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Monday, 28 November 2016

In search of the meaning of life at 4,000m through Wi-Fi links and telescopes

“Are science and spirituality linked in some way,” asked Karan, aka the Himalayan Shepherd who runs Hotel Deyzor along with a bunch of local travel and conversation initiatives in the mountain town of Kaza in Spiti, Himachal Pradesh. The person on the other side of the table is Anish Mangal, another traveller of life and lover of mountains who had just arrived in Spiti to help set up telescopes and schoolservers in Spiti. Accompanying him is Sohail Lalani, who is a web developer and photographer. This question often pops up and has been a topic of intense discussions in the recent past. From books like The Tao of Physics or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, to conferences between scientists and monks, a lot of us are currently interested in exploring this beautiful mystic intersection. The answer probably lay somewhere deep, deep within us, but the questions make for some interesting conversations.

You know where in Spiti
This story is about Anish’s quest with learning, telescopes and mountains. An Electronics and Communication engineer by training, Anish joined Freescale Semiconductor (erstwhile Motorola) but quickly grew out of it to explore other interests. “I started looking for opportunities where I could contribute in the areas of my interest. I heard of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project (launched by MIT Media Labs), and got immediately hooked to the idea of coding for children. I started making contributions as a volunteer, but then it slowly got to a point where I got an invitation from a laptop deployment in Paraguay to work on site. I immediately left my job at Freescale and applied for a Paraguayan visa,” says Anish. Most stories would lead to ‘bigger and better’ things after this opening but this story stands for the spirit of exploration. No big ambition, no desire to reach somewhere but a fuel for exploration and somehow come closer to the nectar of life.

School servers and Wi-Fi links

After reaching Paraguay, he got a taste of interacting directly with kids for whom he was developing software activities. He also ended up starting a company that would help OLPC deployments and, at one point. their OS ran on every one of the 4,50,000 laptops used by children in Uruguay, and in 50,000 laptops in Australia.

Moving on from there, Anish pursued a Master's course in entrepreneurship from Michigan, during which the idea of computer education for kids took shape. During the course, they launched a project called School Server Community Edition (XSCE), which makes the world's freely available educationally relevant material available on the Internet accessible in places where there is no Internet.

He then worked in Silicon Valley for a year-and-a-half but soon returned to India. “I realised that the contribution I was making to XSCE was very relevant to India. At the same time, I started volunteering time to support NCERT in their efforts to make educational content available to the remotest parts of the country,” Anish explains. Roaming the country, meeting a lot of people, his quest had currently taken him to Rakkar village near Dharamshala, which has now become his base to explore further possibilities.

Along with Sohail, a small group of people are setting up school servers wherever the schools want them and are experimenting with with long distance Wi-Fi links to establish communications between neighbouring villages.

Astronomy, telescopes and preserving our pale blue dot Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere, to save us from ourselves. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot - the only home we've ever known. 

- Carl Sagan, "We often talk about the Pale Blue Dot in our conversations and this quote points towards a possible answer when I asked Anish why he is in Kaza setting up telescopes. His love for astronomy kicked in early. “Though it seems scarcely believable, as kids growing up in Delhi we used to sleep on the roof peering at the star-studded night sky,” he reminisces. It was much later that he discovered a pair of astronomical binoculars and he took it for a spin. Even through the (now, heavily) polluted skies of Delhi, many stars and planets were visible! Anish's excitement took him to a local where they had organised an evening viewing session. He familiarised himself with the crater-ridden surface of the Moon, Jupiter and its satellites, as well as the Saturn rings. He was hooked.

“I was getting a telescope one way or another. Then I asked for the price, which was ... astronomical,” says Anish. A bit later while at Freescale when he had time in hand, he started researching and found out about a large community called ATM (Amateur Telescope Makers) and stumbled upon a large collection of resources, which explained every aspect of telescope construction. He decided to make one and a few months later, voila! He had constructed an eight-inch, six-foot tall Dobsonian reflector. During HillHacks, a maker unconference in Dharamshala, he ended up making one more, which is currently stationed at Rakkar.

The telescope built at HillHacks (image credit: Arpit Agarwal)
And as we know, Kaza in Spiti has three more now. How did that work out?

I was invited to Spiti by folks after they had heard of my work building schoolservers and telescopes. The local district administration was interested in trying out the schoolservers as a pilot in schools in Spiti valley, and also wanted a couple of telescopes. Karan, who runs the amazing Hotel Deyzor, wanted a telescope built as well. I already love mountains, so it was an easy decision to come to Spiti (along with a friend Sohail).

In a place like Spiti, which is generally awash in Buddhist spirituality, a dose of scientific temper might be an interesting complement. “The presence of these telescopes will be a success even if one kid in Spiti has his/her curiosity aroused; even if one adult in Spiti can appreciate the logic behind this quote,” says Anish.

