Special Startup Series: Process technology for productive bioconversion

Bhubaneswar based Pro-Biokem India is developing a cost efficient and sustainable process technology for conversion of raw rice husk to value added products for various applications

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Currently, silica gel, cellulose and macronutrient salt in the feed, food, laboratory chemicals, speciality chemicals and industrial materials are made from wood and mineral based raw materials, using outdated and costly process technology. Many of the fine chemicals and speciality chemicals are imported from abroad at a higher price, because of lack of indigenously developed, commercially viable and sustainable technology to do so.

Working to provide a cost-effective solution, the Bhubaneswar (Orissa) based startup, Pro-Biokem India is developing a cost-efficient and sustainable process technology for conversion of raw rice husk to value-added products for application as additives. The company aims to transform biomaterials into value-added products of Industrial, feed, food and pharmaceutical applications, using in-house developed commercially viable and sustainable technology.

Inception

Pro-Biokem India was incorporated during March, 2018 in the capital city of Orissa, Bhubaneswar by Mahammad Gulebahar Sheikh and Baisun Nesha.

Mahammad Gulebahar Sheikh

“There is a burning desire to make an innovation in science and technology from the day a student picks up science as his subject of/stream of choice, so was it the same for me,” says Mahammad Gulebahar Sheikh whose desire to start a company of his own got developed during his tenure at an R&D unit in a Pharmaceutical MNC in Bangalore. “There was a senior colleague, who had taken up the risk against all odds to set up his own venture. Whom I later joined as an employee and worked for 3 years in the process development as a research scientist,” he informs.

During his tenure at the Biotech based startup company, Enzene Bioscience, Bangalore, Mr Sheikh developed process related technology encompassing industrial waste bioconversion into value added products as well as Microbial Prebiotics enrichment technology. This was in addition to his regular work on enzyme assay development and biosimilars upstream and downstream process development.

This was the time when he also started thinking about agro waste, especially rice-based waste, which was and is available in plenty and cheap all over India, since India is the second largest producer of rice. This brought about the thought of a potential business idea, which could benefit all. However, it was necessary to understand the intricate complexities of Agro waste composition, the quantifications, process designing related information, the commercial implications, etc. So, Mr Sheikh started collecting all information related to the project idea, on his leisure time and prepared a consolidated preliminary Project plan. He also started looking for ways to get funding to start experimenting on the idea and develop a PoC.

This is when he stumbled upon the Technology Incubation center in his home city, Bhubaneswar, KIIT-TBI, KIIT University, Bhubaneswar.

Mr Sheikh explains: “When I approached the institution, they showed a great interest and, showed me the way how to realize my dream of starting my own venture and whom to approach for the funding. I applied through the BIG programme of BIARC, DBT, GoI, and was selected for the same. BIRAC provided all the required financial support, while KIIT TBI gave me all the support to achieve my goal“to develop a Pilot-scale PoC for the conversion of raw rice husk to value-added product”.

Mr Sheikh calls KIIT TBI and BIRAC as very instrumental in the company’s journey so far. He says: “We have been fortunate to have had some of our mentors from KIIT TBI who guided us in every step of the way right from the ideation stage all the way to identifying and segmenting our customers and understanding the various stakeholders in the system. We are looking forward to their continued support and hand-holding us through our journey ahead and taking us across the line.”

Focus on developing sustainable technology

The primary focus of the R&D at the Pro-Biokem is to develop a cost efficient and sustainable process technology for conversion of raw rice husk to value added products for application as additives in Industrial materials, processed food, personal care products, poultry and cattle feed, pet food and in pharmaceutical products.

Mr Sheikh reveals that he has been a keen observer of natural and man-made processes. When he got a sudden correlation of triple wastage, such as production of MCC derived from pulp which in turn is generated from Wood and simultaneously burning and decomposing hard generated Agricultural material (Agro residual waste), Mr Sheikh thought that’s triple wastage, on one hand leading to deforestation and imbalance of the ecology on the other hand wasting of naturally produced chemicals, formed as a heterogeneous mixture (Agro-waste) as well as adding to pollution by burning of the agro-waste.

