Madurai girl storms into the Valley with her Pith innovation
It would have been a surprise if Divya Sornaraja 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 PCBs. “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.
When she was barely 15, nanotechnology attracted her no end. She went on to make a presentation on nanotubes. She promptly rattled her classmates in her college with her precocious ability to crack solutions for mathematics problems in no time. She used to get insanely excited at challenges thrown at her in physics and maths.
Divya perhaps took her baby steps towards entrepreneurship when she headed the entrepreneurship cell promoted by National Entrepreneurship Network (NEN) in Velammal Engineering College where she finished her engineering degree. 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.”
Working for Agriculture in India
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 and disrupt the supply chain,” she points out. So she began visiting nearby villages and talked to farmers. “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.”
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? Her take is, “Because he is compassionate and Tata was a revered brand in the villages.” Surprisingly, she received a reply and she went on to work for their Innovation Lab at Mumbai.
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 was inducted with full scholarship 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.
She says excitedly “we are living in a time when the rate of change 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 the Innovation Lab, 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 incredibly low energy consumption option while enabling devices to “talk” to each other. These devices can employ minute cells instead of bulk batteries. The ability of devices to talk to each other offers innumerable possibilities for IoT.
Startup in the Valley applying Internet of Things in health care
By August 2013, she launched her IoT startup in the Silicon Valley. She loves the Valley. She says, “The ecosystem that has been created here is unique and the general compassion and passion to ‘changing the world’ or ‘disrupting’ an industry is not crazy but quite common. Dedicating a lifetime to making a difference requires support and encouragement – which is abundant there.”
Divya explains that IoT can be broadly divided into using the technology in wearable and embedded devices. IoT could be one of the two: (a) systems where all the sensors automatically capture data at regular intervals and the data can be used for references and (b) preventive health care to track and monitor personal fitness and wellness.
Her startup is called Pith, Inc. 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 eventually.”
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.