By Vedant Trivedi and Ruchir Kaul
T5E’s Made in Insti series continues with a feature on Detect Technologies, where we interview Daniel Raj David (Dual/ME/2017), one of the founders and CEO of Detect Technologies. In this article, we explore Detect’s origins, products and future expansion plans; discuss their competing in the high tech Oil & Gas leakage inspection technology field; and end with some candid advice for upcoming entrepreneurs.
“Like gum, Detect sticks to you”
How was Detect born? Though the company was formally incorporated in February 2016, the technical and managerial teams had been working and building together since 2013. The vision that held them together was that of creating cutting edge technologies that could perform intelligent asset monitoring. Eventually, the Detect team created two world class products that are currently breaking barriers in all process industries. The first, called GUMPS, is relevant to all those who love integrating high level electronics, signal processing, mechanical design, software, machine learning, data analytics and ultrasonic sensor technology. The second product is called NOCTUA which is relevant to all the drone lovers out there and is identified as the best industrial asset inspection drone service in India. It involves a great deal of computer vision, electronics and drone control.
Detect’s R&D team is completely student driven and consists of around 35 students. Daniel says, “What we have done is create an ecosystem of student interns — although we can’t really call them interns anymore; like gum, Detect sticks to you”. This is a community where students come together and work passionately in the areas they love, whether this be computer vision, machine vision or electronics and mechanical design. Student team members get to see these areas “become a part of a wholesome solution brought in by other students and finally get to see their products be a part of the largest industries in India and the world, and to see their product earning profits and being the first of its kind”.
Working in a company like Detect which involves people from across various fields, says Daniel, gives you an experience that academic life simply cannot. “In fact”, he adds, “our firm is proof that students from IIT Madras, if provided the right guidance in technology, can generate more intellectual property than even PhD scholars from big universities can. We even foster other startups to grow out from Detect Technologies from the problem statements that we identify from the industries.”
How large is the scope of their work? Daniel admits that the technology has been highly recognised in several industries and that Detect has major contracts with several top companies, including Reliance Industries, Tata Steel, the Adani group and the Murugappa group. This includes the contracts for Noctua, which was released on a trial basis only this past December. The orders for both products range anywhere between a few lakhs to 1.4 crores, which is quite impressive.
Detect’s Products: NOCTUA and GUMPS
Pipelines are indispensable in the nuclear, oil, gas and chemical industries but can cause economic, human and enviromental disasters if left unchecked or if they break down. However, there is a lot of scope for improvement when it comes to monitoring pipelines, especially with respect to the kinds of sensors used. While most industries schedule annual one-month shutdowns for maintenance of pipelines, this one month can represent a productivity loss.
To solve this, Detect came up with patented technology for a sensor which can carry out monitoring till 350 degree celsius and can also carry out continuous permanent monitoring in real time, instead of checking periodically. “Despite being robust, our sensors too don’t find the thickness at a point but for a range say about 50-60 meters. It gives a complete thickness mapping of the whole pipeline structure and alerts the plant when and where corrosion goes beyond a certain level. Once permanently installed, you won’t have to build scaffoldings and remove insulations, saving a lot of time, money and effort. In the whole game of data analytics, the beauty is that since we are performing real time-continuous monitoring for the first time, predictive algorithms can be built to tell the client exactly when to replace the pipe or when leaks are most probable to happen”, explains Daniel. Industries can then plan their shutdowns based on this.
“There is a lot of R&D that has gone into this and this product helped us in getting exposure of a lot of other problems in the industries. It all started with technology development between Reliance Industries and IIT Madras. We have got offers from other industries as well. We are not first in this field but we are working on the economic model so that we are able to offer the same services for a fraction of the cost. Our team has been successful in cutting costs at many levels and were able to build an IOT sensor that is supposed to be like a central nervous system for all pipelines across any industry”.
