This woman entrepreneur’s agritech startup aims to make food on your plate safe, one ingredient at a time
It took three meetings to change Manasa Gonchigar’s thoughts and veer her towards entrepreneurship.
“The first was with MARS International, where I understood the issues of aflatoxin (a fungal carcinogen), and its detection in maize. With my training in applied optics, I could easily place the solution together in my mind. But, this did not mean much before I met with ICRISAT scientists,” she explains.
At her meeting with ICRISAT scientists, Dr Hari Sudini and Dr Srikanth Rupavatharam, Manasa understood the larger situation and the issues pertaining to aflatoxin. ICRISAT had led research on aflatoxin since the 80s and was very open about the solutions required.
The third meeting with Pavan Agarwal, the CEO of FSSAI in Delhi, gave her a good understanding of the issues of adulteration, toxins, chemicals, etc., in food, and how they are tested today. This was the final piece of the puzzle, which strengthened her vision of building and innovating towards making food on everyone’s plate safe.
These three meetings laid the foundation for PureScan AI and its product AflaScan — an optical device — which does rapid aflatoxin assessment in maize and peanuts (soon for chillies and dry fruits, too). AflaScan helps exporters, traders, processing companies, and retailers to take risk-free and quick decisions on transactions and procurements.
For context, aflatoxin is a major fungal carcinogen, which can easily affect crops and has shown high presence in crops, including peanuts, maize, dry fruits (figs, almonds, pistachios), and seeds (sunflower, pumpkin, and the like). The amount of aflatoxins consumed contributes to the mutagenic, carcinogenic, teratogenic, and immunosuppressive health effects in the body.
Manasa grew up in different places all around Karnataka — Bengaluru, Mangaluru, Chitradurga, and Hosur — which gave her a good understanding of urban, semi-urban, and rural life early on. She studied Applied Physics at IIT-Madras, and also worked as an associate researcher at the institute.
Understanding health and the market
Aflatoxin is mostly found in maize, peanuts and chillies.
While studying Applied Physics, Manasa developed a keen interest in interdisciplinary work.
She and her co-founder Ayush Nigam were both well exposed to the agritech space. Ayush had already built a startup in farm-mechanisation. They met at an alumni meet in 2018, wherein they discussed their work and plans.
In fact, the duo also collaborated on another small project before starting PureScan AI. Apart from that, both of them were health “freaks” and were very keen to understand what was in their food. And then, the three meetings happened.
“Our first step of understanding the market completely through travel helped in piecing together different business models for different kinds of products (cost and technology-wise). We started R&D on three different methods of diagnosis of aflatoxin. During this phase, we chose to work in Chennai with the support of IIT-M and Hyderabad with ICRISAT,” she says.
“The next step was to help establish a quality-based agri-produce trading platform. Currently available for peanuts and maize, we plan to expand soon into other crops. This will help incentivise the producers and traders to put an effort towards quality upkeep, and hence move the system towards safer food. This will be a platform-based service offering and will cater to sellers (farmers and traders) and buyers (processing units, exporter, traders, retailers). To implement this, we tie up with farmer groups and bring with us a pool of buyers. Here, we take a small transaction cut as our service fee,” she adds.
Towards better food safety
AflaScan provides spectroscopic (UV) easy scan technology and non-destructive aflatoxin detection
at low capital cost.
PureScan’s market is huge as food safety is a major concern across the world. Manasa says its initial product offering makes it the sole player in aflatoxin assessment technologies internationally. The market in India, alone at a 15 percent adoption rate, is at about $870 million for product sale.
“Our major customers are the supply chain entities involved with crops like maize and peanuts. The primary customers include clearance and forwarding agents, traders, produce-storage facilities, food processing industries, etc., who would greatly benefit from the low-cost and time-saving benefits of our product,” she says.
Adding, “PureScan will also help the regulatory bodies in the food industry in the easy monitoring and maintenance of the regulations in the entirety of the supply chain. Exporters of agri-produce are also our prospective primary customers in the space. As there can be stringent quality regulations surrounding exports, our detection technology would help them in the process at reduced costs.”
Safe and good quality crops
PureScan’s revenue model for its product is two-fold — one, direct revenue from the sale of the product, and second, a price per test that it charges. The current price of the product is Rs 50,000 with a cost per test of Rs 8.
While the startup has both local and global competitors working towards food safety, Manasa says PureScan AI is in the aflatoxin detection space. However, others provide less/no focus on aflatoxin.
“Most of our competitors are mainly focused on grading and sorting of agri-produce, whereas we focus on quality detection in the produce to ensure that the food getting on your plate is safe and of good quality. The spectroscopy technology we bring into the aflatoxin detection eliminates the need for current techniques, and brings in more efficiency,” she adds.
By the end of 2021, the startup will be patent-protecting its algorithm for aflatoxin detection, which, according to the co-founders, would deter new competition.
The startup was initially supported by grants by the Government of India for R&D and to develop technology. Post this, it won the Inspire 2020 award in October by the CGIAR Bigdata platform with a grant of $100,000 for piloting new business models. It has also been part of entrepreneur cohorts by Pusa Krishi, SINE and VentureLab, and Qualcomm.
“Pusa Krishi’s Arise programme taught us how agritech space works; SINE and VentureLab’s (Switzerland) AIT programme helped us understand how to build for a global market. And, Qualcomm’s QWEIN programme helped us understand how to streamline and systemise for quick but organic growth on all fronts,” says Manasa.
The team comprises of data scientists and IoT experts. For sales and business development, it has a “mover” model in place, wherein the employee rightly incentivised based on work. It also has in place an internship model and a fellowship model (for social work) for short-term HR needs. “We have also stressed upon placing the right culture in the organisation right from the start,” the co-founder claims.
COVID-19 put a standstill on its data collection for technology development that included going down to processing facilities and warehouses to obtain samples for aflatoxin assessments. This caused a delay of two-three months, and also demanded twice as much effort, where the entire data collection process was made virtual (through postal services and video conferences).
PureScan AI’s future plan involves three stages.
“In the current stage, we are focussing on aflatoxin detection technologies and spreading out in the same domain. The next phase will focus on different food safety issues and build solutions for the same. We also seek to go global and start technology licensing during this phase. The next phase would be to build simple consumer products for food safety detection. This will give the food system the highest level of accountability and will help make the food on our plate safe,” Manasa adds.