How GreyOrange and Carbon Clean are using innovation to solve global challenges | Blume Day

In a panel hosted by Blume's co-founder and partner Sanjay Nath, GreyOrange's Akash Gupta and Carbon Clean's Aniruddha Sharma spoke about how their respective companies approach pressing global problems 

Both being a part of Blume's Fund 1, they discussed their journey from starting up in India to moving to a more global outlook, the key pivots that their companies had to make, and some golden advice for budding entrepreneurs. 

Sanjay Nath: Thank you, Sarita. This is a really tough act to follow. If you ask me, I would love to watch that video again. I've watched it four times and it's absolutely amazing.

But just getting into it. First of all, welcome everybody to Blume Day. This is a very special panel around a special theme. So welcome Akash. Akash is the founder and CEO of GreyOrange and Aniruddha is the founder and CEO of Carbon Clean. 

Just to kick it off some interesting, parallel threads of context. Both Fund One companies, both deep tech innovations built in India for the world, and both started straight out of campus. BITS Pilani in Akash's case and IIT Kharagpur in Aniruddha's case. 

It'll be great, Aniruddha, we'll start with you. Maybe if you could just summarize the world class innovation that you're building from here, for India today, describe your mission, purpose and also recount that first, going back 10 years, what was that first moment when you realized that this had to be a global stage and you had to be in a cross-border environment building from India for the world. So, we'll start off with you.

Aniruddha: Thank you, Sanjay, and I think it's great to be here. Thanks to the whole Blume team and my heart felt big thanks to Mr. Nath who is sitting there. I still remember the first investment in our company came from Mr. Nath and Mrs. Nath's account when Blume was not even formed.

To answer your question Carbon Clean is a revolutionizing industrial decarbonization. We are building the fourth pillar of the two trillion dollar decarbonization industry.

We are a company focused on decarbonizing large scale power plants, chemical plants, steel plants, refineries, and oil and gas facilities. We take the carbon dioxide from the smokestack of these polluters, and we convert it into a chemical that they can then sell into the market. 

Today, we are present in 12 countries. We have 49 operating sites all over the world. We have delivered 2 million tons of CO2 captured to date and we are now looking towards capturing and abating about a billion tons of carbon dioxide over the period of the next 10 years. 

To answer your question on what was that trigger, I think that trigger for us was 2nd April 2012, when Karthik introduced me to a scout from the British government, who was actually in India looking for interesting companies. And I met this guy and he said, "Oh, in the UK, we are just about to launch a large funding competition for companies interested in this space and we would love for you to be there." 

And I'd never been to the UK, and people on my board were literally a firing squad. "What? For this opportunity, you don't want to go to the UK?" And the next day, I was there. And in 15 days, we got, 4 million pounds/ 6 million dollar grant from the British government. That was a trigger for us that made me realize that clean tech companies are global from day one, they can't be local.

Sanjay Nath: Akash, GreyOrange's journey started from Gurgaon, so over to you.

Akash Gupta: Sure, thanks Sanjay. Thanks to the Blume team for having me here. I think from GreyOrange's perspective, our journey started with robotic automation in a warehouse. We have evolved it to a large part of, I would say, consumer to manufacture transactions and making them more efficient across retail warehouses and a large part of the supply chain journey.

And for us, the thought process of going global was, I would say, fairly clear from early days. Of course, the journey we took was different from normal journeys people take, from starting with the U.S. and then starting building, all across.

We started with Southeast Asia, Japan and Europe and then the U.S. But when you start getting exposed to the scale, I was talking to Sanjay, the art of possible becomes very different. You would imagine that you would do a thousand robots in a year and then you are looking at warehouses that can consume a thousand robots in one single warehouse.

So, the scale goes to a very different level. And today, we run multiple warehouses with 500, 600, 1000 robots in a single warehouse. So, yeah, at the end of the day, when you start looking, I would say, global leaders likes of H&M or Walmart or XPO, that gets you very clear that the art of possible is much, much larger that you can imagine.

Sanjay Nath: Very interesting. As Blume being a VC, we are supposed to take crazy risks. We are VCs and you're trying to back entrepreneurs and it's an interesting moniker, the art of possible is quantified at a large scale. 

Just thinking back about one or two things to get right. This has been a decade long journey and we've got young founders in the audience who are in your shoes. Young, seasoned founders Awais at Pixxel, Kaushik at Ethereal and many here. 

What are those one or two things to get right from your journey that if you had to do that again you would accelerate faster? Akash in your case, you have H&M & Zara partnerships. Aniruddha, you've got Chevron, you've attracted them to become a strategy customer. Would love to hear what are those one or two things to absolutely get right?

Akash Gupta: Sure. So, as we or you were thinking of going global, the first market to choose, outside your local market is important. You normally see a lot of opportunities in a bunch of countries and likes of that. Getting the focus right, getting the first market right, understanding what market is good for adoption and likes of that, that's important. 

For us, we did a couple of mistakes before we finally landed in the U. S, which was the right adoption market, and then having the first anchor customer, in that first market for us, it was XPO now called GXO who gave us the right platform to build in the U.S. 

And again, we partnered to get a lot of logos like Apple and A&F for them, together with us. So, getting the anchor customer right and getting the first market right is important. 

Third thing worth mentioning here is getting the first set of teams right in that overseas market. There's always this confusion of what should be the balance? Should we have all the people off that market, but at the end of the day, what we have realized is that you really got to have a very balanced team between your original team and the overseas team to come together so that the culture gets driven rightly and you have a local market presence as well.

So, those three things are pretty much the most important ones.