Telescopes in Kaza (image credit: Hotel Deyzor)
Thoughts on open technologies

One thing is clear. Neither the school server nor the Wi-Fi links nor the telescopes would be enforced onto any community. Anish believes, “For technology to be successful, there must be right intent behind it. There must also be local ownership. I went to Spiti because a couple of people were using the schoolserver already, and more people in the educational setup wanted it -- so it was their pull that brought me here.”

The approach being followed is to enable technology transfer, and not actually set it up. Many a times, NGOs or the government or the so-called educated enforce solutions onto a village community. And then things don’t work out. This approach is debatable but Anish adds,

I am a big believer of open communities and grassroots movements. This ensures local ownership and relevance. The schoolserver project is completely open source and the community spirit is deeply engrained. I dont have any expectations whatsoever for this being scaled up. Having an expectation itself would be a false premise. It is completely dependent on the local folks, whether they want something like schoolservers (or telescopes for that matter) in their community.

Having said that, the response to both in Spiti has been incredibly positive so far, and it drives Anish to continue improving. “We are also investing in opening a makerspace, called KnowledgeGarden, in Upper Bhagsu to facilitate the continued development of solar technologies, schoolservers and other projects of value to community,” signs off Anish from a sub-zero Kaza late in November 2016.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

How this 20-year-old company crafted a niche for itself in online pharmacy

Zota Healthcare launches an online pharmacy platform which sells nutraceuticals, ayurvedic and cosmetics products.

In this world of rapid technological development, no business can afford to remain conventional. They have to adopt the online position if they want to remain valid in this age. When Flipkart introduced the country to a new way of shopping — via the internet — many followed suit.

Himanshu Zota
As the years went by, several old businesses also opened their online stores, succumbing to the new choice of consumer shopping. Aditya Birla launched and Tata opened, and several other traditional business giants have followed their lead.

While the fashion industry has shown the greatest adaptability in the present scenario, other businesses have also witnessed the change and are working to adapt to the new age of the buying and selling of products.

Himanshu Zota, Director, Zota Healthcare, a two-decade old pioneer in the world of manufacturing and selling medicines, observed the changing market and thought of launching a niche online platform.

He observed that the nutraceutical market was witnessing a rapid growth due to consumers’ increasing inclination towards healthy and nutritional food, dietary supplements and beverages. Dietary supplements are consumed not only to meet the required daily intake of nutrition, but also to boost physical performance. All of these factors have changed the nutraceutical market considerably and are expected to propel the market in the next few years. Himanshu noticed the similar inclination of consumers towards Ayurvedic and cosmetic products.

In June 2016, he launched Nutravedic, an e-commerce healthcare portal. “Our product range is a combination of varied nutraceutical, ayurvedic and herbal products. The wide array of products consists of relief therapies, protein powders, multivitamin supplements and a few other patented products that help in healing many diseases and maintaining natural body processes. The Nutravedic range includes various ayurvedic and herbal products, which are tried, tested and appreciated by many users, with no side-effects,” says Himanshu.

Growth, step by step

Nutravedic is backed by strong financial support, with Zota Healthcare being its core investor.

Himanshu infused Rs 40 lakh into the venture as an initial investment, which went into product manufacturing, website building and marketing.

In its first two months, the platform ran on a trial basis, where it faced many technical glitches. It was not actively promoted at that time.

The promotion part took off aggressively in August. The platform has been educating people about their health. It is also connecting with consumers through its smart social media campaigns, informing them about their products and the benefits of consuming them.

In the past three months, the platform claims to have had 14,000 downloads on android. Himanshu says that they clock 30 orders a day, with an average ticket size of Rs 500. Nutravedic has around 50 products listed on its platform across all its three categories.

Himanshu plans to expand the product base to 250 items soon. In the next few years, he also aims to target over 10 lakh customers, clocking around 500 orders a day.

Nutraceutical, a niche segment 

The global nutraceuticals market is expected to expand at a CAGR of 7.3 percent between 2015 and 2021, according to Transparency Market Research. This market was already valued at $182.6 billion in 2015, which means that it can go up to $279 billion by the end of 2021.

Himanshu says that India is observing the rise of the category in a similar way to the other countries of the world. He says that as the world market grows, so will the Indian market.

According to him, though there are various other online platforms, he sees little competition. He says that while other platforms are selling all kinds of medicines, his business is very niche.

A look at online pharmacy

Over the past couple of months, there have been several online pharmacy and e-pharmacy startups. These include NetMeds, which raised $50 million from OrbiMed, mChemist, started by the ex-president of Ranbaxy, Medd, DeliMedi, CareOnGo and MediDali and now, even the Sequoia-backed Practo.

During April this year, 1mg, the digital healthcare platform, raised Rs 100 crore in a Series B investment led by Maverick Capital Ventures, along with participation from existing investors Sequoia India and Omidyar Network.

