The Non Profit Using IoT to Create Life-Changing Solutions

I recently caught up with Nithya Ramanathan, Co-Founder and CEO of Nexleaf Analytics, to talk about how IoT, connected networks and sensors are helping to solve global health challenges, through both nonprofit and for-profit businesses.

Though my work at Vodafone is purely nonprofit, I still hear my colleagues from commercial enterprise agree on how IoT is a critical component for the future of business and a powerful catalyst for digital transformation. Because of its ease and scalability, I believe it’s also a powerful tool that can help tackle some of the world’s biggest issues and save lives. That’s why supporting innovative tech, like IoT, for good will always be our mission. With that vision, we wholeheartedly support Nexleaf Analytics, a company that created an IoT vaccine monitoring platform.

In 2013, Nexleaf’s vaccine monitoring wireless sensor, ColdTrace, won the Vodafone America Foundation’s Wireless Innovation Project. The solution helps to ensure that life-saving vaccines arrive to their final destination safely and with maximum efficacy. ColdTrace does this by remotely monitoring vaccine fridges in order to provide near real-time information on storage temperature and other critical issues to address these problems before the vaccines spoil and become ineffective. Now, the company works with network operators, like Vodafone Business, to bring other critical sensors and data collection to solve universal health challenges.

I’ve known Nexleaf’s founder, Nithya Ramanathan for many years, even before the technology she used was coined IoT. We recently had the chance to sit down and catch up at Mobile World Congress last month, where she was a panelist on the topic of, coincidentally, IoT.

June: Why is IoT so important for Nexleaf Analytics’ business?

Nithya: IoT starts in different places for different companies, but for us, it started at the very beginning.

Nexleaf is a tech non-profit. My co-founder, Martin Lukac, and I started Nexleaf with the purpose of exploring the possibilities of IoT in global health. We build sensors and data analytics platforms, ultimately interested in how you capture the insights on the complexity that goes into delivering vaccines to children. Our customer base is made up of the governments in the poorest countries who manage complex infrastructure, like the vaccine cold chain. We’re fortunate to have developed close partnerships with Ministries of Health from the beginning. Having those connections gave us insight into their challenges both as users and customers of the technology, and we could build technology based on their feedback to meet their needs.

It’s incredible because our technology and solutions now protect vaccines supply for one in ten babies born on earth now. Without IoT, none of this would be possible.

June: Where did the motivation to use IoT to solve such a large-scale global issue come from?

Nithya: Early on in my career I saw the power of networks and sensors and wireless communications. I used network sensors to understand arsenic poison in ground water in Bangladesh. At the time, the data was mainly for research purposes, mainly to investigate the issue without necessarily coming to a solution. I then saw the potential of data collection and use to address challenges in global health more systematically. It was seeing the possibilities that sensors and technology could bring to global health challenges that sparked the idea of Nexleaf for Martin and me.
June: Looking back, how has Vodafone Americas Foundation helped your company deliver a more connected and effective service?

Nithya: The challenge for us was funding to scale our IoT platform and really make an impact, which is where Vodafone Americas Foundation came in. You and the Foundation have an incredibly skilled way of finding innovation early on and at a point that can scale with a modest amount of money. We went through an intensive vetting process, and pitched the Foundation, and ended up winning $300,000. This immediately opened up doors for us to scale and reach a few countries in the first few years. We’re now in over 30 countries.

When we won the Vodafone Americas Prize, we had figured out how to take low-cost flip phones and connect a $2 thermistor to the phone, to allow us to tap into this massive infrastructure, communications, and hardware platform. We could then take this really cheap sensor and connect it to the phone and get an immediate, automatic IoT platform. It worked like a charm! The phones were easily programmable and could be powered by USB ports. Not only that but they could sit in the box for a couple years.

That’s why the data from this system has been crucial. The sensor sits in remote clinics across the world and monitors the temperature of fridges to find out when vaccines may be at risk if the fridge stops working or it’s running too cold. Freezing just as much as heat, is a massive risk for vaccines and can damage them. When there is a temperature problem or failure, a nurse gets the alert right away and takes action. It’s amazing what we’re able to do in real time, and how we’re able to scale it at a low cost.

June: You’ve been growing with new partners and more territories, what’s next for Nexleaf Analytics?

Nithya: Earlier this year we won a competitive grant from to apply machine learning to existing datasets. With Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance–an international organization committed to increasing access to immunization in poor countries–and Ministries of Health, we realized we had been collecting data on the temperature of vaccine fridges for years now, and we wanted to give that data more meaning, we want to know the impact of temperature conditions on vaccines.

We expect that by applying artificial intelligence to cold chain data, Ministries of Health around the world can fully evaluate and improve their cold chains. This work is still in its early stages but it has tremendous potential.