Sanjay Nath: That's great. Aniruddha, in your case, after this journey started and you moved to London, I remember Karthik and I coming and seeing you in the Imperial College of London where your lab was.

From there to Chevron, sort of a milestone. What would you have accelerated and what would you have done differently? Everything comes at a cost of time but what were one or two things to get right that if you do it again, you would have done differently? Just thoughts.

Aniruddha: There's quite a few things I would have probably done differently but maybe there are two things that I would probably do differently.

One is I would actually take a little bit more risk. I think first time founders are actually afraid of failing, but failing and failing fast is so important. You actually save so much time, resource, money that is going in, I would have failed fast if I could. 

The second thing, which is quite personal, is I would have probably become much more or tried to become a much more efficient and better people manager, a bit earlier on in my life.

The transition from a founder to a founder CEO to CEO of a company that's running in 12 countries and is trying to churn out a product that's touching... Today to give an example, my teams are working in six countries. Commissioning plant of tens of millions of dollars at client sites worth $4 billion. 

I'm actually sitting here. So, I would have probably worked a little bit harder to develop myself as a people manager. Obviously, we've always hired the best people we've cared about the culture, but the transition from founder to a seasoned CEO is very hard and I would have probably worked on it a little bit earlier.

Sanjay Nath: That's great. Wonderful that you are talking so transparently about your mistakes and learnings. 

Now, coming back to that word, crazy scale and ambition. In the SaaS world we talk about 100 million ARR as being a holy grail in one sense. And I know both of you have a respectively bold vision.

Just share a bit about how to take that out of the possible, make it like, what vision Akash and Aniruddha are we talking about in the next 5 years, respectively and how do you all make that happen? I know you talked about warehouses there, just a couple of warehouses could yield a couple of hundred million dollars.

How big can this be and what's one thing to get right? 

Akash Gupta: Sure. So, from a size and scale perspective 100 million ARR was a dream when we started 10 years back. But, when we look at the market today just as a data point, Amazon has been leading the robotic automation within their supply chain.

They grew from 300,000 bots in their network to 700,000 bots in their network in two years, and the whole world consumed less than 100,000 bots. So, you know the scale at which automation as well as retail can go, billion dollar is not impossible and especially the industry like robotic automation and retail automation it's still so much in early days. People are just dipping their toes in the water and most of our customers, where we have got hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, are still at 4%-5% of adoption of our technology in the warehouses. 

So absolutely, building needs patience but I would say aiming a billion dollar ARR is definitely not out of bounds.

Sanjay Nath: Very interesting. I'm really happy that we, in this space, have to back young founders because you're still building and you'll still look younger for 10 years. 

Aniruddha, in Carbon Clean solutions, to use a pun, what are your thoughts on capturing that carbon capture? How do you think about it? Is sizing the overall TAM worth capturing the percentage? What is the key thought that would yield a really large outcome? 

Aniruddha: So, for us we are building an energy transition company and we want to work on decarbonizing a billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions. To give you an idea, the world today emits about 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions, so what we are targeting is actually a very small percentage. 

But to give you a holistic perspective, today all over the world, all the companies taken together captured about 50 million tons of carbon dioxide. So, when CarbonClean says we'll capture a billion tons, we'll actually deliver 20 times the existing installed capacity as we go forward. I think, for us, it's very important to actually become a total energy decarbonization company that provides a full value chain. 

Today we are a technology company. We have 86 patents all over the world. We are a product company but I want to transition CarbonClean, as a company to a full value chain company. A good example of a full value chain company is Tesla. Tesla is not an EV company, it's an energy transition company. They do everything right end to end. I think I'd probably like to build CarbonClean towards the same direction as well. 

Sanjay Nath: Very nice. Just the last words from both of you. Today, you're seeing a lot of deep tech companies, startups coming out from IIT Madras, many of the knowledge parks and the research parks. Do you feel India is there? What are one or two things needed to spur that? More GreyOranges, more Carbon Cleans, Pixxels, Ethereal coming out. What do you feel about the ecosystem in general? And what do we need to do to get many more out?

Akash Gupta: Yeah, so the first I would say is still exposure. I would pretty much ask any founder to see and talk to at least in the B2B space where GreyOrange works, talk to the leading companies and understand what their problems are. 

I think, just even knowing, understanding what are the challenges of the Fortune 100 companies, that pretty much is the starting point and that already starts giving you thoughts on, okay, yes, if this is what the Fortune 100 companies are struggling with and that kind of gets you. And again, a lot of times, when you're building deep tech, you feel that technology is going to be the biggest challenge and five years down the line, you start feeling that tech was the easiest part. 

How do you scale it up? How do you get to the point where people understand the value of that tech and convert those tech into real dollars? Those are some of the very important aspects to look at but I would still say at the top is understanding what Fortune 100 companies are looking at from B2B space and then getting inspired, what would definitely be top of my list.

Sanjay Nath: Very nice. Exposure and other very interesting things. Aniruddha, last word. 

Aniruddha: I think, what you're doing, what Karthik is doing, what the Blume team is doing, this is exactly what's required. We need a platform approach. 

If you look at any developed economy where there is access to capital, access to knowledge, and new companies are building up, this is exactly the people in this room. You have so much knowledge, you have so much capability, so much intellectual property, so much desire and drive. 

This is exactly what's required to build more knowledge and IP intensive companies coming out of India.

Sanjay Nath: Thanks a lot, Akash and Aniruddha. It's very interesting to listen to two young engineers building for the world and talking about the art of making it possible. Thank you. 

Akash Gupta: Thanks, Sanjay.