The founders of TernUp Research Labs Llp avoid titles—Arun Kumar jokingly calls himself “chief bullshit officer”. But they take their work seriously and they are tackling some of the most pressing water and sanitation issues in India, problems most start-ups shy away from.
A self-described “nebulous collective of people from different backgrounds”, TernUp is at its core four members: Kumar, 38, a former computer engineer and game designer; Samuel Rajkumar, 39, who worked as a technology consultant; Saurabh Levin, a 22-year-old hardware designer; and Nischal Halery, 40, a one-time computer programmer in Australia. Levin recently graduated from the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, Bangalore, where he met Kumar and Rajkumar, who taught there.
In 2011, Rajkumar was working as a consultant with the India Water Portal, a project of the NGO Arghyam. They were planning a “water hackathon” in October that year to find innovative fixes to water infrastructure issues, and Rajkumar was intrigued. “So I asked around,” he recalls, “what is the hardest problem you guys have in the water sector?’” Their response: the profoundly high levels of fluoride and arsenic in drinking water.
He assembled a team of seven dubbed the Jugaad Sensors, and they plotted a way to connect the current fluoride testing machines—tabletop lab kits—to mobile phones, so testing could be done more readily and widely. They called private suppliers, who make the testers primarily for research hubs, universities and governments. Then they heard the price: The kits started at Rs.1 lakh a piece. “We thought, ‘If that’s a problem—we can’t even afford one—let’s try to make some,’” Rajkumar says.
Rajkumar had known Halery and met Kumar and Levin at Srishti; the foursome remained together, changing their name to TernUp. The crew created a small, improvised device that replicated the tests of the more expensive kits. It was linked to mobile phones via a Bluetooth connection that could then upload the results on to GPS. Shortly thereafter, in early 2012, the business was born.
After the hackathon, TernUp began tweaking the prototypes for its device, Caddisfly, named after the insects whose presence in a body of water typically indicates its cleanliness. They received funding last October from the Water and Sanitation Program (WSP), a global initiative run by the World Bank. The WSP is also setting up critical connections with local governments for TernUp.
Meanwhile, the team kept hacking. A year after the water event, the World Bank, together with software firm Infosys, held another hackathon in December in Pune, focused this time on sanitation. TernUp churned out two ideas there: a sensor that detects door operations in public toilets, to track usage; and a cheap device, built with contact microphones, that monitors the clogging of water pipes. They walked away with the top prize in the contest, and are now on the prowl for clients for the latter product.
Once the team formed, they quickly realized how difficult it is treading where other start-ups aren’t, particularly as a hardware company. “We did the usual round of incubators and funds, but nothing worked out,” explains Rajkumar. Building ties with potential clients in government has not been simple. Nor has convincing investors who are used to the type of technology company that doesn’t work in the areas TernUP is in. “The phrase ‘start-up’—the connotations are Silicon Valley,” says Kumar.
Over the next three months, the team hopes to finalize Caddisfly. If it doesn’t take off, the crew says they’ll continue to work on the looming water problem. “This is more important for us,” Rajkumar notes. They would most probably keep hacking too.
Right now, water testing comes from cheap chemical tools, which are often unreliable, and pricey kits, too expensive for NGOs, universities and individuals. “We want to change that by making it simple,” says Rajkumar. With GPS capability, he imagines, residents can use the product at their homes, increasing the nascent presence of water testing. “We want to make it more widespread,” he says. “We want to get a better water map of India than what we have right now.”
He also hopes their ingenuity and uniqueness will keep their product in demand. At the Infosys event, he says, “Ours were the only interesting hacks. The others were only boring software.”