The world is smart, and it is getting smarter.
Deborah Magid at IBM’s Venture Group knows this better than most. A 12-year IBM veteran and Silicon Valley insider, she helped found their SmartCamp program, a three-year-old competition designed to identify entrepreneurs around the world who are aligned with IBM’s Smarter Planet vision.
With events in cities across the globe, including Moscow, Warsaw, Rio, Istanbul, and Cape Town, SmartCamp is a round-robin competition that brings together the most interesting new businesses in each geographic region to trade and present ideas, get coaching, and connect with other smart people.
"This year we held 20 events," says Magid, noting the rise of global entrepreneurism.
Magid recently discussed with Fast Company three SmartCamp companies she loves, all from outside the U.S.
The Malaysian company TMC uses mapping, 3-D scanning, and smart sensing—all to predict and prevent landslides. "They put sensors on the surface of the ground and then just below the surface and then deeper in the ground," Magid explains. "Then they use analytical algorithms that they’ve developed to predict whether or not there is going to be a landslide in the near future. They can save lives because they do that."
The slope monitoring system uses cheap, easy-to-install sensors and a cloud-based early warning system. The sensors are set to monitor at various intervals, send the data back to a server, and continuously calculate the differences in readings. This allows them to predict the distance of the landslides within a claimed 2mm of accuracy. And, best of all, once the movement exceeds tolerated levels the system sends texts to let people know a slide is coming.
This is good for citizens—and for business. Landslides are a major problem not only in Malaysia, but also in the emerging cities where many U.S. products are manufactured. According to a Journal of Geology report, between 2004-2010 there were 353 landslides in China; 393 in India; 226 in the Philippines; 164 across Indonesia. This type of sensing will not only save lives, but it will also lay the foundation for prevention measures that can save a lot of money. And it’s a lot less expensive than conventional monitoring systems which are costly to install, and are less modular—these "attached" systems often have to be rebuilt entirely if one component is damaged.
"We’ve met a lot of companies like that who do something which is a profit-making enterprise, but they’re doing something for the social good," Magid says. "So they have contracts from the government, but they also have contracts from construction companies, people who build tunnels and roads."
Libelium, based in Zaragoza, a city in northern Spain, makes "Waspmotes," ultra-low-power sensors on boards that can "connect any sensor, using any wireless technology, to any cloud platform."
Currently being used in the international space station’s first open source satellite, their Radiation Sensor boards monitor radiation levels generated by space phenomena such as sun storms and background activity. This sensing technology acts as a Geiger counter measuring gamma particles produced anywhere in space. And it was built to exacting specifications. The Waspmotes are engineered to be ultra small and light since the satellite had restrictions that limited the size and weight. It is an amazing amount of sensing power packed onto a tiny surface. Each sensor board is roughly the size of a passport photo, and weighs about as much as a box of raisins.
These sensor boards were originally developed to solve radiation problems here on Earth. Namely, they were created as a rapid-prototype immediately following the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan—when the earthquake and tsunami destabilized the nuclear power plant. The goal: to help measure the levels of radiation of the affected zones without compromising the life of the security and rescue teams. For this reason, the company designed, in just three weeks, a Geiger counter sensor board for the waspmote. This device reads the radiation levels automatically and transmits the information in real time using wireless technologies like ZigBee and 3G/ GPRS.
This way of using the sensors and boards is interesting. More interesting to Magid, however, is the fact that it’s only one way the technology can be applied. "What this company did is different," Magid says. "Some companies use sensors or existing devices to take information and create some kind of solution for it. [Libelium] does the opposite. They’re the platform. And you, as another company, can use these devices to create a smart cities application. The kinds of applications that have been created are ‘Are these buildings emitting pollution into the air in a city?’ or ‘How’s the transportation flowing?’"
While one could debate the extent to which oil and gas extraction should still be happening, it still is. And Moscow-based company STEK has found a way to make it smarter. Winner of SmartCamp’s Moscow regional finals, STEK combines IT, sensors, and smart electricity meters to create a new, more energy-efficient way of controlling underground oil pumps.
Designed as a comprehensive monitoring system, it includes pressure sensors, different types of heat and energy flow meters, and an intelligent controller box that "runs on the embedded computer right at the oil well" to allow companies to monitor and operate the equipment remotely. Built on a proprietary system called OASIS, it allows operational control of wells through two-way communication between management station equipment and measuring devices that shoot the information into the cloud and then bounce it back to the software to analyze it. Creating "a single array on a single time axis with data transmission over low-power wireless communication channels."
The main benefit, according to STEK, is that it "provides objective data in real time." Automation reduces the cost of oversight of the wells, downtime, decreases the number of accidents, and maximizes oil production in a more efficient way. Another benefit? "It reduces the frequency of visits for production personnel. And it can quickly be installed in any climatic zone (including the Far North)"—good news for the guys working in west Siberia, where most of the older oil fields are located; winter temperatures there can fall below -70 degrees Fahrenheit.
As these three companies indicate, we are increasingly connected—in all ways—around the world. To underscore this point, Magid remembers a moment of enlightenment.
"I was at an entrepreneurial event in Hong Kong a year ago," she says. "You know how they have the dinner—and you’re at tables of six or eight [people] and you’re sitting next to someone you’ve never met before. I’m talking to an entrepreneur from Nepal and I said ‘Wow, are there a lot of startups in Nepal?’ And he looked at me like ‘You stupid woman.’ He didn’t say that, he just said, 'Of course there are a lot of startups in Nepal!’ When he said that, I knew that the world had really changed."