Now that the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge 2021 winners have been officially announced, we are excited for you to learn more about each winning team and the story behind each innovation. The Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge is an annual competition that awards cash prizes to early-stage tech entrepreneurs solving the world’s toughest problems. Now in its fifth year, the competition awarded its largest prize pool ever, $1 million USD, to 20 winning teams from around the world.
Globally, about $120 billion worth of crops and forest residues are burned in the open each year.
Burning these residues is counterproductive to climate change, as it significantly increases air pollution, but it’s also a missed opportunity, economically. That’s where co-founders Kevin Kung and Vidyut Mohan began their journey with Takachar, which won a $25,000 USD Third Runner-Up Prize. The team has designed and patented small-scale, low-cost, portable equipment to convert these biomass residues into products that can be sold back to farmers, ensuring less dependencies on the global supply chain.
What problem is your technology solution trying to solve?
Kevin: A lot of crop and forest residues which we call biomass is often very loose, wet and bulky, which makes it very difficult and expensive to transport from many rural areas. As such, rural communities often resort to burning their residues because there’s no economic way for them to make use of those residues, so that’s sort of the problem that we are trying to address. By residues I mean rice husks, rice straws, wood chips, hay straw, coconut shells, different types of post-harvest waste that doesn’t otherwise have any value.
Biomass is fairly context-dependent so even moving from one village in Kenya or India to the next, the type of crop grown differs. Even at the local level, that’s the kind of robustness the technology needs to meet. And fortunately for us, we don’t have to change the hardware, it’s more of the operation and so forth that needs to be tailored from place to place.
Vidyut: Having said that, we do realize the importance of focusing on key pilots that we’d like to scale. We can establish a strong base and scale up to other options.
Can you explain how the solution works?
Kevin: I tried to develop small-scale, low-cost portable systems that can latch onto the back of tractors and pick-up trucks. Something that can be deployed to rural areas that are hard to access regions and on farms and so forth, and locally upgrade and densify these residues into higher value bio-products or bio-fuels without needing any external energy or fuel input. For rural communities, what we can offer is a way to utilize the waste and turn it into higher value, thereby bringing additional income. One of the products that we have made is a carbon rich form of fertilizer and we have sold it back to the same communities about 5,000 farmers and on average, it has increased their yields by about 27 percent and their net income by up to 50 percent, from the use of our locally produced fertilizer blend. Our solution is deployed mostly in emerging markets, in places like Kenya, where we have a pilot in collaboration with a local partner, as well as in India where some of the crop burning and pollution problems are prevalent. In the States, there is significant interest in utilizing the technology for better wildfire management on the West Coast. So even understanding that and considering how the technology should be designed so that it is robust in different contexts has been really helpful in our product development.
What inspired you to develop this solution?
Kevin: I grew up in Taiwan actually, right beside paddy fields, where occasionally we also had this residue burning and affecting the air quality. I moved to North America when I was around 12 and went to school here and was lucky to really get a pretty good education around engineering. That really fuels some of my passion around design resource constraints. I conducted my PhD research at M.I.T. where I was working on small-scale, low-cost, portable systems for residues. This was part of that process and after I graduated, it looked like something that has a compelling case. I wasn’t interested in just letting the technology sit on a shelf somewhere. I mean, when we decided to start a company to try to commercialize and scale it, such that it has real impact. We are still actively testing and iterating on our prototype and product development, making sure it’s actually something that can be used and scale for greater impact, beyond a single village. In the long term, we really envision if we could get these fleets of bioconversion reactors to rural communities, then potentially we could create this self-sufficient community that supply their own commodities and chemical needs from a locally available resource and labor, rather than depend on global logistics chains. We could also mitigate a lot of air pollution and potentially wildfires as well, that get started from burning biomass residues.
