The Freshest Leafy Greens

The Freshest Leafy Greens

Have you ever had a salad with lettuce freshly picked from the garden? Maybe your grandmother grew her own greens, or perhaps that farm-to-plate restaurant you love makes amazing salads. Unless you have your own backyard garden, fresh lettuce most likely travels the distance from the farm to your grocer on a long-haul truck. Until now.

A 21st-century lettuce farm no longer requires muddy rows cut into a rural field subject to the whim of weather and labor. Behind a suburban grocery store in Dallas, fresh leafy greens are produced under a limitless pink glow inside a clean, 53-foot-long, steel shipping container, yards away from where they will eventually be sold.

The glow — provided by LED lights in both the red and blue spectra — is an engine that works 24-7, producing spicy arugula rich in vitamins and antioxidants, fresh green leaves ruffled in purple and romaine so crisp that it oozes milky sap when cut.

Since May 2017, Central Market, the gourmet offspring of the family-run, Texas-based H-E-B Grocery Co., has been selling lettuce and herbs grown on-site. Production is contained and perfected so that customers have access to a daily harvest of fresh, organic greens. While Austin-based rival Whole Foods has partnered with another company to sow seeds on a store’s roof, and startups like San Francisco’s Plenty have built large urban food-production facilities, Central Market’s growing container represents the first time that a grocery store has grown produce on-site with their own staff.

The container garden is the brainchild of Marty Mika, produce specialist and buyer for Central Market. After years of working to procure the freshest ingredients for customers, he is well aware of how difficult it is to always have the best on hand.

“There are so many variables in produce: Mother Nature, seasonality, labor issues, water and even transportation,” says Mika. “So, we looked at how we could take over some of the supply chain and put all of these issues under our own umbrella.”

Americans eat a lot of lettuce — about 11 pounds of romaine and other leafy lettuces per person per year, and even more if hardy iceberg varieties are considered. In 2017, romaine and other leafy green harvests were valued at over $2 billion, a substantial increase in value from the previous year. Salad, a key component of a healthy diet, is so popular that many fast-food chains have added salads to their menus. At-home salad consumption is increasing too, thanks partly to new packaging in bags and clamshells that can extend freshness.

But getting lettuce to the table at the peak of perfection is not an easy task. The challenges are numerous: drought, pests, temperature, contamination and physical damage during transportation.

Lettuce is a cool-weather crop, so it grows best when days are not too hot and nights are not too cold. Because of this, 90 percent of all romaine and leafy greens harvested in the U.S. hail from either California or Arizona. As a result, much of the lettuce produced travels great distances to end up plated with a tomato and vinaigrette.

From top: Lettuce almost ready for the produce aisle; the plain white box conceals a productive indoor garden; pink light — a mix of red and blue — is all plants need to thrive indoors. Click on any image to enlarge.

The transportation challenge means that lettuce is often picked just before maturity and immediately bundled onto a truck for distribution. Driving lettuce to markets adds to the cost of food, especially when fuel costs fluctuate. A 2013 USDA report found that a doubling of diesel prices could lead to an average increase of 20 to 28 percent in wholesale prices for a variety of produce.

Another issue related to transportation is nutrient loss. Research has shown that as lettuce is trucked across the country from farm to market, levels of ascorbic acid, chlorophyll, carotenoids and important minerals decrease, a reduction in quality that persists as long as the lettuce is being moved or sits on a shelf in a supermarket before purchase. Transportation also introduces new risks into the food chain: If vehicles are not adequately cleaned and maintained, there is always the potential for contamination.

So, what is a purveyor of produce to do?

Contain. Contain. Contain.

To facilitate growing their own fresh greens, Mika and his Central Market team purchased a domestic shipping container from Growtainers that had a few modifications crammed into nine feet of headspace: neat units with four shelves, a system for modulating temperature and an LED growing system that shines 24 hours of pink light into every corner. The crop grows in a perfectly controlled environment primed for maximum production.

