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Darden Graduates Light Up Indian Villages

Two years after forming their business, MBA duo are powering 35 villages with renewable gas

By  Sunny Li

Sat Aug 29 2009

Over 50,000 villagers in rural India have been brought out of darkness, thanks to Husk Power Systems, a business set up by two Darden School of Business graduates two years ago.   

Chip Ransler, 31, and Manoj Sinha, 32, have built ten miniature power plants that make biogas from rice husks, a waste product of rice farming. The power plants heat rice husks to create power similar to gas, and are able to supply 300 to 500 households for eight to ten hours a day. 

The business now employs 40 people, mostly in India, and has received a raft of plaudits in the U.S, from winning nearly $100,000 in three national business plan competitions, to Ransler and Sinha being named “Social Entrepreneurs of the Year” by Fast Company magazine.

Sinha grew up in rural Bihar, one of India’s poorest states, where some of his relatives still live without electricity. He worked for Intel for a few years after graduating from the University of Massachusetts with a degree in electrical engineering. After leaving Intel he began looking seriously at ways of turning farm waste into electricity.

He met his business-partner, fellow student Ransler, when he joined Darden School of Business in 2007. Before starting business school, Ransler ran Topik Solutions, a software company. “We’re extremely passionate about giving back to India,” he says. “Manoj wanted to use the skills he learned in the U.S to help people in India. So we sat down and thought: what can our skill help? And Where?”

During a four-month “technology trip” to India, Sinha and the two India-based Husk Power partners; Gyanesh Pandey and Ratnesh Yadav; trained a group of local employees to operate the husk-fuelled gasifiers. They now aim to roll out one new unit every week, to meet the company's goal of installing 20 new power plants by 2009 and 70 by 2010.

According to Ransler, the business is growing rapidly: “Last October we had two plants; now we have ten plants, powering 50,000 people,” he says.

Residents of the village of Tamkuha in northeastern India gather around the Husk Power generator that gasifies rice husks to provide electricity for their village.

This summer, Husk Power Systems was selected to enter a ten-week Darden Business Incubator, a program designed to help start-up businesses. As well as $13,000 in funds, the company will benefit from the expertise of the Darden community and networking opportunities.

“Our Incubator gave them financial backing, mentoring and a community of entrepreneurs to support them,” says Philippe Sommer, director the Incubator, which has launched 60 companies over its eight year history, “I think they have created an interesting model for a business in which they can both do good and do well,” he adds.

But setting up operations seven thousand miles from their Charlottesville, VA headquarters hasn’t been easy. Ransler describes the process of building the power plants in India as the toughest part of the business so far. Training people with diverse backgrounds and education levels wasn't easy, and it was also hard to convince authorities in some of the extremely poor districts that Husk Power could help.

However the Kentuckian is hopeful of expanding two thousand plants, six thousand employees and millions of customers by 2014: “We want to be the world's leader in off-grid power systems... reaching people that the big power plants aren’t getting to,” he says.

There are 500 million people in India and 1.6 billion people globally without access to electricity: a quarter of the world's population. Ransler and Sinha have set their sights on expanding to other developing countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Vietnam and in Latin America and the Caribbean.

“People in those regions need tools to get out of poverty,” Ransler says. “[Eventually] we want to bring the world out of darkness.”