Tan90 Thermal Solutions – The Journey from an Idea to a Start-Up

Tan90 Thermal Solutions is a start-up that grew out of a project taken up by a group of PhD scholars. The three co-founders of Tan90, Saumalya Mukherjee, Shiv Sharma and Rajani Kant Rai with a lot of hard work and mentorship from Prof. Satyanarayanan Seshadri, have developed their ideas into a start-up. Let’s hear their story!

How did it all start

This project was born as an attempt to win the Shaastra Energy Challenge 2018. “At that time, it was mostly just an idea, not a product. Winning this event meant that we got 2.5 lakhs, but more than the money, it was the confidence we got from winning that mattered” says Saumalya Mukherjee, one of the 3 co-founders of Tan90 Innovations. There were 4 PhD scholars who were working on this at that time, and since they had their PhD theses to concentrate on, this project took a backseat and they worked on it as a side project as and when time permitted. 

Though they knew that portable cold storages would be a useful product, they did not realise the scope of what they were working on until they brought their idea to the Gopalkrishna Deshpande Centre of Customer Interaction.

The idea of working on portable cold storage came to them when they realised that many options exist when it comes to stationary cold storages but for portable ones, farmers generally have to turn to either refrigeration trucks or ice boxes. Though they knew that portable cold storages would be a useful product, they did not realise the scope of what they were working on until they brought their idea to the Gopalkrishna Deshpande Centre of Customer Interaction. Here, ideas and products are validated not qualitatively but quantitatively. “We were taken aback by the potential demand for the product” says Saumalya. It was also around this time that they got accepted into Nirmaan, IIT Madras’s pre-incubator for potential start-ups. “Even when we got into Nirmaan, we didn’t have a product in hand. We just had a validated idea. But with financial support from Nirmaan, we went ahead and started bringing out prototypes.”

Saumalya says that the mentorship they received was key to them coming this far.  “Satya sir has been with us since day zero and has always supported us. Another very close mentor to our team is K V Anand. He is not associated with IIT Madras but has been on board with us till now. Both of them made us realise that we should never get too comfortable with our product. With their support, our project grew. Eventually, a point came when I didn’t even have any second thoughts about not going for post-doctoral studies.”

The product

The product resembles an ice-box and each unit has a usable capacity of 50 litres. Phase change materials, like water/ice, are used to facilitate cooling. Just as ice absorbs energy, crossing the barrier of latent heat and turning into water, other phase change materials also absorb energy and change phase. One major disadvantage of ice is that it can’t reach sub-zero temperatures. Hence, other phase change materials can be used to overcome this shortcoming.

The unit is powered by thermal batteries. These are similar to electrical batteries. In the same way that electrical batteries store electrical energy, these batteries store thermal energy. Just like gel packs, they have to be cooled in a freezer before they are used. “Generally, if an gel pack is charged for 17 hours, it lasts for around 10 hours. This is very inefficient. We worked on the chemistry of the batteries and now, have reduced the charging time by a factor of 3. So, it is now very similar to a mobile phone – you charge it for a short amount of time and then use it for a long duration” says Saumalya.

One unit of this portable freezer is priced at Rs. 5500. “Given that each unit has a lifetime of about three years, this roughly adds up to a capital expenditure of Rs. 5 per day, which is pretty low.”  On being asked what sets their product apart from the other solutions available, Saumalya says “The major advantage that this has over ice-boxes is that ice can’t be used with all kinds of perishables. It can mostly be used only for meat and fish. Our product, however, can be used for all kinds of perishables. We have tested it on a variety of perishables from milk to meat.” Another feature that they claim to be unique to this product is that the boxes are rodent-proof and biofilm proof that is, bacteria, algae, etc. can’t grow on them.

As we all know, tan(90) is infinity.  There are infinite problems and each problem has an infinite number of solutions. You can achieve whatever you dream and dreams are limitless. This is what Tan90 stands for.

The way forward

This project began a little more than a year ago and today, they are pretty close to standardising the product. But the journey hasn’t been easy. Saumalya says that there are many similarities between entrepreneurship and doing a PhD. “Both require a great deal of perseverance, patience and the ability to work with limited resources and to be able to succeed in both, you have to fail as early as possible. In a PhD, if an experiment fails, you immediately have to think of a different route. This is what is called pivoting in entrepreneurship. If something doesn’t work, then pivot and try an alternative. In a PhD, you love your subject, but don’t fall in love with your experiment. Similarly, in entrepreneurship, you love your start-up, but don’t fall in love with your product.”

The first prototype was made when they were 4 or 5 months into the project. The prototypes were sent for testing and based on the feedback they received, changes were made at each step and the process was repeated. “We have made close to 30 pilot units so far.  For every 5 pilot units that we make, around 3 get positive responses. We have iterated the design aspect of the product 4 to 5 times now.” They initially started out by using plastic crates. “We wanted to get the idea validated first. We did not concentrate on perfecting the product. We worked very closely with the Institute Workshop in the initial stages. We knew it was important to keep production in-house and also for all of us to get our hands dirty.”

Their hard work has paid off till now. They were noticed by Niti Aayog currently receive funding from them. “Niti Aayog has worked with start-ups in the cold storage business in the past and has some idea about the obstacles that we could potentially face. An association with them also helped us in partnering with government institutions and NABARD.” Saumalya stresses the importance of having the right partnerships “Tan90 is not going to be able to do anything alone. We need partnerships with the government, banking facilities, private institutions, financing facilities and rural banks like NABARD. We are also working closely with the Horticulture Department of the Government of Tamil Nadu. Even if Tan90 fails, these are the institutions and bodies that will play a big role in making this idea succeed at some point.”

The affordability of our product makes it accessible to marginal farmers who are the ones who really need it.

“We do have a motive to make a profit out of this business, but our product does have a social angle to it. The affordability of our product makes it accessible to marginal farmers who are the ones who really need it.” Going forward, they would like to standardise their product as soon as possible. “We have our presence in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Delhi and Telangana. We would like to deepen our roots there and also expand to Maharashtra.” He hopes that Tan90 grows out of the three co-founders and one day becomes an organisation built around good culture and work ethics.

The story behind how Tan90 started is also an interesting one. “We had many ideas. At one point, we were a book sharing rental platform, were making dehumidifiers and were also working on cold storages. Being immature, we thought we would be able to do all of this.” On how the name Tan90 evolved, Saumalya says “As we all know, tan(90o) is infinity.  There are infinite problems and each problem has infinite solutions. You can achieve whatever you dream and dreams are limitless. This is what Tan90 stands for.”

Science Deconstructed is a series which aims to introduce some exciting advancements made by the scientific community in simple terms with guidance on how to pursue these fields in the institute, along with features of research by groups in the institute. Send in your requests for the same at [email protected] Suggestions/ comments are always welcome. 

Series by: Sankalpa Venkatraghavan 

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