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Lancaster MBA: From Indian Dotcom to UK Waste Water

Afer running Indian telecoms star MobMe, Manoj Krishnapillai is greening UK waste water treatment

Thu Aug 12 2010

We interviewed an IT/telecoms entrepreneur from the backwaters of Kerala, Southern India, to find out how he ended up launching a green tech firm out of Lancaster, UK.  Read on - it's a page-turner for anyone with an entrepreneurial spirit.

Riding the telecoms wave in India

Manoj Krishnapillai is from Trivandrum, Kerala, a beautiful coastal state in SouthWest India. Krishnapillai was studying a Masters in Electronic Science at the Mahatma Gandhi University, when he joined forces with a bunch of engineering students to propose a new marketing idea to Indian telecoms operator Hutch (now Vodafone Essar). Early in 2005, the group was hired by Hutch to increase cell phone subscriptions from college students in India.

Setting-up shop in Kerala

Energised by the success of this telecoms project, the team decided to register a company in August 2005 (TORQUE), and set up shop in TechnoPark, one of the biggest IT parks in India as well as a business incubator providing office space and basic infrastructure for start-ups. They gunned ahead, hired more people and started working on mobile phone applications, but treaded water for a few months whilst "nothing really took off". The team were determined to buck a trend in Kerala - a state with few tech entrepreneurs, strong trade unions, an unfriendly investment climate and family pressure to work for big companies - and stay focused on finding a new telecoms technology to bring to market. After several months the initial payouts from the Vodafone campaign were dwindling and being from middle class backgrounds the TORQUE team couldn't raise funds from immediate family to cover their operating costs. The following year was incredibly tough.

The big idea

Finally the light at the end of the tunnel came in 2006 when the group stumbled across the concept of sending condensed multi-media from mobile phones via the internet. They got their previous supporter Vodafone on board and soon sold the idea to all the major phone networks in India. They raised two tranches of funding - an impressive half a million dollars each time – from Indians living overseas. TORQUE then rebranded as MobME and started licensing their various platforms to mobile operators, news agencies and various government bodies in India and abroad – their new technology proved helpful for crime reporting as anyone can upload an image from anywhere.

The big time

By 2007 the boys had hit the 'big time'. MobME was named in the top 100 most innovative start-ups in India by NASSCOM, the team had attracted some impressive mentors (including the CEO of Infosys and VPs of Google and Nortel) and they were making headlines in the newspapers every week. International recognition came a year later when, in 2008, MobME was selected by the Wall Street Journal as one of the companies "to watch" in India.

From telecoms to green tech

Three and a half years on Krishnapillai decided he wanted to shift his career from IT/ Telecoms to environmental technology entrepreneurship. He had developed a personal passion for climate change and renewable energies, but realised it was difficult to pursue work in these fields in India. So Krishnapillai started researching foreign universities and scholarship programs. It was at this stage he first became aware of Lancaster University Management School (LUMS).

Choosing the Lancaster MBA

Krishnapillai quickly fell in love with the idea of Lancaster, which hosts some of the best on-campus business incubation facilities, including the Lancaster Environment Centre (LEC), one of the biggest environmental incubators in Europe. Despite receiving offers from other top UK MBA programs, he picked the Lancaster MBA, and was lucky enough to be awarded a British Chevening Scholarship to cover his tuition and living expenses for the one-year Masters. He moved from SouthWest India to NorthWest UK in September 2009.

Mother earth

Now in the home-stretch of his MBA, writing his dissertation, Krishnapillai is preparing for his next entrepreneurial venture: Gaea Naturals (the Greek for 'Mother Earth'). Along with two fellow Lancaster students, Sonu Bubna and Shams Qamar Usmani, this threesome hope to become the “market leader in the UK for water treatment technologies ". Their idea has already won recognition at the prestigious university business plan competition hosted at Rice University in Houston, Texas earlier this year: Gaea Naturals made it to the top 15 out of 400 globally. Their first product will be a biological purification technology, that uses a special strain of bacteria to eliminate contaminants from water. Usmani is the brain behind the product - he's been working on the biological treatment of waste water for the last three years and is currently doing his research at the Lancaster Environment Centre . Krishnapillai and Bubna provide the commercial skills for this start-up, and if MobME is anything to go by, no doubt it will be a huge success.