In Dallas, Central Market employees sow varieties of lettuce and herbs into a medium made of melted rocks. This clean, sterile substrate is the perfect underpinning for growing plants hydroponically, or without soil. Nutrients are added to the water, and the plants grow rapidly without pesticides or herbicides. In addition, the temperature range in the container can be optimized for growth. And though scientific research has not shown that pink light makes plants grow more quickly, the LED system that uses only some wavelengths of the light spectrum allows plants to flourish while saving on energy costs.

Many commercial hydroponic growers do not want to talk about proprietary data and results; however, research suggests that crops can be coaxed to grow between 20 and 50 percent faster in hydroponic conditions. Recent research also shows that hydroponic farming can yield 11 times as much lettuce per area under cultivation and uses a fraction of the water when compared to conventionally farmed lettuce.

The Dallas team plants and harvests by section within the container. Each new planting takes over a new set of shelves, which enables a scheduled harvest of perfect greens to be plopped into a clamshell and then moved to the market shelf in minutes. The work is very detail oriented, but once the process starts, it is consistent and easy to maintain.

Even better: Transportation of product to retailer is now a mere few feet, and customers have access to pesticide-free, organic produce.

“We produce enough of different, basic varieties each week to sell in the store: not too much, not too little,” said Mika. “Customers like the flavor and freshness of the greens, and they like the fact that we’re reducing the carbon footprint.”

There are some disadvantages to producing container lettuce, though, including high initial costs for equipment. In addition, because container farms tend to be in urban areas — close to customers — the cost of land is high. These costs are passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices for greens. Hydroponic farming also uses much more energy than conventional farming — more than 80 times the amount of energy, although this excludes energy used for transportation.

Stay tuned. Researchers are developing more sustainable practices for indoor farming that should further reduce the carbon footprint.

Central Market offers samples of its homegrown lettuce in the produce section, just a few yards from the container where it was harvested. Click on any image to enlarge.

Smarter TV Dinners: Getting Under the Hood of Today’s Takeout

Smarter TV Dinners: Getting Under the Hood of Today’s Takeout

Remember when you had to leave your house to eat restaurant fare? Today, eateries and delivery companies are working together to bring the restaurant dine-in experience straight to your dining room. Eating out in is just a click away. Here’s how it works.

“I ‘favor’ all the time.” Like many Austinites, Pete has co-opted the name of the local food delivery service Favor as a verb.

Exhausted after a multi-city business trip, he sinks into his gray green leather couch and plants stockinged feet onto an oversized ottoman. Plucking his smartphone from a row of remotes, he opens an app and scrolls past bright photos of tacos, pancakes and pho. He settles on an upscale neighborhood Italian restaurant and, within seconds, has sent an order into the ether. Almost immediately he receives notification that a runner named Joshua has grabbed his order.

Pete grins. “I cook at home when I have someone to cook with and for, but tonight it would cost me just as much to go to the store to buy food for a meal. And I’m lazy.” Pete’s not alone.

Favor, along with other meal delivery services like DoorDash, Uber Eats and GrubHub, is part of a rapidly growing niche within the foodservice industry. And they’ve become a boon to an otherwise mildly stagnant sector of the economy — restaurants. A recent study by industry analyst Bonnie Riggs, of market research company NPD Group, finds that half of meals purchased at restaurants are now eaten at home. She predicts that the future trajectory of the industry could improve if restaurants focus on providing consumers with the choices and fast delivery times they need and want.

In short, people from young professionals to busy families are increasingly taxed for time and stressed. One solution is to recover time typically devoted to shopping and cooking by browsing delivery menus. Five years ago, home delivery was largely still the realm of the pizzeria. In fact, Favor’s origin is intertwined with pizza through the college job experience of the company’s founders.

“Ben Doherty and Zac Maurais admit that they were probably the geekiest pizza delivery guys,” says Keith Duncan, senior vice president at Favor. “They were constantly calculating on spreadsheets the most efficient delivery routes.”

Favor, like many of its competitors, started about five years ago. Austin was its first market; now the company is concentrating on expanding into additional Texas cities. Duncan estimates that, since launching in 2013, Favor has completed more than seven million food deliveries — and 90 percent of these were prepared meals from restaurants.

