Creating clean and pure energy
By Renuka Sena May 9, 2016
- Pulverises oil palm trunk to be converted into downstream products
- First Malaysian patent awarded in November 2011
AS the second largest palm oil producer in the world, Malaysia has about 5.1 million hectares of land dedicated to such plantations.
Every year, approximately 17 million oil palm trees are felled for replanting exercises. Most of the felled tree trunks would be chipped into smaller pieces and left to decompose on the ground, while a small percentage is processed into furniture.
“There is hardly any significant usage of oil palm trunks generated from replanting activities,” says Arun Chandrasekhar, founder of Trunk Busters Sdn Bhd.
Realising that there is profit to be made from oil palm waste, he designed a solution that pulverises oil palm trunks into mulch, and offers this service to plantation owners.
“My solution cuts down on the cost and time of hacking the trunks into smaller pieces and clearing plantation lands.
“In addition, the mulch can be converted into products such as fuel pellets, glucose extracts, and other biochemical variants,” he says.
The fuel pellets developed by Trunk Busters have huge potential as a clean and pure energy solution, especially as a replacement for charcoal in factories.
Driven by desire
Arun, a marine engineer by qualification and formerly the head of business development at a public-listed company, has always harboured a desire to develop a business that helps to solve the planet's environmental problems.
So when he first learned about oil palm pulverisers from a business proposal he was sent, he decided to pursue it as a personal project after it was rejected by the company he worked for. In 2005, he began working on a prototype and tested it the following year.
However, when his mother fell ill, he devoted much of his time to caring for her, setting the project aside. It would be four years before he tested his prototype again, and another three years before he felt confident enough in his machine, which he named the ‘Trunkbuster,’ to take a leap of faith.
He finally left his job to become an entrepreneur and established Trunk Busters in March 2012. “I was in my late 40s and had been working for 30 years, so coming out on my own was a scary decision and it took a lot of strength,” he says.
Describing the early days of his entrepreneurial journey as “very tough and unforgiving,” Arun says his training in engineering and business development enabled him to accurately evaluate the prospects for his business.
The challenges he faced included finding time for research and development (R&D) – while holding down a full-time job in order to fund the R&D.
By July 2013, when his machine was ready to be commercialised, he had spent almost RM2 million on R&D alone. “The thing about making a non-existent product is that you need to be brave to spend money even when you don’t know when the spending will end,” he says.
The other hurdle he had to overcome had to do with engineering issues, which required a great deal of empirical investigation. Arun invested much time, effort, and financial resources on this area of his business.
This proved to be a huge drain on him, personally. There were also many times when things did not work out the way he had hoped.
At one point, he completed a number of modifications and expected to see much improved performance in his machine.
“Instead, the exact opposite happened,” he says. “I had to painfully undo each improvement to discover what had caused such a dramatic fall in performance.”
Despite these pitfalls, Arun finally managed to get the Trunkbuster machine to produce high quality, consistent results. This gave him the boost to pick himself up and keep moving forward.
Taste of success
Upon perfecting the Trunkbuster, Arun began to work closely with various plantation management companies and smallholders. Together, they demonstrated the machine’s use and benefits to plantation owners.
The response they received was very encouraging. Plantation owners were impressed that the Trunkbuster could pulverise trunks into mulch so quickly and efficiently. This feature is also the essence of the company’s slogan: Palm to Pulp in 120 Seconds.
Arun’s proudest moment came when he had just about completed his R&D efforts, and his initial investors committed to investing RM1.5 million (US$380,000) into his pellet-manufacturing company Nippon Pellet Manufacturing Sdn Bhd.
He received his first Malaysian patent for the Trunkbuster in November 2011 while his application for a second Malaysian patent is still pending. He has also been awarded a Thai and an Indonesian patent.
Since then, he has gained recognition at the international level and was invited to speak at the Global Cleantech Innovation Programme’s Investor Connect 2014 conference, as well as talks organised by the Malaysia Industry-Government Group for High Technology.
Last year, Arun also represented Malaysia in the Asian Entrepreneurship Award competition in Japan.
Eye on the future
In 2014, Trunk Busters received a RM600,000 (US$150,018) capital injection from Japanese investors. With the support of his these shareholders, Arun looks forward to developing his own range of products from oil palm waste.
“Japan is way ahead of us in renewable energy technology, and having Japanese shareholders is an advantage because we can easily source for parts and materials from Japan, and gain from their insights,” he says.
Prior to this funding round, Trunk Busters had received RM600,000 (US$150,018) as well from the same investors that invested in Nippon Pellet.
However, beyond renewable energy, Arun has also set his sights on R&D in chemical extraction. His ultimate vision for Trunk Busters is to become the world’s No 1 integrated oil palm trunk biomass processing company.
Bringing into focus
Trunk Busters was one of the first batch of companies to participate in the Coach and Grow Programme (CGP).
Arun says the programme helped him develop a sharp and precise definition of his target customer. It also paved the way for a big picture view on what his business was all about, as opposed to merely focusing on the product.
“The CGP provided me with the environment in which I could break down my thoughts into discrete bits then put them back together,” says Arun.
“In the process of doing this, I was able to see more clearly, different facets of my business which were previously out of focus,” he adds.
The brave ones
Although he has only been an entrepreneur since July 2011, Arun says he cannot see himself doing anything else.
However, he does not see entrepreneurship itself as a career. Entrepreneurship is a way of life that he would only recommend to the “brave ones.”
He views entrepreneurship as the ultimate form of expressing one’s capabilities, and says that he could not resist attempting this line of work. “I wanted to know if I had the ability to pass this test.”
As for would-be entrepreneurs, Arun has some very practical, real world advice: “Never be afraid to delegate non-core activities, but never delegate core activities to others.”
Discover Trunk Busters at www.trunkbusters.com.my.
The above is an excerpt from the book Startups to Scaleups published in October 2015 by Cradle Fund and Proficeo Consultants, the programme manager for Cradle’s Coach and Grow Programme. DNA will be featuring every entrepreneurial story from the book in a special commercial arrangement.