Several industries have large assets like gas tanks, reactors, boilers, furnaces and pipe racks that are required to be inspected by building scaffoldings and a man visually assessing the area or through thermal cameras. At present, most inspection needs involve significant cost and downtimes. “The obvious solution to this, we felt, was using drones. But then we dug deeper and found that there are problems associated with that as well. Mainly that firstly, drones are manually flown by certified pilots. At large heights or distances you cannot even see how close the drone is to an asset, therefore endangering the asset. Second, there is a lot of data taken by these drones and then just given to the client because drone companies do not know what defect, corrosion and thermal signatures look like. Third, drones stabilize through GPS and the kinds of error in GPS can range between 1m to 17m in the same location. Refineries will kick you out of the gate for this”, Daniel tells us.
The answer to these problems, in their eyes, was technology.
“We call the product Noctua because it is the Latin word for owl. Owls can navigate at even pitch dark conditions and still assess its surroundings. The three step solutions were: first, we have completely automated the drone flight. All we need to do is feed a 3D model and the drone path around this 3D model. Second, computer Vision to both give a 3D reconstruction of the asset and then further automatically identify defects purely through algorithms. And third, we have built our own IPS(Indoor Positioning System) which is more or less a local GPS that positions the drone with an accuracy of 10cm. With these we can not only assess external structures but also structures internally. Noctua can actually bring the inspection time of an asset from 1 month (with shutdown) to 2 days(without a shutdown).”
Finding the Right Investor
We also spoke to Daniel about the mentality of Indian investors and their preferences. “I have been to several pitchfests throughout my time as a founder at Detect, and I can tell you that the mentality of investors are changing. Yes some investors made it big by investing in the right software startups but several are in the process of licking their wounds. In fact 2016 was a low for investments.” Instead, according to him, what seems to be a trend now is the affinity towards hardware and core technology startups with high entry barriers. “Intellectual property is the direction the investors are moving towards now and core technology is the new fashion of sorts”, he adds, citing the recent ET Startup Awards 2016 as an example.
This means that while finding investors in hardware startups is not really a problem, finding the “right” investor is. “Bringing in investors is nothing short of a marriage”, Daniel explains. “You both sign papers saying neither of you can get out of it. Now if you are going to sign that paper who doesn’t share your view of the company or cannot get you the right connects, boy you’ve made a mistake. What startups should realise is that you are doing the investor a favour by giving him/her a good opportunity to reap the benefits out of his hard earned money. I see many startups running behind investors asking them to invest, while it should be the other way around, especially for hardware startups who know for a fact that what they do cannot be replicated easily.”
As a final thought, he says, “Remember to hold onto your equity like it’s your baby. Be comfortable about giving it to your family i.e. your founders and core members. Be wary of giving it to strangers who are your investors.”
Working Through Challenges and Sidestepping Disruption
Detect started with Tarun Mishra and evolved into a team of 4: Daniel, Hari, Tarun and Prashanth. Daniel himself has been working on Detect since the summer of his second year along with Tarun, a graduate from Metallurgical Engineering. He is accompanied by his batchmate, Harikrishnan A S who joined in along with Karthik R, a graduate from Electrical Engineering. “We had a major setback when Prashant left after he got admitted into Carnegie Mellon”, Daniel remembers. At that point, the startup was not in the shape it is now. “We were like an infant startup back then. He was basically leading our electronics development and it did slow down a bit there. There were times when we did not know how to bring a professional edge to the product and then we met Karthik. Karthik’s help was a great asset at that time and it was only after he joined that we picked up the pace. Hari and I didn’t think we were capable of handling big things. Karthik showed us how we can do things as he had led technical teams in the past and had an overview of how to work. We recruited people, pushed things forward, finished another field trial and improved in numbers. We had to start building teams, taking care of them and telling them what to do.”
A major area of concern faced by the team was the fact that their work was so inter-disciplinary that its extent was beyond their scope. They found that the only solution was to build more teams, and they found this decision to be priceless. “Every team division, from Electronics, Mechanical Design and Drone control to Computer Vision and Indoor Positioning System ended up involving some of the most talented individuals I have seen, and now they are the people leading each division”, Daniel says.