A customer favorite from Tyson’s Tacos in Austin, which has seen its business jump since it partnered with Favor. Photo by Kenny Braun.

Favor delivery man Ronald Kaase swings by Tyson’s Tacos in Austin to pick up an order for delivery. Tyson’s Tacos has seen its business grow 30 percent over a year ago — a result of increased Favor orders. Photo by Kenny Braun.

“On the front end, we have a consumer app for placing an order, and on the back end there is a system that makes sense of all the orders and assigns them to delivery folks — runners — who can communicate with the customer once they accept the order,” says Duncan. “We are constantly optimizing the experience to increase the speed of delivery, and we encourage customers to order within a certain radius of their home because proximity is really important for the quality of what is essentially takeout.”

How has this new business model developed so quickly? A confluence of several factors — including the normalizing of cashless, online retail over the past decade, the fact that three people out of four Americans now own smartphones and a trend that sees half of all Americans using their phones for online purchases — has led to a rapid increase in mobile commerce. In fact, it is predicted that by 2020, m-commerce will catapult to include nearly half of total U.S. digital commerce, reaching $284 billion.

Even more critical to today’s digital meal delivery system is a new workforce made up of independent contractors. Favor, for example, uses more than 25,000 runners who snatch orders when they want to and deliver meals in cities using their own cars, scooters or bicycles. The benefit of this flexible workforce to restaurants — and pizza parlors! — is huge, since the delivery team is made up of on-demand contractors rather than regular employees, who would need to be paid by the hour regardless of whether they were out making deliveries.

More traditional restaurants also benefit by taking advantage of what is, essentially, a new revenue stream. According to a 2015 study by the delivery company GrubHub, restaurants that add digital ordering average a 30 percent increase in revenue from takeout. Anecdotally, Favor’s Duncan knows of hundreds of restaurants that avoided closing by capitalizing on this new revenue stream. Digital meal delivery is so successful that there is now a new trend in some cities: “ghost restaurants,” which are essentially just kitchens, with no table service or wait staff.

The growth of the meal delivery industry is also a boon to the companies who develop the digital apps. All seem to be capitalizing on the service provided by the flexible workforce. Favor delivers more than meals — everything from milk to medicine — which will only expand now that the company was recently acquired by regional supermarket chain H-E-B. DoorDash is no exception. Headquartered in the Bay Area, this company has expanded into numerous cities across the country to efficiently deliver any purchase.

“The vision for DoorDash is not just [being] a food delivery company but instead a logistics platform, [striving] to become experts in delivering anything in a city from point A to Point B,” says regional general manager Benjamin Lipson. “We get increasingly sophisticated and learn from our experience, incorporating it in our algorithms and focusing on optimizing travel time.”

Twenty-seven minutes after placing his order, Pete’s doorbell rings. There is Joshua, plastic carrier bag in hand. The exchange is seamless and short because Pete has already paid for his meal, delivery fee and tip through the app.

He now has the ultimate TV dinner for his night at home: delicate rounds of roasted beets and oranges resting amid bright specks of fennel and mint, followed by a perfect portion of beef nestled in polenta, shallots and savory gremolata.

Can you smell the sweet, layered herbs in the vinaigrette? Yum!

Seafood Traceability Nets New Benefits

Seafood Traceability Nets New Benefits

Combatting “fish fraud” and ensuring sound fishing practices are two reasons net-to-plate tracking is on the rise. But high-tech tracing satisfies consumers’ curiosity, too.

Does it matter if your sashimi is not the fish it purports to be — or that your salmon was grown on a farm in Ireland, but labeled wild-caught from the Pacific?

When amplified globally, the answer is a resounding yes. In the last few years, DNA analysis of seafood samples from markets and restaurants has helped expose the prevalence of “fish fraud.” Many industry insiders assert that combating the problem hinges on one thing: end-to-end traceability.


