On day one of Huddle Kerala, a conclave that seeks to explore the state’s potential to emerge as a startup destination, there were all sorts of ideas and theories in the air. From the vast possibilities of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to the emerging pandora’s box of Internet of Things (IoT), entrepreneurs and investors were seen brainstorming, quite literally in huddles, at the summit. Even as these conversations about complex technologies went on, the conclave, in more ways than one, showed that it had space for all sorts of startups, even for those which were miles away from the notions of VR, IoT or AI.
At the corner of the hall stood 21-year-old Nikhil VM, a third-year biotechnology student of Met’s School of Engineering in Mala in Thrissur district. The product that his three-month-old startup has come up with has nothing to do with AI, IoT or VR. It’s pure and simple biotechnology. Nikhil and his friends are promoting variants of dried and green Azolla, an aquatic fern found most commonly in India and even abroad covering large water surfaces. Its ability to grow at lightning speed across the water and provide wholesome nutrients inspired Nikhil to use it as a form of livestock feed and come to the rescue of poultry and dairy farmers.
“The idea came because there are a lot of poultry and dairy farmers near our college. We see them every day. But they were using ordinary livestock feed which had no micronutrients at all. So we thought of experimenting with Azolla,” says Nikhil, who took the idea via his college professor to the Kerala Startup Mission (KSM). To convince KSM for funding to take the product forward, the students built a temporary tank on their college terrace to grow Azolla. “Getting the seeds was the toughest part. We couldn’t get them anywhere. Finally, we found a farmer who had grown it in a small tank. We bought some from him,” says Nikhil.
To grow Azolla, the students mixed crumbs of cow dung, soil, superphosphate and a micro-nutrient (the secret ingredient) in the water before they threw in the seeds. For testing purposes, they mixed the Azolla along with local poultry and cattle feed and distributed to farmers in the area for free to check for feedback. “We got really good feedback. The dairy farmers said they could notice a rise of 20 per cent in milk production from a cow after they used our Azolla,” says Nikhil, the CEO of the student startup. He said the KSM offered them an initial funding of Rs 5,000 to build bigger tanks to enhance production.
“Farmers don’t know the importance of Azolla. There’s no awareness. We want to go and tell them about its benefits,” he says. While the student startup is not looking at profits right now, they are looking to scale up production to reach more dairy and poultry farmers in the state. Their product can be used along with ordinary feed for chickens, cows, goats, and pigs.