From an Amherst coffee shop, two men get power to rural India - The Buffalo News

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From an Amherst coffee shop, two men get power to rural India

Kannankote S. Govindaraj – known to his friends as Govinda – has spent most of his life in the Buffalo area, but he vividly recalls his childhood in India.

One memory is that electrical power wasn’t nearly as plentiful or dependable as it is in Amherst, where he now lives.

"In the city, where I lived, it was not so serious a problem. But for my friends in the small towns, villages and rural areas, it was and still is a huge problem," Govindaraj recalled. "Some people would lose their power for several hours at a time, every day. Many people in the rural areas still have no electricity. They light their homes with kerosene, which can be very dangerous as a fire hazard."

That is a situation that Govindaraj, an electrical engineer who worked 35 years at the Calspan Corp., hopes to improve.

In 2012, he and Thomas M. Pleba, both of Amherst, started a company called Mesha Inc., whose goal is to help people – mostly poor people in underserved areas – all over the world get better access to electrical power.

The two men hold most of their meetings in the coffee shop of a Wegmans store in Amherst, making decisions about the operations of a factory on the other side of the world. They also make several visits a year to India to check in with their employees.

Working with scientists in India, the two local men developed an inexpensive device that acquires energy from any power source – including solar or wind generators – and enables its users to store the power in a highly efficient manner.

The smallest Mesha device fits on a small lantern and costs about $70 and can be used with a battery to keep the lantern working for about eight years. The largest and most expensive Mesha product, called the Microgrid system, can power a large building or several smaller buildings for three to five years. It costs $6,000.

The Amherst-based company established its first factory in India. Govindaraj and Pleban arefocusing on India – where an estimated 480 million people have no regular access to electrical power. They also hope to market the device – a Hybrid Ultracapacitor – in the United States.

"The device charges very quickly, and then you store that energy in a battery," Govindaraj said. "The batteries last much longer and work more efficiently when they are paired up with our ultracapacitor."

"Better battery storage can help disadvantaged people all over the world. We believe we can significantly extend the life of batteries," Pleban said. "The product will save people money, and we believe it will give people in small villages better quality of life and more disposable income to improve their farms."

The device can be used to provide electrical power to a lantern, a street light, an entire home, a school or a small factory, said Pleban, the former executive vice president at Calspan.

"We currently have patents in India, the U.S., South Korea, Brazil, China, the European Union and South Africa."

 

Pleban was one of three businessmen who kept about 300 jobs in Western New York in 2005, when they bought Calspan in from a Virginia-based company, General Dynamics. He wants to create Mesha jobs here, too. He and Govindaraj said they hope to bring some aspect of the business to this area within two or three years.

"We started in India because that was where the most immediate need was for our product," Pleban said. "But our hope and our goal from Day 1 has been to establish this business in Buffalo. Buffalo would make a great distribution point for us."

They currently have 22 employees in India and four management employees – including themselves – in the U.S..

Last year, the Times of India, one of the nation's largest newspapers, published a story on Mesha devices being used to light 300 state-run schools in India.

"Right now, our systems are being used in schools, homes and businesses in India," Pleban said. "I think it would be great if we can make a difference on a problem that exists in poor communities all over the world. … It would be a nice accomplishment for two UB graduates, two guys who live in Buffalo, who meet for coffee at Wegmans."

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