Painting and Packaging with Carbon – E3

Very enjoyable chat with Ani Sharma, CEO of Graviky Labs, producer of AIR-INK, a unique ink made from CO2 pollution. We discussed the importance artists played in putting AIR-INK on the map, what it is like as a startup working with the sustainability programs of large companies, the difference in the tech scenes between Boston and Bangalore, how prepared India is to cope with future climate risks, the importance of show don’t tell when building a startup and more!

Here is the audio. The excerpts below are lightly edited:

MCWALTER: I believe one of the products that you’re producing uses carbon to produce a type of ink?

SHARMA: If you look at carbon, it’s a very wide term but it is the basis of any fossil fuel that you ever burn that it will produce these emissions. Now, these emissions are something that we’re trying to fight, because they cause climate change and cause measurable health impact on society. But if you look at them from a material perspective, all these emissions are super tiny in nature, you are dealing with something less than 10 microns in size. And that’s what makes it dangerous, because when they go into your lungs, your body can’t filter it. But the same property which makes it dangerous is the same property that is a very desirable property when you’re making commodity products. So what we thought was here’s an interesting idea. What if we start taking it and kind of turning it into different types of ink? For example, currently we are trying to make inks that can print on textiles, inks that can go into your writing instruments, inks that can be used for packaging. And in the early stages, the art industry became really interested in what we were doing. And it kind of spurred a global movement where people started replacing the black colour they used for their art with our inks, which pushed us forward and led us to start looking at what are the more interesting applications? We can target packaging, for example, so the more packaging we print, the more we are upcycling carbon emissions.

MCWALTER: You’ve worked with some pretty large clients like Heineken, etc. What is it like working with those kinds of large enterprises with a product like this? 

SHARMA: 15-20 years ago, sustainability was this checkbox for big companies. And it’s very recent that companies stopped just talking and they are now kind of waking up and cleaning up their act because the end consumer is becoming very aware of what they’re consuming. How do these companies make their production more sustainable? And sustainability becomes a narrative at these big companies. So we said, what is the easiest way to replace carbon that they use in their production? Printing was the lowest hanging fruit for us, so we targeted that because with print you get on every box out there. So it’s very interesting how sustainability is becoming a part of the production cycle and the sustainability goals of these companies. 

MCWALTER: What’s still the most challenging part of the business supply chain from your point of view?

SHARMA: I think we have an advantage here because we are early in this game but as this is scaling up, there’s a lot of demand coming in that we are not able to fulfil because of the size of the company that we have. So we are still operating at a medium scale in a team of five to seven people full time working on this right now. I will say the biggest challenge is right now standardisation and the market focus so we are still learning. Like how does it position to an apparel company versus apparel companies are willing to pay a higher premium than a packaging company because packaging is not the main product packaging is always the main what the main product comes in. So it moves very fast. So, in terms of software, like how do we build a model around it because we have very few comparables to learn from. But one major learning that we are kind of adopting and how to resolve these challenges, we’ve taken inspiration from the way Dolby built their company, how they licence that this is “powered by Dolby”. 

MCWALTER: I think one of the really powerful ways of making a licensing model work is having really good actual branding on the product or the commodity itself. Looking at AIR-INK, the branding is very distinctive and well designed. What was the process of getting your own branding for AIR-INK?

SHARMA: We are not designers by profession. But the kind of work we are doing is very attractive to the creative community, especially the design based community. So in our very early stages, when we were collaborating with for example, Heineken, it wasn’t just a business deal. It was a massive marketing effort they put in so this idea could be understood by a seven year old. There’s a very influential designer who says sustainability game is all about an aesthetic game. So if you are making things that are aesthetically, it kind of satisfies you. on so many levels, people feel good about it. They want to pay for it. They also know that it measurably improves their contribution to the environment. So during the Heineken collaboration, we worked very closely with some really influential designers from an agency called Publicist.

MCWALTER: In terms of working with artists model, I think it is a huge advantage to be able to have a product that scales in terms of its own branding, because the product is the branding in many ways. What are your general views on the power of artists in changing minds around carbon and climate change?