According to experts, the online pharmacy has, in the past, faced some troubles owing to government regulations. However, they have since learnt to work under the said rules and have shown immense growth.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

How 75F is going after the ‘Internet of Air’ and making office spaces more energy-efficient

Founded in 2012 in the USA by Deepinder Singh and Pankaj Chawla, 75F is a startup in the ‘Internet of Air’ space, which means it uses internet-based tools and technologies to create smart solutions that predict and automate building needs and manage them proactively. The aim is threefold — to make workplaces more energy-efficient, cost-effective, and comfortable.
L-R Pankaj Chawla,CTO,75 F and Gaurav Burman,VP and Country President,75 F
To do so, 75F mainly harnesses the power of Internet of Things (IoT) and cloud computing. The company has been operating in the B2B space (commercial buildings) in the US and in August 2016 expanded business operations to India.

Story so far

Gaurav Burman, former Director of Marketing at Schneider Electric India and presently VP & Country President, India at 75F, spoke to YourStory. Talking about 75F’s origins, he said,

75F stands for 75 Fahrenheit (or 23.88 Celsius), which was set by the United Nations in 2008 as the optimum temperature in all its offices worldwide. Inspired by this, 75F seeks to deliver optimal comfort while saving the maximum energy.

Gaurav Burman
Bootstrapped for the first two years, the venture first raised funding in 2014 and has so far raised $2.75 million across three rounds. The company claims to have created hundreds of energy-efficient and comfortable buildings, while also winning multiple accolades in the process.

The current focus is to gain a foothold in the ‘smart’ heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) space in India, while further consolidating their presence in the US. Gaurav noted that 75F’s long-term goal is to drive high-level automation in this space by gathering intelligent data and helping buildings become smart and function according to clients’ needs. Elaborating further, he said,

There are five key trends in the commercial buildings segment — increasing automation across commercial spaces, increasing awareness of the need for energy efficiency, customers becoming more demanding in terms of comfort, air quality operational visibility, and lastly, new technologies making all of these benefits available at a price point affordable to most.

75F generates revenues by bundling and charging for hardware, software, and services. For clients with more specific needs and greater interest in improving energy efficiency, they also provide value-added services such as data analytics for additional cost.
The technology behind 75F

Based on a room’s dimensions, 75F installs multiple ‘wireless zone controllers’, which are small devices that sense and collect hundreds of data points from the room every minute. These devices then send the data to the Central Control Unit which is redirected to the servers in the cloud.

Each night, 75F’s cloud computing algorithms analyse the data points collected, including the weather forecast and daily usage patterns that allow the system to predict future conditions. Gaurav said,

Post this, a new set of instructions are sent to the Central Control Unit and the motorised dampers are modulated a few degrees at a time to achieve the perfect balance.The system also factors in real-time events, such as room occupancy, sunlight, and weather patterns to make continuous adjustments to the plan as needed.

Leveraging IoT design philosophy and the power of cloud computing, 75F’s Dynamic Airflow Balancing Technology aims to provide continuous commissioning (or air balancing) while driving energy efficiency.

75F claims that along with increased comfort and automation, it is able to provide 40 percent savings on energy bills. The client, though, has to make an initial investment in equipment like wireless zone controllers and peripheries. The actual cost of installation is a function of multiple factors at the client’s facility and hence can be accurately determined only based on a site survey. 75F estimates that the one-time cost for installation could be anywhere between Rs 50–100 per sqft. Gaurav noted that customers could expect a complete payback on the initial investment in less than three years.
Challenges and sector overview

While it is easier to integrate IoT in modern buildings, one of the challenges is integrating the solution into existing workplaces without disrupting employees. Gaurav noted that there are numerous challenges in doing so, such as managing multiple protocols and wireless technologies and taking care of heightened security norms. But with newer and more powerful tools available, it is possible to overcome these hurdles.

While there is a global need for HVAC solutions, 75F found India’s needs to be different from those of cooler parts of the world like North America, where roof top units allow for cooling using relatively cooler ambient temperatures. In India, there is a greater dependence on chilled water units to provide the right temperature.

North America needs either heating or cooling during different parts of the year. India, on the other hand, generally needs only cooling solutions as the climate doesn’t fluctuate drastically. Another major difference is that in North American markets, the focus is on comfort, while India is more concerned about energy-savings and cost-efficiency.

There are many players in the HVAC space that are going after different aspects of the overall problem. Some companies manufacture smart hardware components like dampers, and others like Honeywell and Schneider Electric manufacture sensors. Coming to software, 75F competes again with players like Honeywell and Siemens.

Gaurav noted that 75F aims to stand out by being a player that looks after the entire value chain from manufacturing their own hardware to deploying their own software and services. He also said, “Ours is a predictive solution that captures data every 60 seconds, while most others are reactive systems that don’t capture so much data.”

