This startup uses blockchain tech to make sure your vaccines are safe

About half of vaccines today go to waste because of mismanagement of the supply chain, while inefficiencies in that chain make up an estimated 80 percent of a vaccine’s costs, Statwig’s CEO Sid Chakravarthy tells me.

His startup, Statwig, is trying to address this problem by combining sensor and blockchain technology. By automating product tracking, the startup can monitor and identify where the process breaks down – improper storage conditions, tampered packaging, and so on.

“Less than one-third of people who handle vaccines actually monitor their temperature,” Chakravarthy explains. Due to high costs and a vaccine shortage, only 30 percent of people who need vaccines in developing countries can get them.

Statwig, based in Singapore and India, recently graduated from Singaporean hardware accelerator Airmaker, whose latest cohort focused on digital health and smart city technology.

Health hazard

Early last year, social media and news outlets in China were abuzz with the revelation that a number of vaccines deployed in the country from 2011 onwards were found being used past their expiration date and not properly refrigerated.

A few months later, Indonesia was rocked by the news that fake vaccines had made it into the country’s hospitals and pharmacies.

Chakravarthy had moved from India to the US to work on emerging technologies for companies like Cisco. He specialized in understanding new technology trends and their impact, helping his employers stay ahead of the competition.

Late last year, he moved back to India, where he identified the vaccine problem through connections he had made in the pharmaceutical industry.

Blockchain helps keep records intact and immutable due to the decentralized nature of the tech.

“It’s very difficult to put in new processes and train staff in the supply chain, to have that control,” he says. “It was immediately clear to me that we can use the internet of things to automate a lot of the tracking.”

The team did some research to understand how the supply chain works and figure out the best ways to track products throughout. “The ideal way [to do that] is the packaging – adding an extra layer of sensors using internet of things tech or digital signatures using RFID,” Chakravarthy says.

The startup embeds the tech into the packaging so the products are monitored all the way to customers, who can be hospitals, NGOs, and so on. Using the app, they scan the product to get a complete history, including manufacturer, dates, batches, and more. Larger sensors can also be placed in cargo containers to monitor temperature in storage.

“We’re recording the product journey from the manufacturer to the customer and can create permanent records of where the failures are happening,” Chakravarthy says.

Blockchain helps keep these records intact. The data is stored together without locking them away in silos, and at the same time records are permanent and immutable due to the decentralized nature of the tech. Statwig’s clients pay a subscription to log on to a website and access the information in real-time, wherever they are.

“The blockchain is basically the same database that’s shared across all the subscribers to the software,” Chakravarthy explains. “If I’m a manufacturer and you’re a customer, we use the same data, although we may see different interfaces.”

Food safety

Statwig started out with vaccines as its main use case but the tech can be applied to different supply chains involving sensitive products like food. The startup is already exploring such

“You hear about cases of infected meat, and the government can’t trace where the infection came from. So they have to do these huge product recalls, which are very inefficient,” Chakravarthy says.

The company is running a couple of paid pilots with a Singaporean company for its pharmaceutical packaging product, and another one in Europe related to food tracking.

Fundraising isn’t an immediate priority for now, Chakravarthy says. While the team is talking to investors, it’s going to look for more funding after it completes its current pilots.

Blockchain tech as a way to monitor food and medicine is being embraced by companies beyond startups.

Blockchain tech as a way to monitor food and medicine is being embraced by companies beyond startups. Just this month, a number of global food companies, including Nestle and Walmart, announced a collaboration with IBM to use the Big Blue’s blockchain resources for food tracking.

Back in March, Alibaba also kickstarted a blockchain experiment to track genuine food in order to fight counterfeit food incidents on its ecommerce platforms.

And Alibaba rival JD is working with pharmaceutical company Wyeth on a way to track pharmaceutical products for mothers and babies.

Meanwhile, other startups working on similar products for food include Ambrosus (which also works with medicine products) in the US and Provenance in the UK.

For such a novel concept, it feels like it’s already a crowded space, so I ask Chakravarthy what Statwig’s advantage is.

He explains that one of the issues with blockchain tech is that it’s heavy and slow, while the sensors required to track products usually have limited capabilities like memory and computing power. “There’s this big gap between these two technologies, so we’re trying to create light blockchains that will give us the advantage,” he says.

Besides, its competitors are mostly in the exploration stage at the moment, just like Statwig is. “IBM has been the only company on the corporate side which has been rolling out applications,” he adds. “It all depends on who can do it more efficiently.”

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