Options for an energy-efficient cold chain, primarily in the hyperlocal segment, are either too expensive or outdated. Refrigerated trucks are expensive to operate and hence cannot be used by small enterprises for the last mile delivery, and gel packs or glycol water solutions have limited utility, with the first only ensuring temperatures between 2 to 4 degrees centigrade while glycol is not food grade. The need is thus for specialized cooling chemicals and that is the domain Chennai-based cleantech startup Tan90 is working in.
Tan90 provides a portable, energy-efficient cold storage system powered by a thermal battery that can reduce wastage of farm produce and increase farmers’ incomes.
The cleantech startup specialises in research, development and manufacture of specialised cooling chemicals classified as Phase Change Materials (PCM) over a wide range of temperatures. “Starting from +15 to -24 degrees centigrade, our Phase Change Material has a wide application in space cooling, retail transport and pharmaceuticals. Based on these, we provide portable cold storages to Farmer Producer Organisations that are channelised to marginal farmers, helping eliminate their farm-gate wastages,” says Soumalya Mukherjee, founder of Tan90.
He adds that the cold chain solutions for agriculture, retail and pharma industries are curated to the needs of the users. “For example, in agriculture, we increase the shelf life of perishables by not only lowering the temperature, but also by controlling the atmosphere inside with ethylene scrubbers that can absorb ethylene, a ripening hormone, emitted by the harvested and cut fruits or vegetables. With this added advantage, we can increase the shelf life of greens by 3-4 days at a time,” Mukherjee says.
“Flower farmers in Tamil Nadu could see a RoI within four months, primarily because of the reduction of post-harvest loss. Given our solution, harvesting of the flowers is now done once a day instead of thrice, thereby reducing manpower costs,” he adds.
Mukherjee, who looks after business development for Tan90, co-founded the venture with IIT Madras alumni Shiv Sharma, who handles Tan90 operations, and Rajani Kant Rai who looks after the startup’s Research and Development.
Having started its operations in January 2020, Tan 90 has presence in 12 states in India, and two countries. “We have been working closely with 5 FPOs and targeting to impact 5,000 farmers in the next six months. We work with clients spread over a wide domain, ranging from horticulture, dairy, retail and fisheries,” says Mukherjee
The Initial Journey
The idea of working on portable cold storage came to the trio when they were pursuing their doctoral studies at IIT Madras. They realised that many options exist when it comes to stationary cold storages, but these were either high on capital or operational costs. Though there are subsidies given by the government to set up cold storage infrastructure, nothing is provided for covering operational costs, and this often results in cold storages being converted to normal warehouses.
Such a centralised approach may not be the correct one and hence, there is a need for decentralised cold storages, if the marginal farmers have to benefit from them. “Based on these, we have developed portable cold storage units that can keep greens and perishables fresh for three days with minimal grid energy. We started to develop solutions for efficient thermal storage systems that can store thermal energy when it is abundant and emit it when the load is kept in the storage unit. We first developed our -4 degree PCM that was suitable for dairy industries,” Mukherjee recalls.
Education of consumers is a major part of the plot, primarily when a new and effective cooling solution has to be positioned against age old techniques of using ice and gel packs. “The challenge is to make consumers aware of the technology, and hence investments in terms of time has to be made for the technology to be adopted in the market,” he says.
Tan 90 plans expansion both on the business and product side. “At the core, we are a research- based company with a major focus on clean cooling technologies. We would be increasing our range of Phase Change Materials from +45 to -70 degrees centigrade, primarily to increase the efficiencies of solar cells and electric vehicles,” says Mukherjee.
India, by itself is a huge market, and Tan90 is looking forward to the underserved North East, primarily to empower the organic farmers there to market their produce to the rest of the country as this is limited due to logistical challenges.
Not limiting their activities to India, Mukherjee believes that their product offerings are also a good fit for South East Asian countries, which have a similar consumption pattern. “Use of ice is predominant in fisheries and with our cooling solution, we are able to reduce the consumption of ice by 80 per cent, thereby increasing the volume of fish that can be carried in a box,” he adds
On his inspiration, Mukherjee recalls one lesson which he came across in a blog, during his early days, and that has stayed with him as his success mantra. Sharing it for aspiring entrepreneurs, Mukherjee says, “When a great team meets a lousy market, market wins. When a lousy team meets a great market, market wins. When a great team meets a great market, something special happens.