U students win 2010 Acara Challenge

The Bioserv business plan focuses on bringing clean energy to rural India.
By
  • Ashley Bray
June 30, 2010

When he won the 2010 Acara Challenge in May, University of Minnesota senior Anthony Jakubiak said he felt "disbelief and ecstatic joy" after defeating 14 other teams from universities across the nation.

Jakubiak, a member of the team BioServ, spent two days prior to the final judging without sleep, making changes to a 29-page business plan that addressed the need for Indians in the village of Charba to get rid of the pollutants in the fuel they cook with and create a sustainable solution. The majority of Charba citizens use biomass, which is a significant source of indoor air pollution.

The plan was a part of the 2010 Acara Challenge, a competition between 14 universities in the United States and India for which students develop sustainable solutions and business models that address the world’s most challenging social issues.

The competition is hosted by the Acara Institute, an organization partnered with the University’s Institute on the Environment, whose mission is to help create business plans that will have a social impact, especially in emerging countries, said Fred Rose, Acara CEO and co-founder and coordinator for the IonE.

Those involved must take a University course affiliated with the challenge and work in the country on which their plan is focused. The winners must undergo further training at the Acara Institute to refine their business plan.

This year, students were prompted to develop solutions to clean water or energy problems in India. Teams from universities across the country were paired with teams from Indian universities by Acara staff, Jakubiak said.

The University of Minnesota’s team, BioServ, was paired with a group of students from the Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee who were the "cream of the crop," Jakubiak said.

The team’s business, also called BioServ, converts biomass — cow manure that is currently used in cooking — into a cleaner-burning gas called biogas. The business plan includes a three-fold process.

First, BioServ would hire and train technicians from the community to repair and perform maintenance on existing biogas plants. One of the biggest issues Jakubiak said he saw in India was many of the existing plants were having blockage issues and gas wasn’t coming out steadily.

The company would also refurbish old plants that are no longer being used, a task that would be carried out by the local technicians BioServ would hire.

Finally, the business would help families purchase their own biogas plants — the size of a large filing cabinet — through a lease-to-own program. This would allow villagers otherwise unable to afford to cook with biogas to do so. The lease-to-own plan would also allow two neighboring families to pool their resources and share a plant.

While BioServ would be a for-profit business, "the number-one focus is to make the biggest social impact as possible," said Judd Eder, a BioServ team member and student in the Carlson School of Management.

"The primary focus is making people’s lives healthier," Eder said. "It helps people avoid breathing in the cow dung they are currently cooking with, which has horrible health impacts."

Indoor smoke created by burning biomass is the fourth leading cause of death in developing nations, according to the World Health Organization.

In rural Indian villages, the health impact of such indoor air pollution is even worse than in other countries. Each year, 550,000 premature deaths among children under the age of five and women are caused by exposure to indoor air pollution, according to BioServ’s business plan.

The biogas plants convert biomass by breaking down bacteria through a method similar to the human digestive system. The user inserts biomass, cow manure and water into the plant, which releases a methane gas that contains four times the amount of energy of the original product, in addition to fertilizer that can be used to grow crops.

But the team ran into a few problems in India. As they had predicted, many of the families in the village had plants already, but they were in disrepair.

"We discovered that the people having those problems were servicing their plants themselves," Jakubiak said, "and now we get into a little conundrum."

The plan originally called for the technicians hired by BioServ to fix existing plants, but it may be difficult for the team to convince the villagers that their service is better than the repairs they do themselves, especially since self-repair is free.

"It is hard to compete with ‘free’ in India," Jakubiak said. "What they see is, ‘Oh, I’ve fixed the problem,’ but really, they are putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound."

The next step for the team, which returned home last Sunday, will be to address such problems in their business plan, which they will work on through July. This time, the team’s partners from IIT-Roorkee will visit the University to help with the changes.

Although the team’s partnership with Acara ends in July, the Institute will continue to help the team find funding to launch BioServ if it needs it, Rose, Acara’s CEO, said.

The BioServ team plans to go back to India within the next six months to test and install the biogas plants.

"These plants really positively impact people’s lives," Eder said, "so the business impact comes on the back end. We want to empower the community to run this sustainable business so it becomes a focus in the local community."

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