095, Nithya Ramanathan, Nexleaf Analytics | Connected Devices with Social Impact #TechForGood

Nexleaf Analytics creates low-cost connected devices with social impact. They help high-impact organizations measure everything from indoor smoke levels to the performance of a refrigerator holding precious vaccines. Nexleaf takes advantage of the widespread availability of inexpensive feature phones and sensors to collect the types of data that weren’t possible just a few years ago.

Nithya Ramanathan first met her co-founder Martin Lukac while they were both working on their PhDs. Nithya told me, “Both of us ultimately were looking at how does real time wireless data from sensors, how can that really change the types of questions and the types of answers that scientists can start putting forth with access to this type of new instrument?”

While experimental theory and academic grounding were important to their work, they wanted to apply what they learned in the field. “By the time we finished our PhDs, Martin and I were really ready to not only get our hands dirty but really start solving problems, not just studying them. People just started approaching us with the most fascinating and compelling problems.”

I asked Nithya how she started addressing the challenges that were being brought to her. Like any good technology founder, she answered “Martin and I literally got in my garage and rolled up our sleeves and just started tacking stuff together and just tinkering.” Yes, Nexleaf Analytics is a tech company that was born in a garage.

They developed solutions for measuring smoke levels by using an inexpensive camera phone and email (with powerful analytics, of course). Nithya described the process. “When soot deposits on a filter, you can take a picture of that filter…with a feature phone, and if that filter’s placed on a carefully calibrated color chart that we had created and printed for $1, that picture could then be sent to a server over e-mail, and our server could very accurately compute how much black carbon was deposited on that filter.”

They also found ways to use inexpensive cell phones to measure bird populations on remote islands. Nithya told me, “Not only were sensors getting really cheap and phones getting really cheap, but cell phone networks were everywhere. Even in places where you didn’t have roads, like a lot of these islands that Martin would work on, you still had cell phone coverage.”

But their biggest challenge was in monitoring the refrigerators used to store vaccines in remote, low-income regions. “Eighty percent of the problems are caused by issues that we can do something about if we just know the problem’s happening,” Nithya explained. The problem is not just that temperature-sensitive vaccines are damaged when refrigerators fail. The problem can also come from refrigerators that are too cold. Yes, thousands of people have been vaccinated against deadly diseases, but, Nithya added, “The open question is, how many of those vaccines are actually effective?”

To solve the problem, Nithya and Marin worked in their garage. Through experimentation they found that “If you have the feature phone both play a sound and record a sound at the same time, the phone can actually read temperature off of this sensor.” Today, Nexleaf Analytics’ ColdTrace system is being rolled out around the world.

With the collection of data from all of these remote sources, true impact can be measured in new ways. Nithya told me, “This data along with the critical stories that we’re learning have allowed us to tell these really impactful stories.” Nexleaf Analytics is tapping into the power of low-cost technology to create connected devices with social impact.

Social Entrepreneurship Quotes from Nithya Ramanathan

“The most important lesson that Martin and I have learned is never giving up.”

“The challenges are big and the resources are small, but I think we’re really lucky that we have so much passion.”

“Anybody can do this.”

“The most important thing that I hope people do is investigate their own passions.”

“I think entrepreneurship is one of the most noble things out there because it really is a small group of people that are really trying to put something out there that’s very personal to change the world.”

Social Entrepreneurship Resources:

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About the Author
Tony Loyd is a TEDx speaker, podcast host and the author of Crazy Good Advice: 10 Lessons Learned from 150 Leading Social Entrepreneurs. He is a former Fortune 500 executive with extensive experience in strategic planning, talent management, and leadership development. Tony is the host of the podcast Social Entrepreneur where you can hear the stories of changemakers who are making an impact on the world.

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