Biocom – Member Spotlight
July 29, 2020
WattIQ CEO, Priya Vijayakumar
WattIQ is empowering companies with unprecedented insights into the data and usage of their electronic equipment.
It’s great to be able to speak with you today, Priya. For those who may be unfamiliar with WattIQ, could you please tell us about the company?
WattIQ was formerly known as Ibis Networks—we just recently rebranded the company—and what we do is help companies connect billions of unconnected electrical assets. What this makes possible for the first time, is to give insights into assets so that companies can better understand how their assets are being used, the condition of the equipment, and where they are located. All this is made possible from a single device—the smart plug. This data is being used by customers now in pharma and biotech to help make critical procurement and maintenance contract decisions, enable product integrity and prevent unplanned product failures. All of this provides insight that customers have needed for a long time but haven’t had a viable path to getting their lab equipment connected.
What was the initial inspiration that led to the founding of WattIQ?
The company, as Ibis Networks, was actually founded back in 2013 in Honolulu and it was a spinoff from an R&D project by a company called Ocean IT in partnership with the US Navy. The premise for the technology was that there had been a proliferation of electrical devices throughout commercial buildings and in industry in general. The problem that came with the rapid growth of all these electrical devices is the energy consumption associated with it. Nearly 40% of the United States’ electrical consumption is associated with plugged-in devices and that energy is unmonitored and uncontrolled. The foundation for the technology was: how do we build out a technology platform that would give you the visibility or the ability to monitor how energy is consumed by all these electrical devices that we’re plugging into outlets? And how can we also enable you to control it in the sense that you can power down devices during non-business hours?
Many users don’t realize that electrical devices continue to consume energy as long they are plugged in, even if the device is not is use. Over the years, what we found was that every device you plug in has a unique electrical signature and we’re able to derive additional insight from that electrical signature. We could tell you whether your centrifuges were in use or not, for example. We thought this to be a much higher value use case, particularly in enterprises that have very high concentrations of high-value electrical assets. Pharma and biotech R&D labs, as you can imagine, have hundreds of thousands of this high-value equipment. What was incredible is that there was absolutely no visibility to the equipment. People procure and pay maintenance on equipment when they really don’t know how often it’s used. That’s what prompted us to expand our solution offerings. The foundation is the same: we use smart plugs, and we collect data, but it’s how we’re using that data to solve new problems that’s different.
When it comes to laboratories and other workspaces used by pharma/biotech companies, how important it is to be conscious of overall energy consumption and what is the connection to overall asset utilization?
The fundamental problem that pharma and life science companies face is that they have hundreds of thousands of high-value electrical equipment in their lab which cross a spectrum of manufacturers and models. There is no easy way for them to know how often the equipment is in use or how much energy the equipment is consuming. We enable these companies to have a clear idea of the utilization rate of every single device that they have. The energy consumption comes into play because you have high-powered devices like biosafety cabinets that people unintentionally leave running overnight, and you now have the ability to remotely monitor those and power them down if you choose to.
Coming back to the utilization data, there are multiple applications for leveraging that data better. The primary one is asset sharing. If scientists can view the hourly usage of a device, then you know when your peak periods are and you can schedule your work when it’s not the peak utilization time. Knowing the off-peak hours also gives companies who are leasing lab space an understanding of when the ideal time to lease space is. In addition, it allows you to schedule maintenance with minimal disruption to the lab.
The most important thing though is that maintenance contracts are not based on usage. If you know the utilization of your equipment, you can choose the right level of service contract. You might not need a maintenance contract that requires somebody to be on site in 24 hours because you know exactly what capacity you have for your instruments. People have talked about having usage-based maintenance for a long time, but it’s been unachievable without the actual data. The simple example is a fume hood. The recommended service levels are typically based on an assumption that your biosafety cabinet is running for eight hours a day or 24 hours a day. What we see is that a number of these devices barely run for eight hours in three months. That can significantly change how you approach your maintenance program.
On the flip side, you can also have a preventive maintenance approach. You might have a six-month preventive maintenance schedule, but you end up using the equipment far more frequently than you anticipated. This lets you proactively schedule that because your usage has gone up. As you can imagine, during COVID-19, people are reorganizing their labs and restructuring how people come into work. There might be pieces of equipment that are going to see much higher usage than originally intended. Today, companies don’t have visibility to that. They become reactive when a piece of equipment goes down and they have unplanned maintenance, which in these times would be even more challenging to deal with.
Can you give us some examples of how life science companies are using this data to their advantage?
It’s been amazing for us to see how this information is now helping customers. Obviously, we didn’t anticipate using it for this purpose. Our primary thought and application was that you can now make better capital expenditure decisions. If a company is looking to procure a new piece of equipment, you know exactly what your inventory is and what your utilization rates are for the opportunity to redeploy a piece of equipment instead of buying a new one. Knowing this, perhaps you’d spend that money towards upgrading equipment, right? That was our initial thought. But what we’re seeing is there’s actually a lot of value around space planning and workflow planning because you know how crowded these lab spaces are. Some of these pieces of equipment take up a ton of valuable real estate. Now you know how frequently they’re used, down to an hourly level. Just to give you an idea of the sensitivity of our solution, a cell viability analyzer has a two-and-a-half-minute run. We can detect that. We have customers going, ‘wow, I knew that equipment wasn’t used that often, but this is incredible.’ I just had a conversation with a big biopharmaceutical customer. I said, ‘I don’t know if it’s our data, but I noticed one of your centrifuges is running at 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. Can you let us know if there’s something wrong?’ And they said, ‘Actually, no, we have people coming in at odd hours of the day because it’s how we’re trying to stagger the shifts.’
