Establish product-market fit and act on it quickly

SensorFlow smart wireless IoT solutions and AI to help buildings monitor, analyse and automate energy consumption for better productivity, sustainability

Please introduce yourself and your startup SensorFlow to our readers?

I am Saikrishnan Ranganathan, the Co-Founder and CEO of SensorFlow. SensorFlow is Singapore’s leading  proptech startup combining the use of smart wireless IoT solutions and artificial intelligence (AI) to help buildings monitor, analyse and automate energy consumption for better productivity, sustainability and energy efficiency.

This is achieved by retrofitting our wireless smart automation solution to a building’s new or existing heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems This comprises of wireless devices connected to our proprietary network that makes it quick and easy to install in less than 5 minutes per room and do not cause operational disruptions to the hotel. This suite of wireless occupancy sensors and smart thermostats leverage IoT technology to constantly collect and report data about room occupancy and its environment. With this information, our AI software automatically adjusts the air-conditioning settings according to real-time occupancy status to minimise energy use while guests are away. 

Besides greatly improving energy efficiency without the need for manual intervention, the data collected on each room’s energy consumption can be used to generate performance benchmarks for hotel engineers to pre-emptively identify which appliances are not working properly. This allows the management team to avoid costly repairs, improve the productivity of their engineering teams and reduce disruptions to guest experience with predictive maintenance. 

The SensorFlow system makes room occupancy data and trends fully accessible to hoteliers. These actionable insights can help them improve efficiency by optimising housekeeping routes as well as increase revenue by enhancing guest service planning and in-house food and beverage promotions. As it is, with our solution, hotels are expected to save up to 30 percent in total energy savings and up to 40 percent in maintenance costs.

Our goal from the very beginning has always been to help the hotel industry become smarter and greener. We recognise that ‘sustainability’ is more than just a travel buzzword these days. There has been an increase in emphasis on the need for hotels to leverage sustainable and smart technologies. Hotel chains around the world are now changing their daily operation systems to reduce their carbon footprint. Our solution provides a level of personalisation that enables hotels to transform guest experience and optimise their energy consumption, helping them achieve sustainability goals with minimum disruptions.

How did you get the idea of SensorFlow?

I first met my Co-Founder, Max Pagel, at the Entrepreneur First programme in Singapore and we both shared a common vision that implementation of green and smart buildings is key to achieve a sustainable world. With that goal, we developed a basic prototype that could effectively make buildings more energy efficient, operationally productive and sustainable by leveraging AI, IoT and Big Data. We wanted to retrofit our solution to every building to help automate decision-making and provide useful insights from the data to improve energy and operational efficiency. 

With our basic prototype, Max and I conducted some trials in a few hotels in Singapore and Indonesia. Through the insights that we gathered, we realised that hotels, amongst other buildings, were making significant losses due to their poor energy efficiency policies and practices. Hence, when we first set up SensorFlow, we knew the hotel industry would be our first vertical to enter as it was essential that hotels recognise the energy-savings that smart technologies adoption could bring in the long term. 

As we started working with hotels to better understand the challenges they faced in adopting smart technologies, we realised that as much as hotels would like to be sustainable and smart – especially to cater for the increasing demand from eco-travellers seeking eco-friendly accommodations – it is not always easy. Many existing green solutions in the market come with high upfront costs and require disruptive installations. This in turn motivated us to design SensorFlow’s solutions in ways that could better address these challenges.

Why did you decide to start with SensorFlow? 

My passion for technology and automation began years ago when I majored in Electrical Engineering and Design Thinking back in school. Back then, I was also working on developing technologies related to smart energy automation and began thinking about the different channels to introduce these solutions more practically. Climate change is our century’s biggest challenge and I believe technology can be harnessed to solve environmental challenges. This is why Max and I established SensorFlow to combine my knowledge and experience in engineering smart-solutions and show how technology can create positive change for the environment. 

What is the vision behind SensorFlow?

When it comes to addressing climate change, everyone should be brought to the table. Organisations and businesses have a greater responsibility to do so due to their more significant emission levels, which translates into a higher potential for positive impact if they were to adopt green practices. Buildings account for approximately 30 percent of all carbon emissions, with operational emissions coming from energy. Heating, cooling and lighting makes up for 28 percent of that figure. 

