Houston’s ChaiOne Sees a Role for the Internet of Things in Industry

6/13/14Follow @angelashah

Much of the discussion around the “Internet of Things” has focused on how such connectedness will impact our everyday lives as consumers. ChaiOne’s Gaurav Khandelwal has been focusing on how IoT, as it’s known, can make businesses processes more efficient.

Houston-based ChaiOne designs and develops mobile app platforms for large companies, and Khandelwal sees a big opportunity in bringing the Internet of Things to the companies he works with. It’s already happening to some extent, he says. Big companies like General Electric have been promoting the idea of the “Industrial Internet” for a few years now. And among Khandelwal’s big energy clients, for example, he’s noticed employees in warehouses and on oil rigs wearing Google Glass.

“Google Glass … It’s still a bit socially awkward but the commercial applicability is really big—especially for jobs where they need their hands,” he says.

Bringing the Internet of Things to industry was a big part of a recent conversation I had with Khandelwal. In addition to the business opportunities he sees for ChaiOne, he, along with his partner Apurva Sanghavi, is working to boost entrepreneurs in Houston. Monthly pitch nights at the co-working space Start Houston, which they opened last year, regularly attracts a standing-room-only crowd. ChaiOne’s new headquarters—the old and long-vacated North American headquarters of energy giant Schlumberger that Chai One bought last fall—is on the way to becoming an entrepreneurial hub in Houston, Khandelwal says.

As the building renovation comes together—Khandelwal is seeking to preserve its historical status while also making it a 21st-century workplace—he says he has IoT first and foremost on his mind. “We’re excited about the industrial side,” he says, bringing such technology to processes like large HVAC systems so they can be controlled by an iPad.

Retailers are already using IoT in their operations, from tracking inventory to pushing out promotions to shoppers in real-time using systems like Apple’s iBeacon, which tracks customers in Apple Stores. Qualcomm’s Gimbal proximity beacons are designed to tell your smartphone where are inside a building and provide information that might influence what you choose to buy.

There are ways for businesses to apply these sensors to internal processes, too. The consulting firm McKinsey points out the example of a pulp and paper manufacturing company that was able to raise production by 5 percent, just by embedding temperature sensors that could adjust a kiln’s flame and intensity. Typically, these adjustments are made manually by staff operators.

“Just like when a car tells you the tire pressure is low, why can’t the assembly line tell you there could be problems?” Khandelwal says. “A fridge should be able to tell you: ‘This is what’s wrong with me.’ ”

To help its customers find these possibilities, ChaiOne has started a private beta of a new service called ContextHub, software for businesses to create connected apps for business operations. Among the companies participating in the beta are large multinationals like Samsung and GE, as well as startups such as cleantech firm SeeForge, which makes an app that digitizes reporting paperwork for safety inspections and other reviews.

Last week, Khandelwal traveled out to an oil rig with a client to gather intelligence on how ContextHub could help better manage processes there. In such a rugged environment, Khandelwal says he realized he would have to illustrate much more than the efficiencies of being connected. “They asked me if the device would pass the ‘float’ test,” he says. “When I asked him what he meant, he motioned as if to throw the device into the water.”

In other words, industrial sites like rigs are chaotic places where delicate and expensive equipment could easily be damaged, he says. That’s meant a very low rate of adoption on the part of such companies. So, Khandelwal says he’s also been paying attention to the physical space, placing devices at fixed points and making sure they could be operated by voice command.

In the beta, Khandelwal says ChaiOne is also working with clients to suss out behavioral patterns in order to provide more predictive services. “The idea is to put ContextHub out for public beta in August,” he added.

In the meantime, the company has expanded to Austin, where it has opened an office to recruit software and product development talent. And it has set up shop in Dubai, where Khandelwal’s brother leads a marketing team to seek out opportunities in the Middle East and Europe. ChaiOne is already working for clients in the Gulf emirate, creating contextual apps for Global Village, a cultural amusement park, where its sensors are helping people remember where they have parked their cars and track down family members in various parts of the park.

And if that wasn’t enough to keep busy, Khandelwal is a new father to a 7-week old daughter. As I left his office after our chat, she and his wife were coming in to help the ChaiOne staff celebrate the firm’s 6th birthday.

Angela Shah is the editor of Xconomy Texas. She can be reached at ashah@xconomy.com or (214) 793-5763. Follow @angelashah

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