Transylvania transplant and engineer Sorin Grama creates technology that makes refrigeration and air conditioning more efficient and less expensive.
Like a lot of engineers, MIT instructor Sorin Grama was a whiz with numbers from a young age. He also loved electronics and building things. But the rest of his story is perhaps less predictable.
Grama was born and raised in Romania. When he moved to the United States with his family at age 18, he spoke almost no English at all. And he quickly discovered that many of his fellow high schoolers were more interested in football than in physics.
Since then, Grama has lived, studied or worked in a variety of environments, from Ohio, Texas, and California, to a stint in India. Now settled in Massachusetts, he has founded two companies — Promethean Power and Transaera — that are focused on developing sustainable cooling solutions for low-and-middle income countries and beyond. Grama’s inventions aim to have a huge impact on quality of life in some of the world’s hottest places.
Promethean Power, for example, has been a game-changer for the dairy industry in rural India by making milk refrigeration more accessible to thousands of farmers. Its low-cost, efficient thermal batteries help store energy for rapid milk chillers during frequent power outages, keeping milk from spoiling before it’s collected for distribution. The system is also now being used in Africa and Bangladesh.
Most recently, Transaera’s novel, moisture-absorbing technology for air conditioning earned the company a spot among the finalists in this year’s Global Cooling Prize competition.
We spoke with Sorin about his path to entrepreneurship, the importance of designing for emerging markets from a local context, and how he himself keeps cool when encountering failure during the invention process.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’re originally from Transylvania, Romania. What brought you to the United States?
We moved when I was 18, for economic reasons. Romania in the 1980s was pretty difficult. My father had relatives who came here and so he came to seek asylum. My mother and sister and I were apart from him for five years, but then we were able to come and join him. We ended up in Cleveland, Ohio, where there’s a big Romanian community.
What was that experience like at such a young age?
It was a defining moment in my life. I finished high school in Romania, but when I came here I was sort of parachuted into another high school because I didn’t speak the language very well. I really couldn’t hold a conversation. So one of my relatives suggested I do another year of high school here to learn the language and get a high school diploma. It was a tough year because I didn’t have any friends. But it was a good idea in the end, because I was able to get my footing and learn a bit about the American culture. A year later I went to Ohio State to study engineering, and eventually to MIT for my master’s degree.
Now you’re an engineer, inventor, entrepreneur and CEO. Tell us about your companies.
After I graduated from MIT in 2007, I ended up forming a company called Promethean Power, which makes a thermal battery that dairy farmers in India use for cooling and refrigerating milk. I lived in India for almost four years. And when I came back in 2016, I became an entrepreneur-in-residence at MIT and got involved in another project, again centered on cooling and efficiency, that led me to start a company called Transaera. But this time we’re focused on energy efficient air conditioning systems.
How did you end up in the cooling space again?
While I was an entrepreneur-in-residence, I always had in the back of my mind the question of how we could make cooling more efficient. Someone introduced me to a professor who was developing materials that are really good at absorbing moisture. And so, because of my understanding of refrigeration from Promethean, I instantly drilled into how they could be applied to cooling, and began forming the Transaera business plan. It helped that this professor is a fellow Romanian. He grew up about 10 miles from where I grew up in Transylvania, so we had that instant connection. Life just sort of conspired in a way that brought me back to cooling.
How does the Transaera technology work?
All air conditioners perform two functions: they cool the air and they maintain the humidity levels. We don’t really notice it because we don’t have a humidistat to control; we only control the temperature. But a really important part of human comfort is the humidity levels. So air conditioners dehumidify the air by over-cooling it so that moisture collects and drips out.
At Transaera, what we’re doing is separating the two functions — we’re taking care of the dehumidifying part with these materials that naturally absorb moisture, like sponges. So now we don’t have to overcool the air. We only cool as much as we need, consuming much less energy overall.
How can invention help solve some of the development challenges in low-and-middle income countries?
I teach a course at MIT’s D-Lab, Design, which is about product design for emerging markets and the developing world. And I tell my students that there are fantastic opportunities, and that small improvements in a few things can go a long way. The work impacts more people, goes further. My class is project-based, and we do hands-on projects with partners and startups and NGOs in those markets. We help them come up with better products or new ideas for products to solve very specific challenges. The obstacles can be huge, but the work is very rewarding.
How do you ensure sustainability and designing with local needs in mind?
I tell everyone — whether I’m mentoring another entrepreneur or my students — that you have to get your boots on the ground and work within the local constraints, really understand the cultural context. For Transaera, it felt like we really understood the cultural context, the difficulty of running something like that in India in those conditions. I mean, I lived there in those hot and humid places in Mumbai and super-hot places in Delhi, and I really felt like I understood the setting.
But when we designed the first Promethean milk chilling systems, we designed them here in the United States with our own U.S.-based thinking and supplies. So everything was bulkier and more expensive. When we got to India we realized that we had to completely redesign from scratch with local materials and engineers. We had to start over, but that’s what ensured that the product was able to meet the needs and cost constraints of that market. So you have to get your boots on the ground.