Management of fisheries has been a long-standing practice. The Venetian Republic, for instance, enacted protective laws as early as 1173, taking the view that the Venetian lagoon and its resources were the critical underpinning of the Venetian economy. In the mid-20th century, global industrialization of fishing led to stock depletion in U.S. waters and ushered in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (1972; revised 1996). This legislation created a complex quota and landings reporting system to manage and monitor the harvest.

Separately, health and safety laws for handling food products in processing, transport, and at point of sale leave their own paper trail. Bringing the records from the two ends of the supply chain together into an integrated system is more complex than it might seem, but new technology is helping to make this possible.

Red snapper caught in the Gulf of Mexico are tagged to make it easy to find out how fresh the fish really is.


Much credit goes to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for raising awareness about the state of the commercial seafood industry. In the 1990s, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) was formed to protect the world’s oceans by working directly with the seafood industry, encouraging best practices among all participants in a fishery. Companies that meet MSC criteria can carry the blue MSC ecolabel on their products and in branding. The MSC Chain of Custody Standard applies to all suppliers, processors and vendors handling MSC-certified seafood, and MSC performs periodic auditing to verify those standards are being followed.

Most major supermarket chains now require that the fish products they buy have an environmental certification or be associated with a Fishery Improvement Project (FIP). Yet problems persist. Continuing concerns over illegally harvested and mislabeled seafood, as well as human rights abuses in the seafood industry, led to the founding in 2002 of FishWise. The NGO now leads the charge for electronic, interoperable systems for end-to-end traceability that implicate all players in the commercial seafood supply chain. In 2014, President Obama issued an executive order to combat illegal unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and seafood fraud.

This brought about a new traceability program for imported fish and fish products especially vulnerable to IUU fishing and/or seafood fraud, with a compliance deadline of January 1, 2018. Additional legislation on the federal and state levels may follow, in part as a protective measure for one of the country’s oldest industries.

At The Lobster Co. in Arundel, Maine, workers pack live lobsters into a foam container to be exported to China. (Photo by Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald)
Fresh carp caught in France arrive in Billingsgate between 4 and 8 a.m. Illegible labels are the norm for much of the seafood sold in large wholesale markets around the world. Some fish are mislabeled, not intentionally, but because of mistaken identity — dozens of fish look can look alike to an inexperienced fish trader.


As the hub of the New England commercial seafood industry, Boston is a rich testing ground for innovation in seafood traceability and tracking across the supply chain. Seafood restaurants and retailers have been particularly adept at responding to consumers’ concerns and capitalizing on growing interest in food production. For example, menus at Island Creek Oyster Bar and Row 34 list not only the name and place of origin for each shellfish offering but also its producer. Giving previously undifferentiated products, such as oysters, a provenance is a first step in building brands and customer affinity.

Based on the idea that consumers care about the source of their fish as well as the livelihood of the New England fishermen who provide it, seafood company Red’s Best has developed a traceability program for the products it sources and sells. Labels include QR codes, readable with smartphone apps, linking customers to information about where and how the fish was caught and about the life of the fisherman who caught it. On the tracking front, Maine Coast Lobster, which ships live lobsters globally from Boston’s Logan Airport, places sensors that record time, temperature and humidity within its specially designed shipping boxes. If a problem is detected upon arrival, data can be uploaded via USB and correlated with logistics records to pinpoint the problem in the transport process.

Boxes containing live lobsters are loaded into an air cargo container at Halifax International Airport bound for China.
Red’s Best places QR codes on product packaging so customers can link to learn not only where and how fish is caught, but also a bit about the life of the New England fisherman who caught it.
In a Red’s Best fish case at the Boston public market, labels display catch data, including fisherman, vessel, port of unloading, gear used to catch the fish and even a suggested cooking method. The center label notes a species of underutilized fish, encouraging consumers to try something they might have overlooked. Click the image to enlarge.


Launching one of the most fully integrated solutions is BackTracker, the Boston-based startup with a data-driven seafood traceability system to eliminate operational errors and bad practices that can occur at any number of steps along the supply chain. Founder and CEO Michael Carroll is a former commercial fisherman who obtained a graduate degree in economics before becoming a fish buyer for a major supermarket chain and then working on fishery certification. He understands the commercial seafood industry, including its eccentricities, in a way that few people do. BackTracker accesses official government harvest records and uses them for an important secondary purpose: following the records through each participant in the supply chain — first receiver, processor, wholesaler and retailer — and verifying participant-provided output data at each step.

