EnNatura's founders tell their story

As interest in environmental issues grows, more and more industries are responding to an increasing demand for eco-friendly products.

Although the use of recycled paper has become commonplace, less attention has been paid to the inks used by the printing industry. This is starting to change, with the creation of a new generation of inks that are claimed to be kinder to the environment.

One company at the forefront of these developments is EnNatura. This Delhi-based start-up makes a biodegradable ink that the company claims also has other benefits, such as making the process of cleaning printing machinery both easier and more environmentally-friendly.

Initially, however, co-founders Sidhartha Bhimania and Krishna Gopal Singh did not set out to create a manufacturing business.

The two friends were students at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). "I never thought of being an entrepreneur," says Mr Singh. "I had a plan of getting into the academics."

The chief technology officer of EnNatura was doing a PhD when his friend returned from studying in the US.

For Mr Singh, the thrill of creating something "which makes an impact, rather than just publishing papers" proved too alluring. "[It] just pulled me away from the academics and I started this company with Sidhartha," he says.

"[Sidhartha] came back and he had this idea," Mr Singh recalls. "I started helping him out on the technology front and slowly I just got interested in the whole thing."

Mr Bhimania says: "I came back because I wanted to develop a company out of India, in the area of materials. The drive was there - more of an entrepreneurial drive."

It took them a while to find their feet. "We were just dabbling into a number of areas, looking from oil exploration to effluent treatment," remembers Mr Bhimania.

But he was also intrigued by work under way at IIT into developing new kinds of printing inks, and decided to settle on this as the basis for the new company.

"Looking at the resources at hand, this was the most easiest we could tackle because we did not have enough money to begin with," says the CEO of EnNatura. "I did not have a lot of lab space and market access, which is required for the other two opportunities."

Breaking the mould

According to Mr Bhimania, the conventional printing process makes use of a lot of petroleum-based chemicals and solvents.

"These solvents are responsible [for] photochemical smog formation and ozone depletion as well as [being] hazardous to the printers, printers who are working in the industry," he says.

The duo's biggest challenge was to create an ink that would not only be eco-friendly - but which would also have the vivid colours of conventional ink.

"That is always an apprehension, even in the minds of the printers that… if they're going for biodegradable or eco-friendly stuff, will it be of the same quality as the petroleum-based products," says Mr Bhimania.

Mr Singh says they solved this by developing their own resin. "The resin is the key thing in the ink," he asserts. Other manufactures were "just picking up resin off the shelf and… making ink out of it" but "the available resin… were not good enough to give good printing properties".

Be persuasive

Krishna Gopal Singh and Sidhartha Bhimania set up EnNatura with a government grant, which provided them with a financial launch pad.

They say angel investors in India are reluctant to fund manufacturing start-ups - as opposed to those developing software - especially when they're at such an early stage.

"We hit the road with that money," says Mr Bhimania. After developing their own resin, they started to manufacture the ink themselves by outsourcing the process to small ink companies in Delhi.

Image caption Investors were reluctant to fund a manufaturing start-up; EnNatura was set up with a government grant

"It was just a bootstrap kind of operation," remembers Sidhartha Bhimania. "This was how we... were able to go through the manufacturing phase without putting a lot of capital expenditure."

Convincing companies to buy their ink, however, was tougher. "Initially, we were just paying them to use the ink," he recalls. By the time the orders were coming in, the pair had run out of money to expand their operation.

"Their demands were at least ten times what we would be able to supply," says Sidhartha Bhimania. It was the classic chicken-and-egg situation: "We needed money to scale up the manufacturing [but] we had no money, because the sales were not there."

Eventually they decided to bypass the problem of selling directly to the printers. Instead, they targeted publishers such as NGOs who were interested in environmental issues.

The backing of sympathetic customers helped the company to make progress, and now the two entrepreneurs say they have "hit that right model" where they can make a healthy profit.

'Don't do it for the money'

It's important to spot small differences that can have a massive impact when launching a business, says Mr Bimania.

Both men admit that redefining their customer base was a strategic business move. Even so, Krishna Gopal Singh cautions that starting up a company is tough. "Be very patient. It always takes more time and more money," he warns.

They confess that despite a professional business plan drawn up by "experienced people" it took them four, rather than the predicted two years, to launch EnNatura.

In business, it's essential you "don't do it for money", says Sidhartha Bhimania. "Just do it for the right reasons," he advises.

"That you want to build a company, want to build the technology to impact people's lives - because that's going to see you through."