Nest, which was acquired by Google for $3.2 billion in 2014, is another interesting player in this space. The company is mainly known for its smart thermostats which provide energy savings, smoke detectors, and home security solutions. Unlike 75F, though, its main focus is the residential market.
India focus and R&D

75F has an R&D centre here in Bengaluru, which includes an in-house industrial and product design team that supports both the India and the US markets. The facility also includes a full test lab to test all production hardware in-house before it ships out. Gaurav said,

For our data analytics platform development, we use R and other machine learning techniques. A full-fledged hardware design and test lab is involved in the entire value chain — from front to back hardware and firmware design and development.

Having tasted success in the USA, 75F now considers the growth potential in the Indian subcontinent to be huge. The short-term goal is to go after the Indian market and offer solutions across specific sectors like IT/ITeS, healthcare, and hospitality in the four major metros. The long-term goal is to expand the footprint into similar Asian markets. 75F is also working on some India-specific solutions, which they aim to launch by Q1 2017.

Future plans and trends

Gaurav noted that the company is financially healthy and hence not looking to raise further external funding at this stage. However, they are looking at hiring more employees and onboarding more partners and resellers. Gaurav believes that new building deployments and existing buildings too represent an enormous opportunity with the growth curve for the Indian economy, appearing to be robust for the medium term.

Talking about the long-term future of the energy market, Gaurav noted that alternative energy is evolving at a rapid pace and hence not as far away as most think. With rising pollution levels globally, there is a need to rely on renewable sources of energy to fulfil energy needs of commercial buildings. Elon Musk’s SolarCity and Tesla recently unveiled its new product, A ‘Solar Roof’, with hidden solar tiles that powers homes with clean, renewable energy. Production is expected to begin in mid-2017.

Apple has an energy subsidiary ‘Apple Energy’ LLC with solar farms in Cupertino and Nevada. The venture plans to sell electricity across the whole of the US. While the world is shifting to these energy sources and moving off the main grid, Gaurav believes that it will not affect 75F’s bottom line as there will always be a need to better manage and increase energy efficiency.

Reference :

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Fed up of getting gifts you don’t want? GiftZenie has the answer

The festive season just went by, and we are well aware of the formalities that the occasion demanded. We know that it was probably common for several of us to ‘recycle’ our gift boxes. All those sweets and dry fruit boxes that we received during the weekend were simply redistributed.

Most of the gifts we receive, be it for a wedding, baby shower, house-warming or anniversary, aren’t what we would prefer. It was a problem that Rahul Handa and Prodeep Ghosh, friends for over two decades, had faced in the past.

Rahul has been the consulting partner, retail and consumer goods Nordics for Cognizant, and has also worked for Gartner Consulting, Ernst & Young and AF Ferguson. Prodeep has been the COO, India for Kalpan and has worked for companies like HCL and NIIT.

The idea catalyst
Their most recent experiences on this front set them thinking. When Prodeep’s daughter was heading to the US post her marriage, her room was filled with dinner-set boxes that she wasn’t taking with her. At about the same time, Rahul and his wife were going to a baby shower and could not figure out what to buy for the newborn twins. While separate events, they worked as catalysts, and GiftZenie came to be born.

GiftZenie is a cross-event gift-list sharing and fulfillment platform that provides curated products and services. “The idea is very common in the US, Europe, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. We have taken that idea and Indian-ised it,” says Rahul.
Bringing in a new concept

In essence, the idea is that whatever the occasion, people can use GiftZenie. They need to set up an account on the platform, put up products and services they want for the occasion on a ‘Gift List’ or ‘Gift Registry’, add guests via an excel sheet or Facebook, and share the registry with them.

“The idea is to ensure that people have the options of choosing the gift and pooling in money with common friends. Each person can pay using the GiftZenie system, or even contribute a certain amount of money towards a particular product or service,” Rahul says.

The team has also built something called the ReccoGift function, which allows guests to recommend gifts to the host. In cases where the host hasn’t sent out a gift list, the guest has the choice of sending a list of recommended products and services.

Discovering the niche

However, while the idea sounded brilliant, the duo wondered whether it would work in India. They knew that it was a challenge to understand if it was a workable idea, in a country where people have a psychological impediment in explicitly asking for what they want. 

Rahul says,“We commissioned IMRB to conduct a study on the question. And they answered in the affirmative, with the caveat that the concept is not a mass market one. There is a specific market segment where the acceptability is there.”

Thus, looking at their target segment, the team created a list of brands, which they then proceeded to meet and onboard after an explanation of the concept. Rahul claims that the team now has over 25 brands and 1,200 products and services to offer.

“The next challenge that we are grappling with is customer acquisition. This is a work in progress. At this point in time, we have over 10,000 people on various GiftZenie social pages,” claims Rahul.

The team and differentiators

For building the initial team, Rahul and Prodeep met different people through common connections, and soon found Shubhi Talwar, who was the sourcing business development head for SnapDeal Genesys Luxury Fashion. They also onboarded a team of experts, consisting of Shantanu Rudra for finance, Suresh Mansharamani for operations and Nitin Dave for logistics.

