How Verizon’s Internet of Things technology can feed a food safety revolution

Verizon product lead Tom Villa explains why IoT sensors will be a key ingredient in food producers’ future success.

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Brussel sprouts with food safety monitor

As Verizon’s head of enterprise product management and business development, Tom Villa leads Verizon’s IoT Global Asset Management Products group. His team is currently developing a new generation of sensors that will revolutionize asset tracking. By providing real-time information about the temperature and location of shipments, these sensors will help producers track their parcels and react to issues at the unit level, encompassing all modes of shipment (ocean, air, rail, trucking, etc.) as they arise.

Here, Villa discusses how a group of fishermen inspired Verizon to enter the food safety space — and how the company’s network is uniquely suited to handle the robust data load required by next-gen sensors.

How did Verizon become involved in sensor and tracking technology?

This began a couple years ago. We sat down with some of our healthcare customers and asked them how we could help them be more efficient and effective with their businesses. We have had relationships with companies that track assets for years who use our network to accomplish their goals.

We heard some recurring themes in those chats. In the pharmaceutical space, companies need to be able to track in real time shipments of medicines that are compliant with the federal government regulations. They wanted to know the progress, the location, the temperature and a variety of other information that is required as they ship product around the U.S. and the globe. We realized we are uniquely positioned to get involved with asset tracking in a bigger way.

How did Verizon translate these learnings from pharma to food?

We talked to some fishermen who were losing money because so many different people were involved with the farm-to-fork delivery of their product. Food quality is really important, but if something happens to the fish during transit, the fishermen get blamed. The customers don't go back and say, "Well, it was the trucker or some wholesaler.” They go back and say, "Hey, we bought this from you and now it's mush.”

So the fishermen are looking for ways to protect the quality of what they deliver. They're all about innovation and disruption, and they just went nuts over what we're doing. 

Food quality is really important, but if something happens to the fish during transit, the fishermen get blamed.

Tom Villa, Verizon Head of Enterprise Product Management and Business Development

How does Verizon’s network enable this kind of transparency? 

We operate the leading 4G LTE network, which enables us to handle volume and to really scale. By definition, real-time tracking implies a tremendous amount of data flow. It's one thing if you ship something and at the end of it, you get a report. It's a whole different thing to know what's happening to a shipment in real time, and to generate alerts and notifications based upon a customer’s need.

You're talking about a platform that has to scale to literally billions and trillions of transactions. That’s a very good fit for Verizon, because our network accommodates that load. It was built with that in mind for years to come.

How does temperature tracking technology work now?

Many companies use loggers that store the temperature information of a shipment. When the shipment is complete, they can produce a report that has logged what happened to the temperature by hour or by minute.

The problem with that method is that the information arrives after the fact. There’s nothing to do if, for example, the report says that the temperature spiked en route. A company can try to diagnose why it happened and prevent it from occurring again, but having that information isn’t going to benefit a shipment that’s already complete.

Further complicating things is location data. The customer gets a separate report marking the locations of the shipment, and the quality control people must sit in a room and compare location and temperature to find out where the spike occurred. The information isn’t provided in an easy, simple format. The Verizon user experience we have built was based upon understanding our customers needs and delivering a simple yet elegant way for them to receive this integrated information literally to their smartphone, laptop, PC or other device. 

Our goal is to replace the passive technology by simply putting a wafer-thin sensor where the barcode scans used to be ... That’s really a disruptive replacement, and Verizon is leading the way.

Tom Villa, Verizon Head of Enterprise Product Management and Business Development

How do Verizon’s sensors improve on the existing solutions?

We integrate temperature, location and other relevant tracking information from Day 1. We give real-time feedback, since a purveyor will want to know where the shipment is if, for example, the temperature increases. That's really the differentiator for us. It's the immediacy of the data. It's allowing the customer a simple way to receive it. It empowers them to be able to decide what they want to do with that information.

Why is Verizon uniquely positioned to lead the sensor and tracking space?

This incredible network of ours can scale. It can handle a huge amount of data volume. We have the device relationships with the manufacturers, so we can guide them and have them help us develop the devices of the future that ultimately get us to a point where we can replace passive asset tracking technology.

Our goal is to replace the passive tech by simply placing a wafer-thin sensor where the barcode scans used to be. You wouldn’t have to scan anything. The sensor transmits information in real time whenever you need to find out what's happening with that asset. That’s really a disruptive replacement, and Verizon is leading the way.

How can a nickel-sized sensor help stop food poisoning? Watch our food safety video to find out how. 

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