Founder Spotlight: Manik Suri

  • Company name: Therma
  • Founders: Manik Suri and Aaron Cohen
  • Mission: We’re building a smart cold chain to improve human health while protecting planet health.
  • Founded: 2019
  • Walkout song: “Just Another Manic Monday”
  • My nickname growing up was “Manik in a panic, Suri in a hurry” because I was always talking fast and moving fast. 
  • Favorite hobby, leisure activity: I really enjoy walking my dog through the urban parks of San Francisco. That’s one of my favorite things to do.

How did you find yourself in technology?

Back in 2011, I met Beth Noveck, the deputy CTO in the first Obama Administration, while I was working on the White House National Economic Council team. Beth was giving a talk on a book she had written, “Wiki Government.” The central idea was that network and data technologies are transforming social and commercial life, yet law and government are still run like it’s 1950. There seemed to be a massive opportunity to transform these important sectors, in ways that were socially impactful and commercially compelling. I was inspired. That’s how I decided to move into tech.

How did you end up becoming an entrepreneur?

Fast forward a couple of years, my co-founder Aaron Cohen and I thought we could build a technology company in the regulatory and compliance space. We launched a startup that developed tools to improve health and safety workflows for both business and government. Our first customer was the New York State Department of Health in Albany. Then in late 2015, Chipotle had a series of major food safety issues and we started moving into the ‘farm to fork’ supply chain, focused on food safety and quality assurance. A few years later, our head of engineering Andrew Hager (who is now our CTO) thought that we could replace manual refrigeration checks with sensor-based automation. We started working on a second product called Temperature Humidity Energy Remote Monitoring Application, or THERMA, which eventually became our flagship product. That’s the origin of Therma°.

What has been your most unexpected customer reaction?

We were testing Therma° in a warehouse that was holding PPE and vaccines for COVID-19.  We asked, “What are you replacing? What are you doing today?” They said, “Well, we’ve got two guys who walk around every three hours with a clipboard to check the temperatures.” And these were vaccines, and they’re critical to the US response on COVID. That was just shocking. And it revealed how inefficient and antiquated the supply chain is in the refrigeration industry. We were all pretty surprised by that.

How did the pandemic impact Therma°?

The cold storage sector, and food and pharma supply chains in general, came under a lot of pressure last year because COVID-19 drove burgeoning demand for e-commerce, grocery and meal delivery. Then in the fall of 2020, as mRNA-based vaccines emerged requiring ultra cold conditions, the cold chain became a lot more top-of-mind and people got a lot more focused on refrigeration. Therma° happened to be in market at a time when there was a lot of interest in solutions like ours. So we’ve actually grown quite a bit during the pandemic. We raised another round of venture capital this spring, and we’re now on a mission to build a smart cold chain for food and pharma, advancing human health by enabling life saving products to reach people around the world. And critically, by doing it in ways that don’t destroy the planet — we urgently need cleaner cooling, since the industry is already responsible for nearly 10% of global warming and growing rapidly. 

Without monitoring, what does it look like when refrigeration fails?

In 2020, the month after the pandemic hit, we had a customer that’s a national full service restaurant chain that’s been around for 60 years. They were closing stores in a bunch of markets because Governorswere issuing lockdowns. No one had ever done this before. So they closed a store and they didn’t have anyone going to that location in Southern California for a month. They came back to reopen the store in June. When they did, they discovered that when they were closing it up, someone had left one of the major walk-in freezers unplugged. The product had spoiled completely. They had to get a cleanup team in hazmat suits to come in and spend $120,000 on the cleanup event for that one store. 

If they had been remotely monitoring their refrigeration, they would have avoided all the product waste, all the cleanup, the environmental health disaster. This was early in the pandemic. Those kinds of things are going to happen more often, and have happened more and more as businesses have had to rapidly shut down, reopen, change staffing and hours of operation because of the way in which the world has shifted around public health requirements.

You’ve mentioned a few, but what’s your favorite data point about your market?

I think the dollar value of inventory that moves through the cold chain globally is striking. If you had to take a guess … if I had to take a guess, I would have been off by probably a factor of 100. It’s one and a half trillion dollars of inventory that moves through the cold chain every year, because a lot of stuff is perishable. It’s a 150 year old industry that hasn’t had a lot of innovation. Refrigerators aren’t significantly better than they were 30, 40 years ago. Most people don’t realize that the cold chain is responsible for nearly 10% of all global greenhouse gas emissions.

Do you have a main source of inspiration for your work?

Having recently become a parent, I’m very inspired by my daughter, Arya. Now my inspiration comes from the question, what’s this world going to be like for her? How will we get through this pandemic? Will she sbe able to enjoy beaches and coral reefs and enjoy clean air? I think back to all those sayings along the lines of “we are merely stewards of the planet for the next generation,” and they resonate.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

I’m close to my father — I’ve always looked up to him and admired him. Early on in life, he had encouraged me, “Trust your instincts, trust your intuition, believe in yourself.” It took me a while, I think, to fully embrace that.

Earlier in my career, I worked at D. E. Shaw and later in the White House. Then, leaving to start a company, it was just me and one other person. There are so many moments where I’ve wanted to quit. I never realized it was going to be so hard. I think the adjustment was particularly difficult because I went from well-resourced, prestigious organizations where everyone takes your call to a two-person startup with no reputation or capital. 

So I’ve often come back to this advice from my dad, having to believe in yourself in order to really put one foot in front of the next day after day. It’s very humbling. I’m glad for his wisdom and I’ve returned to it many, many times. Sometimes multiple times in the day when the thought crosses my mind, “This is too hard. I think I’m done.”

So what do the next six months look like for Therma°?

We’re expanding our team; we’re in hiring mode. We are probably going to raise again soon. I would say we’re focused right now on figuring out ways to create more value in the cold chain beyond preventing food waste and product spoilage. We are adding on data analytics and expanding into energy efficiency, to help reduce the carbon footprint of refrigeration and create cleaner cooling.

How did you enjoy being part of an URBAN-X cohort? 

It was amazing. It was an excellent program. Our team had never built hardware before. We were coming off of CoInspect, which is a mobile workflow application. We wanted to build a sensor-based monitoring solution to reduce loss and waste. We needed to do it quickly – and URBAN-X enabled us to make that happen.

–  Katerina Athanasiou