The market for gifting is fast growing, with several players entering the game. Internationally, the market is big, with dominant social gifting players like Wrapp and Chicago-based Boomberg seeing considerable investment.

There are also other Indian gifting platforms in the space like Wedtree, which is primarily focused on weddings. The idea of a gift registry is different and new to India. Live for three months, GiftZenie claims to make over 12 sales a day and has four registries set up for different events in November and December.

Another differentiator is the fact that the platform has a curated product list, featuring only well-known brands. The platform doesn’t carry any kind of gift cards or vouchers.

In the case of the requisite amount of money for a particular gift not being collected fully, the host has the option of either using the money to buy other products and services from GiftZenie or getting their money back.

Rahul says,“We will charge a small fee and send the money back to them as a Pre-Loaded MasterCard that they can use anywhere and for anything. We want to put in a few more bells and whistles and also expand into nascent markets including Dubai and SE Asia.”

Monday, 7 November 2016

Please don’t curb innovation by resisting change

Our businesses tend to be heavily regulated by the government. Often, the unintended (or as some would claim, intended) consequence is to create monopolies and use regulations to prevent newer players from entering the market.

And yet, ever so often, a business aided by technology comes along and completely upsets the status quo. This is a fast growing trend, with companies — using the internet, insights from data, and the increasing use of smartphones — connecting people at an unprecedented scale and tackling challenges faced by traditional businesses. Google is using its search engine power to solve medical challenges. Apple is considering building autonomous cars. The likes of Amazon and Flipkart already did it with e-commerce. And of course, the poster child of disruption — Uber — that’s changing the face of transportation globally.

However, as has been the experience of new technology from time immemorial (remember the labour unions protesting computers in the 1990s or the Luddites against the Industrial Revolution), they face massive roadblocks from entrenched interests.

The public transport industry is an especially interesting case. It’s a heavily regulated business, where the government regulates the number of vehicles, the qualifications of drivers, and the fare. As a result, the same car that costs you Rs 5 lakh as a personal vehicle can be as expensive as Rs 7–9 lakh if purchased for commercial purposes. Some cities require you to be a resident in the city for over 10 years to get a commercial driving permit. And then there are the fares, arbitrarily levied, which make public transport prohibitively expensive for the masses.

This is why the recent regulations framed in Maharashtra are a classic case of regulation being used to curb innovation. Instead of looking forward and recognising the inevitability and convenience of such app-based services, they look to bring them at par with the existing taxi industry.

Regulating apps like taxis

People often ask why Uber shouldn’t be regulated like other taxi services without realising that the many conditions required in such regulations no longer make sense. For example, the need to limit the number of taxis existed to ensure that drivers were guaranteed a steady rate of business. It was also justified by incumbents as a measure to reduce congestion. But conventional taxis pick up rides on the street and depend on physically driving by their next customer. However, apps allow us to ‘match’ with distant cars, automatically expanding the pool of opportunities for drivers.

Several countries have already moved away from such ludicrous restrictions based on specious and unscientific justifications. In fact, I’d say, why over-regulate the taxi industry? This may be the time to overhaul how we provide transport services and create more competition and private sector involvement. It’s not like our current systems have served us that much better. As the World Bank notes, the share of public transport in cities has declined from 69 percent to 38 percent between 1994 and 2007.

There is a significant grouse against Uber-aligned cabs not paying licence fees as high as other taxis, but why impose the sickness from one business into another? In fact, the government should do a cost-benefit analysis. I’d assume that the revenue generated through a one-time licensing fee would be far smaller than the service tax collection that can be supported through app-based transactions.

The Maharashtra rules also create arbitrary conditions like requiring 50 percent of the fleet above 1,400cc. There seems to be very little public welfare in this. How is a 1,400cc car better than a 1,000cc one for someone who is just concerned about getting from point A to B? And how does it matter to the regulator if I want to travel in a Wagon R instead of an SUV? In fact, heavier cars mean higher costs, and would limit the drivers’ ability to provide competitively priced services. Needless to mention, it would severely curtail the ability of many aspiring drivers to join platforms like Ola and Uber, leaving many existing drivers with no source of livelihood.

The surge problem

Then there’s the claim of mandatory fares and how, like MRPs, they look to protect consumers. In reality, these fares operate to guarantee revenues for taxis. Remember the days when a radio cab took Rs 500 to drop you home, the same trip that you can complete in less than half the amount now? Those cars had an MRP-like system. Competition has led to the market offering the same service at much lower rates. Conventional taxis have a limit on the number of rides they can complete in a day. Using the internet, an app-based car can complete double the number of rides and thus charge half the amount from customers.

But what about the terrible surge pricing? First, surge is an over-abused concern. In reality, surge pricing is levied only on a small part of the trips. Moreover, these technologies don’t own any assets but create two-sided markets: of customers and drivers. The role of the app then becomes to create the most efficient market. In order to meet every demand, it needs to first ask the existing drivers, and if the current pool of drivers is unable to meet the demand, get more drivers to join the system, which is why a temporary surge attracts more drivers.