SHARMA: That’s a great question. This is something that we cracked really well. We opened ourselves up to collaboration and the nature of the team is really driven around very interdisciplinary collaboration, but we also knew that we don’t understand art and aesthetics. And that art is very powerful. Once you realise that it’s very powerful and you cannot do it, you open your doors and give access. And when you give access, the kind of things you see artists come up with is very powerful. So with AIR-INK we spent like zero marketing dollars until now. A genuine community of real artists from around the world, or from places you haven’t heard about came in, they use AIR-INK, and they still do. The branding, as you said correctly, is the product. I think I should use this line,that would be a good addition to the pitch deck.

MCWALTER: How do you think the tech scene in Bangalore compares to the one in Boston?

SHARMA: It’s very different but it’s very similar in spirit. Boston is very hard tech, things like bioengineering, material science. Bangalore became the place where a lot of software jobs were created because of the outsourcing industry. So everybody who would go and get an engineering degree would go straight to Bangalore and there’s a job there. If you throw a stone in the air, it will probably hit somebody who makes an Android app and, or an iPhone app, it will hit a software developer. As the society grew, a lot of people started doing some ambitious startups. And some of those startups succeed, which meant everyone started quitting big companies and regular old roles and started taking more initiative. So I would say the major difference would be the nature of startups. Bangalore is extremely ecommerce software oriented though I’m pushing for a lot more deep tech. So once one company succeeds, a lot of other companies like that also start. So that community is growing. It’s a great city, however, traffic jams are a problem and it hasn’t evolved to cope with modern traffic.

MCWALTER: You grew up in Delhi. How does that shape your approach to things?

SHARMA: I grew up in a very academic family and in the early stages, I was really fortunate to have an exposure to good problems around me and access to mentors for example problems around disability and pollution, which kind of shaped my worldview in terms of how I want to do my engineering. So application of engineering for problems around disability or environment was personally important, but also doing it in a way that it’s a business.  Because I feel that philanthropy is great, but business is the real way to solve problems. In the end, people want to consume and if you’re making them consume better, it’s powerful. 

And because of some of the things that I’ve seen around India and also, living for some time in Boston, there’s a very nice book about experiencing different cultures called culture map. It talks about how you move in different cultures and learn from them. So For example, if I had not grown up in India, I wouldn’t have had the idea of looking at air pollution as a resource. But had I not spent time in Boston, we wouldn’t have had access to a lot of amazing people that came and helped us out on the tech side of things. So I think that bridging happens when you expose yourself to different cultures

MCWALTER: In terms of other technologies, which clean technology gets you most excited about its impact on decarbonisation?

SHARMA: I’m really excited about carbon capture, the way it is growing. There was a lot of debate around it 10-15 years ago because it also kind of hits at the political interests and economic interests of a lot of old companies that were conventionally dependent on fossil fuels. So there’s a huge lobby sitting in the government trying to make things like clean coal or and the sort of green washing that happens around that. Now, decarbonisation, and technologies around it from a carbon capture perspective is one way, but at Graviky we are taking a different route, what we are doing is we are making carbon negative consumption popular first. And once we do that, and once the narrative is built solidly, we will start pushing out more and more carbon capture technologies.

MCWALTER: Will COVID be a net positive or negative for decarbonization?

SHARMA: We did an experiment around it actually. When COVID happened everybody started noticing a big drop in carbon emissions. So people are consuming less, people are in their homes, people are driving less. If we are talking about the circular economy when corona hit, there were no n95 masks for a long period. The cover of the New York Times was about a shortage of masks and n95 masks was produced in a few places then shipped through the regular supply chain. But because of COVID so many of us are pushing for ideas on how can we start producing these masks locally? How can we become self reliant and produce our own safety masks? So, it’s like the crisis automatically shifted gears towards a localised circular economy, which is a good way to look at where the future is going.

MCWALTER: Let’s say I’m a young person, and I want to be the next kind of generation analogue of what you’ve done. What advice would you give to that person, who’s just coming up and wants to be involved in clean technology?

SHARMA: From what I have learned, collaborate as much as you can. If you think you’re a good engineer, then make friends with good designers and good story tellers. And if you are a good storyteller hang around with technologists who can give you a new story to tell in a format that you haven’t used before. I think that’s a good way of starting to learn and to build upon solid ideas. Also, I believe in doing. So build, rather than tell. When you show things to people, people believe it more than you tell it.