This entrepreneur's cellulose-based plastic is helping in creating a zero-waste world
How a boy from a small town is making it big in the waste management space in India!
Zeroplast Labs is a shining startup of Manush Labs and has recently won the Social Alpha and H&M Foundation's innovation in waste management. In this story, we will unravel the thought process behind the founder of Zeroplast Labs and his journey!
Aditya Kabra’s passion for finding an alternative to the plastic that covers the planet started when he was in university.
There was a hiking place he and friends would go to every weekend to enjoy spending time in nature, but they noticed that there was a lot of trash, including plastic, along the trails. At first, they tried to restore the trails by taking it upon themselves to clean up the plastic waste themselves. Inevitably, though, it would reappear. Kabra and his friends realized that although they were trying to address the problem of plastic waste, they had found a temporary fix, rather than a solution.
In the meantime, they were aware that plastic pollution was a problem across the globe, not just on their hiking trail, and were sure that with scientists across the world working on the challenge there was likely to be a solution soon. However, the problem continued for the next 3-4 years until Kabra was graduating. He came into contact with Dr. Khadirivan, a professor at a national chemical lab, who was trying to commercialize a type of plastic based on cellulose. “This is the chance to get involved in something,” thought Kabra. Just before graduating in (2018?), he switched his master’s thesis and applied to the government of India for funding. The initial two applications were denied, but the third time the team was given the funds to proceed with the technology development.
These days, the biggest focus for ZeroPlast continues to be technology development. Here, there are challenges throughout the value chain, from the products’ end of life (if there are no recycling or composting facilities, even bioplastics will continue to end up in landfills) to the testing itself, where the various biomass that they test is seasonal and the qualities can vary widely, to the varying requirements of the end customers. Currently, Zeroplast has been testing biomass including bamboo, rice, coffee grounds, and walnut shells, among others, while speaking with end users to understand the specific qualities any end material would need to have. The company focuses on both bioplastics and biocomposites. Bioplastics involve developing a material from scratch, and Kabra estimates that it could take another 3 years before that is complete, with another 1-2 years to set up commercialization. Biocomposites, on the other hand, are less tech intensive. The company is still working on balancing short-term and long-term goals, but the two teams are able to share learnings and build off one another’s research.
These teams, Kabra says, are one of the reasons the company has continued to push on even with all the challenges inherent in working in the space. “Being in this kind of technology space, sometimes a product will work, and sometimes it won’t.” Kabra explained“Figuring out the exact reason for failure takes some time, and can be frustrating. When you have a dedicated team with you, it can help a lot.”
Zeroplast has had a number of small successes along the way, however, including the grants the company has raised which were critical to its continued operations.
“Right now we have a successful formulation and finding that formulation as one of the good things that gave us some confidence that the technology we have for the past year will work. That’s been one of the high points.” Kabra added. “Sometimes things don’t work out – and there are periods where we don’t have enough funds in between. It’s the team that helps us go through all this.” Entrepreneurship has been a part of Kabra’s story since the beginning.
“My grandfather had a factory, and I used to visit, and take a walk there every Sunday, every weekend holding his hand there. It’s one of my earliest childhood memories.”
His father was also a businessman, and so entrepreneurship was one of the early options that he was exposed to. One of his lessons in business came in elementary school, where there was a day each year when students would make some kind of food and then sell it. “That first year, we brought something no one liked. We kind of figured out about supply and demand.” Kabra was reminded of this through working with Manush Labs. When ZeroPlast was first getting started, the team was fully focused on R&D.
“Manush Labs had us start speaking with customers and understanding what they’d need. They helped a lot in opening our eyes to the other side of the business.”
In addition, Manush Labs brought in serial entrepreneurs who helped walk the companies through their own processes, so that they wouldn’t end up repeating some of the same mistakes.
The entrepreneurial spirit is something that Zeroplast looks for in new hires. “When we were talking as a team about hiring,” Kabra said, “We realized that in the past if candidates had taken some initiative on their own, or done some independent work, or done something that no one had told them to do – they tend to do very well.” The team continues to focus heavily on the technology itself, but as they see more success, they plan to shift more to bringing down costs and scale up the products they develop. Zeroplast plans on building up their portfolio and gaining customer validation of their products before actively pursuing funding from investors, but the process of working with Manush Labs was helpful in having the team understand what investors are looking for and expect. In the meantime, Zeroplast continues to follow its mission of creating a world with zero waste and to preserve the planet.
Story by: Erika Elizabeth Desmond, Edited by: Piyush Verma