Any business would by hook or by crook recover their costs. So even if the regulations cap the rates, the apps would raise the rates across the board, thereby impacting all customers. On the other hand, surge pricing allows apps to allocate the increased cost only to those customers who are willing to pay. This is the reason why, in a recent study by Stephen Levitt, author of Freakonomics, it was concluded that Uber created a consumer surplus of $6.8 billion per annum for its users in the US.

The way forward: a case for taking a step back

A big fear is that once these businesses expand, people will be at the mercy of these apps. Firstly, the Indian market is extremely price-sensitive. So if Uber starts charging more, I’m sure there’ll be the next upstart who will come into the market to provide services at a lower rate. Secondly, our regulatory system already provides for solutions for this problem. If any business uses its dominant position to abuse the market, the Competition Commission can step in and rectify the problem.

And finally, sometimes there is wisdom in not acting. Why not wait it out to see how the market develops and then step in to rectify any mistake? Meddling now may kill off a growing industry that has tangible benefits to consumers and to those many thousands of drivers at the bottom of the pyramid using these apps to make a decent living. It’s worked wonders for the TRAI, where it had an official policy for forbearance, or more simply put, of not meddling in tariff setting.

This resulted in creating one of the most competitive telecom markets in the world. However, with sufficient competition and a large user base, the TRAI is now thinking of becoming more proactive in relation to tariffs. Regulations should try and focus on innovation and look to create a safe environment for customers and drivers alike, instead of trying to restrict how to conduct business by using protectionist measures under the garb of creating a level playing field.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Hands-free driving companion app Kruzr aims to be ‘Google Assistant for driving’

Kruzr is a driving assistant app designed to protect users while driving. The app claims to start automatically within 15 seconds every time a user starts driving or sits in a moving vehicle. Kruzr then handles all the user’s calls and messages and let’s important communication reach users. Pallav noted, 

Think of Kruzr like Google Assistant or Amazon Echo, but for driving. It can read out your texts and caller information for you. Also, whenever you get a call, Kruzr will inform the caller that you are driving and if it is something very important, they can press 1 to reach to you.

To avoid distractions, all messages and notifications are hidden till the user completes the drive. While smartphones are distractions for drivers trying to concentrate on the road, there are some features and apps like-navigation and music players, which are beneficial. For this, Kruzr includes a ‘Drive Mode’ feature which allows users to access some specific apps, which read out loud information or have large simplified buttons for easy access.

Story so far

Kruzr was founded in September 2016 by Pallav Singh (32) and Dinesh Fatehpuria (28). Pallav functions as the CEO and noted that he is passionate about building technology to solve critical social problems. An IIT Bombay graduate, Pallav previously worked as a Consultant for Greentech Knowledge Solutions, where was involved in creating and implementing a roadmap for Solar Thermal Technologies in India, to help build energy efficiency.
Kruzr team
Dinesh, Co-founder and CTO, is a mobile applications architect and has prior experience and expertise in designing, and integrating business processes with mobile technologies and backend systems. Kruzr currently consists of two full-time employees (excluding the founders) and Kunal Kislay (33), CEO at Integration Wizard Solutions, is one of their mentors.

Pallav and Dinesh realised that while smartphones had disrupted almost every sector globally, many people are now addicted to them and need to change their behaviour while on the move, like driving. Based on market research, the duo realised that more than 25 percent of vehicular accidents are actually caused by people using their phones while driving. Driver errors are estimated to account for about 70 percent accidents in India, while automobile faults account for only about five percent. Pallav said, Talking on phone while driving increases risk of accident about five times, about same as drunk driving. But texting and driving increases risk of accidents 23 times. That’s four times more than drunk driving.

So, they decided to work on this problem together that could help drivers better concentrate on the road and not get distracted with their smartphones. Thus, Kruzr was born and the team beta tested their app with about 200 users, before finally making it public in early October this year.
Revenue model

Kruzr currently works on a freemium model, where the basic features are free but additional features such as premium call handling and emergency services are only available to paid subscribers. All users currently get a 30-day premium account for free post which they need to pay Rs 75 per month or Rs 800 for a year. Talking more about the premium emergency service, which is still being tweaked, Pallav noted that in case of a crash, Kruzr helps by immediately alerting concerned authorities to that location and by also reaching out to a user’s emergency contacts to relay relevant information.

While vehicular movement is comparatively easy to detect through GPS, gyroscopes and other in-built features in modern day smartphones, Pallav noted that accurate crash detection is still in early stages. They have currently partnered with one of the IIT’s in India for further R&D, before deploying it fully. Talking about how it would work, Pallav explained,

In case of a crash, the g-forces acting on a car are massively higher than other situations. So Kruzr is able to detect that anomaly to identify crashes. As long as the smartphone is still functioning after the crash, we can gather further information to help authorities.
Future plans

Currently bootstrapped, Kruzr aims to reach out to external investors soon to help them accelerate their R&D and operations. Currently available only for Android users, the iOS version is scheduled to be launched in early 2017. Pallav noted that as Android provided a more open platform and has a large user base in India, they decided to focus on it first.