At one point, the team started making a robot to inspect superheaters in thermal power plants, but received feedback that three products are too diverse for the startup. They decided to scrap the idea. Daniel uses this example to make the point that “decisions should make business sense and not be emotional. If it makes little economic sense, if it doesn’t fit into the grand scheme of things then you should cut it off. Scrapping it was hard but it was the right thing to do. We may push it again in the future once we grow big, but the current focus is on these two products.”
How does Detect protect itself from disruption and competition? “Intellectual Property, innovation and more intellectual property” Daniel says. “At Detect we have a strong vision of keeping technology at the forefront of what we do. That being said, we are also very much in touch with what the industry needs and what the industry wants. Although we are focusing our energy on two products, the culture of innovation will never stop, be it robustifying the tech or just building new tech to make something more accurate. Being ahead of the competition does not mean your product is perfect.”
Furthermore, he adds, “Business models are also a very important edge that not many of us techies give importance to. We understand that industries would rather deal with one vendor than two. We understand that packages in products work better than two separate products, and sometimes that is your value adding factor. Now what if GE joins in the wagon of possessing technology that can do what we do? We possessed the technology three years back. It took us three years after that to bring it to the stage it is in. The amount of learning in those three years from ourselves, technology and clients is what features in the latest trial versions of either product, therefore creating a large entry barrier”.
Future Plans and Special Milestones
The Detect team is looking to expand to the Middle East and the European countries after establishing a solid base in India. “The products that we are building aren’t just for Indian markets but can be expanded internationally as well, though we plan to work primarily from India while working on international expansion. We are looking forward to raising a decent amount of funding so that we can then bring in some more teams that can manage our services, marketing, and R&D side. Our biggest milestone will be to reach a point where the company can function without the founding team”.
Detect has been in the limelight since 2015, and has won national and international recognition through a variety of distinguished awards. Apart from being placed in the Top 10 innovations in India through the India Innovation Growth Program in 2013 by DST, Lockheed Martin, they have also won ‘most innovative proposal’ at the 16th international ENDE conference and been nominated as the Top 5 startups to emerge from a campus in the Economic Times Startup Awards 2016. Other awards include their being placed as winner of the PayPal Startup Tank in 2015, runner up at the Global Student Entrepreneurship Awards in 2016, winner of the US-India Startup forum 2016, winner of the Wharton India Economic Forum which includes a $12,000 award and winner of the TiECon Superpreneur Award. A memorable list indeed.
How would their team structure expand in the coming years? “Nothing fancy”, says Daniel. What you see below is the R&D chart. “We have similar plans for the operations, and business development to expand. We are already working with people from the top business schools and some of our own graduates who are in Mckinsey to scale up the business. Expansion would happen naturally and organically.”
Final Thoughts for Aspiring Entrepreneurs
“Even though there are a hundred startups out there in your backyard, it doesn’t mean that building a startup is easy. In the start of our journey we were told that the product(at that time it was just GUMPS) would not work, with the same disgust as a kid eating broccoli. We were told we were too immature. We were told we weren’t ready. We were told we were kids who did not have a business sense.
Then when we decided to pursue a second product(NOCTUA) we were vehemently opposed by our mentors. Everyone said it wouldn’t work. Everyone said the business would fail. The only thing that kept us going was ourselves and our belief that something good will come out of it and our hard work will be rewarded.
The best feeling in the world is when all of this is proved wrong.
More than a story of brilliance or intelligence we believe that the startup journey is one of perseverance. We have not made it yet ourselves, but what we do know is that we have a team who can.
Before I decided to embark on this journey there was one thing that Tarun had told me that I remember till date. When we started Detect, he was just an employee and I was just a student, the same goes for Hari and Karthik. When we joined hands we were able to build tech that nobody thought about, form some of the best teams this institute has seen with people who are now like family.
So what if it does not work out? We all walk out of it with better profiles than we started with. Awards, business,financial and technical exposure, and the memories of a brilliant journey.
Nobody loses in a startup, but you have so much to gain.”
Students who are interested in working with Detect can go through their website and contact them. They are open to taking student interns in the areas specified mentioned in the article.