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Fourteen out of 15 most polluted cities in the world are in India, according to the World Health Organization’s global air pollution database. The worsening air quality prompted 38-year-old Amol Chaphekar to switch tracks from his automation and application development business in 2017 to start a Pune-based social enterprise, Strata Enviro, that manufactures Outdoor Air Pollution Controllers.

The simple solution: These devices are Internet of Things (IoT) ready units, which filter pollutants like PM 2.5, PM 10, dust, petroleum fumes, among others, from air. These units can be installed in high pollution zones, like at traffic signals, high traffic congestion areas, toll booths, railway stations, airports, fuel stations, etc. Chaphekar says each unit improves the air quality within a radius of 60ft, and can also be mounted on vehicles. The system has an IoT integration control panel that remotely controls the units and logs the data with which monitoring of air quality also becomes easy.

Outdoor air pollution controller. Photo: Ravindra Joshi/Mint
Outdoor air pollution controller. Photo: Ravindra Joshi/Mint

Defining the wicked problem: The issue of air pollution.

It was in 2016, when Chaphekar bought a bike and went out riding, that he realized how bad the air quality was. On researching, he found that while there were solutions to monitor outdoor air pollution, there was nothing substantive to reduce it. “I took it up as a challenge to address the problem, and to form a profitable business from the opportunity," he says.

Supporting pillars: The enterprise has been supported by various organizations, including the Nasscom Foundation, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, the Rotary Club of Pune Royal, and the Centre’s department of science and technology. In December, Mumbai-based start-up accelerator ScaleMinds invested in the company as part of the FundTonic Pune Startup Marathon, an event where startups showcase their innovations. “These organizations have supported us in different ways—from mentoring, raising seed capital, connecting us to the right beneficiaries, etc.," says Chaphekar.

Past life: A product and machine designer by profession, Chaphekar, worked in the US, South Africa, Malaysia and Australia for six years before returning to India in 2006, and starting a company in Aurangabad that developed software for engineering companies.

Cracking the code: After around six months of research and development, Strata Enviro developed a prototype and filed a patent for it. The firm then followed it up with lab tests to check the amount of pollution trapped in the filters of controllers. “Soon after, we came up with a product that could be installed," says Chaphekar. “The most critical part of the solution was to handle dust and fine particulate matter at the same time without allowing the filters to choke," he adds.

Founder’s forte: Though it costs around Rs70,000 to manufacture each Outdoor Pollution Controller unit, Chaphekar says what makes his enterprise unique is that these devices can be installed at public places for free. He says the firm’s revenue model ensures sustainability of the project as well as unit maintenance. The maintenance cost for public installations is covered by sponsor displays that act like advertisement boards and generate recurring revenue to take care of machine upkeep, he says. Around 300 of these units have been installed in locations like schools, hospitals and toll booths in Maharashtra and Delhi, while some have been set up on a trial basis in the Maldives.

Reality check: “Our mission is to take care of air pollution through the installation of at least 100,000 units in the coming year," says Chaphekar. He notes, however, that the firm is bootstrapped with self-funding, and requires more grants and access to advanced labs to scale up the innovation and build the next line of products. One major hurdle they have faced is dealing with government functionaries who have to approve any installation at public locations. “We also realized that potential beneficiaries are often not aware that such installations can be done for free," says Chaphekar.

Exit plan: “I have seen the good, bad and ugly patches of business and have the passion to deal with any phase, and rise," says Chaphekar.

Third eye: “They are sitting on a phenomenal product which might be able to address the problem of air pollution in India effectively," says Priyank Narayan, director, centre for entrepreneurship, Ashoka University, adding that the key to successfully selling this concept to residents and governments is the measurement of PM levels, before and after, at places like colonies and housing societies. “A few initial installations through government contracts will be critical for the credibility of the company and the product," he says.

Social impact warriors is series that traces the path of award-winning social start-ups set up in the last couple of years and the journey of the founders towards solving a wicked problem.

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