Madurai girl storms into the Valley with her Pith innovation
It would have been a surprise if Divya Sornaraja, 24, hadn’t taken to entrepreneurship. Growing up in a conservative neighbourhood in Madurai, Divya didn’t hold any pretensions of a typical Tamil girl. Whatever she saw in her childhood was electronic circuits, electronic circuits, and only electronic circuits. Her father ran a retail electronics business. Divya conveniently found gadgets and ripped them apart to study the ECBs. “I wanted to know how the calculator could compute faster than me,” she says. She found a three-layered LCD with liquid in between when she broke into the calculator, which baffled her a bit. Her hacks obviously annoyed her parents but nothing stopped her obsession. She also had an uncanny knack of putting back the gadget after hacking it. When she didn’t, she was chided by her father. “I don’t know how my mother managed me,” she laughs. But she was this naughty girl with a strange liking for physics. “I used to have a lot of guy friends, not boyfriends,” she reveals with a chuckle. The conservative Tamil society’s traditions stipulate maintaining a “safe” distance between a boy and a girl until they are married.
When she was barely 15, nanotechnology attracted her no end. She went on to make a presentation on nanotubes after poring over several articles and ‘Googling’ for information. She had to overcome the loss of her father when she was preparing for the crucial Class XII board examinations. With emotional distress causing her distraction, she wasn’t able to crack the IIT-JEE. She instead landed up in Velammal Engineering College in Chennai and promptly rattled her classmates with her precocious ability to crack solutions for mathematics problems in no time. “I used to get the answer before the prof finished the problem on the blackboard,” she recalls. She used to get flame e-mails from her classmates for showing off. But for her it was excitement. She used to get insanely excited at challenges thrown at her in physics and maths. Definitely not a girly stuff.
Divya perhaps took her baby steps towards entrepreneurship when she headed the entrepreneurship cell promoted by National Entrepreneurship Network (NEN) in Velammal. Strangely, it was named Lemon, Inc. She explains, “Lean periods are usually called lemon periods. When I took over the e-cell, it was practically dead. So we came up with a satiric name and called it Lemon, Inc. to reinvigorate it from dust. “I was its Chairperson and we had CEO and CTO as well.”
Mailing a business plan to Ratan Tata
After finishing engineering in 2010, she wanted to drastically change farmers’ lives. Her dream was to use technology to restrict middlemen in reaching the farm produce to the end consumers. “I wanted to create an Alibaba for farmers. I wanted to disrupt the supply chain,” she points out. So she began visiting nearby villages and talked to farmers. She was unable to find a convenient way to get the farm produce to stores in towns. “The farmers were charmed by a young girl talking to them about a dream but when it came to business deals, they were very hesitant.” The daytime would be occupied with interactions with the farmers. Around this time, she met Kristina Maria Guitterez of Fearless Women Entrepreneurship Network (which is now called WomanGoGlobal), based out of San Francisco. After a long conversation, Kristina wanted Divya’s help in chalking out a web/social strategy for her network. She interned for the network. “I came across a lot of interesting women entrepreneurs from all across the world,” she says.
Figuring out that her idea of the farmer network needed large funds and a good-hearted angel, she mailed her business plan to Ratan Tata. Why Ratan Tata of all people? “Because he is compassionate and Tata is a revered brand in the villages.” Surprisingly, she received a reply from Ratan Tata, asking her to join Tata Consultancy Services’s (TCS) Innovation Lab at Mumbai headed by Dr. Arun Pandey. The lab was into research on speech therapy for the disabled children and was also running experiments in agriculture. By October 2010, she joined the Innovation Lab of the TCS at Mumbai after abandoning her farm supply network. She ruefully accepts, “I was too young to understand its complexity.”
Exponential technologies at Singularity
Singularity University offers disruptive courses aimed at changing the face of education. It is a dream of every technologist to have a feel of the Silicon Valley. Divya enrolled for a 10-week course at Singularity in June 2012 on exponential technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, bioinformatics, digital fabrication (3D printing), biotech (including synthetic biology), neuroscience, networks and computing, space and physical sciences, among others. “This course cost $25,000 but I was admitted on a full scholarship based on my profile.” This is done on a payback principle. Divya’s profile predisposes her to creating wealth by starting up, and in the future, she would have the means to sponsor someone to Singularity. One advantage of this course is that it keeps you ahead of the curve and you become aware of technologies that have the potential to become huge successes in the future.
She says excitedly, “I learnt that we are living in a time when the rate of change and potential of technology is going to be on a never-seen-before speed. The world is going to be quite different in a few decades.”
Internet of Things and Bluetooth 4.0
Out of Singularity and back into TCS Innovation Lab this time in Hyderabad, she had a bunch of ideas to work on. One of them was Internet of Things (IoT) and Bluetooth 4.0. “The potential of Internet of Things is huge. The smartness built into things basically makes human assistance for simple things unnecessary. The potential is huge in ‘Smart Cities’, manufacturing, and healthcare. The value add could be its energy saving potential. If ‘things’ know when to be ON, when to turn OFF and when to ‘sleep’ or ‘hibernate’, the energy saving compared to manual operations would be huge. That’s exactly what Nest [which was acquired by Google] cracked.”
Bluetooth 4.0’s Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) offers an unbelievably low energy consumption option while enabling devices to “talk” to each other. Devices using Bluetooth 4.0 can employ minute cells instead of bulk batteries. The ability of devices to talk to each other offers innumerable possibilities for IoT.
While she was testing out some of her ideas, she bumped into Stanford Venture Labs and enrolled for a program ‘Technology Entrepreneurship’ taught by Chuck Eesley that allowed people from different parts of the world to collaborate on an idea, test it out, and study its market feasibility.The course is now available on NovoEd.. She found Cat Thu Nruyen (MIT, Vietnam/Boston), Benjamin Sandler (Germany), and Marcos Wolf (Argentina) having similar interests and willing to collaborate with her. The team was even offered angel funding by someone who didn’t even meet any of the team members. This team emerged as one of the top teams in the course. But time zone difference and living continents apart made it difficult for this team to extend their project to a real-time startup.
Startup in the Valley applying Internet of Things in health care
By March 2013, she launched a startup in the Silicon Valley applying IoT in health care. She is overawed by the Valley. “It is ‘startups’ everywhere. The ecosystem that has been created there is unique and the general compassion and passion to ‘changing the world’ or ‘disrupting’ an industry is not crazy but quite common. Some may call it delusional but I’d prefer calling it as the foundation to making a difference. Dedicating a lifetime to making a difference requires support and encouragement – which is in abundance there.”
Divya explains that IoT can be broadly divided into using the technology in wearable and embedded devices. Explaining her idea, she says, “Our concept is to create a platform over which IoT devices can share information.” IoT in health care could be one of the two: (a) in-hospital systems where all the sensors automatically capture data at regular intervals and the data can be used for doctor’s references and (b) preventive health care to track and monitor personal fitness and wellness. “We are working on the latter,” she says.
Her startup is called Pith, Inc. for a reason. She explains, “The most critical component of protocols are yet to be standardized and we are at the beginning of their consolidation and standardization. In fact, the Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6) was designed to facilitate IoT as more and more devices start connecting to the Internet. So, every ‘thing’ will have an identity in the internet. This was the inspiration for my company’s name: ‘ping things’ – pith similar to ‘ping’ (Packet INternet Gopher). We want to create ‘Packet Internet Thing Hinger’ [PITH] that ‘hinges’ between the physical and the digital world.”
Divya’s passion for science and emerging technologies drives her to experiment with newer ideas. She reads science fiction looking for inspiration. Definitely, Pith is just a first step in her journey.