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Spotlight: Carbon Craft Design - Turning Carbon Emissions into Sustainable Tiles

We talk to Tejas Sidnal, founder of Carbon Craft Design, a Mumbai based startup that has developed Carbon Tile - the first of its kind to be made using carbon emissions, with a goal of offsetting the world’s carbon emissions at scale. Carbon Craft Design was also in the top #3 start-ups at ClimateLaunchpad 2020. View their pitch here (1:13:00).

You recently reached the final stage of the world’s largest green business competition - congratulations! Can you tell us a little bit about your experience and takeaways from ClimateLaunchpad?

CLP has been a surprise, I would say. I didn’t expect CLP to be the way it has been. It has been a fantastic journey for us. When I look back, we have grown tremendously in the last 6 months. The learning curve we’ve had is crazy. I’m looking forward to more such opportunities and trying to see if we can be a part of the community moving forward.

If I have to think of one takeaway, it would be the sheer selfless help that we received. One of the things we love about that is that even though we were struggling until the end, with the market and the customer; They mentioned to us that throughout your journey, you’re gonna struggle with this. As you scale, you will also struggle with this. It’s something that you will master as you move forward. We kept learning about our customer, our market - where do we go, whom do we sell to? I think that’s one thing that I take back with me. You just need to focus and keep talking to people, and that’s the only way to gain clarity over things.

Now that we’ve seen you a lot at CLP, we would also like to find out a little bit about your background and life journey - what were the steps that led you all the way to Carbon Craft Design?

I’m a trained architect. I did my undergrad in Bombay, and then went for Masters in London at the Architectural Association School of Architecture. This was about a decade ago now, around 2012. That’s when I got introduced to Biomimicry and trying to work with various materials and how we can build with nature, and learning strategies from nature. I think that is where it all started - the idea of materials science and technology, and linking it back into architecture.

I was working on a visiting school, a kind of workshop for attendees every year. We have to pick a research agenda and we had 3 ideas at that time. We had to choose between clean air, clean water and clean food. While we were researching about that, we saw that the architecture industry is so much more responsible for carbon emissions overall. 39% of the energy related carbon emissions are due to the building and infrastructure industry.

That led us to looking deep within ourselves and the way we build - we thought of taking up air pollution as a topic. We started to look at various options at how we can work around this. There were two problems - one was how you can capture the carbon, and the other is what you do with it. I think the clarity started to come from there - from then it’s just been growing. We fell into a lot of situations where we didn’t know what to do with it. Our initial first carbon prototypes and products didn’t work. I think now we’ve sort of figured out a solution. It’s never one Eureka moment - it’s a cascading effect of experiences that makes your journey uniquely yours. It’s been an exciting journey overall.

For the benefit of our audience, could you tell us what Carbon Craft Design is all about?

At Carbon Craft Design we upcycle carbon from various pyrolysis based factories which would’ve otherwise landed up in the air that you and I are breathing or into landfills which are polluting the soils and water. Then we collect this carbon, we treat it and build carbon tiles with that, which are used in architectural projects and houses.

To manufacture these tiles, we are using a 200 year old craft and the craftsmen are from Morbi (Gujarat, india - 2nd largest tile manufacturing hub in the world). We work with these craftsmen who have learned this craft over generations as a tradition from their fathers and forefathers. We took this technology, and just changed certain techniques around it to build our tiles. How do you work with industry partners to receive their industrial waste - and what do you think would’ve happened to the waste if you didnt start the company? Essentially we started to look at various aspects of air polliuton and we realised that, there are two problems - 1. how do you capture carbon? and the other is 2. what do you do with it? We wanted to focus on what you do with it, so we started with that.

Meanwhile, we realised that we will need volume to work with, and something that is regularised, in a supply chain system, and raw material which is available. With that, we started to look at various materials, and we realised that it’s going to be extremely difficult if there are various parameters involved in this - every composition could be different with every factory and the way they work with the emissions too. We started to look at specifically pyrolysis based factories, and then within pyrolysis based factories we started to look at tyre pyrolysis based factories. These are tyre recycling factories, which have various waste products such as fuel and carbon.

