For MIT students, an entrepreneur in residence with developing world experience

Sorin Grama brought MIT tech to Indian farmers. Now he’s back to mentor student entrepreneurs.

June 9, 2016

Sorin Grama

Promethean Power Systems co-founder Sorin Grama, left, at work in India

As a student 10 years ago, Sorin Grama, SDM ’07, availed himself of the MIT entrepreneurial ecosystem to co-found a startup to help farmers in India keep milk and food from spoiling. Now that the company, Promethean Power Systems, is up and running and making inroads internationally, Grama is bringing his experience and expertise back to MIT as an entrepreneur in residence.

Grama will work with the Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship and the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship to guide and support students founding startups in the developing world. This is the first such partnership between the two centers.

Promethean Power began at MIT, developing a rapid milk chiller that decreased milk spoilage for Indian dairy farmers without reliable electricity for refrigeration. It operates with a thermal battery—Grama’s invention—storing thermal energy from the intermittent electricity available to rural farmers, enabling them to get milk to processing centers and end reliance on expensive diesel generators.

Today, Promethean Power has a team in India, farmers and dairy processors are accepting the milk chillers into their operations, and the company is making inroads into Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Returning to Cambridge, Grama is now in a mentorship role at the Legatum Center, which was founded at MIT in 2007 to accelerate social and economic progress across the developing world through innovation-driven entrepreneurship.

“I already know how the system works because I’ve used it. I’m in the same place, but at that same time a much different place,” Grama says. “I did the [MIT] $100K [Entrepreneurship Competition], I used venture mentoring services, I used all the entrepreneurial teachings. And I’m now part of this ecosystem and giving back to it.”

Building a company for the developing world isn’t easy. Lead times are long and investments can be small.

“A lot of this is a labor of love,” Grama says. “Investors are starting to become more comfortable saying ‘Yes, our return is going to be less, but we’re making a social impact, an economic impact.’”

As entrepreneur in residence with the Legatum and Trust centers, Grama is charged with shepherding entrepreneurial visions and stoking a culture where students solve problems in the developing world. Relief and aid from government and nongovernmental organizations have a role, he says, but he believes sustainable solutions come through sustainable businesses.

“Provide a value to customers, increase their business, and it continues feeding on its own pipeline,” he says.

When solving problems in the developing world, success means building an economically sustainable company, if not always one with wide profit margins, he says. A market that includes rural dairy farmers with one or two cows, or community solar installations in small villages, is not likely to make anyone a billionaire.

“The payoff is not always top of the list,” Grama says. “The personal satisfaction of doing something that matters, to be engaged every day and get fired up every day, that’s the payoff.”

“I’m not a do-gooder, I solve problems,” he says. “I’m an engineer, I like to solve things. Here I am, ten years later. For an engineer like me, seeing the [Promethean Power] system in the field, people actually using it, it’s like “Wow. This is something I dreamed up one evening, and now here it is, a physical product that’s making a difference.”

A new resource for students
Grama’s return to MIT marks the first time the Legatum Center and Trust Center have partnered to hire an entrepreneur in residence with developing world experience.

“Sorin is an EIR our students can really relate to as an MIT alumnus who brings firsthand experience in building and scaling companies in the developing world,” says Georgina Campbell Flatter, executive director of the Legatum Center. “He knows how to navigate the challenges that our student entrepreneurs will face in the developing world. We, at the Legatum Center, are excited to leverage the Trust Center’s successful entrepreneur in residence model to benefit the developing world community at MIT.”

Students can book office hours with Grama and other entrepreneurs in residence beginning in September. Alumni interested in sharing their entrepreneurial experiences with students should contact trustcenter@mit.edu and legatum@mit.edu to join the school’s professional advisor network.

To learn more about entrepreneurship at MIT, follow the Legatum Center on Twitter and the Trust Center on Twitter.