Prasad Pillai On How They Developed The 'Raksha SafeDrive' IoT Device That Ensures Road-Safety
The Indian roads offer enough invitation for disaster and claim thousands of lives every year. After facing a near-death experience while driving on the road, Prasad Pillai decided that there had to be some solution to this. He devised a technology that works for smart road-safety. Called 'Raksha SafeDrive' - this technology he claims will bring down the road accident casualty count by a good number.
Here's our conversation with Prasad Pillai where he explains the origin of Raksha SafeDrive, and the scope of Internet of Things (IoT) devices in our daily lives. Read on!
Prasad Pillai, Co-Founder & CEO, SafeDrive
CE: Tell us about your growing up years and family background. What city were you born and brought up in?
Prasad Pillai: I grew up in a very remarkable place called the Venice of the east, Alappuzha an erstwhile significant central town in the god’s own country Kerala State. I grew up in a village called Thakazhy, part of the Kuttanad region bound by beautiful backwaters and the famous houseboats and snakeboat races. My parents were so particular about education and they put me in the best schools they could possibly afford against so many odds. I was an average student although science was very exciting for me.
As a child I used to enthuse my teachers and friends with little self-made toys that resembled common household gadget we see around every day. I recall making mixer grinder with turning blades made out from scrap plastic bottles and broken electronic toys. The tiny little motors from toys my uncle used to bring me was an inspiration to break things and take apart and make something new out of it. Also my maternal uncle who had a deep technical mind, cousins who were partners in crime to break up anything gadgetry we lay our hands on, some great school teachers all of them help shape my interest in science. Simple things that demonstrate why science is relevant and what it is used for like a tiny electro magnet made out of some copper wire around a long nail attracting other iron particles seeing in action was very interesting in school days.
CE: Who are other people behind Raksha SafeDrive? Tell us more about them.
Prasad Pillai: There are many people behind Raksha SafeDrive. My other Co-founders Jayanth Jagadeesh and Sai Baba Talluri are other key people behind this effort. Jayanth focuses on marketing and business development. He started out as an Infosian into software development then moved on to marketing and marketing communication roles, helped with outreach campaigns of many MNC companies in Bangalore.
Prior to joining our team along with his friends he co-founded ‘Unventured’ an adventure tourism and travel company. An avid biker he travelled from Kashmir to Kanyakumari on a solo motorbike trip. My other Co-founder Sai is a technologist and strategy leader who has broad experience from his previous roles at Amazon and Microsoft in Seattle, USA. With many solutions to today problems and dreams of a wonderful future around connected internet and IoT my co-founders, our engineering team, investors, early community members, our friends and families, Kerala startup mission are people who helped us get here thus far.
SafeDrive Founder, Jayanth Jagadeesh(Left) and Prasad Pillai(Right)
CE: When did the idea behind the disaster recovery and safety measures for road emergencies come to your mind? What made you pursue this idea?
Prasad Pillai: After about 15 years of living outside India, during my India visit in the summer of 2013 an unexpected event happened. While travelling in my dad’s favorite car, the king of Indian roads an old 2000 model Ambassador, my wife and I had a close encounter unexpectedly. We heard the Amby lose its break when a tipper Lorry showed up in front from nowhere all of a sudden. Our trusted driver who drivers me around during my India visits showed exemplary manoeuvring skills and averted a major disaster that could have happened on a national highway in a split second.
Already a family suffering the loss of a close relative to road accident and my own earlier experience with accident in USA in 2004 and apparent chaos that immediately follows a road accident and unorganised emergency response in India lead me to pursue this idea closely. In US and UK connected cars and discussions of next generation safety features including automatic crash notifications as a mandatory facility in all cars were in consideration.
I asked myself what other better connected car product is possible and really useful for India? When we consider smart cities and smart gadgets and thrust for automation and sensors, the ability to detect and inform the occurrence of an accident without human intervention and bring emergency relief automagically seemed to be the most useful solution and felt like a no brainer to me.
India has the largest accident rate in the world then and we still do now. Still a really focused solution to this problem of chaos and that happens once a minute in India somewhere was not present. Similar products in USA like OnStar was an inspiration to build the same for Indian roads.
CE: What kind of research & planning went on behind the startup?
Prasad Pillai: More than 3 years of research and planning has gone into creating Raksha SafeDrive solution. From a product standpoint we have made many design iterations to perfect the solution for Indian market. We did extensive research and experiments to select the sensors other electronic components suited for this solution that can withstand the shock and vibration of a high speed collision.
We have done crash testing of the product ourselves and product functionality has been independently validated by ARAI, Pune which is the apex body for automotive testing in India.
We have studied similar solutions available in the market in India and abroad. We did research to design the casing and mounting of the product. We also manufactured and tested many prototypes before finalized the product for mass scale production. In terms of the service, we reviewed ow similar solutions provided in US and developed markets.
In terms of planning, we created a product roadmap outlining the different stages of product and solution development. I admit that we had remap our plan a couple times, but overall we have been on track to meet the milestones culminating in product launch.
CE: What were the initial challenges that you faced while starting up Raksha? How did you tackle them?
Prasad Pillai: A device that reliably senses a road accident needed a lot of experimental research and study although such a product sounds quite simple in concept.
