Federal agency funds UC Berkeley alumni’s startup

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A startup founded by two UC Berkeley alumni that aims to bring electricity to remote areas in India recently received a $1 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, joining a number of new companies the agency has chosen to invest in.

Yashraj Khaitan and Jacob Dickinson founded their startup, Gram Power, to tackle the energy shortage in India. Khaitan and Dickinson, who began working on the idea as UC Berkeley undergraduates, hope that the technology they developed will guarantee sustainable, affordable and renewable energy to 30,000 more people in rural areas.

Gram Power will use the funds to set up and manage additional electrical grids and to conduct a study, in partnership with campus researchers, that will evaluate the economic impact and effectiveness of the technology.

Though the majority of the startup’s investors are based in the United States, Dickinson decided to work with Khaitan in India because, he said, the area has the greatest need and the most potential for broad application of the technology.

“I’ve always liked to create new things,” Dickinson said. “There’s a lot of innovation in the Silicon Valley, but it all feeds into the same tech frenzy.”

According to Dickinson, the main issues in India stem from widespread power theft and the isolated locations of many villages. The additional funds will allow Gram Power to advance smart microgrid technology, which features small localized grids used to deter power theft, and smart meters, which allow customers to prepay for electricity in small increments and track their usage.

Ticora Jones, division chief of USAID’s Higher Education Solutions Network — a research and development collaboration among the government and universities — explained that the agency, which usually only funds large organizations, is trying to diversify its approach by taking on a role as an incubator. She attributed the shift in direction to the emergence of nontraditional actors in the field of international development.

By honing its attention on smaller startups, Jones said USAID aims to take advantage of new technologies and ideas, hoping that the new direction proves to be “catalytic.”

Gram Power’s creative and multidisciplinary design made it a good candidate, she said.

“Their work typifies the kind of investment that we want to make, because it has a science and tech focus and … an element of strong partnership and collaboration with folks on the ground,” Jones said. “It’s bringing (these together) in ways that are the hallmark of what it is we want to do.”

In the future, Gram Power’s founders aim to expand its reach and collaborate with electrical companies in India — efforts supported by USAID.

“Part of what we think successful looks like is being able to take successful approaches and scale them beyond their original implications — being able to create something that grows,” Jones said.

Contact Tahmina Achekzai and Suhauna Hussain at [email protected].