“If a landing record lists 10,000 pounds of haddock from a particular vessel on a particular day, and we know that haddock has a 36 percent yield when processed, we shouldn’t see more than 3,600 pounds of haddock tied to that landing from the processor,” Carroll explains.

As anyone who has watched an episode of “Wicked Tuna” knows, the fishing industry is a competitive business. While GPS technology makes it possible to collect data about where fish are being caught, for now traceability begins with what is reported at the dock.

In this context, unbiased third-party certification has its advantages. All data is encrypted and ownership remains with the parties who provide it. BackTracker issues unique tamperproof codes as records of verification for each individual package in a processed lot, and the app for managing the process is flexible. “Trade partners can determine collectively which information is shared downstream and which is kept confidential,” Carroll notes.

BackTracker’s pilot system is now underway in Boston with participants from each step in the supply chain, including first receiver Atlantic Coast Seafood, processor/wholesaler Ipswich Shellfish Group and supermarket chain Wegmans. The system also has support from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries’ Seafood Marketing Program. Focusing on New England haddock, redfish and pollock, the program will enable product differentiation and help reduce the amount of imported groundfish sold erroneously as “local,” in turn increasing ex-vessel values — price paid for the catch upon unloading — for fishermen.

Over time, end-to-end traceability should also help reveal how well quotas and other regulations are working. Before you know it, that photo you post on Instagram of your haddock sandwich will tell a story not only about what’s on your plate but also about the entire supply chain. Solutions like these are one way of ensuring that sustainably harvested fish, and the industry players who source them, are at the table.

How a Little Startup Fixes a Big Food Chain Gap

How a Little Startup Fixes a Big Food Chain Gap

In rural India, dairies may have only one or two cows and the power grid is spotty at best. The chance to improve the supply chain link from producers to distributors in these conditions offered some surprising lessons to an American startup anxious to solve the “milk challenge.”

The verdict was devastating:

“This will never work for us,” our customer said. It had taken three years to develop a solar refrigerator to solve rural India’s milk spoilage problem. But our prototype, which we unveiled in early 2011, was “too big, too expensive and difficult to install.” We were back to square one. I’m not from India, and no one on our early team had a connection to the country. Despite this — or perhaps because of it — we were captivated by the milk challenge in the world’s largest democracy. And the engineer in me thought I could fix it with the right technology. Turns out, I had a lot to learn.

We first heard about the milk problem in 2007. That summer my business partner Sam White and I were in India conducting a market survey for a solar turbine we developed that was designed to generate hot water and electricity for off-grid schools and clinics in rural India. We found ourselves in Bangalore on a Saturday morning with nothing to do. My partner picked up the phone and cold-called the managing director of Bangalore Dairy, one of India’s largest milk producers. A few hours later we had a meeting scheduled. We walked into his office to find him and his team of 14 engineers seated around a large conference table. They politely listened to our solar pitch, but their reaction was similar to what we had seen before: “It sounds interesting, but how does this solve our problem?”

In the case of Bangalore Dairy, their problem was milk spoilage, and our solar technology had nothing to do with milk. The meeting quickly turned into a reverse pitch where the dairy engineers were asking us for help. This is how I learned about India’s dairy supply chain and the milk challenge.

Sorin Grama found an unexpected solution for a simple problem in India: how to keep milk from small dairies from spoiling before it gets to distributors. But the journey was far from simple.


India is a hot, largely vegetarian country that depends on milk for its calories and protein. Milk is used in curries and chai tea and is the product of the (literally) sacred cow. India is the largest producer and consumer of milk in the world. But production in this nation of 1.3 billion people is nothing like the factory farms of the United States.