The long term aim though is to be active on both platforms and go beyond the Indian market. Pallav said, “Driver safety is a global pain point. So, we believe there is a big global market for Kruzr.”

Based on the feedback from beta testers and new users, Kruzr also aims to add additional features like a chatbot that automatically shares estimated time of arrival (ETA) of the driver to contacts who try to reach out to him or her. This would help both parties better plan their communication and prevent confusion.

Sector overview

An estimated 1.2 million people lose their lives in accidents globally every year, with twice more being seriously injured or permanently disabled. In India alone, about two lakh people are estimated to lose their lives every year in vehicular accidents. Hence, road safety is a top priority globally and in India.

In August 2016, The Government of Andhra Pradesh and cab-aggregator Ola concluded a two-day 'National Workshop on Road safety', which was hosted by World Bank and Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (Government of India). The participants brainstormed on challenges in implementing intelligent transport system and innovative road safety initiatives.

Automatic, based out of San Francisco, USA, is a well-known player in the smart driving assistant space. Founded in 2011, Automatic helps users with car monitoring, saving money on fuel, remembering where they have parked, send out DND messages or call for help in case of a crash.

Other legacy companies like Motorola too have tried their hand at this space with initiatives like ‘Motoralla Assist’. Higher end ‘smart cars’ already come with a lot of built-in emergency features but there is still a market for smartphone apps, for people who want an additional backup, can’t afford an expensive smart car or rely on public transport a lot.

Kruzr is a well thought out app that aims to solve difficult and sensitive problems - smartphone addiction and post-crash relief. For a minimum viable product, the app is well designed and self-explanatory. The ‘Last ride summary’ and ‘Overall stats’ features include a ride safety score, which helps drivers better understand their driving patterns and stay safe. The call handling feature is good for drivers who are easily distracted by a ringing smartphone.

While Kruzr works well in most cases, I sometimes found that the app incorrectly thought I was in a moving vehicle even while walking around on the road or indoors at a slow pace. So, the detection algorithms may need to be further tweaked to differentiate between walking and actually moving in a vehicle. The crash detection feature is not fully operational yet and is difficult to test out, so it is not possible to comment in detail about that feature. Overall, Kruzr is an interesting attempt to provide a hands-free way of leveraging a smartphone’s capabilities to communicate with family also ensure safety.


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Friday, 4 November 2016

2 engineers are on a mission to save farming with drones

Two engineers, Pranav Manpuria and Kunal Sharma, slog it out at a farm in the town of Ramanagara, just outside Bengaluru. With the Kharif crop harvest just around the corner, these two engineers are now flying their drones across a five-acre field. Some might say what can a drone do on a farm other than take pictures of the field. But Pranav and Kunal have built a software into their drone cameras which read thermal images of the plant making food. Once the drone lands, they collect the images from its SD card and start mapping the farm on their laptops. Next, they analyse the images and are able to tell the farm owner which areas of farm are fertile and which are not.
Founders of V Drone Agro Pranav Manapuria and Kunal Sharma
“The idea was born while I was studying in the US and Kunal was in India. The farmer suicides over the last two years made us talk about how technology can play a role in saving farmers,” says Pranav, the 22-year-old Co-founder of V Drone Agro.

Kunal and Pranav spent the last year working on at least 30 drone designs and began working with a couple of farmers this year. “Convincing the farmers was easy. But building the software has taken us more than a year,” says Kunal.

Both boys have taken to building the company while at college. Pranav took a year off from studying at the Illinois Institute of Technology and Kunal studies in his final year of engineering in RNSIT Bangalore.

They have invested close to Rs 1 lakh in the business. Here is why they went after the business. A United Nations report titled Farmers Relief states that there were more than 100,000 farmer suicides over the last 15 years. The report says that Cotton farmers were the worst hit because of low yields.

High yield of each crop is dependent on the seeds, the soil, the cropping pattern, the weather, water, use of fertiliser and the lack of pests. Considering all these parameters, thermal imaging of the crop shows what is growing healthy and what is not.

"Most drones use only photography. But it's our software platform that makes these images intelligent," says Pranav.

Drone Agro's drone

The business and competition

Edall, Drona, and Idea Forge are some of the serious drone players in the country. Idea Forge has released drones in emergency situations like floods and riots. Idea Forge makes industrial size drones that are used for heavy duty applications with longer flight.

According to research firm MarketsandMarkets, the global small UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) market will reach $10 billion by 2020. Such drones for civilian applications can be more than a $100 million in India by the same time.

VDrone Agro plans to go live with several farmers by next year by working with government and semi-government agencies. "We need the data to prove that our research model makes sense for stakeholders," says Kunal.

