Here’s a rare find — a 24-year-old settled in Bengaluru who does not shop online for grocery or food. This PhD holder in material sciences from IIT Roorkee, Akshay Singhal, was put off by the reams of packaging that delivery companies use. All of it ends up as plastic waste. He even wrote to e-commerce companies, questioning their logic. It is not surprising, therefore, that such a person now runs an environmentally conscious business.
Along with Kartik Hajela, Singhal founded Log 9 Materials in 2015. The start-up uses graphene — a wonder material that is thin, strong and an efficient conductor of heat and electricity — in a range of products, right from cigarette filters to aircraft coatings.
Singhal’s interest in nanotechnology found support early. His grandfather’s brother, who had been working in nanotechnology with the National Physical Laboratory for 40 years, retired when the youngster was joining college. Seeing Singhal’s interest in material science, his grand-uncle travelled from Delhi to Roorkee every week and set up a lab in the college, paying for the equipment out of his own pocket.
The investment seems to have paid off. Singhal’s three-year-old start-up, today, has launched two products—a cigarette filter and an oil absorbent pad – with many more under development. Started with an initial investment of Rs.4 million, the start-up, currently, holds three patents in graphene products and synthesis.
When they set out, Singhal and Hajela pursued a simple idea — to manufacture graphene as a material and supply it to academic institutions and research labs.
Dr Suryasarathi Bose, assistant professor, who works on graphene-based composites at the Department of Materials Engineering at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), has been sourcing graphene from Log 9 for over a year now. He finds their material superior to that of other vendors’. “We are seeing very promising results and are now associating with Log 9 for several of our applications,” he says. The IISC is working on a graphene-based water purification membrane and another project on electromagnetic shielding, especially for cell phones and other electronics.
A few months after launch, the Log 9 team though realised that the technology won’t sell much in India if it is in the stage of development and, especially, being developed by domestic players. Also, demand for the new material would take a while to pick up. Hence, seven months after the launch, Log 9 decided to develop products instead of just supplying graphene as a raw material.
Though there was a wide range of possibilities, the Log 9 team has agreed to focus on one and narrowed it down to purification applications of graphene, since there were fewer competitors in this domain.
In December 2015, they came up with the idea of PPuF — short for post purification filter. This graphene-based filter for cigarettes could filter out 30%-50% of the toxins. By March 2016, the team came up with a prototype and, by end of that year, a pilot launch was done in the NCR, including Gurugram. In March 2017, the first round of seed funding came from GEMS Partners. Soon the team shifted base from IIT-Roorkee to Bengaluru. In July this year, the start-up raised Rs.30 million from Metaform Ventures, Hemant Luthra, GEMS Partners and other angels.
PPuF was, initially, launched as a plug-in that could be fitted behind cigarettes. In FY18, of the Rs.5 million revenue, the product, with a million orders, contributed 80%, while graphene materials accounted for the remainder. The team felt that the filter’s adoption was slower because of the product design which required a user to perform one additional action before lighting a cigarette. Log 9 figured out that if the material went inside a cigarette and did filtration naturally, it would be much more convenient. With this insight, the start-up is now running trials of the new product in collaboration with Indian cigarette companies. Globally, there are no chemical-based purification filters. All other filters, none graphene-based, come as physical add-ons but only capture tar. PPuF, however, filters out several toxic components, including tar.
Log 9’s new innovation also cuts down cost for the end user. The earlier plug-on model, which was good enough for 6 cigarettes, was sold for Rs.20 a unit. But, it made each drag costlier by Rs.3-Rs.4. But, in the latest chemical form, Singhal calculates the incremental cost for a user to be barely around 50 paise or Rs.1. Log 9’s margins would be lower but Singhal believes volumes would compensate given that there are an estimated 120 million smokers in India. The company is yet to decide on a revenue model since trials are still underway.
The company’s second product, which was commercially launched in October, is a graphene-based oil absorbent pad named LSP-20. “There are a lot of oil spills happening in the marine environment. Containing them becomes a problem,” says Singhal. “While there are already products out there to absorb it, their efficiency ratio is 1:20 (which means it can absorb 20 times its own weight). Our pad has a ratio of 1:86.” The absorbent pad has multiple variants, with prices starting at Rs.70 per unit (per piece). Competition is from million-dollar companies such as 3M, New Pig and Brady, but Log 9 is confident of beating rivals with better technology and has filed for 19 patents.
