Using satellite data for real-time analysis, this sibling duo's startup is tackling toxic air pollution
Back in 2013, Abhilasha Purwar had graduated from IIT Varanasi with a master’s degree in Applied Chemistry. She started working with Jameel Poverty Action Lab on a consulting project on IoT devices-based air pollution monitoring for the Indian Ministry of Environment & Forest. It was at that point that she came across an orange-coloured river in Chandrapur, Maharashtra, and the dire state of the environment hit home.
Abhilasha realised something had to be done to address the rising pollution threat across India and the world. In 2013, she started pursuing a master’s in Environmental Management from Yale and became more determined to put her skills and efforts into environmental action.
Fast forward to 2018, when, at 3 am on an otherwise-ordinary morning at their home, Abhilasha along with her brother, Kshitij Purwar (20), came up with the idea for Blue Sky Analytics.
Based out of Gurugram, Blue Sky Analytics or BSA, according to Abhilasha, is a downstream value-provider in the data analytics market, and aims to service various industries with insights and better decision-making tools.
Abhilasha Purwar along with Kshitij Purwar
In the less than two years of its existence, the startup has received recognition with awards such as the MIT Solve, AI Innovation Prize, and Copernicus Masters Social Entrepreneurship Challenge.
"However, as satellites become cheaper and better, and sensors become more powerful, we expect a real transformation in our end of the value chain," says Abhilasha.
Keeping an eye on the toxic air
With deteriorating air and rising pollution across the seas, forests, and land, it is well acknowledged that we are living in an era of climate emergency.
In India, Delhi, for instance, is constantly making headlines for battling the rising air pollution, the levels of which recently slipped into the 'severe' category.
The visuals of real-time air quality through Breezo
To address these alarming environmental issues and curb pollution, especially of the air, one needs to begin by understanding the pollutants in the medium. Tracking those macro particles of pollutants helps in understanding the air quality as well as the origin of these pollutants. This is where BSA’s platforms bring critical value.
“The physics of tracking and monitoring the pollutants and other chemicals in the atmosphere, water, or soil is the same as on the ground. You are tracking and measuring the optical or spectral property of the molecules, and you go back to basics like dispersion and spectral signature. It’s just a different scale which you need to calibrate well,” says Abhilasha.
To help organisations and other stakeholders take better decisions towards controlling and mitigating air pollution, BSA is working towards building the world’s largest geospatial data refinery that will collect huge amounts of raw data, and pass it through a process of cleaning, purification, and treatment systems. These steps make data more accurate and precise and can power better decisions and actions by the relevant stakeholders.
Satellite imagery on Indian states
According to Abhilasha,
“After all, data is the new oil, and oil is a leading cause of global warming, so it is befitting that data will also lead the solution to it. The process of crunching this raw and complex dataset is our core competency.”
Currently, BSA crunches five TBs of data per month and is targeting 30TB per month by this time next year and over 100TBs by 2021. It is sourcing datasets directly from NASA and ESA, and also looking at purchasing more high-resolution datasets from private providers like Planet, Orbital Insights, and Pixxel over the next year.
The challenges, tools, and customers
In commencing the development of this indigenous solution, Abhilasha faced a fair few setbacks. A primary challenge was the scepticism expressed towards her idea geared to tackle climate change. It took months, until WattTime won a $1.7 million award from Google for its work in the field of green energy, that the people approached for investments started trusting Blue Sky Analytics.
The other even bigger problem for BSA was the general focus trained on environment impact with a satellite-based deep-tech startup base. This meant that BSA’s focus was to use satellite data to address environmental concern, hence a deep tech solution for a environmental cause. Whenever the team approached tech investors, they would send them on to impact investors, and from there they were routed to philanthropies and back to square one, the deep tech investors.
At last, BSA, based on its concept and solutions, received initial funds from MIT Solve, the Patrick McGovern Foundation, Schmidt Futures, and Copernicus Master’s programme.
Now, BSA is focussing on analytics as a service via accessible APIs and platforms (like dashboards or apps). It has a simple freemium business model – BSA gives a bunch of data and analytics for free, but also charges its customers based on the data they access, its quality and quantity.
For instance, BreeZo, the startup’s air quality data analytics platform, is a completely free web and mobile product. On this free platform, the dataset that is shown is a relatively low-resolution, macro-level one. If a user wishes to go deeper and more micro with high resolution, there is a cost attached to the offering.
According to Abhilasha, businesses benefit deeply from such high-resolution, spatially and temporally continuous insights, and that is the startup’s core value proposition.
The Data Refinery Layout of Blue Sky Analytics
On BreeZo, Abhilasha says,
“We have just gotten started, but BreeZo is already the preferred data analytics platform for many power users, including journalists and lawyers from the Supreme Court, who refer to BreeZo for understanding air quality data and trends.”
A critical element in the field of space data being scalability, BSA, like any other enterprise in this sector, constantly has to address questions such as: ‘how good are the datasets we build’, ‘what sort of models do we have’, ‘how good is the technology’, and ‘how well are we serving our customers and their decisions’.
“Customers have shown quite a bit of interest in BSA’s product and services. What remains a constant issue is the need for a sizable amount of time and capital to build a truly sellable product,” says Abhilasha.
The team, support, and the path ahead
Abhilasha’s younger brother, Kshitij, who has dropped out of college, is the CTO and a core member of BSA’s 11-member-strong team. The team comprises three data scientists, four coders, two designers, and two strategists.
Fascinated by technology, Kshitij had moved to Bengaluru to work for Hiver in an engineering team, but what made him shift to becoming an environment solution provider was the state of the environment and climate in India , he says, adding,
“The more you look at numbers, the more you analyse and start to wonder how other people are focusing on any non-environmental problem in the world. We are talking of a planetary crisis, and as an able-bodied, skilled person, I cannot be but focusing all my energies on trying to save the planet.”
BSA has on board investors like Shobhit Shukla (Near.Co) and Gaurav Gupta (Dalberg). It also has Mohit Bhatnagar from Sequoia who has helped the team keep BSA’s dreams alive. Besides Mohit, the team also has Ashish Dhawan financially supporting their venture.
BSA also has the benefit of having mentors from across the shores, including Todd from Geospatial Alpha, as well as its partnership with TimeScale DB. In terms of academic support, it has Professor Sagnik Dey from IIT Delhi.
Abhilasha says, “We have now built a network of like-minded individuals who are there to help, guide, and support us. When we are stuck on a complex engineering problem or some tricky atmospheric chemistry question, we have gotten answers in minutes via a phone call or Slack message.”
Now, BSA is looking forward to delivering anywhere from $200 million to $1 billion of value proposition in the coming decade. The startup believes that there is a clear demand for better environmental intelligence. What matters now, says the team, is to see how BSA can build its products and serve various users and customers for a better world.
(Edited by Athirupa Geetha Manichandar)