Promethean started as a project using solar power to compensate for frequent power outages in rural India. But you were forced to pivot after that first demonstration on the ground. Tell us what happened there?
I was so focused on solar power as being the solution to the problem that we were experiencing in India, that I couldn’t see the forest from the trees. That failed spectacularly in front of our customer who was waiting for this design. The day after we installed it, he looked at it and said, “This won’t work. It’s too big. It’s too expensive. How am I going to put all these solar panels on every roof in 8,000 villages where I collect milk?”
When that failure happened, it forced us to reevaluate everything. Did we really need that solar power? Well actually, we have grid power there, but just not reliably. We realized that the energy storage was the actual innovation. And then we drilled into that much more deeply and improved on that. And that became the ultimate answer.
Why does failure seem to go hand-in-hand with invention?
Failure is part of the process. I think all invention is about exploring the unexplored path. You’re going into the unknown and there will be dead ends. Trying and not succeeding, and then trying again is part of the discovery and innovation process. It’s nice if you can avoid it, sure, but I think it’s part of the process. When we hit a wall with something, I know we’ve gone off the beaten path, and we’re now into the creative, exploration phase of something that could be revolutionary.
Even in the Promethean case, the failure wasn’t really a true fail. If we hadn’t pursued solar power, we would not have developed that energy storage part of it, because solar power and energy storage kind of go together. Creative fire comes out of failure. And that’s what sparks the innovation in the end.
How is climate change impacting innovation?
I think climate change is one of those disruptive forces that enables innovation, or requires radical innovation to come to the foreground. And I think it opens up the space for startups like us to do this work. It also puts the large corporate players in a new position. They’ve always been innovating incrementally, reducing costs, improving the manufacturing, making things faster, cheaper and so on.
But climate change requires a completely different thinking. It requires radical innovation and that’s what allows small teams, like Transaera, to come along and create a new type of infrastructure and class of air conditioners, for example, that are much more efficient and probably wouldn’t have been able to succeed and compete without the disruptive force of climate change.
Your company Transaera was recently a finalist in the Global Cooling Prize competition, which aims to develop and commercialize air conditioning technology for resource-limited settings that doesn’t contribute to climate change. What was that experience like?
We’re very proud of the work we did. The winners are some of the biggest corporates in AC, and we’re a tiny startup. So we feel very proud to measure up, to be in that category with them. The fact that we didn’t win is like throwing fuel on the entrepreneurial fire — we’ve already got a couple of new designs and iterations.
Hardware-based inventions often have trouble finding investors. Both Promethean and Transaera started through competitions, and then attracted grants from a variety of innovation funders, like VentureWell in the U.S. and Villgro in India. How crucial was this kind of support?
The Global Cooling Prize put us on the map and gave us some credibility, and people reached out to us — some of these large corporate manufacturers of AC equipment that want to work with us to incorporate our ideas into their designs. And so it’s actually opened up a lot of doors for us.
We’re also very fortunate here in the U.S. to have the government grant program like the SBIR. We tapped into that fully at Transaera, applying for these government grants, whether it’s the Department of Energy or the National Science Foundation. That’s kind of unique for the United States — if you’re a European or Indian startup, it’s a lot harder to get this initial grant funding to prove your concept before investors might take a look at it. And so in some ways, I feel fortunate we have a pretty strong ecosystem already.
It’s been a difficult year during the pandemic, but it’s also provided some opportunities for inventor entrepreneurs. How has it affected your work and teaching?
We were able to deliver on our two prototypes for Transaera, which was itself a challenge in a pandemic year. I never thought we would install and upgrade a system remotely like that. The organizers of the Global Cooling Prize hired a very experienced team of installers in India, and we did this livestream of the installation. Literally, they were there with the camera crew and microphones, and they would follow our directions.
The pandemic has forced us to think more creatively. Last year in March, when everything shut down, I was in the middle of teaching a class. And we had a project in Uganda, for example, where students were helping design a bicycle carrier to carry hot liquids for street vendors, like selling coffee.
Typically in a normal year, the students would build it and test it here, but we couldn’t get into the workshop. So we sent the plans to Uganda and had a shop build it there. So now we engage with a fabricator there — they built it, they sent us photos, all that stuff is great. I think that was a better outcome in the end, because everyone learned more.
As an inventor and entrepreneur, how do you choose the next challenges that you work on?
I think I’m inspired by working on pretty tough problems, like air conditioning for emerging markets — problems that might impact billions of people. Promethean was like that. Hundreds of millions of farmers in India depend on an income from dairy. Transaera is similar. We may not meet all of our goals, but when I look back at it — ten, 20 years later — I think I can say that it was worth my time. And if I can inspire others to continue the effort, even better.
Libby Hsu, Associate Director of Academics