How a bridge collapse inspired this founder to launch a civil infrastructure monitoring startup

Miaoxin Cui (left) and Harsh Rathod of HRG Infrastructure won the $25,000 first-place prize at the University of Washington’s Dempsey Startup Competition on Thursday in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

Startup inspiration can come at unexpected times. That’s what happened to Harsh Rathod, who was doing his Ph.D research work in civil engineering at the University of Victoria when he saw the news on TV. There was a big bridge collapse in India and he panicked — several of his family members lived in the Mumbai area and commuted on the very same bridge.

Thankfully, his relatives were safe. But Rathod couldn’t stop thinking about what should have been done to help prevent such a disaster.

“I learned that the reason behind the collapse was lack of proper inspection,” Rathod said. “I not only felt scared, but also extremely angry. I couldn’t tolerate that fact.”

Now he’s helping come up with a solution. His startup, HRG Infrastructure, uses a combination of drones and damage assessment software to monitor the condition of bridges, dams, and other civil infrastructure.

The company won the $25,000 first-place prize at the University of Washington’s 22nd annual Dempsey Startup Competition on Thursday, beating out teams from 16 colleges and universities across the Pacific Northwest.

Rathod said infrastructure inspection technology has barely advanced over the past several centuries. “We saw huge gap between relying on the data versus relying on human judgement,” he said. His company has developed a damage assessment algorithm that uses acoustic-monitoring drones and image processing technology.

Traditional inspections take eight to 10 hours — HRG Infrastructure can do it in 30 minutes, Rathod said. The 3-person company, based at the University of Victoria, will use prize money to help secure deals with paid customers.

MOD PIzza co-founder Ally Svenson gives the keynote talk at the Dempsey Startup Competition dinner on Thursday. (University of Washington Photo)

More than 5,000 students have participated in the UW’s Dempsey Startup Competition, previously known as the UW Business Plan Competition, over the past two decades. The program has awarded more than $1.5 million in prize money. Last year’s first-place prize went to pre-clinical drug screening startup A-Alpha Bio.

This year the competition was opened up to teams from British Columbia. There were a record-high 113 submissions.

The UW held an awards dinner last night to announce the winning teams; MOD Pizza co-founder Ally Svenson, whose Seattle-area company just raised a $160 million round, gave the keynote speech.

Here’s a rundown of the top winners from this year’s competition, with descriptions from each company:

$10,000 2nd Place Prize: Adventure Game Works (Gonzaga University)

(University of Washington Photo)

Adventure Game Works is an entertainment startup that plans to create, produce and sell game kits for customized, real-world, live-action puzzle games played by groups of family members, friends or co-workers.

$7,520.19 3rd Place Prize: Bottomline (University of Washington)

(University of Washington Photo)

Bottomline is a compensation analytics service that helps professionals understand the True Value of their job offers. We aspire to be the best in the world for people in professional careers to understand, compare and negotiate their offers.

$5,000 4th Place Prize: Aerospec (University of Washington)

(University of Washington Photo)

Aerospec combines innovate hardware along with a software platform that provides real-time monitoring of air quality. An Aerospec device will be worn by individual workers that stream the quality of the air they are breathing to the software platform.

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