How a Polish snub prompted Kerala couple to launch eco-friendly tableware

Vinaykumar Balakrishnan, founder of Angamaly-based VIR Naturals with biodegradable tableware branded as ‘Thooshan. Photo: Special arrangement

Kochi: Vinaykumar Balakrishnan from Kerala’s Kochi was working as the CEO of a Mauritius-based insurance company in 2018. While attending a party in Dubai he was captivated by the plate in which he was served food. It was his first encounter with biodegradable plates made of wheat bran – a moment which would define the rest of his career.

The plates evoked first a sense of curiosity and then a business idea in Vinaykumar; he had already worked in several entities including the Indian Railways, two banks and three insurance companies.

Vinaykumar found that the plates used at the party were manufactured by a Polish company. He wrote them a complimentary note, a sort of business invite. He asked the company to explore the possibilities of expanding its business to India where its main raw material – agriculture byproducts like bran and hay – are available in abundance. The reply from the company, however, did not only disappoint him but offended too.

“The crux of their reply was that their products were not meant for Indians. That made me furious. I decided to quit my job, return to India and start a company making such plates,” Vinaykumar told Onmanorama.

That was the origin of Angamaly-based VIR Naturals and its biodegradable plates and straws, branded as ‘Thooshan’. It was a rare instance of a spurt of national pride paving way for a risky business.

Thooshan biodegradable plates from Angamaly-based VIR Naturals. Photo: Special arrangement

Thooshan which has already found its space in a variety of dining areas, including private parties, luxury hotels, wayside eateries and even at the G20 meet held in Kumarakom, was one of the star attractions at the three-day HotelTech Kerala exhibition in Kochi which concluded on Friday.

Thooshan’s prominent products are dinner plates made of wheat bran and drinking straws made of rice flour. The straws are edible while the plates can also be eaten or used as bio manure for plants. The company's upcoming product is a fork made of rice bran and bioplastic. The founders named the product ‘Thooshan’ as the word in Malayalam means plantain leaf on which a traditional Kerala feast is served.

Vinaykumar believes it to be the first biodegradable plate in the world.

“Our aim is to make Thooshan synonymous with biodegradable plates and cutlery. We want to reduce use of single-use plastic as much as possible. I already have a sense of satisfaction about doing something for the future generation,” he said. After he took the sudden plunge into entrepreneurship, his wife Indira Vinaykumar also quit her banking job and joined him. Vinaykumar is the founder and managing director of the company while Indira is co-founder.

Thooshan biodegradable forks from Angamaly-based VIR Naturals. Photo: Special arrangement

Indira said their clients include Club Mahindra and event managers who conduct 'eco weddings' and parties. “Of late, we have also been getting orders from ‘thattukadas’ (wayside eateries) where cleaning plates properly has been a big concern. Juice shops are the main customers of our straws,” she said.

After deciding to start the company, Vinaykumar collaborated with the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) for setting up the necessary technology. “We were able to create the technology in three years,” he said. The company now has its manufacturing units in Telangana and Kochi.

Vinaykumar is yet to forget the snub from the Polish company. However, he had the last laugh as the foreign company contacted him six months ago seeking possible collaboration. He did not respond though.

Thooshan biodegradable plates and straws from Angamaly-based VIR Naturals. Photo: Special arrangement

“Unlike the Polish company, I’m ready to share our technology with anyone who requires it. Already, firms from Russia, UK and Nigeria have approached us,” he said.

Vinaykumar is looking to scale up; the valuation for the expansion has been done. The company registered under the Kerala Startup Mission is trying to get investors onboard.

Thooshan was one of the five companies selected from Kerala for the PM Kisan Samemlan. The company has won recognitions from organisations including the UNDP, FICCI, Startup Mission, Kerala government and EY.

Thooshan biodegradable straws from Angamaly-based VIR Naturals. Photo: Special arrangement


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