabha B.V, Founder and CEO of Innovations for Next Generation while explaining the motivation behind his work.

Inception

Nostalgic about his childhood, Padmanabha B.V says that he comes from a small town in south India named Bhadravathi, where river Bhadra flows. “During my schoolings, we never experienced scarcity of water as the entire region is supported by rivers, channels and dams. When we relocated to Bangalore for higher education during 1998, we realized the actual value of water. Due to rapid urbanization in Bangalore, the water is polluted and highly scarce,” he says.

Later when Padmanabha started his career at one of the commercial banana tissue culture company at Bangalore, he says, he actually realized the high importance of water. “We were consuming around 2200 liter/day for washing bottles and ex-agar plants and 2000 liters at nursery. The water from laboratories was getting polluted with chemicals and simply goes into drain as waste. Since, we use to purchase water from local supplier our burden on working cost was becoming high day by day,” he points out.

Padmanabha BV with his product.

This was when the idea of developing water purification and recycling systems crossed his mind. He started working on simple models such as regular charcoal based cartridge filters that can remove debris, salts and harmful hormones which eventually prevented weeds emergence, foul smell and clogging of drains. The technology helped them so well that it left a real impact on working cost. Eventually, his team reduced purchasing water, cleaning weeds and drains and more surprisingly they stopped purchasing water for nursery plants.

He explains: “We cleaned the lab water and recycled it for growing plants at the nursery. This was a big impact on water conservation which gave me the confidence in developing a chemical detoxifier for molecular biology laboratories. This idea also took me to think in a different dimension for inventing a new bioplastic from the waste generated at mol bio labs such as agarose gels. I have successfully developed bioplastic from these discarded gels and filed a patent.”

Product development

Padmanabha and his team have designed a basic prototype that can remove one of the potential mutagen, Ethidium bromide (EtBr) from liquid samples generated in Molecular biology laboratories for visualizing DNA under UV light.

Padmanabha explains: “By HPLC analysis, we found EtBr to be at Zero traces in different sample fractions. We have also confirmed that the cartridges can last for at least 6 months which would be effective in detoxification. Apart from this we are also working on other food grade & ion exchange resins that can bind most of the other chemicals. Further, we are working on a new design of cartridges that can last longer and have more efficiency.”

The startup has already started manufacturing EtBr detoxifier and selling them at priority to institutions such as IISc, GKVK and private companies such as GeNei Laboratories. It plans to slowly extend the business by developing advanced cartridges with sleeker models.

“Based on our survey, the user has no issues with respect to the cost of the device as it could reduce their burden on waste disposal. Since it is addressing one of the major problems which is under regulatory act of chemical usage and safety, the importance is been given on such kind of devices that can handle toxic liquid wastes instantly in much safer way,” says Padmanabha while pointing out that the responses from most of the prestigious organizations have been highly encouraging.

Challenges galore

Padmanabha says he stepped on many challenges in the course of developing the detoxifier, out of which primary problem was the funding and right mentorship. Since he was not from an engineering background, it took lot of efforts for him to understand the basic science behind the chemicals affinity with resins and its binding mechanism.

Apart from this Padmanabha had to design the basic unit, its electrical and electronic components for which he had to seek support from technical background persons. The prototype had to pass through many new designs and changes in size to attain the present version. At the very early stage of prototype development, the project was supported by self-funding which took most of his living expenses and time. Also, since he didn’t have a workspace for the experiment of his project, he rented a modest shed near his home to access basic needs such as electricity, mechanical tools, table, and a computer.

“Once the basic prototype was completed I had to take reviews from users but this was a very challenging issue for me. Since this concept of detoxification was very new, it was quite difficult to convince the people that this technology would really help in detoxifying the liquid waste, says Padmanabha who had to travel many places to demonstrate the prototype to raise funds to complete the project.

Moreover, since the product has no comparison in the market, it was quite difficult to make investors understand. Secondly, getting inside the companies for taking reviews was also very tough since he lacked the back support. But eventually, IKP Hyderabad under the support of Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) extended their support and funded this project for a period of 6 months in the year 2018 which helped him a lot in refining the technology, testing and validation.

“I could get a well-equipped incubation space, right mentorship, back support with letters for accessing companies to collect reviews and the entire process of documentation was so quick and easy that I could give more time and concentrate on my project work. Apart from this, even now IKP is with us in mentoring and supporting to develop an advanced device that can detoxify other chemicals as well. Soon we will come up with new technology that can treat all toxic liquid wastes instantly at laboratory itself, under the support of BIRAC and IKP-HYD,” he says.

Eyeing the bigger market share

Since this instrument is first of its kind used to treat and handle the toxic liquid waste at laboratories itself, Padmanabha feels that there is a larger scope for entering into the market in a bigger way. Based on the survey conducted by them, he can have orders from plant tissue culture industries, private biotech companies, and institutions. He is expecting at least 36 units to be manufactured in coming next 6 months.

Since the startup has a basic prototype that can handle Ethidium bromide and the units are already in the market for installation, it would raise some small money by selling these units in most of the places. The revenue will be used to work on basic challenges that need to be addressed for developing a newer technology for handling other liquid chemical wastes.

“As per the demand and need we are expecting to be having a turnover of around 72 lakhs by the end of March 2020 in Bangalore alone. It can be expected to rise by 3 folds if we extend it to other districts and 5 fold if covered south India. Apart from selling the device, we will also be marketing the spare parts and servicing which is expected to reach 22 lakhs per year and this would rise each year by 1.5 folds,” he says.

Way Forward

Padmanabha has come up with a list of more than 125 chemicals, salts, reagents and solvents which, he says, need to be addressed on a priority basis. In this regard, the startup is looking forward to seeking support from BIRAC-IKP Hyderabad for completely developing an automated detoxifier that can handle most of the potential chemicals. Further, once this technology is fully developed, it intends to ask support for filing a patent and take it further for commercialization of instrument by establishing a startup production unit. It would also seek help for building marketing network across India and abroad which is says is the top priority.

Padmanabha says his team would collect data on larger scale on different kind of chemicals generated at labs and its affinity towards resins, so as to develop new cartridges with customized designs to suit particular labs. He explains: “Later we would approach government agencies and seek support for developing this technology completely with auto controllers and sensors. Once we are through with finished prototype we would proceed further for commercialization by establishing a startup company under startup India program and from there on we will launch the product across India with support of BIRAC and IKP.”

“Our vision and business plan are highly sustainable. The device that can be used as a mini water treatment plant at laboratories for handling toxic liquid waste, would find it journey towards upgradation in technology and performance over a period of time. This means we will be extending this technology further for other kinds of liquid wastes such as handling bacterial cultures at microbiology labs, handling infections liquids at hospitals, dental clinics, diagnostic labs, pharma companies, food & textile industries and also will reach places where the effluents are not treated completely,” says Padmanabha B.V while explaining the future outlook.

As per Padmanabha, the entire operation would be managed on real-time basis and collection of the data on each device and its performance would also be monitored on real-time status. In next 5 years, he expects the product to reach a stage of a developed fully automated device that could handle potential toxic liquid waste with ease and no hassle, leaving behind no traces of pollution in the environment.

Our best wishes to the rock-solid vision of the founder.