In India itself we have around 200 million tyres which are recycled every year, and the only use case scenario for the waste carbon is burning, it’s burnt in a cement factory, burnt at the brick kilns, because it has high calorific value - it contains heat longer for more energy. If that is the only use case scenario, there is somewhere around 1500 tonnes of carbon that comes out of this process every year from one factory. That’s about 1,50,000 kgs of it. You can imagine, that’s just from one factory. There are around, formal and informally, 2000 factories just in India. And tyres are not reducing. There are going to be more and more cars coming in, and more recycling happening. All of this is going to be used for burning at the end of the day. So if that is the use case scenario there is going to be more pollution. So what do you do with this? It’s something that we started to look at very curiously, I’d say. Then we figured that we can sort of use it in architectural and built material, which can reduce the air pollution around it, because it’s not burnt so there’s no black carbon that comes out. So that’s something that you and me won’t be breathing in, with the use case scenario we have at the moment.

That’s very interesting. From what you mentioned, the concept you’re working on is very unique; Do you have many competitors or collaborators working on similar sustainable architecture projects?

I’d say architecture is extremely big scale to work on waste systems and develop products around it. It often uses a lot more money and R&D to really get to a project, which usually clients don’t want to spend on, as compared to a conventional building. It’s difficult but on a smaller scale, definitely, lots of them. Not specifically with respect to our material, which is upcycling carbon, but there are people working with for example, plastic, and recycling it and making it into walls, working with other waste streams, glass, and resuing it, upcycling it into various formats within the architectural domain.

But with carbon, there are very few. I think it’s because there are lot of challenges involved with this material and it requires a huge amount of R&D to really make sure you’d be able to standardise this to a large extent. It’s one of the reasons why people refrain from getting into the domain.

It’s quite evident that clean businesses are harder to execute, compared to say software development. What are some barriers you have faced and what can we do to help?

I think in a way, the larger problem around this is people believing that this is not a problem. Lots of people including Donald Trump don’t believe that climate change is a problem. If people start to believe that this is a very critical issue, then many of the problems would not even exist.

Having said that, I also believe there’s an issue with hardware related businesses. Software related businesses are less capital intensive. Anything to do with hardware gets super expensive with respect to its R&D. Anything that is adaptation or mitigation work that we go into, any material that gets involved, a product that gets involved, it requires lots of R&D. I think that’s a major hurdle that we are facing at the moment, and I also have a couple of friends who are also looking into hardware related or material oriented or product-oriented business rather than software related business.

They are all facing a similar problem where no one knows these materials yet and everyone’s trying to work with it so we are able to build a sustainable business which is also profitable and environmentally beneficial. If investors and businesses start to invest into cleaner products which are less impactful and socially inclusive, I think that will start to change the discussion quite a bit.

I think COVID was probably a wake-up call for a lot of people. They realised that the world is willing to shut down for a disease but not for climate change because it’s more long term. Yeah, I think that’s been a major shock. A lot of us have realised that, we can indeed change. Earlier, if we would call anyone for an online meeting, people would refrain and prefer an in-person meeting.

A lot of companies are adapting at the moment, so I think that’s a good sign. I just fear whether we will stick to it after the pandemic. Things might go back to normal after a year. That’s where we are at the moment. India has already started coming back to full capacity in terms of the city’s functioning, the traffic, people running around for work. After a year, people might go back to doing what is more convenient. That’s exactly where I feel businesses need to take that stand and change. It’s important to work with people who are trying to reduce their environmental impact and create businesses which are more socially inclusive. We published an article on our blog a couple of months ago on how COVID might change the world. In Singapore, for example, there have been efforts to increase local food production after COVID revealed supply chain issues for import-dependent Singapore.

Going back to your field, could you tell us what kind of technology is available in the circular built environment industry, and what else we need to innovate on to make our buildings more sustainable and circular? I personally feel that there is a lot of technology which is already existing and there are a lot of start-ups that are doing insanely incredible work. Especially in the last 6 months that i’ve seen just in CLP itself, it’s mind boggling. People are doing such insanely good work, it’s just that a lot of them need that exposure and connection to the right businesses. That is something that is largely missing.