The solution was to find a cost effective and sustainable process to isolate these chemicals to a point of homogeneity, which would fetch higher values for individual Bio-genic chemicals. This off course, was and is a challenge, but can be solved with the input of right amount of time, money, patience, ingenuity, planning and diligence.The outcome will be and is about to be immensely benefiting to all at stake. To summarise, the intent of the project and the startup is to benefit maximum, if not all, in more than one way

“The Products have been produced at pilot scale 10 to 50 Kg Scale. We are currently in the process of acquiring customers and distributors for selling our products at Kg scale. However, to scale up the manufacturing we shall be acquiring distributors for selling our products at Ton scale. To set up the manufacturing facility we shall be needing a larger amount of investment, to the tune of 5 to 6 Crores,” says Mr Sheikh.

The company has already approached the angel network through intermediaries and hopes to make some headway soon. It is confident that products shall be affordable at a lower price compared to what supplied by the Indian manufacturers and importers, due to lower transportation cost, manufacturing cost and the perennial availability of raw materials at a cheaper price (without major price fluctuation). Moreover, agro-based biogenic chemical/biochemical products would appeal more to the customers as compared to those produced from Wood or mineral based raw materials.

Target market

“Our current target is to make a headway into an established market for silica gel, cellulose and macronutrient. We are planning to target a sub decimal market share for the silica gel, cellulose and macronutrient salt in the, feed, food, laboratory chemicals, speciality chemicals and industrial materials segment,” explained Sheikh, “Currently, these products from competitors are made from wood and mineral-based raw materials, using outdated and costly process technology.”

The market segments for silica gel includes application areas such as desiccant, chromatography, filtration aid, matting agent. The market segments for cellulose includes application areas such as electrode flux, paints, food fiber, feed ingredient, filtration aid, etc. The market segments for macronutrient salt includes application areas such as cattle feed, poultry feed, shrimp feed, food additives, etc.

The company expects 8-digit revenue generation from its planned scale of production and sales venture, which would take a downtime of 12 to 18 months from the time of acquiring funds for setting up the production unit.

Challenges

There were a few hurdles during the setting up of the pilot scale laboratory, which was delayed. However, the matter was taken care by the incubator administration. There were also delays in procurement of the equipments and transportation of the equipments for reasons beyond company management’s control. Currently, they are facing fund scarcity for setting up the manufacturing facility.

“Being a entrepreneur managing multiple tasks of different types is a challenge for a scientist turned entrepreneur. Especially when managing the finance, material procurement, purchase deals, external sourcing, customer and distributor acquisition, etc,” said Mr Sheikh.

Product launch by NITI Aayog Chairman and DBT Secretary.

Funding

The company completed its initial Proof of concept, in technology development, with the funding support from BIRAC (DBT-GoI), under BIG grant scheme. However, to further scale up the technology, it has approached the Angel investor network and also to BIRAC again.

“We do expect funding support from the Govt to help us in scaling up and commercializing the technology and to help us multiply such Agro waste processing units across the country. This would cater to the business interest, public interest and to the national interest in a cumulative manner,” mentioned Sheikh while revealing that the company will shortly receive a moderate amount of funding support from KIIT Technology Business Incubator, which would help it in laying a ground work for sales and marketing of its products at a small scale, and improving product quality.

“However, a greater sum of funding would be necessary to set up a full-scale manufacturing plant and for acquiring a sales and marketing channel,” said Mr Sheikh.

Way Forward

The immediate business plan of the company, as per Mr Sheikh, is to expand the technical and non-technical team, setup a manufacturing plant with 400 to 500 MTPA capacity, collaborate with a sales and marketing agency/distributors, for the sales and revenue generation.

Mr Sheikh eleborated further: “The multipronged strategy includes building a distribution channel by acquiring distributors/dealers and collaborating with sales and marketing agency, promising a better margin, for sale of products; acquiring funds for setting up the manufacturing facility; set up the production unit, with inhouse developed technology; sale of the products through the distribution channel; setting up of a Quality Management System (QMS); and obtainting product quality (food additive) certifications from regulatory authority.”

The company plans to setup a manufacturing facility along with a supporting process R&D setup in next 5 years. The manufacturing plant shall be engaged in production and product sales shall be carried out in collaboration with distributors. The R&D unit shall be engaged in product quality enhancement and process development for additional projects involving agro waste processing, since there are immense numbers and quantity of agro waste, lying around/generated in the country which could generate the value-added products.

“We shall strive to become one of the leading chemicals and specialty chemicals materials manufacturer and supplier in the country,” says Mr Sheikh.

Our best wishes to the founders!