We’re also expanding beyond asset utilization into condition monitoring. As you know all too well, reproducibility of experiments is a huge challenge. There’s a big push to acquire more data to show that there has been sample integrity. While OEMs have tried to make their devices smarter, the data hasn’t necessarily been easily accessible. What we’re trying to do now is allow customers to easily see, for example, what was the condition of samples exposed to in an incubator or in a freezer between 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. on Saturday? Technology can sometimes be so complex to implement that it has such a high barrier to entry, but it’s the simplicity of our solution that has made customers excited to solve this problem.
What changes have you seen with asset management since the coronavirus pandemic hit?
Customers can be empowered with this data and they can make the right procurement decisions based on the need. Some of our customers are expressing that they’re not looking to cut their CapEx, but they want to make sure that they’re putting the money in the right place. Why buy another cell viability analyzer if we have 40% excess capacity? At the same time, we see scenarios where one’s utilization number might look really low for multiple devices in the same lab, but they’re all in use at the same time. That’s why having the right level of granularity on this information becomes important because you now make your procurement and your service contract decisions backed by strong data instead of the person who yells the loudest.
Have you had to alter your business strategy since then and how have you and the team at WattIQ navigated through this uncertain time?
There are probably two fronts in terms of the operations of the company. We were already a pretty distributed team so working remotely did not significantly impact us. It did however make it challenging for us to get the message to our customers that such a solution is possible for a problem that’s been around for a really long time—and it’s really simple. The second element is about leveraging the data to help customers navigate all the changes that they’re having to go through in their operations. Whether it’s enabling social distancing or the way you run your lab operations and your maintenance program, it’s going to be so different because people just can’t show up at your lab at any time. We are glad that customers are able to gain additional value during these challenging times and they inspire us to keep pushing the boundaries on our product development.
You have been in the IoT space for nearly 10 years and seen the evolution of Manufacturing 4.0. What overarching advice can you offer executives in pharma/biotech as they look to have their labs more connected as part of Pharma 4.0?
The biggest challenge companies tend to have in this space is analysis paralysis. They tend to boil the ocean and get overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of all the technology options that are available. My recommendation is the 80/20 rule. Pick use cases that have a very clear business benefit and it should be easy to implement. You should not have to wait two years and spend $2 million before you see the first data set. That is not scalable, and it takes the momentum away from the business. The most important thing is to have initial use cases that the business can see value in, have a path to how you would grow and bring in different solutions because there is never one technology that can answer all your questions.
Make sure that you have the picture for how the bigger puzzle should come together. Then, know how to lay that foundation so that the business can see the benefits of having a more connected lab. I have seen far too many customers try to adopt complex technologies and it just remains an experiment. Some of the pharma and biotech customers I spoke to seven years ago still haven’t solved those problems because they were chasing applications that didn’t have a business value or were just a nice-to-have.
Talk to us about the guiding principles and values that have helped you achieve business success and exhibit leadership.
My main philosophy is that you have to be open to imagining what’s possible, and not be tied down by the status quo. Quite often in the industries I’ve worked in we’ve had to really imagine how something is going to be. You can’t do that if you’re not willing to be open-minded. And the next thing is, you’re only as good as your team. A leader’s job is really to be a safety net for your team to stretch and grow. Having a space where you can build a very diverse team that shares your core values and convictions about where you’re going as a business, and then giving them the room to grow, is important. When people inspire themselves to live up to their potential, that’s when the magic happens. And that’s what excites me working at startups and in really small companies where you’re taking on a lot of risk. And really, it’s the team that makes it exciting.
To me, being able to build a good team and giving them space to grow becomes one of the most critical foundations of building a good company. And the customers have to be your focus. The moment you lose touch with your customers, you set yourself up for complacency and for competition to come in. So, I always tell my team, your hundredth customer should always feel like they are the first customer. You should never lose that interaction with your customer because it helps to build your business and build your solution. The more separation you have between your end user and your product, the less opportunity you have to continue evolving the product.
What’s in the pipeline for WattIQ in the coming months?
We have a couple of big things coming up in terms of expanding our solution offering to condition monitoring. We’re going to have a powered multi-sensor product that enables you to monitor a variety of different sensors. It could be CO₂, it could be ultra-low temperature freezers, it could be light, so broadening the sensor portfolio, which is also going to let us do anomaly detection for conditions of assets ranging from freezers to incubators. That’s some of the stuff we’re doing on the solution side. We’re also going to be expanding into the European market. So, by Q4, you’re going to see the product portfolio to support the European market because, as you know, our customers are global. So, this just comes naturally. We’re pretty excited. We have a pretty full year ahead of us on this front.
How does Biocom help in WattIQ’s mission?
We would like to work with Biocom to enable the conversation around harnessing technology to reimagine your daily operations. The pandemic has brought to the forefront the need to have a more connected lab and facilities management. There is no single technology that can solve all the problems but many technologies co-exist and a forum to enable these conversations will be valuable to the industry as a whole.
Final question, how do you start your day?
Pre-COVID-19, I usually would wake up at 4:45 and go have an Ashtanga yoga practice. It’s a great way to clear my head.
WattIQ is offering Biocom members a free pilot program to monitor up to 25 devices in labs and workspaces. The plug and play pilot kits can be installed without WattIQ coming on site for a completely remote set up. Once set up, within 90 seconds of having a device plugged in, data will be captured and you can begin monitoring assets. To learn more and get started, contact Todd Mirzaian at WattIQ at firstname.lastname@example.org.