Testing a Start-up 8,000 Miles From Silicon Valley
BY Esha Chhabra
After being founded at UC-Berkeley, NextDrop is pioneering a text-message water-alert system in Hubli, India.
Anu Sridharan, founder of NextDrop, with her water-delivery alert system's first customers.
In India, water brings uncertainty: when it will arrive, how it may arrive, whether it will arrive.
Anu Sridharan, a young entrepreneur from California, tells the story of a woman in India who would have had to miss a wedding to wait at home to collect water, if it hadn't been for the service provided by Sridharan's new company, NextDrop.
"She could send her brother home to collect water, because she got our text message telling her that the valve had been opened," Sridharan says.
Sridharan's company, NextDrop, was started out of a classroom at the University of California-Berkeley, but is being tested halfway around the world, in the "small" town of Hubli, India, population: one million.
Going instantly global is a tall order for a little company with a big mission. NextDrop was born in the classroom two years ago when a public policy student and a civil engineer collaborated in a class on mobile-based solutions. The idea was refreshing; the need was sincere. Finding a partner on the ground was a logical first step.
NextDrop found Hubli, which has a cutting-edge city government with a utility board that could not afford the hefty sum of $40 million to provide 24/7 water (something, in fact, no city in India provides). Despite that, Hubli wanted to introduce some transparency and efficiency to its limited water-delivery system.
NextDrop's solution was to "use humans as sensors," Sridharan explains. "This could be bigger than water. We're not limiting ourselves." The idea starts with water but it could be applied to electricity, other utilities, and even pensions, she says with enthusiasm.
Turns out, water makes an appearance only once a week or even just once in two weeks in Hubli. "Here people don't have large storage devices so they can't hold water for much longer. So when it comes, it's important that they're at home to collect the week's supply," Sridharan clarifies.
That's where NextDrop comes in. The utility board sends out a text notifying residents that the water was being turned on. A live dashboard keeps track of the water flow (with a little help from Google). And individuals send a message back or call to confirm that indeed the water is trickling in. That feedback helps identify any leaky pipes and breakages along the way. In tech terms, that's referred to as crowdsourcing to collect data.
"Hubli is one of the most innovative local governments in India," Sridharan says. "They're even looking at introducing e-billing to their customers. So, we can learn from them as they can learn from us. It's a two-way street to share information. And at the end of the day, I think they want the same thing as well: to just provide a really good service."
In order to text the service, a small team of students at UC-Berkeley traveled to the region. The pilot only worked with about 60 families, but 82 percent said they liked the service and would be willing to pay a nominal fee of five rupees a month for it.
In recent months, the service has expanded to more than 1,000 registered customers, 60 of whom are paying for the service. Sridharan has stationing herself in Hubli for the next few years to see if NextDrop can take that idea and turn into a full-fledged operation by 2013, servicing all of Hubli's residents—only a million, remember.
NextDrop is funded by a $375,000 grant from the Knight Foundation as well as support from Vodafone Foundation and exposure at Y Combinator, Silicon Valley's prized enterprise incubator. Last month, it was selected as one of the finalists for Intel's Global Challenge at UC-Berkeley.
The market will tell them if it's a worthwhile service. And that's what has drawn Sridharan to building a for-profit social enterprise. Behavior change, she says, is the toughest part of building this enterprise.
"When you're working with technology, you've got to get people to think about using that technology in a different way."
ESHA CHHABRA is a writer who focuses on innovation, social enterprises, and technology-driven initiatives for development. Last year, she was a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar at the London School of Economics, where she studied Global Politics.