While it is clear that buildings have been a large contributor to carbon emissions, this also means that they have the most room for improvement in doing more to reduce their carbon footprint. Once we realised that buildings could operate more efficiently, our goal became to find better ways to do so for all buildings, especially large ones. It seemed natural to start with hotels as they were running heating, cooling and lighting near-constantly. If we could better equip these hotels with the right kind of technologies and solutions to improve their operational productivity and efficiency, it would be a significant first step in making a difference to the world. 

How difficult was the start and which challenges you had to overcome?

SensorFlow brought its own set of challenges and learning curves for me, from both the business and management perspectives. 

The biggest challenge for us was to hit Product-Market fit the first time we started SensorFlow and 2019 was when the growth really took off.  The first time around was our business model and the initial product – we offer our solution as a service which is priced less than the savings achieved. The second time around was a part of our product, we built a much better occupancy sensor that was inconspicuous and resonated well with the 4 and 5 star hotel market and this led to a 100x growth in the last year.

It made me realize that PM fit evolves as the business/market evolves as well. I am sure with COVID, we are going to see another PM fit and growth story happen as we start to come out of this pandemic.

As the CEO, I have learnt to better manage and lead our team, as well as position SensorFlow as a robust and adaptable company. Throughout my time at Goldman Sachs and Entrepreneur First, I have learnt from my mentors and managers, prodded them with questions and adopted their leadership and management principles to perform better. That journey continues and I am glad to have been in the great company of some of the best minds in our ecosystem. 

Who is your target audience?

Presently, we are still prioritising offering our solution to hoteliers worldwide. So far, SensorFlow has been signed on by about 10,000 hotel rooms in Southeast Asia, and we plan to enter new markets including the US, UK, Germany, Australia, Japan, Switzerland, Denmark and the Netherlands in the coming months. As we enter these key markets, we will also work on developing and automating our smart building management solution for heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems that incorporate heating features to cater to markets with colder climates. 

What is the USP of your startup?

Traditionally, hotels have faced many challenges to incorporate smart technology into their energy systems. Most existing smart energy solutions can only be installed in new buildings or are very disruptive to install and can only be done during large-scale renovations. Additionally, due to the limited access to live data and actionable insights, these solutions come across as a high financial risk with an uncertain return on investment.

The USP of our startup lies in combining the use of smart wireless IoT solutions and AI to help buildings monitor, analyse and automate energy consumption for better productivity, sustainability and energy efficiency at minimum costs. Our IoT and AI-driven solution enables live data collection and analysis for hotels to make informed and data-driven decisions for optimised operational productivity. 

These features ensure the following two unmatched outcomes:

Predictive maintenance: Our smart system enables hotels to monitor performance remotely and predict equipment malfunctions, which allow hotels to avoid costly repairs and ensure guest satisfaction.

Optimised housekeeping & service planning: The insights generated by our system enables the efficient planning of cleaning or maintenance of the rooms based on real-time occupancy status.

Other significant differentiators include our payment model, which has been created for hotels to enjoy risk-free cost savings. With our PAYS model, hotels can save up to 30 percent in energy savings with zero upfront costs. Additionally, our set of wire-free hardware can be retrofitted into any new or existing energy system under 5 minutes per room without any disruption.

Can you describe your typical workday?

My typical workday involves a series of meetings focused on information gathering from different departments across the company, information dispersal and nudging people to move things in the right direction. I also use the majority of my high bandwidth time during early mornings to make key decisions and reflect on our progress to ensure that our growth and business decisions are aligned with the mission and vision of the company. Finally, I spend time once a week having one-on-one catchup sessions with my direct reports to ensure they are doing well. 

Where do you see yourself and your startup SensorFlow in five years?

Personally, for me, I will be getting closer to my vision of contributing towards a smart city and ultimately combating climate change. I believe this is possible by starting with developing smart buildings that can play a part in reducing carbon emissions and the overall carbon footprint. That’s the vision behind SensorFlow’s business. We are creating a smart system that can easily retrofit to any building, automate decision making and produce actionable insights.

