Startup O Stars is a series that captures stories of authentic tech entrepreneurs from Asia, to share their insights, learnings, tips & resources with the community. It aims to foster a deeper understanding of these journeys, direct from the trenches.

Chandrasekaran J.
– Founder

Startup-O Stars in conversation with Chandrasekaran J., founder of Watsan, an India-based startup engaged in low-cost water purification and sanitation.

Chandra is best described as a man with an extraordinary calling – to be a game changer for society.  His lightbulb moment for Watsan was borne out of his adventures as a temple conservator, where he travelled to 2,000 villages in India to photo-document and restore ancient temples that lay in ruins. “Reality hit me hard,” he said when he realized that many of the villages had neither clean potable water nor sanitation.

Says Chandra, of himself, “I am a life-long learner.  I follow developments in technology in all parts of the world, and never hesitate to contact developers to collaborate.”  His aim is to help people by converting the best technologies into viable products and taking them to the masses. Patents and technology for its own sake interest him far less.

Here, Chandra shares his key learnings and tips on his unique purpose and what drives him to grow Watsan to a global company that is both profitable and vital for an underserved population.


Study the “pain point” to develop the greatest game plan

Specifically, many rural poor drink water that is contaminated by pathogens and heavy metals.  This, along with very limited available funds at the village level and erratic supply of electricity, meant that a specific product had to be tailor-made to best serve this segment. Chandra therefore identified clean technology as a goal, focusing on clean resources and minimal waste.

Having witnessed the problem first-hand, Chandra set himself the task of developing a product that directly addressed the “pain point”.  The process of developing his purifier was an intense one; Chandra jokes that it turned him into a quasi-geologist as he studied the properties of clay, finally going back to the grassroots to learn from rural potters about the types of clay that they work with.  For his final iteration, Chandra combined traditional know-how with scientific research to develop a finished product that was consistent, reliable and scalable.

As part of this process of identifying the very specific problems that he was seeking to solve, Chandra identified unique regional needs in clean water supply.   As such, he developed add-ons to remove arsenic and fluoride in regions where these were causing health hazards in the rural poor populations.

Today, Watsan has provided 200,000 units, in the main, to the underserved rural poor populations where clean water and sanitation is most needed.

“Social change is not a one-day job. It is a result of consistent efforts.”


Identify what is unique about your client base and connect with them accordingly

The hardest aspect, says Chandra, is the pressing need to educate his target customers.  Many of the rural poor lack the knowledge to appreciate the link between contaminated water and disease.

Often, he gives away one filter to a family and allows them to experience the improvements and the numerous intangible benefits in the form of better health, less absenteeism and improved income, or children being better able to focus on their education.

Such breakthroughs are critical, as beneficiaries then create a trickle-down word-of-mouth effect and effectively become Watsan ambassadors.  Says Chandra, “if we are persistent and consistent in alleviating the pain of target customers, we don’t need to search for a market, it comes to us.”

Interestingly, Watsan’s marketing team comprises members who have trained in social work or those who have previously worked at grassroots level organisations.  This team is able to emphasise the educational aspect of marketing their filters and convey the pertinent message to benefit the populations they serve. Most of his team have joined Watsan out of respect for Chandra’s mission to improve the lives of the poor, demonstrating a true commitment to their target clientele.

“Focus, Focus, Focus. Don’t give up halfway through”


There is no failure where purpose is the prize

As such, Chandra is clear that he is not forcing his product on the market, on the contrary he is motivated by the need to improve the lives of those that most need it.  Whereas a visit to a village that results in no sale may be seen as failure, Chandra looks at it differently.  He stands firmly by his overarching goal of providing a pertinent solution to a very real problem; with the mission of improving peoples’ lives.

In the beginning, Chandra built each product himself, undertaking the entire end-to-end process entirely unaided.  Today, he has employed 40 workers who are responsible for building filters.  However, he sincerely believes that the journey to being a successful entrepreneur is paved with hard work, rolling up ones’ sleeves and putting in the early effort before any rewards can be reaped.

Another steep learning curve for Chandra has been in identifying the right partners to work with, particularly the non-government organisations (NGO’s) that work at grassroots levels.  “Social change is not a one-day job,” he says, while expressing his appreciation for organisations that aim to make a long-term impact.  One organisation, for example, was committed enough to test his water filters for efficacy at 180 different sites, providing validation and demonstrating their own commitment to his cause.

“The journey to being a successful entrepreneur is paved with hard work, rolling up ones’ sleeves and putting in the early effort.”


What you surround yourself with will energise you

Through his journey, Chandra has been gratified to meet fellow philanthropists, who believe in using technology for the benefit of the underserved masses.  As an example, his fluoride filter was developed at an Indian university that allowed him to adapt their technology for no charge, with the aim of bolstering his cause.

He believes that adopting a positive spirit and focus attracts the help and goodwill of like-minded people, which allows for the best possible outcome.  He says things fall into place when the focus is helping others – focus not on big money but on big impact, he says.

Among his memorable, proudest moments are a video he received from flood-hit Kerala, where his product was in use to purify flood water. This strengthens his resolve to continue on this journey irrespective of its challenges.

Another inevitable facet of entrepreneurial life is stress, which he says he tackles through his many hobbies, among them painting, temple conservation, and conducting heritage tours of temples on weekends. He also gives back by mentoring schoolchildren who have business ideas and helping the next generation of changemakers.  Of achieving this all-important balance, he says, “it’s all about how you keep yourself happy.  Giving back energises you.”

“It’s all about how you keep yourself happy.  Giving back energises you.”

The confluence of social impact and good business

Watsan’s motivation is alleviating the problems faced by rural poor by providing a relevant product.  Chandra is proud of how his product has evolved – it has been endorsed by prestigious bodies like Indian Institute of Technology, and is certified as using high quality food-grade plastic, having been tested under different geographical conditions and passed with flying colours.

This is also well reflected in Watsan’s financials, with revenues more than doubling every year.  For this happy development, Chandra credits his decision to focus on the 85% of India’s population that is rural based and addressing a clear gap in this neglected segment.  Watsan has also expanded beyond Indian shores, having made successful forays into Rwanda and Nigeria.

To budding entrepreneurs, Chandra says, “focus, focus, focus. Don’t give up halfway through. Be true to your innovation, make it your passion and do not be discouraged where you encounter criticism.”

To potential investors, Chandra has a simple message – his is a viable business that comes with fulfilment and “happiness quotient”.

Startup-O is South East Asia’s leading platform for startup assessments, investments, and venture building. It was created with ‘Entrepreneurs for Entrepreneurs’ ethos at the core of its design. The assessment platform coupled with venture funds helps with systematic discovery & investing in high traction tech startups. These promising growth startups are selected through a transparent process which is a blend of multi-stage online evaluations conducted by seasoned global experts & proprietary ranking algorithms on the platform.