In India milk is collected from small, individual scattered across the countryside. Each one produces 5 to 10 liters per day — compared to an average output of 6,000 liters in a typical U.S. dairy farm operation. The small amounts of milk produced by individual farmers in remote villages create a massive supply chain challenge for dairy processors who collect the milk, pasteurize it and turn it into finished dairy products sold in major urban areas like Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai. In a country like India, where nearly 50 percent of the employment is in agriculture, urban prosperity depends heavily on the health and vigor of the rural economy.


In India, cows are held in high esteem in Hinduism, the dominant religion in India. They represent food, fertilizer and economic value. Wandering through traffic, into homes — practically anywhere — cows are privileged members of society. No wonder Grama’s company got the attention of Indian dairy businesses. Keeping cow milk fresh could be sacred business.

Dairy cows must be milked twice per day, but the milk often spoils before it reaches distributors because Indian roads can be hard to navigate. Grama sought to prolong the milk’s viability to improve the production process. Image by: Lance Casey

Indian dairies often have only one or two milk cows — tiny operations compared with U.S. dairies that have thousands of animals. Image by: Lance Casey

Milk is like a river that never stops. Raw milk must be aggregated, transported and processed quickly before it spoils. And it must be done twice a day — morning and evening to coincide with the milking schedule — 365 days per year. For farmers, milk is like liquid gold. Rural households depend on sales of milk for disposable income. Unlike other agricultural crops, milk is a daily harvest, and Indian farmers get paid a good amount for their milk. Up to 60 percent of the price of pasteurized milk sold in urban markets goes to these small dairy farmers.

Chilling milk to 4 degrees Celsius immediately after milking preserves its freshness, prevents spoilage and enables it to be transported once a day instead of twice. Refrigeration at the source could elegantly solve all the problems associated with this distributed production system in a single step. But neither industrial milk refrigeration equipment — widely used in most of the world — nor reliable electricity is generally available in rural India.

Thus, the never-ending schedule and lack of refrigeration means transportation costs are enormous, spoilage rates are high and milk quality is very low. What’s more, only those farmers who can be reached within a five- or six-hour ride can deliver milk to central processing facilities.

Bicycles are often the best mode of transportation in rural India, which can make scaling distribution options difficult.

Children carry milk from the dairy to the village’s collection point.


Enter our solar-powered solution. To address the underlying problem of energy access in villages, I designed a milk chiller powered by solar photovoltaic panels. In the mid-2000s solar technology was sexy — it was coming down in cost and gaining more acceptance. I was passionate about using a renewable, clean form of energy and was determined to make it work. When we mentioned solar to customers and investors, everyone got excited. After all, India is a very sunny place.

After some trial and error, we unveiled our prototype, ready to test it. Unfortunately, on that sunny day in South India in February 2011, my dream of using solar power crashed and burned. The prototype failed to impress our first customer, who had been so interested in our solar solution. He told us that our system was impractical and too expensive for Indian conditions. With that rejection ringing in our ears, we laid off our staff and paused to think about the next steps, if any. After more than three years of work, we were back to square one.

Grama and his business partner met regularly with dairy owners and milk distributors to better understand their needs. They often found that solutions that might work in the developed world didn’t fit in India.

Grama’s solution was a thermal-battery-powered refrigerator that chilled raw milk, preserving it, at the collection point in villages where milk is sourced. The refrigerator’s thermal battery stored energy from the unreliable electric grid in the form of ice, which kept the milk cool until the dairy processors could come to collect it.

But the problem was too big to ignore. What’s more, the customer who rejected the solar system encouraged us continue the effort. Like us, he finally understood that solar was a pipe dream and was willing to continue working with us to find a better solution. The simultaneous rejection and encouragement was effective. With some retrospection, I realized that my passion and bias for solar technology took my focus away from the real problem that needed to be solved.

Most villages in India are already connected to the grid, but the grid is not available around the clock and not always when it’s most needed. This insight led me to a better solution: a battery. If I could store energy from the grid, I could use it during the times when the grid is off.

As it turns out, I had designed a battery for our solar system. I didn’t think much of it because it was just a necessary component to make solar technology work. But it was not just any electrical battery; it was a thermal battery designed specifically for refrigeration. It stores energy in the form of ice and is less expensive and lasts longer than an equivalent electrical battery. With just a few hours of grid power we could run a refrigeration compressor — like the one in your home refrigerator — and make ice. When the grid power is off, the ice chills the milk.

