The India Clean Air Challenge nurtures bold innovators in the clean air space to combat air pollution

In order to find bold solutions that can address India’s air pollution problem, ACT Grants recently ran the India Clean Air Challenge (ICAC), which invites innovative startups to build scalable solutions that can put India’s air quality woes to rest.
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​​Poor air quality continues to pose a significant concern to human health and quality of life in India. Yet, very few individuals and organisations seem to understand the gravity of the problem. People residing in cities bear the brunt of this, but the problem is all-pervasive.

Since solving environmental challenges isn’t something that is associated with a clear business opportunity, this space hasn’t seen the same level of innovation as, say, the finance and education sectors. As a result, clean air technologies face significant gaps in access to capital and market - which in turn create bottlenecks to scaling these solutions.

Addressing this problem needs a coordinated and sustained effort with the active involvement of all sectors and stakeholders. In order to spread awareness about the issue, and drive change in society, the non-profit coalition ACT Grants recently ran the India Clean Air Challenge (ICAC) in collaboration with the government and startup community. The aim was to identify and support solutions that can monitor, manage and mitigate air pollution at scale.

What is ICAC?

According to a report by IQAir, India is home to 22 of the 30 most polluted cities in the world, and in 2019 alone, approximately 1.7 million Indians died due to complications caused by air pollution. This emphasizes the importance of the active involvement of all stakeholders and sectors to plug the gaps that clean air technologies face in funding, implementation and adoption.

Prashanth Prakash, Partner, Accel says, “Fighting air pollution Is everybody’s responsibility. The India Clean Air Challenge is a campaign by the government and startup community to address one of the most serious challenges facing India and one that will require collaboration between government, industry, investors and the larger public. Innovation is a critical component of addressing this challenge, with a need to identify environmental technologies that are economically viable and enhance rather than detract from how we live.”

With the launch of ICAC, ACT Grants in collaboration with the government and the startup community is looking to push for the wider adoption of clean air technologies, and de-risk technology adoption for the government and industry, while also creating a highly supportive global ecosystem. The challenge has been designed as a multi-year system to support the government’s clean air programs, engage the public in acting for clean air and bring innovations that can deliver clean air at scale to mainstream markets.

This challenge was designed with the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA), state governments, and the Air Pollution Action Group (A-PAG). Social Alpha is the incubation and acceleration partner. The problem statements were defined in consultation with the government, to be aligned with the priorities of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), state governments, and municipal corporations.

“ICAC is a timely initiative by ACT and Social Alpha to identify, engage, and nurture bold innovators in the clean air space using a challenge-based approach. To combat the issue of air pollution and climate change, it is imperative to foster cost-effective and cutting-edge technological innovations which can be rapidly deployed and scaled in our cities. The Smart Cities Mission’s City Innovation eXchange (CIX) platform helps cities discover and adopt innovation in clean air, by institutionalising matchmaking between cities and startups. This partnership shall enable entrepreneurs who are part of ICAC to pilot their innovations in select cities, providing a pathway for cities and startups to co-create solutions for cleaner air,” says Kunal Kumar, Joint Secretary and Mission Director, Smart Cities Mission (MoHUA).

Nearly 150 innovators building solutions across mobility and transport, green building and energy efficiency, waste management, agriculture, industrial decarbonisation, and pollution monitoring and management applied over the course of six weeks.

How it worked

Applications from startups were evaluated on the basis of technical viability, readiness to deploy, business viability, ability to create impact at scale, and alignment with government needs. Solutions that had the potential to have an outsized impact on air quality, were scalable within geographies, were transferable to other localities, and had a sustainable business model were the ones that created the maximum impact at the awards.

The evaluation of applicants was conducted by ACT Environment and Green Artha, while Social Alpha led the evaluation of early-stage tracks. Applicants went through three rounds of assessment including a technical round. The final stage of the evaluation was conducted by a jury that consisted of representatives from key partners, the government, investors and technical experts.

Members of the jury included A-PAG’s Ashish Dhawan and Mohit Beotra, Sequoia India’s GV Ravishankar and Gayatri Yadav, Accel’s Prashanth Prakash, Naukri’s Sanjeev Bhikchandani, Environmental Defense Fund’s Hisham Mundol, Brigade Group’s Pavitra Shankar, Meeta Narsinghani of Circulate Capital, and more.

Here’s a look at some of the winners:

1. Brisil’s patented technology produces commercial-grade green silica and highly-porous carbon/activated carbon from biomass waste, which can act as a full substitute for their traditionally produced counterparts and reduce the environmental impacts of both sand mining and rice husk ash particulate matter that cause air pollution.

2. A2P Energy has launched a biomass sales/trading platform named Carbon2Climate that can match commercial and industrial biomass demands with biofuels, meeting quality and quantity specifications.

3. AP Chemi has a patented process to remove organic contaminants from pyrolysis oils to produce PUROIL, which is the feedstock for the production of retail-blended biofuels, circular polymers, and sustainable chemicals. Their technology can reduce dependence on crude oil, in addition to creating green fuels and circularity in plastics.

4. PiGreen’s “filterless” technology works effectively to reduce PM emissions from sources such as DG sets, heavy vehicles, crematoriums, jaggery units etc as well as from ambient air. Their technology cuts down over 90% of particulate matter (PM) at the source, captures the smallest PM (PM2.5 - PM10) and stores it in a separate container in powder form.

5. Bounce/Twenty Two Motors is scaling out a battery-swapping, Battery-as-a-Service model to address range anxiety and EV costs. By solving these two concerns, they will accelerate the mainstream adoption of EVs and impact vehicular emissions across cities.

6. Nurture.farm is building an independent, open, digital platform that brings together all services that a farmer needs - technology, solutions and finance and will be partnering with ACT and its government partners to identify, demonstrate, and scale on-farm solutions to address the problem of stubble burning.

For the later stage winners, ACT Grants, along with APAG, is facilitating funded demonstrations with a relevant government body. Demonstrations will be structured to simultaneously improve air quality and demonstrate the technical and economic viability of the winning solutions. In addition, winners will be provided corporate and SME showcases, business advisory on financing and structuring, market access and branding strategy through ACT’s team and the ICAC partners – Environmental Defense Fund, Institute for Sustainable Communities, World Resources Institute and BBDO.

Early-stage solutions that were selected for incubation and acceleration by Social Alpha were:

1. Panjurli Labs: Thin-film air filtration technology is a patent-pending technology, used in developing products like indoor air purifiers, outdoor carbon capture systems and construction and industrial dust collection systems.

2. Prayogik Technologies: Prayogik has indigenously developed their product TMSG-DC (Thermoelectric Module Static Generator DC Power) to convert waste into energy, with the ability to integrate with hybrid solar power systems.

3. F5 CleanTech: This Air Cleanser not only purifies the air but also enriches it with negative ions

4. Takachar: This startup has developed small-scale, low-cost, portable equipment that can process crop and forest residues in situ, enabling rural communities to earn extra income while preventing air pollution from the open burning of these residues.

5. Ubreathe: This is a plant-based air purifier, which purifies the air from contaminants like suspended particulate matter and other toxic gases categorized as TVOCs while leaving no carbon footprint behind.

6. Airveda: Airveda has built end-to-end air quality monitoring solutions for both indoor and outdoor environments, with both in-house hardware and software development.

Start-ups at the acceleration stage will be supported through a pilot grant of up to INR 20 Lakhs in addition to technology and market access, business, and marketing support. The pilot will be facilitated in partnership with the Smart Cities Mission. The winning cohort will have the opportunity to participate in a demo showcase with representation from the CEOs of Smart Cities Missions from across India.

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