The start-up claims the pad is in much demand outside India, with the first shipment due in a month. Without disclosing names, Singhal mentions Log 9 has four active clients in all. Orders, each for about 10,000 units, have come in from Southeast Asian region’s marine industry and India’s petrochemical companies. LSP-20 is expected to account for 60% of the company’s projected revenue of Rs.20 million in FY19, with PPuF’s share expected to decline (see: Changing stripes).
Log 9 is also developing a product line to absorb acid spills, again at a higher ratio than existing solutions. The launch may be around December. Singhal says there is “huge demand” already from chemical industries and oil refineries. “At present, demand is much more than supply. So, we are stabilising production right now,” says Singhal, who estimates the global market for oil spill product to be worth $3-4 billion. “The moment you club in other hazardous materials the market increases exponentially,” he adds.
The start-up has a long product pipeline. This includes an antimicrobial-coating that could be used by hospitals to coat their surfaces to prevent spreading of pathogens, and solutions for faster charging of electric vehicles (EVs). Log 9 is looking at incorporating graphene in metal air batteries that can substitute lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries. Thus, it could extend the mileage of EVs to more than 500 km, on a single charge, and can also make recharging a quick 10-minute affair. “Adoption of EVs is slower because of long charging time and the small range (mileage). Further, Li-ion batteries face India-specific challenges, as a hot and humid climate reduces its efficiency by 40%. Besides, the country lacks lithium or cobalt ore, the primary raw material needed for the battery,” mentions Singhal. Prototype of the alternative is ready and collaborative trials are likely next year with Log 9 aiming to have 50 cars running on this technology by 2021.
Apart from these, the company is also working on a few projects with government agencies. One of the projects is funded by the Department of Biotechnology while, for another, the team is finalising terms with the Indian Navy. Besides, it is also working with Engineers India to develop a membrane to remove oil from effluent water, and with the Department of Science and Technology on a water desalination project. Another project entails working on shielding electromagnetic interference (EMI) to cut down on mobile signals’ interference with radio communication of an aircraft. The start-up plans to complete most of these projects by December.
As on date, the company has two business propositions – one, entails revenue share and the other intellectual property (IP) rights. In the first, the IP belongs to Log 9, which can either manufacture the product or license it. In the second arrangement, the product would be a jointly owned by the two but the right to commercialise it goes to Log 9. For example, EMI shield falls in this category, and a part of the profits will go to the IISc as royalty. From design and manufacturing of the material to assembling the final product, everything is done in-house by a 40-member team, split between Roorkee and Bengaluru. “Among government-funded projects, three are in collaboration with the IISc. For those, there is a separate team,” says Singhal.
Log 9’s team is brimming with ideas around graphene. Aditya Gupta, managing partner, GEMS Partners, wants them to slow down. He says, “The team is fairly experimental. They can still do that, may be using grants, and if something comes out of it, that’s great. But we have told the team, let’s stick to these two verticals (energy and purification) because opportunities are enormous.”
In time, the company will move to a hub-and-spoke model. “We would develop new products, scale up the manufacturing of the material and then pass on the know-how to a joint venture or a subsidiary of Log 9. These peripheral companies could manufacture these products and take them to the market,” he says. The target is to have four such companies five years down the line.
The road ahead is rocky. “How do we really market is a challenge,” points out Gupta. “We are little unsure which path to take — whether it should be retailing, IP, manufacturing and selling end product or tech transfer. That uncertainty is a challenge.” According to him, another challenge is to find early adopters of new technology. For example, the chemical or in-built PPuF has not yet been launched in the market because cigarette companies are slow movers. “It’s not a cakewalk, but the work being done by Log 9 is a potential game-changer,” adds Gupta.
Indeed, for a start-up, Log 9 has dished out an impressive record. Singhal credits all the achievement to the base material – graphene. “Imagine a stack of sheet. It has two surfaces but, once you pull out the sheets, it has multiple surfaces. Similarly, graphene, though being thin, has a million such surfaces that can absorb lot of toxins, gases, chemicals and compounds. We want to unleash its potential for sustainable energy needs of the world.”
Log 9’s plans are ambitious but not unrealistic given the clarity, determination and skill-set the team possesses. With eyes on the moon and powered by a wonder material, it seems Log 9 is all set for a long haul.