For example, what we do is, we’re not reinventing the wheel. We don’t use a new technology. This is an age old, 200 year old technique. There is a whole pool of tech that is available, handicrafts are also the 2nd largest employer to all the people in India, after agriculture of course. There is a whole range of skillsets, people and technology base available, we just need to capitalise on that. This is just old tech - there is so much more new tech coming in everyday that we are not making use of. We just need to think in a different way, it’s not necessary to reinvent the wheel anymore.

I feel that 3D printing is also going to pick up massively. It’s already disrupting a lot of markets - it’s gone into you name it, defense, pharameceutricals, food. It’s crazy, there was a startup at CLP, printing fish! It’s crazy to think that, you can print meat basically, in a more environmentally friendly way. That’s the impact that I think 3D printing is going to have, i’m quite excited to see where that goes.

What are your thoughts on lot of research going into space travel or moving to Mars? Is that something we should focus on, or should we only focus on problems on Earth? I think humans are always going to be fascinated by the idea of exploring alternative spaces for humankind. That is one thing we have to do for research. I don’t question whether we should do it or not. But we also need to focus on what the current problems are at the moment. By saying this, I am with the fact that we need to find another space apart from Earth. Because let’s be honest, the way we are going, this is going to be a huge problem one day.

It’s not far when that problem is going to come on our face. I am always with that idea of finding a new space for humankind. But I also feel that we can do a lot better while we are here. The businesses need to realise the fact that they need to do the business while also respecting nature. And it’s possible. It’s definitely possible. You can make a lot of money by respecting the environment. It’s just a matter of approach.

Indeed, the circular economy economic opportunity is in the trillions!

Thank you for sharing. We were also curious to know what was the proudest moment in your career to date? It’s difficult to pick one of course. It’s always those kind of situations where you say “Oh my god oh my god…” That’s the kind of life you live as an entrepreneur. You’re constantly in that zone of “I don’t know what’s gonna happen” and then there’s this one moment - this was great.

It’s difficult to pick one moment, but i’d say the day when your customers really buy your products and they’re happy to pay for it. And at the end of the day seeing them happy is one of the moments when you feel like wow we did something great today. We made someone happy by also living up to what we believe in, which is trying to save the environment while we’re doing business. I think that’s a great feeling. As a successful entrepreneur, what advice would you give to a young entrepreneur wanting to start a business in the same field? I would say be curious. It’s a very cliched term where people constantly keep saying you need to be inspired, you need to be follow a role model and all that. In my mind, it’s as simple as being curious. You just need to go and figure out what you’re curious about. That curiosity will lead you somewhere. You will just want to learn more. “Wow this happens with this - let’s see what happens with this, let’s see what happens with that.”

You just need to be curious about something and then that’s exactly when you connect so many dots that you wouldn’t have otherwise. Be curious, focus on what your problem is and try to solve it. Another advice I would give is, to ask the right questions. It’s very important because the kind of questions you ask and the way you ask really changes the answer.

This reminds me of what Albert Einstein used to say - "If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes,"

Thank you for the golden advice! I will take it too. Now, what is one quote that you live by in your daily life? I think I’m extremely passionate about biomimicry. It’s very difficult to do what nature does. It’s that curiosity that leads me towards a certain direction. I follow Janine Benyus, she’s the one who coined Biomimicry. She said that when nature and the city are functionally indistinguishable, that’s when we know we have attained sustainability. I think that is something that has stuck with me for a very long time.

You can apply it to your lifestyle too. Whatever you use, whatever you buy, make sure you really need it, #1, and #2, how many times can you use it, and what are the different ways of using it? I think that just defines your attitude towards life. I think that is something that has remained with me, and helps to make some decisions simpler in a way. If we are able to function in a way where we have no waste, and we are trying to use it back again in every possible way, we have achieved something great.

Connect with Tejas here.

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