I spoke recently with Issa Ramaji, a first-generation immigrant who co-founded dataArrows, Inc. (www.dataarrows.com) in 2019. We learned about his journey as an entrepreneur and how his company got an unexpected lift from being able to address a problem created by the COVID crisis.
Tell us the story of founding your company and what inspired you
The spark of the idea came from a personal experience. I immigrated to the United States to get my Ph.D. in architectural engineering at Penn State University. As Ph.D. students, we would go to classes and learn about building optimization. Meanwhile, in our own office, we would leave windows open to get the temperature we wanted. Our building control consisted of just opening and closing our window! We realized that we were learning all this building design and construction technology, but it wasn’t available to the building owner to use in an easy way.
Tell us about your products in laymen’s terms
We wanted to give building owners access to the extensive models and information developed in the design and construction process so that they could use it in a meaningful way.
In constructing a building there is a lot of data, but it is static. To operate the building you need dynamic data – such as the current temperature or humidity in various parts of the building. Luckily, most commercial buildings have heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) equipment and building automation systems generating thousands of data points every minute – but not being consumed nor put to good use.
Our software can do that. First, we allow owners to know what’s going on in their building remotely using real-time data. The name for this concept is a “digital twin”, which is simply a digital representation of a physical asset. For example, an automobile dashboard is a simple digital twin measuring and displaying information about your car. It tells you what’s going on and alerts you to problems.
We do the same for a building. We create an “X-ray” of the building through a three-dimensional graphical model. The facility manager sees alerts and has an overview and control of the building. It informs the person in charge if conditions such as temperature, humidity, or CO2 are out of range of standards. It also enables a manager to monitor and control building remotely through their phones or computers without needing to be physically in the building. Individual users can even get personalized tailored information about their local environment.
Click here for a short video showing the dataArrows software https://youtu.be/Ld0L1gsnz_c
What were some challenges you faced along the way and how did you overcome them?
First, sometimes we needed different data than existing systems had to offer. The good news was that the cost of adding and connecting new sensors for data such as CO2 has been getting cheaper and cheaper. Moreover, it’s all wireless now -- No need to rewire the building. So with many new sensors and connectivity over the airwaves, we can make data more readily available. A popular new term for this is the “Internet of Things”.
Second, we started by displaying data but soon realized that just offering data was not enough. We needed higher-level information such as an industry term called “Air Changes per Hour (ACH)”. So we developed capabilities to digest and analyze lots of data and provide owners with easy-to-understand information.
But our biggest challenge turned out to have a silver lining. Not long after we introduced our software in early 2020, the COVID crisis hit. It had a big impact – all of our pilot prospects were being put on hold as budgets were eliminated.
But soon it became apparent that COVID was spreading not only by touch but through the air. Rather quickly there was a new focus on indoor air quality. People needed to know if the air inside their building was safe. So we jumped on the issue, first as research papers were published and then as guidelines started to become available. We were able to help building owners translate scientific guidance into standards that they could measure and address.
How specifically does your solution change or improve the situation for buildings?
Even though our target market is all types of commercial buildings, schools and hospitals have had the most immediate need during COVID, so they have been many of their first projects. The construction industry can be slow to adopt new technologies when the value proposition is efficiency optimization. But with COVID everyone could perceive the value immediately. Many institutions realized that efficiency and comfort might not be urgent, but health was critical.
So for starters, we help closed buildings reopen as soon as possible. For example, one of our first projects was three Paul Cuffee schools. They had added air purifiers and upgraded air filters, but they didn’t know if they were achieving their objectives and doing it efficiently and comfortably. We were able to help them assess the health of indoor air in real-time. For example, we could see that air was being pulled from the classrooms into the corridors. This created the potential for the virus in a contained area to be spread to other parts of the building. What you want is air from the classrooms expelled out so that it can’t impact common areas. You want to exhaust air from classrooms, rather than spread it throughout the facility.
We also helped those schools address several other challenges, such as complying with COVID-related air guidelines, optimally operating windows and doors for providing ventilation while still keeping students comfortable, and diagnosing and rapidly responding to issues in the buildings' HVAC systems.
We also advised on the maximum number of occupants allowed in each space. When a room's air ventilation capacity is not sufficient, the number of occupants in each room should be capped. The software calculates the maximum allowed number of occupants in each space based on the condition of the air.
How do your products differ from your competition?
Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning manufacturers such as Honeywell are selling systems and equipment, so they are not direct competitors. We are not changing the heating and cooling infrastructure, but the way the building is managed. Device and sensor companies could be competitors, although they generally don’t do as much interpretation and information visualization as we offer. Our firm dataArrows is also integrating data across many building systems through a standard protocol that already existed in the industry called BACnet (Building Automation Control Network).
How was SCORE involved in your journey?
SCORE mentor Rochelle Blease helped us get started with incorporating the company, creating a business plan, and focusing on specific target markets. Subject matter expert Babak Taleghani helped us address questions specific to technology start-ups and connected us to one of our first prospects that later became a showcase customer.
What’s your strategy moving ahead from here?
Product-wise we are working on offering more “closed-loop” or autonomous systems where the building can react automatically to alerts, rather than always relying on the facilities manager to step in and correct the problem. As for the business, right now we have ten active projects, mostly in the United States but also one recently added in Germany. There is a huge opportunity out there in buildings around the world.