Sorin Grama SM ’07 led a team that built a machine using old car parts to heat water without electricity—and it earned him one of MIT’s most prestigious entrepreneurship prizes: second place in the Institute’s annual 100K Entrepreneurship Competition.
Grama’s water-heating idea had the potential to bring clean water to places that desperately needed it: medical clinics could sterilize devices, and people could clean clothes or take showers with warm water—all without being connected to a power grid. But during a research trip to India, Grama quickly learned quickly there wasn’t a market for his water heater.
So Grama and his team found another opportunity: milk. India is the largest producer and consumer of milk in the world. But they lack the refrigeration and processing facilities to keep it fresh, which results in spoilage or low-quality milk.
“We were typical MIT students,” Grama said. “We had technology looking for a problem to solve, but we ended up coming away from that trip with a problem that needed a better solution. This was a completely different opportunity that just presented itself by accident.”
Grama’s team responded by building a thermal battery, since many rural villages in India have restricted to no access to a power grid. When electricity was available to villages, the grid would essentially charge the battery that releases cold fluid that refrigerates milk much longer and cheaper than electric batteries.
Grama’s company, called Promethean Power Systems, has sold over 300 large milk chillers in India. This has saved millions of gallons of milk, while increasing its quality. Promethean has since expanded into Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
“The developing world is the last frontier of technology and innovation,” said Grama. “That’s where the needs are the largest and the opportunities to solve a lot of very difficult problems. When I was in India, eight hours of my time had a much larger impact.”
His experience has brought him back to MIT while simultaneously working at Promethean. Earlier this year, Grama was named an MIT Sloan entrepreneur-in-residence focused solely on the developing world.
“It’s full circle for me,” Grama said. “When I was studying at Sloan, being around so many international students, I learned about all the challenges in international development. With the experience I gained from being over in India, I want to share that and help people who are trying to do something similar.”
His main role focuses on giving students business and startup advice based on his own experience at MIT’s Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship.
“You have to be self-aware and be in tune with the market,” Grama said. “We all start with our own assumptions and biases, but entrepreneurs have to listen to peoples wants and needs. Essentially, you have to be adaptable. That’s a survival technique for any situation. Entrepreneurship is about exploring uncharted territory, so you have to be open to change course.”