At first glance, they look like art installations. Gleaming rods sprouting from the ground and staring at the sky with gaping mouths, like upturned mushrooms.
The Ulta Chaata – Hindi for ‘inverted umbrella’ – is an aesthetic piece of work in stainless steel. You would be hard put to guess it’s green tech for industrial use, that is, a device that generates clean water and energy.
It collects rain from the sky, filters the rainwater, and converts it into potable water. When it’s not raining, the device is a source of solar energy. You could even sit in its shade for a cup of coffee.
“In India, green technology for industrial use is dull and has zero design aspect to it,” says Samit Choksi, founder of Mumbai-based sustainable products firm ThinkPhi, which makes the Ulta Chaata.
“Companies spend money on green technology, but it is not visible. Solar, for instance, is a norm now, but you don’t ‘see’ it. Customers and employees will not climb onto the roof to see the solar panels a company has installed!” he tells Tech in Asia.
ThinkPhi, started by Samit and his architect wife Priya Vakil Choksi in 2015, is hoping to change that.
Since the company started marketing in November last year, it has bagged eight clients, including five blue-chip companies. Its projects are coming up in Pune, Gujarat, and Hyderabad, and it is in talks with a global furniture chain (take a smart guess, which one!) to set foot in the US.
Designs on green tech
Samit, a software architect and developer who studied at United World Colleges in Singapore, has no qualms admitting that Ulta Chaata was really Priya’s brainchild. Priya worked at architecture firm John Portman before starting her own green building consulting firm EdEn in 2009.
The couple have variously lived and worked in Singapore, the UK, the US, and India. The Ulta Chaata was born out of their passion for reducing climate change.
Samit says the initial model just allowed the harvesting of rainwater, which means it was useful only in the monsoon months. “We wanted to create a structure that was good looking, would require minimum area on ground and maximum area on top.”
That – and some inspiration from canopies at international airports – led to the umbrella-like shape.
Industrial giant Godrej was among its first few clients. “We got a bit of money from the Godrej deal, and decided to add other components. That is how we ended up integrating solar energy panels. Now the product is functional 365 days, not just during the rains.”
Built over a small 0.5 sq m foundation, the Ulta Chaata requires a 75 mm piping channel for the energy and water lines to be connected to a factory’s grid. A campus would, however, need to install at least five of them to be viable. “We can install only on a 300-sq-foot campus or more,” says Samit, a former Oracle employee.
A single structure can produce about 100,000 liters of drinking water – there are four levels of filtration before you can drink it – during one monsoon.
The base version of the product also generates 300 W of power. The more evolved ‘bolt’ version can go up to 2 KWP of solar cells.
Once installed, they can be monitored through a smart connector device called the Phi-Box (for instance, it will indicate when it is time to change the filters or how much water has been collected). One box can monitor 15 umbrellas at a time.
An area of 25 sq m covered with the Ulta Chaata can provide shaded seating for about 15 people.
From industry to consumer
“We charge companies around US$24 per sq foot,” says Samit, adding it is a highly profitable business. “If we get the volumes (a minimum of 150 units, which they hope to sell by this year), then we are looking at high margins because the fixed cost doesn’t change much.”
Last year, the company raised an angel round.
The Ulta Chaata is a retrofit product, meaning it can be installed at the planning stage or at an existing factory.
Samit cites the example of a Mahindra automobiles factory. “They had installed solar, but it was ‘invisible.’ Employees, suppliers, customers were not fully aware of the installation and Mahindra’s investments in environmental technologies,” he says.
The auto major was in the process of getting green certifications for one of its buildings, so it decided to try the Ulta Chaata.
“It was purchased as a test unit, so it was not our highest version. The power from it can be used for internal lighting, sensors, and the attached workstation. The response was good enough for them to budget 10 more units across various locations, to be installed in the first part of this year,” says Indresh Kumar, head of business development at ThinkPhi.
Samit hopes to start shipping outside India in this year. But that’s not all.
“But we, in India, are sitting in the market where it potentially has the biggest users.”
ThinkPhi’s next product will thus target the consumer market – with something on the lines of food recycler Zera.
“We are still a few months into design and development, so I cannot share more. But I can say it is built for homes and will help manage and reduce waste.”
“Sustainability is a corporate buzzword which companies use to get environment credits or brand value, but through the products designed and built at ThinkPhi, we allow average people to experience what being sustainable means,” says Samit.