Sashti Balasundaram has a way with people, organizations and composting. Through the course of his previous recycling-related positions, the passionate and persuasive founder managed to enlist both the United Nations, at its headquarters in New York City, and the government of Amherst, NY (the Buffalo suburb where he grew up) to start food-scrap composting.
Balasundaram (“Ba-la-sun-drum”), took that winning combination and founded his company WeRadiate, a clean tech hardware and software company with a proprietary compost technology called ThermoSense. The goal is improving soil health for farms, gardens, communities and cities. In addition to his contagious enthusiasm for composting, he also goes after available resources.
He parlayed his master’s in public health from Columbia University, and his lifelong interest in recycling into a post-degree fellowship through Indicorps, a nonprofit opportunity for “passionate, self-motivated changemakers of Indian origin who are committed to public service.”
“That experience shifted me into realizing the magic of organic composting,” Balasundaram says. After the yearlong fellowship in India, he moved to Brooklyn and started a successful community garden. He gained even more experience with the New York City Department of Sanitation’s Compost Project, overseeing composting in Manhattan for schools and businesses (including the U.N.).
Along the way, Balasundaram met and talked with a lot of people in the composting world. He learned what they needed, what they thought would make their jobs easier, and their work more effective.
“An impetus for moving ahead with WeRadiate, and ThermoSense, was in 2018; we had a successful monthlong crowdsource fundraiser, only reaching out to friends and family. We raised $25,000,” he says. “That spurred me on.”
Balasundaram is an example of going from grassroots to niche game-changer. In addition to the support of friends, colleagues, and family, the young entrepreneur has received affirmation of his concept, product, and tech from receptive and active clients, investors, and other support/resources.
To wit: over the past 18 months Balasundaram/WeRadiate has been accepted into both LaunchNY’s ECO Incubator and NextCorps & Rev: Hardware Scale-up Program.
Marnie LaVigne, Ph.D., president and CEO of Launch NY and executive director of ECO Incubator, is excited to welcome WeRadiate. “WeRadiate joins our growing list of ECO Incubator–supported cleantech companies,” she says. “[Sashti] has worked with a Launch NY Entrepreneur-in-Residence (EIR), making great progress on his prototype…We look forward to continuing to support WeRadiate’s promising growth through the incubator and other NYSERDA supported programs.
“Sashti brings his extensive knowledge of the industry and passion in developing and implementing the WeRadiate system,” said Rich Delmerico, Launch NY/NYSERDA EIR and WeRadiate mentor. “This system will benefit the environment, while also helping to abate landfill and incineration disposal in the Food Recovery Hierarchy.”
Balasundaram is also a recent alum of Wild Gift Fellowship, a yearlong program specifically for environmental entrepreneurs. Through FutureworksNYC’s program curriculum, he connected with urban manufacturers and advance business principles. In the US Composting Council’s Young Professionals Mentor-Mentee program, he received specific guidance and networking in his field.
His return to Buffalo was not planned. But, in 2017, an opportunity arose to work in Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown’s office, and, more importantly, to have an effect in his hometown while further building on his experience and interests. “I’d been away from Buffalo for 10 years,” he says. “I came back with greater knowledge of how to put things into action.”
As the City’s Recycling Coordinator, he founded a municipal food-scrap collection program, using organic waste to create compost.
Meanwhile, ThermoSense’s hardware and software were developed and launched with pro bono assistance from friends and colleagues, and the help of a few NYC–based developers for hire. A challenge he encountered was personnel. “In WNY it’s been difficult to find people with the right expertise,” he says. “That’s part of the reason we used freelancers.”
The product, a compost and mulch diagnostic sensor device, is lightweight, handheld, and powered with two AAA cells. And the company has multiple focuses, including being a force for job creation and economic development, and helping farms and urban compost facilities save time and labor costs.
While two clients are currently using it across New York state, Balasundaram has several goals for the device and the business, including streamlining and localizing its manufacture. Its parts currently come from vendors across the country and in Canada.
At least one of the programs that WeRadiate has been accepted into can help. “We’re the only Buffalo-based company in NextCorps Hardware Scaleup program’s upstate cohort,” he says. “It works to help younger companies find revitalized Rust Belt manufacturing facilities.”
His other business goals include increasing the number of active customers — the goal for this year is 15-20 — and growing the company through a combination of revenue, grants, and crowdsourcing.
More affirmation came recently, when Balasundaram learned that he would be a panelist/presenter at the US Composting Council’s 2020 national conference, on the topic of “Technological Innovations for Compost Manufacturers from Small Scale to Large.” This proactive self-starter has also spoken at the NYS Federation conference.
His advice to others who may want to follow a similar(ly winding) path? “I use meditation,” he says. “It was difficult for me to leave the community that I created in Brooklyn to come to Buffalo for the next opportunity…and then to leave that opportunity to start something new. I try to listen to my intuition and be actionable.”