Incubator Blogs: "Circularity is Not Going to Happen on a Systemic Level Without Businesses” — Biosphere Experiences, part II

Surendra Pradhan believes that making a large-scale impact in the world requires engaging in entrepreneurship. Together with his team, he is taking concrete action by tackling two major issues—waste treatment and food security—with one solution.

Over the past six months, the University of Helsinki’s Biosphere incubator has functioned as a seedbed for many innovative solutions in the fields of circular and bio economy, and in our series of alumni stories, we have celebrated the hard work that our participants have put into their projects. For today’s interview, we talked with researcher Surendra Pradhan, who has developed a way to harvest nutrients from wastewater sludge to be transformed into plant fertiliser.

Pradhan and his team are on a mission to keep our environment cleaner and to inject more circularity into our waste treatment and food production processes: “Our landscapes are filled with toxic sludge from industrial sites, and so much of it runs into our lakes and seas. For example, here in Finland, there is more and more green blue algae in our waters, and phosphorous is the main culprit behind it,” Pradhan explains.

With the support of his research group at the at the University of Helsinki’s Department of Agriculture, Pradhan has developed an innovative way to extract valuable minerals, namely phosphorous and nitrogen, out of municipal sludge and bio waste streams, and to turn them into high-value plant fertiliser, which can be used in agriculture and food production. Although methods for doing this already exist, many of them are ineffective in certain parts of the world. For instance, Pradhan discovered that in Ghana, regular compost fails to sell very well since it is logistically bulky and doesn’t yield quick results. Pradhan’s method, by comparison, is more efficient, and together with his business team, Olli-Pekka Siira and Pankaj Kela, he is now looking to commercialise the solution into a large-scale business project.

A Supportive Environment for Learning

Joining Biosphere was a pivotal moment in Pradhan’s journey in entrepreneurship: “The programme has given me self-confidence, and I’m very proud of myself for that. Previously, I was quite scared of the world of entrepreneurship and doubted myself. I also felt that my technology was not ready enough. But hearing true stories from people who began their start-up journeys just like me has helped tremendously”. Pradhan also feels that the structure of the programme has allowed a good, gradual process for learning. “The programme has raised us slowly, not in a hurry. One lecture after another, I have become more and more ready with my idea, and more confident in my skills. The pacing has also been good in the sense that most of us have had day-jobs to go to as well. Designating one evening a week fully to this has helped our project move forward a lot,” he reflects.

Pradhan did not have prior experience in entrepreneurship, so he brought together a business team to support him with that side of things. “I understood that I need to do this in a team, because in a team, we boost each other. It’s much better than doing this solo,” he remarks. What strengthens Pradhan and his team’s faith in their project is the fact that they still have room to work on the research side of their solution: “We can still focus on both. We can keep advancing our technology, but at the same time, we can explore the market and different stakeholders and look for funding,” he says.

Born in Nepal and having worked with circular economy in Ghana, Pradhan has seen first-hand how important food security is to a society. In his mind, waste treatment and food production should be seen as inherently interlinked, as two sides of the same coin. Through his work on the field, he has nevertheless realised that to make a large-scale impact, entrepreneurship is needed: “I started to think that if I really want to make a change, it’s easiest and most efficient to do it with a private company. Circularity is a good and necessary thing, and everybody is talking about its importance. But it’s not going to happen on a systemic level, until we have businesses and business ideas around it,” he says emphatically.

Right now, Pradhan and his team is looking into ways to optimise the technology to withstand scaling. “Smaller treatment plants are always easier to control. As soon as you take on production on a larger scale, you need to consider several new things,” he explains.

Apply by 19 June

Pradhan says that he can wholeheartedly recommend applying to Biosphere to anyone, who wants to try out an entrepreneurial path. “Don’t think, just do it. If you have a good idea, just go, try it out, and see what you can do with it. In Biosphere, you will get everything you need to grow and flourish!” he exclaims.

His business team members Olli-Pekka Siira and Pankaj Kela share his sentiment: “The programme has allowed me to think about how we can turn these kinds of ideas into practice. I believe that our innovations could really have an impact in the outside world,” Siira says, while Kela muses: “The Biosphere community has really struck a chord in the Finnish entrepreneurial ecosystem. It is the perfect place for fostering a great international community of people who are driven by hard challenges.”

Applications to the second round of Biosphere are open until 19 June. For more information, see the programme webpage, or contact project lead Pedro Gensini at or through LinkedIn. Have a look at the preliminary programme schedule here and read another alumni story here!