SensorFlow saw a rapid growth in 2019 (a 1,000 percent increase in hotel room installations and the signing of more big-chain hotels), and in the next five years, we expect to be on the global stage, with our solution being effective across all HVAC systems. We see ourselves as the future proptech leader in the IoT and interconnected data sector, becoming the go-to solution for smart building management sought by big global hotel chains, especially in regards to improving their operational productivity. 

Our current and closest target is to reach one million hotel room installations by 2023. In five years, we are expecting to have this number scaled to other property types, such as commercial buildings and non-traditional residential spaces across the globe, providing easy and effortless data-sharing and automation for smarter buildings. Ultimately, we envision a smart city and world, where our collective efforts are geared towards combating climate change.

What has changed within your company due to COVID-19?

We are ensuring our employees’ safety and well-being by creating new work-from-home policies that facilitate our complete remote-working situation, as well as hosting more virtual company activities. We are organising many internal activities on a weekly basis to keep our employees well and engaged, especially in this period of uncertainties. 

How have you adapted to the crisis situation?

The global hospitality and tourism industry has been hit the hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic, and we understand that it will take some time for the industry to recover from this blow. To help our current and potential hotel partners better manage this ongoing pandemic and tide them through this difficult period, we have introduced a floating payment model until travel restrictions are lifted. This means that SensorFlow will only take a fixed percentage of each month’s actual energy savings. We are also continuing to support our clients by providing remote installations. 

Furthermore, recognising the fact that hotels may face limited staff availability due to the pandemic, SensorFlow is also currently developing and building new capabilities that aims to help properties improve operational productivity and internal communication. As part of our Productivity Suite offerings, the ‘housekeeping view’ feature leverages on live occupancy data to help hotel staff optimise their cleaning routes and reduce inefficiencies. 

Additionally, this allows their engineering teams to better utilise system’s data and actionable insights to generate performance benchmarks, develop predictive maintenance strategies and resolve any HVAC-related issues promptly and  remotely. This will empower hotels to optimise their human resources management strategies and significantly improve operational productivity. 

Which opportunities do you see in the crisis?

In the midst of this crisis, with hotels having their staff work remotely and seeking ways to cut costs, we believe that our solution is the best answer to their current and pressing needs. The combination of a risk-free payment model and an easily retrofitted, intelligently automated solution can help hotels save as much as 30 percent in energy bills immediately. 

To further alleviate the financial worries of hotels, we have also introduced two new versions of our PAYS payment model for them:

COVID-19: Hotels get to enjoy all the benefits of our solution with a monthly fee of 70 percent of the actual savings until travel bans are lifted

PAYS Fixed and floating payment model: Hotels pay a fixed monthly fee to SensorFlow just for the first 18 months. For the remaining 42 months, the monthly fee will be 70% of the actual savings. 

The COVID-19 crisis has underscored the importance of effective cost-saving solutions and resource optimisation for hotels worldwide, both of which are hallmarks of sustainable energy systems. I think that this could kickstart the smart hotels revolution as hotels look to make their operations more efficient, and we at SensorFlow will be right there beside them to support them in their transformation. In the long term, I envision SensorFlow to be the leader of smart building solutions in the proptech landscape as we continuously offer improved productivity and energy efficiency, catalysing the progress towards a smart city. 

What 3 tips would you give to other founders?

Hire people based on your startup stage:

In the early days, look for generalists as much as possible, because we’re trying to get smart and versatile people who can not only do the role you’re hiring for today, but potentially multitask and move on to other roles.

At a later stage, hire specialists – experienced and skilled people in specific roles.

Establish product-market fit and act on it quickly:

Get to a product that customers absolutely love

Work constantly and closely with early customers who admire your product.

Develop your products around their feedback and maintain continuous and engaging relationship with customers for future development stages

Build a happy team of visionaries:

Set a vision for your team and work towards it together. Keep them happy and value their achievements aligned to your vision

More information you will find here

Thank you  Saikrishnan Ranganathan for the Interview

Statements of the author and the interviewee do not necessarily represent the editors and the publisher opinion again.

Sabine Elsässer

Sabine Elsässer is founder and chief editor of the StartupValleyNews Magazine. She started her career at several international direct sale companys. Since 2007 she works main time as a journalist. While that time she learned more about the Startup Scene, what made her start her own Startup Magazine the StartupValleyNews.

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