Selecting the right components, coming up with simple algorithms and architecture, developing electronic circuitry, mobile app and software interface, database server infrastructure, productize this concept into a mass produced electronic gadget was also a challenge we needed to solve as a team.
I am fortunate to have a committed and well-experienced team of engineers and co-founders. The team worked hard for finding solutions to these issues one by one. In addition, having developed numerous products for high tech industries like aerospace and telecom, I was able to draw from my experience and guide my team in critical decision points.
CE: How does the Raksha system work? How can anyone avail its services?
Prasad Pillai: The Raksha SafeDrive is an accident management device that automatically detects crashes or other crisis situations and makes that crucial first call for help. It also helps victims in less severe yet highly-troubling, cases like tire blowout, vehicle breakdown and medical emergencies that happen on the road.
This safety system comprises of two parts. The first part is a mobile Internet-enabled device that can automatically detect accidents and transmit distress messages with location information. The second part is a backend support network that consists of 24/7 support personnel who gets alerted and called in when any SafeDrive devices detects a distress or road accident. Once the support centre receives the information, it is passed on to emergency provider agencies, the owner of the device is identified and emergency medical contacts are notified by SMSes and phone calls.
Anyone can avail the service by going to our website and ordering our services online. We are working on setting up more sales channels.
CE: How can Internet of Things and Mobile Technologies be used for addressing road emergency problems?
Prasad Pillai: Internet and Mobile Technologies have a lot of offer towards better addressing road emergency issues. With advanced technologies on the horizon including driverless cars many shorter term features would come to be available with IoT and mobile technologies. These would involve vehicle to vehicle communication to avoid collision and detecting blind spots, vehicle to infrastructure communication to notify road conditions, pedestrian and distracted walking detection, car health monitoring, driver performance and behavior coaching to avoid accidents, alerting the user before failures happen, maintenance alerts, remote diagnosis of the car in the event of failure and so on are some of the new technologies that can be made possible in the short term.
Also IoT and mobile technologies will enable the enormous sensor data in the car be used for data analytics and get actionable intelligence for drivers and the community at large. Raksha SafeDrive intends to participate by adding more features in terms of safety and security of the vehicle and improve user experience and make every journey a happy and joyful experience.
CE: What was the major turning point in the journey of this startup?
Prasad Pillai: Our major turning point was being adjudged as a Top 5 product at a Nasscom product conclave in Cochin. This was the first time our solution was noticed and recognized at an industry event.
CE: How are the responses you are getting from people?
Prasad Pillai: We had launched a Kickstarter (crowd funding) campaign for this product. The campaign was successful and we got orders / support for more than Rs. 10 lakhs through this campaign. We have received numerous pre-orders from India and abroad.
We are getting very positive responses from most people who hear about our solutions. Industry leaders agree that this type of a solution is necessary in India.
We presented our product and solution to a panel of industry experts and were shortlisted to be a part of the Elecropreneur park program by the government of India. Also we were shortlisted for seed fund assistance by KSIDC, a government of Kerala initiative for promoting new startups. Overall we are getting great positive response.
We also are getting some typical questions that a startup needs to address as to how it will the solution be implemented, how will you market the product, how will a startup overcome operational challenges, how do you ensure your solution works well all the time and so on. These are challenges every startup faces. Much of our joy as an entrepreneur is in solving such problems. We have also put together a team of industry experts to guide us in the process.
CE: How big is the SafeDrive team at the moment? Where do you operate from?
Prasad Pillai: Raksha SafeDrive team comprises of 10 full time professionals who focus on the electronics, software, design and manufacturing of the product. We have partnership with few vendors to manufacture the product in large scale. We also have partnership with service provides for 24 x 7 call center support. Our engineering team in located in Thiruvananthapuram and incubated in Kerala Startup Mission which is one of the earliest startup business incubators in the country. We operate from Technopark in Kerala which is one of the earliest and largest software technology parks in Asia. We are working to open a service center in Bangalore, which is one of our key markets.
Raksha SafeDrive Team
CE: What do you love the most about being an entrepreneur?
Prasad Pillai: What I love about being an entrepreneur is the opportunity to positively impact our society in a very special way solving real world problems.
CE: If not for 'Safety' domain, what other domain do you find exciting to start a business in?
Prasad Pillai: If not for ‘Safety’ domain, my focus areas would be creating products to connect people better (I had created a prototype of a product Kinista, a one touch connection device which helps families and friends connect better). I also have a keen interest in artificial intelligence and robotics to create solutions that can make help raise efficiencies in areas like farming. My interest also lies in setting up services that will promotes entrepreneurship in India, similar to crowd funding.
CE: Any message for your readers?
Prasad Pillai: A small while ago, there was no choice for us in India when it comes to personal safety in the event of road travel emergencies. With Raksha SafeDrie we have strived to give our customers a choice to equip our cars with automatic crash notification systems, smart panic buttons and other safety features. We like our readers to explore SafeDrive solution. Rather than relying on luck and unknown strangers to help in an accident we urge you to make a strong choice for yourself and your family.
We believe life is precious and we know you also believe so. With SafeDrive automatic crash notification the accident information will reach your support network faster. There is a higher chance of survival in an accident or other travel emergency. Your early support will help us take this solution to many more people.