Manoj Sinha

Fueling the Future

Manoj Sinha (Darden ’09)

Thomas Wolfe was wrong: You can go home again.

Manoj Sinha left home in Bihar, India, about a decade ago to study electrical engineering at Banaras Hindu University. He earned a master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and took a job at Intel Corporation in Austin, Texas.

For two years, he led a global team that was designing the company’s smallest computer chip, the Intel Atom processor.

“At one point I learned that, because of hostilities [between Israel and Lebanon in the summer of 2006], the people in Israel were working on this product on their laptops in bunkers,” he said. “That was extremely humbling.”

His experience at Intel, which helped him sharpen some skills, also gave him insight into skills he lacked. “I knew I needed to know how to lead people of different cultures and be able to communicate with people from different mindsets,” he said.

The case method, small classes, and a close-knit community brought Mr. Sinha to Charlottesville for the MBA at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. The school has helped him in many ways, large and small. Among these is financial support.

In the spring of 2008, Mr. Sinha was one of four Darden students who won a prestigious Genovese Fellowship—a $45,000 award that covers the cost of the second year of an MBA degree. Frank Genovese (Darden ’74), president of Rothbury Corporation, a Richmond-area investment company, has provided $1.5 million in fellowships to forty-five Darden students over the past seventeen years.

The awards are designed to support students with entrepreneurial ambitions. Mr. Sinha fits that profile.

Before arriving at Darden, he and a classmate, fellow engineer Gyanesh Pandey, designed a power generator fueled by rice husks for use in developing countries. Their project was a response to the situation in the eastern “Rice Belt” of their native India, a largely rural area, off the national power grid, where farmers grew a lot of rice while piles of husks sat around unused.

The power plants generate electricity by burning rice husks, producing a gas that runs an engine. One plant generates enough power to reach four hundred houses, one hundred farms, and ten businesses, such as flour or rice mills, or a water-purification system.

Originally, the pair had planned to establish power plants using these generators in a few small villages in India. But at Darden, Mr. Sinha learned about the power of private equity.

“We can build a viable business to attract investors and not limit ourselves to four or five villages,” said Mr. Sinha, who is now working with Darden classmate Charles “Chip” Ransler IV to raise $4 million in private equity for the project. “We can expand to 2,000 villages. I’m meeting people who have money they want to invest and who want to help people improve their lives.”

The company they have created, Husk Power Systems, is designed to make money in three ways: by selling electricity to residential and commercial customers; by refining waste ash for use in the manufacture of cement; and by selling Certified Emission Reductions (CERs), carbon credits earned by reducing the production of carbon dioxide under the global Kyoto Protocol.

Still at an early stage, their company has won acclaim at university business competitions around the country.

Ultimately, Mr. Sinha envisions serving villages not only in India, but also in other developing countries with rural power needs, such as Indonesia, Cambodia, Nigeria, and the Philippines.

For now, he is content to return home, bringing new opportunities to rural villages through electrification and the economic development it makes possible, and affording hope for a better life among the people he once left behind.