I quickly built a new prototype and tested it — it worked! The simple and inexpensive solution won the day. To solve a big problem in an emerging economy like India’s you often don’t need fancy technologies. You need simple, practical technologies because they’re more affordable and easier to maintain.

The chiller was a simple solution that everyone — including poor and uneducated dairy farmers — could use.


Alas, solving the technology didn’t fix everything. Scaling the technology was a whole new challenge. I moved to Mumbai in 2012 to oversee the commercialization of our milk chiller. Progress was slow. A partnership with a manufacturer in Mumbai fell apart when we realized they were investing in another company that was working on products that would compete with ours. Good suppliers were difficult to find and product quality was inconsistent. We had to be vigilant about every single component that went into our system.

In addition to production challenges, we had trouble creating a market. Dairy processors in India, the potential buyers of our technology, are conservative and slow to change. Fortunately, our outsider status as an American company opened many doors. American-made or -designed products are generally viewed positively in India because they are considered to be higher quality. We got meetings with general managers of all the top dairies in India. Innovation in the dairy sector is not very common, and these executives were intrigued by our technology.

But converting initial sales meetings into actual orders was far more difficult than we expected. Adopting a new refrigeration product and changing a decades-old milk collection process was too daunting for most dairies. Only a few visionary leaders who understood the value of higher quality raw milk would adopt the technology. With much effort in the lab and long hours in the field, we delivered and installed 50 systems by the beginning of 2014.

Suddenly, everything came to a grinding halt. While our first customers were absorbing and evaluating the new system, other potential customers were waiting to see the outcome of these trials. Months went by without new orders. We started to wonder if we had missed the market.

Prabudhev Konana

Design for the Developing World

When doing business in India, Western business models do not always apply, says Prabhudev Konana, professor of supply chain management at The University of Texas at Austin.

“Most Western business models are based on massive economies of scale, but that doesn’t work in India,” Konana explains. “Production is fragmented. Distribution is extremely complicated.”

With thousands of tiny producers — e.g., dairy operations with one or two cows — and a rural road system that’s sometimes passable only by bicycle, India offers a business environment where simplicity and consistency reign supreme. Technology must work seamlessly, every single time; if it doesn’t, people won’t be willing to risk their tiny margins on it.

“How you design things for less educated, economically poor people is an art in itself,” Konana says.


I spent many days in the field observing our systems, talking to our customers and trying to understand what was wrong. Sometimes customers would tell me directly what they didn’t like about our system. But most of the time, I had to observe and listen carefully to the things they didn’t say in order to understand the hidden needs and frustrations. The effort paid off. The design needed a few more tweaks to make the system easier to clean and operate and more energy efficient. After we made these changes, new orders started to come in within weeks.

Grama, at right, spent time learning from iterations that failed before finding the right solution. He sought feedback from his customers at every step in the journey.

Most notably, our very first customer — a charismatic and visionary industry leader who rejected our solar system and challenged me to find a better solution — began to place repeat orders. He became an valuable champion and the largest user of our technology. To date, he has installed more than 250 systems in South India. I owe him a lot of credit for our success: He was tough and friendly at the same time. Tough because he constantly pushed me to reduce costs and friendly because he was always available to lend a hand when I got stuck. I would spend hours with him drawing concepts and calculating economics of different configurations on a whiteboard in his office. I think he saw a genuine effort on my part, and with that I gained his respect, attention and eventually his business.

It has been a long and arduous journey, but I’ve learned so much. I’ve learned the value of being immersed in the market and the environment where our customers operate. I’ve learned that assumptions need to be frequently checked and adjusted to reality. And I’ve learned that while you might start with a technology looking for a problem to solve, success comes when you actually solve a customer’s problem.

Grama and White talk about their journey with Promethean Power Systems.

Grama’s thermal battery also works to cool a cold storage system for preserving fruits and vegetables.