The startup revolution: Smart solutions for social good

Startups are making Internet of Things devices to address challenges in agriculture and healthcare


Pratap Vikram Singh | August 17, 2015 | Bangaluru

(Illustration: Ashish Asthana)

Technology professionals are cooking up something exciting in the fields of agriculture and healthcare. Take Krishna Kumar. The 34-year-old founded CropIn three years ago to provide software solutions and analytics for crop management after working with GE as a software engineer for five years. Today customers for his customised cloud application are large companies that have invested in food processing and agriculture, and had to depend heavily on their field staff to connect with farmers.

The CropIn application tags crop and tracks its development till the harvest. The system, when fed with information pertaining to sowing time and seed type, provides crop development information at various stages of production. “During their visit to the farm, field staff of food processing companies carry a smartphone loaded with the app. They feed crop-related information into the system, which in turn suggests the best practice for growing the respective crop. If temperature dips, for example, the system informs the field staff of the corporation or the farmer about the safeguards,” said Kumar, who is an alumnus of the MS Ramaiah Institute of Technology.

CropIn is used by 40 companies, including the likes of Pepsico and Mahindra Agri, and benefits 1,00,000 farmers across 15 states. “We are managing Rs 742 crore worth of farm produce through our platform,” said Kumar. CropIn, which employs just 24 people, has secured $1 million of funding in three rounds and plans to cover 20 million acres of crop land in the coming years. “We want to become what Bloomberg is to finance,” said Kumar.

Kumar is just one among a group of technology professionals who are exploring commercial proposition of making software, hardware and hybrid solutions for the social sector. Like Kumar, Suraj Dixit, founder, Nubesol, also comes from an MNC background. Dixit left his job as a software architect at British Telecom in 2013 to start his firm that offers crop health related information to corporations and large farmers. Dixit uses satellite imagery to ascertain crop health or say vegetation index. Satellites use optical sensors to map crop health and provide vegetation index.

The cloud-based software developed by Nubesol offers dos and don’ts to farmers as per the crop’s health. If the vegetation index is low, the software helps find the deficiencies in the crop. The deficiencies could vary from lack of moisture to lack or excess of fertilisers, says Dixit.

This helps farmers or growers to take corrective steps before the situation worsens. Timely and accurate information, claims Dixit, about crop health has led to 15 percent increase in production. At present, Dixit is serving to corporations and agro chemical farmers. Dixit is also working on an optical sensor device which could be deployed in the field to map crop health locally. The idea is to reduce dependence on satellite system, which is vulnerable to cloud and fog. The device can be mounted on a pole, a tractor or a drone, to record the vegetation index (health) of the crop. The data captured through the device is sent to the cloud using an Android phone, at present under development.
College students too are not behind in devising innovation in agriculture. A group of them have devised a solution called Smart Pesticide, where in they are using ultrasonic sensors to locate pests in the crop and sprinkle pesticides in a limited area using a drone. The solution mitigates the hazards of manual spraying of pesticides, say engineering students of Coimbatore-based Sri Shakthi Institute of Engineering and Technology.

According to World Health Organization, every year there are three million cases of pesticide poison and up to 2,20,000 deaths, primarily in developing countries. Children, and indeed any young and developing organisms, are particularly vulnerable. The solution can be of utmost significance for spraying in hilly terrains, says Jawahar, one of the students involved in developing Smart Pesticide.

Here’s how it works. Ultrasonic sensors are placed in the farmland. These sensors record the sound produced by pests and transmit it to the connected computer system (coordinator), which in turn sends data to the cloud. The sound produced by different pests are analysed and accordingly the cloud will guide the quadcopter (drone) to spray pesticide. Precision farming can help in increasing food production as the world population grows to 9.6 billion by 2050. “Smart and precision farming will allow farmers to improve productivity and reduce waste,” said a spokesperson of Indian Electronics and Semiconductor Association (IESA).

There are also companies offering GPRS-enabled devices for remote controlling water pumps. Kisan Raja is one such company which provides these devices below Rs 10,000. The Bengaluru-based firm piloted this solution in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka in 2012 and is now offering its services to even northern states including Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. Vijay Bhaskar Reddy Dinnepu, who is the CEO and managing director, has worked with CISCO and Intel.

The other big opportunity

The combination of connected sensors and medical devices is bringing a major shift in the healthcare industry, wherein patients still go to a doctor for most of routine health-related issues. The market already has several companies making wearable devices. These devices, worn on wrist, are connected to smartphones with the help of bluetooth and relay to the smartphone information pertaining to distance covered by walking, the duration of the sleep, among others. As more and more smart devices are used for seeking health data, the need for direct patient-physician interaction will reduce, at least in routine cases.

Consider the case of Cardiac Design Lab, founded by Ananda Madanagopal, in 2012. Madanagopal, who has previously worked with engineering and design firm Tata Elxsi, has made a device to capture abnormality in the functioning of heart (ECG). The device, called Mobile Intelligence Remote Cardiac Monitor (MIRCaM), analyses data. In case of any abnormality, it sends data to the cloud and subsequently an alert is sent to the doctor.

India has around 4,000 cardiologists. The number of heart patients, however, is in crores. “The device will enable remote monitoring of a patient, who will not have to come frequently to the hospital,” said the 40-year-old Bengaluru resident. “The senior doctors will have more time for surgeries.” Until now, Cardiac has raised over Rs 60 lakh of seed fund.

Joining the league is Yostra, the company that has developed a system for accurate monitoring and management of intravenous (IV) therapy by infusing liquid substance directly in the vein. Monitoring the drop rate of an IV bottle is often a concern for the nursing staff. There are fears of bubble formation, empty bottle and reversal flow of blood if the drop rate is not checked regularly. According to Yostra founder and CEO Vinayak Nandalike, the device fitted to the IV kit for monitoring the drip rate sends an alert to the nursing staff. “We are in the process of doing clinical trials,” he added.

At present, there are no Indian companies which manufacture devices to control drop rate. There are a few foreign companies which make an infusion pump, which is a multi-utility device deployed in ICU wards of tertiary care hospitals for controlling drop rate. Infusion pumps, however, require regular power supply and the cheapest version cost around Rs 30,000. Yostra’s device runs on a battery and will be available at Rs 10,000. Nandalike is now making a sales pitch to venture capitalists (VCs) and seed fund providers to deploy these devices for pilot and later fledge launch.

Similarly, students of MS Ramaiah Institute of Technology have devised solution for waste collection in hospitals. They have designed a remote controlled robot which moves around patient wards and collects waste. These innovations do hold a promising future for both entrepreneurs and the VC, funding agencies. These tech startups, most importantly, are pushing the country to the forefront of product development and innovations. India, for decades, has been a consumer nation.

There are 3,100 startups in India. The number is expected to rise to 11,500 by 2020, according to a Nasscom study, India Start-up Report 2014. Moreover, India is witnessing increased activity surrounding the digitisation of businesses at home and across markets worldwide, resulting in the spawning of startups focusing on digital business and the Internet of Things (IoT), as per research firm Gartner. As a result, by 2018, India will have at least five IoT startups with a billion-dollar valuation.

(The article appears in the August 1-15, 2015 issue)



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