When Indian techies land in the US with a heavy suitcase and an even heavier bag full of dreams, the majority of them have their sights set on a heavy pay-packet, on-site experience and an overall career boost. Often, the rewards are steep (at least in rupee terms) if you are a good performer, and risk is little, if any.
Starting up in the hyper-competitive Silicon Valley, however, can take a toll, what with funding cheques tough to come by and alarmists’ doomsday predictions chipping away at one’s confidence.
So why be a maverick when being a conformist does the job just fine?
That’s probably not something Saiman Shetty and Patrick Patel can answer. But their story might.
The year was 2013. Shetty, who comes from Udupi in Karnataka, and Patel, who is from Gujarat, earned their undergraduate degrees in electronics and mechanical engineering, respectively, in India, after which they moved to the US for a Master’s in Science (Control Systems) from Arizona State University.
In the last semester of their course, the duo began working on an idea so novel it was probably predestined for success—an Internet of Things platform for managing waste collection, aptly named Hygiea.
Often, those in the US on work visa find that country near-perfect as far as amenities and basics go—swanky high-rises, wide roads and not a speck of dust. Safe to assume that it took tremendous detail, and a lightbulb moment, to capture the opportunity the two spotted.
Says Shetty: “The wastage of resources in picking up partially full or empty waste containers gave us the idea. Despite large trash-collection crews, bins are often overflowing, which is certainly not desirable. Workers have no feedback on whether bins are full or not, and they cannot plan their collection circuits effectively”.
Hygiea’s sensor monitors garbage levels in trash cans. Called hyTHING, it can be installed in a jiffy on any type of bin. Not only does it track and relay whether the bin is full or not, it also predicts how much time is left before it needs emptying, helping enterprises manage their time and resources better. hyTHING can be managed through an app, where the dashboard provides the user with details on bins’ capacity.
With most of the trash-collection in the US privatised, the opportunity is huge. The addressable market size in the US alone is $12 billion, says Shetty. The global market stands at a massive $150 billion, he adds.
But setting things up and taking the idea off the ground didn’t come easy. The two had to keep coming up with iterations of the product, and arriving at one that could be scaled up took many a night of toil. A year, to be precise, before they could show it to investors and beneficiaries.
Their faith in the idea, however, has been vindicated by the staggering number of competitions and grants they have won in the US. In March last year, for example, Hygiea was one of the four winners out of the 128 startups that participated in Silicon Valley Business Competition at San Jose State University.
Two months later, it won Edson Entrepreneurship Competition at Arizona State University, winning the highest possible grant of $20,000. The university is fully sponsoring its patenting and IP processes, which will cost $10,000.
In what is further proof of the strength of the idea, Hygiea has got a one-and-a-half-year incubation offer from Plug and Play, one of the most respected incubators and investment firms in Silicon Valley. It has incubated Google, PayPal, Dropbox and many other successful companies in their infancy. Plug and Play has made a grant of $150,000 to Hygiea.
“With this help, we officially started off as a company. Thus, what started with student competitions and as a pastime project became a real product and ready to cater to a market need that is existent out there,” Shetty says.
In December 2016, at an annual expo hosted by the Mayor of Los Angeles, about 150 teams participated. Every year, the top five teams are personally hosted by the Mayor in City Hall for a grand reception, and recognised for the innovation they are bringing about and their impact on life in the city. Hygiea was, one again, among the top five.
In January, Hygiea participated in Changemaker Challenge competition at Arizona State University, winning the top prize of $10,000 among 86 participants.
Currently, it is among the 15 finalists from over 250 teams that participated in entrepreneurship challenges at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley.
Currently valued at $5 million, Hygiea has two large janitorial service customers that service hundreds of clients and at least 2 billion square feet of facilities space. They are also in talks with a hospital, for which the product will need some customization so as to handle bio-hazardous waste.
As for monetization, Hygiea is still in the later stages of a pilot, so it is barely covering its costs. “But once we start deploying in mass, we will hit the hockey-stick [curve],” says Shetty. Hygiea currently charges an initiation fee for the sensor hardware and deployment, and then charges a monthly fee for the software service.
When asked whether they found the Silicon Valley welcoming as Asians, the founders said they were treated on a par with the locals. “People with innovative ideas do not get discriminated based on place of origin in the Silicon Valley, and in the US in general,” says Shetty.
Another core team member is Pooja Addla Hari, who handles tech business development at the startup. Currently pursuing her bachelor’s in Technological Entrepreneurship, she is also a selected chair at Arizona State University’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation wing.
Hygiea has hired an Indian company, located in Rajkot, to jointly develop the software side of the product.