The business model for all drone companies is on a recurring model or on an outright sale model. VDrone has figured a business model that is based on the visualisation of the image and the recommendations on top of those images. Most of the recommendations will be about the energy produced in the plant and what should be done.

The civilian drone industry has not been able to raise any money because it has lacked the services to back it up. None of them own the hardware and the software is commoditised. It is in this regard that VDrone is ahead of several other companies that are focussed on landscape cinematography to photography.

The VDrone is built in Bengaluru and works on a pay load of less than 6kg. It is built on light materials and is a civilian drone. Hopefully, the farmers in Ramanagara will tell the two boys that their services have helped improve their cash crop. That is when VDrone would be sold to the government as a friend of thDronhee farmers.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Meet the geek who moved from the US to Himachal Pradesh to help animals recover and build houses from used beer bottles

Peepal Farm Campus in Dhanotu village
It was probably in early 2015 that we met Robin Singh at his farm in Dhanotu village near Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh. I strongly recollect how both of us squirmed at everything clickbait and as a testimony to that, it only makes perfect ironical sense to have a clickbait title for this article. Robin has a story worth telling from all angles, irrespective of whether one takes a look at his journey as a teenager who learned to code and was able to make some good money in the US or from the perspective of the so-called turn of heart and how he returned to his birth land to reduce the suffering around us.

Peepal Farm was started about two years ago with the intention of setting up an animal recovery centre and vegan organic farm which would conduct sustainability experiments. And two years down the line, if one looks back, they’ve done a phenomenal job. Started by Robin along with Joellen Anderson, Peepal Farm primarily works to alleviate the pain of animals. There are a lot of not-so-nice practices in Indian villages like cows being left to fend for themselves in the open and beaten after they stop giving milk or grow old, people having a bias towards male dogs, and some more such practices which make us less human.

I remember Robin saying, I contemplated shooting myself looking at the suffering every act of consumption causes but then that wouldn’t have been an improvement on the situation. The only logical reason I found to keep on living

was to reduce the suffering around us.

Robin had shared when we first met on the sidelines of his upcoming farm. Robin had picked up coding fairly quickly in his life, enabling him to get a job in the US and then start up e-junkie, which lets makers sell online. Talking about its origin, Robin writes on his blog:
Jo at the farm
E-junkie started as a script I wrote for myself when I was selling a $4 software in the year 2003. I did not want to wake up in the middle of the night to check my e-mail and send it out using my dial-up connection. The script worked great and did all my work. Soon, a couple of my friends started using it and I kept modifying the script to suit their needs. It was a fun project, to begin with, a labour of love kind of thing.

Operated from the US and New Delhi, the company is now run primarily by Robin’s friends Jai and Adi who took over the reins of this 30-odd-member company.

Robin’s journey started in 2012 when he came to India and visited Auroville in Pondicherry. A beautiful place which has sown the seeds of sustainability in many across the world, Auroville also turned out to be the place where Robin found some roots and direction as to what he could do to settle the growing discomfort within himself. “There was this strong desire to give back to the society and play a role in making this earth a better place,” Robin had mentioned.

He met someone who was taking care of a huge lot of abandoned dogs, which was when he realised just how much they suffer. He could also have done something to help other humans, but who would take care of all the animals humans harm? This was the logical reasoning Robin’s mind came up with when looking for a worthy cause to devote his time to. He started out with a sanitisation programme in Delhi which still runs strong and a couple of years down the line decided to move closer to nature and find a larger piece of land where he could completely devote himself to the cause. This is how the Peepal Farm came into being in 2014.

The farm is now a flourishing recovery centre where they take in all kinds of injured animals from dogs to mules to cows and nourish them to health. “We’ve a recovery centre and not a shelter, which means we’ll release the animals from where we found them or find a home for the animals where they’ll be safe,” says Robin. The farm runs a volunteer programme where anyone can work at the farm in return for food and stay. A vegan farm, the place follows all sustainable practices and volunteers are involved in all the functions of a daily life from farming to taking care of the animals to cooking to building.

Robin Singh building a kennel from mud and beer bottles
Chameli the donkey and Pushpa the horse who have been nursed to health (read more):

Saving Rim Jhim the cow, who came in as an accident victim (read more):

Or running a campaign like ‘Desi dog, Desi log’ which encourages people to adopt local dogs instead of foreign breeds:

The entire campus at Peepal Farm has been built with salvaged wood, stones and mud and Robin doesn’t have to try to use everything sustainable. A large vision with a noble cause, Robin, Jo and their team are at it 24*7, 365 days a year and this is their joy which is a beautiful thing to see. The tale behind Peepal Farm makes a compelling story for all things #SlowTech and we wish them all the very best in their endeavours.

If anyone wants to be a part of the Peepal community, do something similar in their area, feel free to write in to us at Know more about Peepal Farm on their website and follow them on their FB page.