The internet of things: a way small firms can use it

INEX Advisors is bringing innovative applications to businesses in Massachusetts – troubleshooting IoT in the dirt, diesel, and seawater of the real world.

Fred Dabney (c.), owner of Quansett Nurseries, is using sensors to better manage his operations in South Dartmouth, Mass.

Fred Dabney couldn’t sleep at night. The owner of Quansett Nurseries in South Dartmouth, Mass., didn’t know how much water was left in the wells he depends on to irrigate the 10 acres he farms. If his wells ran dry, Mr. Dabney would be out of business.

“Now, I just hit a button on the computer in my office. I can see exactly how much water I have in each well, and it’s tested every few hours,” says the tanned farmer with a trimmed white beard. “Much to my surprise and delight, I discovered I had a heck of a lot more water than I thought I did, which made me breathe a lot easier.”

The sensors that Wellntel, which makes groundwater monitors, installed in two of Dabney’s wells are part of a program he and dozens of other farmers, fishermen, and small-business owners in southeast Massachusetts have joined. They're outfitting and troubleshooting the internet of things (IoT) in the dirt, diesel, and seawater of the real world.

INEX Advisors, which specializes in internet connectivity, matches IoT powerhouses including Dell and Intel with start-ups such as Wellntel to bring these gadgets to the little guy.

IoT – a term to describe sensors and other devices that link the digital and physical worlds – has been heralded by analysts and consumers as a way to make life more convenient and efficient. Imagine a refrigerator that could automatically replace an empty milk carton, or a security camera that sends an alert about a break-in to a cellphone.

But smaller businesses in traditional industries have largely been left out of the conversation because IoT is too new and risky and was previously too expensive, some market researchers say. INEX Advisors is helping to bridge this gap, while attracting the attention of the state of Massachusetts, the White House, and places abroad.

The New Bedford, Mass., firm and its affiliate, IoT Impact LABS, are focusing on air, soil, and water; infrastructure; cities; and food security, says founder Chris Rezendes.

“We find ourselves, this little lab in eastern Massachusetts, has perhaps struck a nerve,” he says. “Folks are keen to find a way to make technology more meaningful, more purposeful, more profitable, and more sustainable for a broader group of individuals and institutions.”

IoT is emerging as a fast-growing and profitable industry. The number of physical devices connected to the digital world this year is estimated to be 6.4 billion, up from about 900 million in 2009, according to Gartner, a technology research firm. By 2020, this number is expected to swell to 20.8 billion, with more than half of major new business processes incorporating some element of IoT. But critics say many IoT devices are not secure, pointing to a cyberattack in October in which malicious software guessed the factory-set passwords of hundreds of thousands of IoT devices. When the devices were then instructed to bombard a kind of internet switchboard, websites such as Twitter, Reddit, and Airbnb were reduced to a crawl.

Nonetheless, Gartner estimates that in 2016, IoT will support $235 billion in spending on professional services that include the design, installation, and operation of IoT systems. That’s up 22 percent from the previous year.

Many small, traditional businesses, however, haven’t been able to keep pace with these advancements. Small-business owners can’t afford to invest in IoT research and development because of the newness and riskiness of the technology, writes Paul Teich, a technology analyst that toured INEX Advisors in August, in a contribution to Forbes in September.

But Mr. Rezendes, a Harvard graduate and an area native, and the rest of INEX have come up with a workaround. Rezendes and his team sift through hundreds of pitches from tech start-ups. They then invite small to medium-sized businesses to become pilot sites, at no cost to them, to test out the technology provided by the start-ups and IoT powerhouses.

Dabney was sold when he learned groundwater monitors could ease his water worries. He and his wife, Kate, started Quansett Nurseries in 1980. At first they grew ornamental plants, but they've since transitioned to heirlooms and microgreens. The farm has survived blizzards and other natural disasters, but Dabney cut back on his watering in a recent drought, fearing his wells would go dry. Then he volunteered for the pilot program.

Dabney says that many of his neighbors, seeing the success of the program, have reached out to Rezendes. The sensors, Rezendes notes, can benefit other communities, too – such as areas where water cleanliness is an issue.

The groundwater monitors are just the start of testing IoT technology on Dabney's farm. INEX and its partners are developing a system to monitor and analyze the growing conditions of microgreens. Sensors that track light, temperature, and moisture feed information to a Dell Edge Gateway 5000.

“This is all brand-new stuff,” says Dabney, who admits he asks his children for help with his smartphone. “We feel like we’re out on the edge.”

In nearby New Bedford – the port city recorded in Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” – IoT is winning over fishermen, as it brings them and researchers together to better understand the state of New England fisheries and the ocean.

New Bedford is the top US fishing port by value of catch. While its scallop industry is healthy, its groundfish industry has been hurt by by-catch regulations to save species such as Atlantic cod.

Fishermen and Edward Anthes-Washburn, the port’s director, hope IoT devices such as cameras and water sensors that INEX is working on can make finding and tracking catches easier. But Mr. Anthes-Washburn also hopes that IoT sensors on as many as 500 ships in port can transform the ships into research vessels that collect information such as water temperature and pH, turning fishermen’s anecdotal knowledge of the ocean into fact.

“We would be putting a voice on the people that know the ocean more than anyone else,” Anthes-Washburn says. “It can have an amazing effect not just on the oceans, but also on the economy of New Bedford.”

These applications of IoT are all over southeastern Massachusetts. Through INEX’s program, Salt Creek Vineyard in South Dartmouth has installed weather stations on three of its fields. New Bedford has plow and parking sensors. And Island Creek Oysters in Duxbury, Mass., a mainstay in New England, has sensors that monitor water conditions.

All of this has caught the eye of others. Katie Stebbins, assistant secretary of innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship for Massachusetts, has been closely following INEX and its progress.

“Massachusetts is the leading technology innovator in the country. If we can’t leverage that to support businesses in our own backyard, we’re missing an opportunity,” Ms. Stebbins says. “I love the fact this can be the entire state.”

INEX and Rezendes are also taking the lessons they learn in this pilot program beyond Massachusetts. They are involved in the IoT aspect of the Global Connect Initiative, a US State Department program to connect 1.5 billion new users to the internet by 2020. They and their partners are also involved in cybersecurity and smart-city planning in Singapore and Sharjah, a state in the United Arab Emirates. Both locations serve as IoT innovation platforms for their regions.

But it all starts in places like New Bedford, says Rezendes.

“In order to instrument the physical world, you have to understand it, operate in it, and work in it,” he says. “You need a collective expertise to do this the right way.”

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