Vidyut: I’ve grown up in India, in the city of Delhi and I’ve seen biomass residues being burned in farms surrounding the city, causing a lot of air pollution. There are a lot of related issues to this, I was interested to understand why this problem exists, to find a solution, and to find productive ways to utilize these biomass residues. I was interested to see how we can bring value to farmers instead of these residues being burned. So I was exploring this as part of my Master’s thesis. After graduating, I managed to connect with Kevin. We wanted to develop this solution on the ground as a commercial venture that brings social and environmental value.
How will winning a prize in the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge help you advance your business?
Kevin: It’s a great honor to be highlighted and be part of the cohort, right? The validation we get, as well as the network it has opened up. We’ve already had quite a few people reach out to us because they heard about us through social media or the online announcements at Cisco. So, I mean, that just that network has been pretty valuable in helping us gain additional partners as we contemplate scaling this.
Do you know what you will use the prize money for specifically?
Kevin: The prize money also goes a long way. As a socially and environmentally driven organization we try to work around impacts, right, and a lot of that funding really helps us build that initial use case for how this could be scaled. This money is going straight to our field pilots and helping us bring this to rural farmers. I mean so our most recent prototypes can be tested and get feedback, and potentially use it on a continuous basis after the pilot.
Vidya: We’ll also spend time understanding the markets where we want to commercialize in.
How has the global pandemic impacted your work?
Kevin: The funny thing was that actually for quite a few years before the pandemic our team have been working a lot initially over video, just because geographical locations makes it intractable for us to meet in person. I guess we were lucky to have established that kind of relationship and communication channel before the pandemic even started. But it has been challenging because it does limit travel. I cannot go to the pilot site, I haven’t been since 2019. A lot of our communication has been sort of more virtual and reliant on what I hear or observe on the ground and vice versa. It’s slowed and delayed some of our work invariably and that’s something we’re coping with. I guess the fortunate thing is that our work happens outdoors, it still requires a lot of precaution, but it’s not like working in indoor environments. Working in rural communities, we’ve worked in buffer systems so that if things get interrupted, we can still run things internally. In remote places, sometimes, it is a challenge in terms of connectivity, but at least for us in the pilot sites we’re focused on getting those easier parts solved, before we work on the harder parts.
Vidyut: We’ve essentially set up local teams in the areas where we operate, that take ownership of operating without having to communicate with our design team. They’re very independently managed operations on the ground. We also design the equipment to be maintained and serviced locally, using local skill sets and resources
Why did you decide to start your own social enterprise versus going to work for a company?
Vidyut: Funny enough, soon after graduating, I took up a job in a company that was working on the same problem and that company became bankrupt. But by investigating the problem, and why the company failed, that became a partial thesis for this company and starting it. For me, my family is very supportive, there were plenty of questions about how I would be able to support myself financially. I didn’t have answers at the time, but we are starting to get more answers.
Kevin: For me, after I finished my research project, this seemed like a natural course to continue. For me, status quo would be to go into academia or find a teaching position at a university. But I wanted to see the technology go forward. I’ve seen a fair bit of technology get shelved because the student working on it graduated. It just didn’t feel right for me to do that for technology like this. It took a while for people to wrap their heads around what I’m doing, partly because it took me a while to figure that out. I think in general, they see and understand the sort of value of the work.
What advice do you have for other social entrepreneurs?
Kevin: One thing I found extraordinarily challenging was getting into the minds of the end users. I think in very far removed places, it requires a lot of immersion and spending time in the field, actually working with them, shadowing them, trying to understand their actual pain points and dreams that they have. Being able to connect with end users enables the team to create things which they value.
Vidyut: I’ve learned a lot of us come with a passion to solve a very large, abstract problem, but it’s also important to find a compelling need that users are willing to pay for. Finding that compelling need through extensive user research is one of the most important steps. That’s what leads to all your product specifications and functional requirements, so I would say focusing on that is really important and doing that well is about fifty percent of the job.
Stay tuned for more articles in our blog series, featuring interviews with every Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge 2021 winning team!