Promethean Founder Returns From India With Lessons For Entrepreneurs

Xconomy Boston — 

When Promethean Power Systems’ founders wrote the original business plan for their cleantech startup at MIT, they intended to sell their products in India first. But none of them had ever set foot on Indian soil.

After winning $10,000 as the runner-up in the MIT $100K pitch competition in 2007, co-founders Sorin Grama and Sam White decided it was time to visit their target market, Grama says.

“The reality was a lot different than what we had put in our business plan,” Grama (pictured above, left) says. “So different, in fact, that nobody wanted this contraption we were building”—a system that would harness the sun’s energy to produce hot water and electricity. “We realized we were just another classic case of a solution looking for a problem to solve.”

They found a problem by chance, Grama says, during a meeting in India with the managing director of a dairy business. He described the difficulty in efficiently collecting milk from farmers in small villages, and keeping it fresh.

India’s electrical grid provides inconsistent power to rural villages, so the local milk industry lacks the reliable electricity supply needed to run refrigeration systems. Milk processing centers either go without those systems, risking spoiled milk, or they purchase diesel power generators to run conventional milk chillers—an expensive option that isn’t environmentally friendly.

After Grama and White heard about these challenges from several dairy businesses, they switched gears and began developing chilling machines that eliminate the need for the diesel generators. The key to what they came up with is a thermal energy battery that employs a phase-changing process to capture energy when the grid is pumping out electricity and store it to power the chiller when electricity isn’t available.

Promethean initially set up shop in Cambridge, MA, becoming a founding company in the Greentown Labs cleantech incubator now located in nearby Somerville, Grama says. The startup also established a sister business and manufacturing operation in India.

The story of Grama and his company offers a window into what it’s like building a startup in a developing country, and his experience holds lessons for other entrepreneurs.

Sam White (left) and Sorin Grama

Sam White (left) and Sorin Grama. Photo courtesy of Sorin Grama.

For several years, Grama, the company’s chief technology officer and principal inventor of its tech, traveled back and forth between Boston and India. After Promethean established a presence in India, he would spend about two to three months at a time there testing prototypes, then return to Boston to make tweaks to the design.

“We were trying to run the business from Boston,” Grama says. That would be easier with, say, a software startup. But Promethean was developing high-tech equipment that required a lot of trial and error and in-person meetings with customers to get it right.

“It seemed like we were missing a lot of things” by trying to run the business remotely, Grama says. “Without being there, it’s hard to do this kind of business in a developing country.”

Eventually, Grama decided he needed to be there full time. His then-fiancé—journalist Bianca Vazquez Toness, now his wife of nearly four years—agreed to quit her job at WBUR, and they moved to India in September 2012. It was a bold leap, moving across the world to build a risky startup.

“It was crazy,” Grama says. “It was an adventure. I don’t regret it. I think it was a very great experience, but it was a tough life.”

Grama and his wife lived in India for about three and a half years, first in Mumbai and then in Delhi. In each city, they carved out a new life from scratch—they bought new furniture, they made new friends, his wife found work, and so on. “We were able to adapt,” Grama says.

When they lived in Mumbai, Grama had a tough drive to reach Promethean’s facility. “It was a pothole-ridden road, and in a monsoon it could easily take one and a half hours to get there,” he says. (Bostonians can relate to the long commute, if not the conditions.)

For a manufacturing-intensive business like his, India offered some advantages over the U.S. For one, regulations are more relaxed. “We could go try something out without having to apply for a million permits,” Grama says.

But running a business in India brought plenty of challenges, too. Machine parts often arrived late from supply partners, and customers didn’t always pay Promethean on time. Grama says it was also tough to find and hire talented people, particularly middle managers. India businesses have a “traditional corporate structure” and culture, “so when you’re a startup like this, it’s hard to find people who are open-minded and willing to work in a more collaborative environment,” he says.

Grama also says he learned the hard way that everything is negotiable in India, where haggling is “a way of life, a sport, almost.”

“If you don’t negotiate, you’ll be considered naïve,” he says. “I made the mistake once of going into a customer meeting with a ‘firm’ price in mind for our systems, only to come out with a much lower price. The negotiating process is both ruthless and amicable at the same time.”

On days when things weren’t going well with the business, Grama says he drew motivation from the impact Promethean’s chillers were having on people. Local farmers make more money, more fresh milk gets delivered to consumers, and diesel generator use gets reduced, he says.

A woman milks a cow in southeastern India. Photo courtesy of Sorin Grama and Lance Casey.

A woman milks a cow in southeastern India. Photo courtesy of Sorin Grama and Lance Casey.

“Here I could work in a U.S. corporation, and I know I can make an American customer slightly better off,” Grama says. But with Promethean, “you’re making a farmer who’s making very little money, much better off. Eight hours of your day produces a higher impact.”

Sales haven’t come easy, but Promethean—which has raised about $4 million from investors—started gaining more traction after … Next Page »

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