BY JUSTIN MILLER
Throughout the 2012-2013 school year, seven students from the University of Minnesota and the Xavier Institute in Bhubaneswar, India, developed a sustainable business plan to enter in the Institute on the Environment's Acara Challenge
competition. The idea: to give apartment dwellers in India the know-how to compost organic waste and start an urban garden. However, business plans rarely stick with their original concept - and Nutricycle was no different.
The Nutricycle team was composed of University of Minnesota members John Reinhart, Georgia Rubenstein, Laura Wilmer, Eileen Weigel and Caroline Hughes, along with Jyoti Mainali Kumar, Om Prakesh Singh and Shreyas Bhartiya of XIMB. Reinhart, Rubenstein and Weigel traveled to India earlier this summer to join Kumar at the Acara Summer Institute to further develop their plan. There they began doing research and interviewing community members to gauge how to best implement their business idea. Turns out there was a cultural catch.
"After getting here, we found that gardening doesn't seem to have the same positive emphasis as we thought it would," says Reinhart, who earned a master of science in electrical engineering degree from the University this year.
The stark disinterest in urban gardening forced Reinhart and the rest of the team to adapt on the fly. But the Nutricycle business plan wasn't a total loss. The team was able to keep the core focus intact: how to isolate organic waste from India's huge waste load and use it for something useful. The only thing that essentially changed is what end product the process will feed into. Instead of becoming garden soil, the waste will be turned into biogas for fuel.
"Coming into it, I knew it would be ridiculous to think nothing would change. I've been coping with the fluidity - that's my style," says Reinhart.
Reinhart and Weigel are currently in Bangalore working to find entry into the city's waste management and energy markets. Through an Acara fellowship, Reinhart has teamed up with Green Power Systems, an Indian company that focuses on providing green solutions for organic waste through state-of-the-art technology. It's an invaluable opportunity because Green Power Systems offers an "in" with local businesses as well as access to the technology Nutricycle needs to make biogas a feasible business venture.
"Funding is great. Having a good idea is great. But if you don't have the connections, you're not going to succeed," says Reinhart.
As far as the partnership goes, Reinhart sees Nutricycle as the "operational manager that links the technology with a complicated customer base." Anticipated customers are apartment managers interested in cutting down on waste and their electricity bill as well as commercial kitchens that can use the biogas for cooking.
The new direction, not surprisingly, brings new challenges: how to pitch biogas as an economic benefit, how to create a uniform organic waste collection process and how to fit into the local economy.
"People want a simple solution. There's a lot of technology coming at them, so it isn't as easy to make that pitch," Reinhart says of the influx of ideas being offered to business owners. "There's a lot of options that are technically feasible, but there's a lot of different cost points."
To Reinhart, these challenges are just a part of the process of finding a unique service to offer while also making the biggest impact.
"We're going to keep talking with a lot of people, keep working to figure out the right pilot project with the right market and get it off the ground," Reinhart says.
Justin Miller is a student communications assistant with the Institute on the Environment. Photos courtesy of Fred Rose