The barrage of hand sanitiser and hand wash advertisements we're exposed to every day on television, as well as science lessons learned in school, have led most of us to think of micro-organisms as being inherently dangerous and disease-inducing. The founders of Proklean, a company that produces eco-friendly formulants using microbes, beg to differ.
Proklean's products, which are sold under the brand Proviera, include formulations which can be used in leather processing, textile processing and hospitality. Micro-organisms can be harmful or beneficial; the kind which have beneficial qualities are called probiotics. The founders of Proklean have created a fermentation process, using a consortium of naturally occurring probiotic microbes. These probiotic microbes break down the pollutants in an organic and environmentally sound manner. They produce non-toxic and fully bio-degradable formulations that replace chemical surfactants, which are compounds that lower the surface tension between two liquids. The formulations contain a blend of biochemicals produced by the microbes, which repopulate environments with healthy microorganisms. Unlike traditional cleaners, they are neither toxic to humans, nor harmful to the environment.
The company was founded in 2009, and it took two years for the founders to develop effective formulations. They used USA-based SCD Probiotics' certified mother culture to manufacture their products through an exclusive licence, using fermentation and formulation technologies. Sixty four-year-old biochemist Sivaram Pillai served as the CEO of SCD Probiotics, USA before setting up Proklean. Previously he worked at Murugappa as a top executive, and Murugappa was a customer of SCD. Thus, Pillai's interest in the business potential of probiotic microbes began a decade ago.
He then met entrepreneur B Chandrashekar, who owned a leather processing unit and showed a keenness for the potential of probiotics in industrial application, on a Yahoo group when he returned to India. The duo decided to start Proklean Technologies, and were joined by the third co-founder Vishwadeep Kuila in 2012.
The formulations are manufactured using SCD's mother culture, to which plant-based ingredients created by Proklean are added. The functions that these compunds offer include scouring, bleaching, degreasing, dispersing, soaping, neutralising and soaking. In simpler words, the products deal with waste, odour and water management, Additionally, they do not require customers to make any changes to existing operations on their end. There are also products on sale which can be used by individual customers.
"Proklean was established to fulfill our desire to do what we could, to reduce pollution around us. In our own small way, we wanted to make the world a better place to live," says Pillai. He adds that he and his co-founders were fascinated by the power of probiotic microbes in solving pollution in daily life, which is what led them to start experimenting with various formulations. "We did not have a grand vision or an ambitious business plan to start with," he says.
Proklean's formulations reduce water consumption by 20 percent, reduce pollution load by 30 percent and reduce process time by 10 percent, which is what allow its products to be environment-friendly. This manufacturing system is low-cost, which has helped the company to price their products in a manner that is competitive to the chemicals that they have replaced. A reduction in process time and water consumption translates into lower costs for consumers. "Reduction in pollution load is a bonus and helps the industry meet the regulatory requirements which are becoming increasingly stringent," Pillai adds. His customers in the hospitality and leather processing sector say that problems like drain blockages and long soaking hours respectively, are things of the past.
Speaking about the challenges that the company has faced, Pillai says that the biggest hurdle was convincing potential customers that their claims were true. People have a disbelief that green products cannot match up to chemical ones. "Initially, they could not believe that a small start up could come up with such an innovative range of products, which large, multinational companies could not develop. The only way we could convince them was by carrying out multiple demonstrations and trials in our customers' facilities to prove that we delivered on our claims. Fortunately, our value proposition of reducing costs and at the same time reducing pollution was so compelling that we began to acquire customers," he explains.
In 2012, they raised Rs 2.5 crore in angel funding from Chennai Angels as a seed round. In 2013, the company acquired dedicated customers and a funding of Rs 3.5 crore led by Infuse Ventures. For the financial year that just ended in March, the company raised a revenue of $1 million. The company has expanded its range of products in the textile processing industry, and will launch products in the paper and pulp industry this year. "We have filed for patents. We have also done a few mill trials. We are ready with the first product for the paper industry, which will help reduce the usage of chemicals or with the same chemical consumption, increase the brightness of paper," Pillai said to The Hindu Business Line.