The compelling programme of events hosted by Hardware Pioneers over the course of 2018 drew to a close last week with its IoT Startup Night. Hundreds filled the regular central London venue to maximum capacity in order to see a series of aspiring young companies (15 in total) pitch their product innovations.
By: Mark Patrick, Mouser Electronics.
A panel made up of a dozen industry heavyweights (seed fund managers, venture capitalists, crowdfunding executives, etc.) were there to give their views on the presentations and impart advice, based on their own personal experience. Among these luminaries was Pilgrim Beart, Co-founder of smart home success story Hive. As he commented; “This second generation of IoT companies are all looking to solve real problems, it’s no longer just hype!”
First up was Billy Wood, inventor of Owlett. Motivated by wanting to help his mother, who is registered blind, he has developed a system that can rapidly identify everyday objects - and thus enable the visually impaired to lead easier lives. The system features advanced image sensing technology and sophisticated Artificial Intelligence (AI) inferences, along with access to an extensive pre-compiled product database. Through this, the user checks what food items are in their cupboard (distinguishing between cans and jars containing different produce) and ensure that they have the correct pills, etc. As well as the home-based unit, which is targeted more at blind people, Billy is also working on a portable unit for assisting the partially sighted. This will be roughly half the width and height, and fit easily into a pocket, so that the user can determine what particular objects are while out shopping at the supermarket, for example.
A speaker from EzLab was to follow. The item of equipment that this company has created empowers smartphone handsets so they can carry out investigations of bacteria levels and execute accurate pathogen identification (via cloud-based neural networks) in locations where reliance on a full-blown biological laboratory would simply be impractical. Example use cases could be where food processing is being done, and rapid results are needed. Alternatively, it could be applied to biomedical testing out in the field in remote places where there is risk of a pandemic disease outbreak and the time needed to get samples to a lab facility for detailed scrutiny would just be too great.
Bagtrax is a solution for tracking airline luggage through use of a small device deployed in-situ that sends positioning coordinates to a remote server. The intelligent battery technology utilised can automatically turn the system off when placed in the aircraft’s hold, so that it doesn’t contravene international air security regulations (IATA, FAA and EASA). The solution also facilitates payment of compensation over blockchain. One query I had here, however, was the immediacy involved. Surely if they can actual locate your luggage and get it back to you (even if that takes a little longer) it would be preferable to getting some form of recompense. Yet the speaker talked about claims being processed almost as soon as passengers arrived at their flight destinations. I wasn’t sure that the blockchain element was really that necessary and it was perhaps included more as a gimmick.
Featuring a continually-updated occupancy detection mechanism (based on ambient light levels), plus AI technology, Radbot is an autonomous unit that means parts of a given heating system will only remain on when needed - thus reducing the size of utility bills. The company is currently working with EDF Energy to push for widespread uptake of this smart radiator product offering over the next 18 months. Focused on the building automation sector, the IoT sensors and supporting data analysis platform from LightFi convey useful information on how living/working spaces are being utilised, allowing better optimisation of available resources.
The VRGO VR is a hands-free, self-righting seated controller unit for better virtual reality (VR) gaming experiences. By allowing the gamer to remain seated, the commonly recognised problem of VR sickness (which tends to take effect if someone is immersed in a VR environment for a long time) can be mitigated. It also dispenses with the need for a gamepad, as the imaging system embedded in the seat can pick up on the position/orientation of the gamer’s hands - thereby making gaming activities feel more natural. The seat (which has a target price of around £250) is complemented by a smaller and cheaper pad (with pricing around £160), that can be placed onto a swivel chair. As well as the gaming sector, its designers have picked up some sales in relation to corporate promotion too.
Sensing Feeling enables a better understanding of human emotions, so that commercial insight can be derived without any infringement of GDPR legislation. Computer vision technology is combined with advanced machine learning algorithms and cloud-based data analytics, so that the way in which shoppers react to particular products can be ascertained, while still maintaining individual’s anonymity. At present, the company is in talks with several high street retail brands.
There were a couple of companies involved in sports technology. The SwimAR holographic heads-up display attaches to ordinary swimming goggles so that real time performance data may be accessed while in the pool. Hence, the wearer doesn’t have to stop training, allowing them to get more out of each session. Then there was NxInsoles, who have developed an intelligent wearable technology where pressure sensors and an accelerometer are integrated into each insole. These ‘learn’ human walking patterns to help construct detailed datasets, which can then be used in gait analysis - for physiotherapy and elite sports performance purposes. The company’s management team are looking to collaborate with various third party software vendors to build up an ecosystem of different apps that can address numerous potential markets. My only issue here was that surely to get information that could help mitigate any gait problem, or improve athletes’ performance, this system would need to be operated in conjunction with further systems that looked at the other parts of the body involved - not just the soles of the feet in isolation.
Climate Edge has been formed with objective of helping better farming decisions to be made in developing countries (where farms are often hard to reach and there is little infrastructure). Each NEXO smart climate monitoring module transmits captured data across a cellular network (or LoRa connectivity) for remote real-time studying. Consequently, land can be used more efficiently and yields increased. Already seeing implementation in Manchester, Amsterdam, Exeter and Cambridge, is Ultra IoT’s modular hardware (which is based on cost effective commodity components). It can be of great benefit in a smart city context, generating valuable environmental/mobility insights. This is accomplished through the acquisition of an array of different data parameters, which are then sent back to the supporting analytics platform.
Targeting the rapidly growing digital health market, Bedsense employs under-castor sensors that bring a smart dimension to a standard bed. Through these, continuous monitoring of heart rate, breathing rate, sleep quality and weight can be undertaken. The critical aspect here (and what differentiates this solution from competing ones) is access to precise data on the subject’s weight. Sudden weight increases can be a sign of food retention, that can potentially result in a heart failure episode arising. Through its Iris technology Mechion can carry out 24/7 monitoring of the elderly to search for key behaviour indicators suggesting the onset of dementia. If signs are identified early on, then treatment will prove far more effective. The system can subsequently be used to establish whether lifestyle changes or medication are helping to slow down the progression of this condition. The camera unit is supported by sophisticated cloud services. As a reasonable degree of intelligence is situated where the video content is captured, hours of erroneous data where nothing of interest occurs do not have to be transferred back to the cloud - this is done only for footage that is flagged as being relevant.
Thor Energy are rolling out vending machines where battery packs can be hired and subsequently returned for a modest fee, so that smartphone/tablet battery reserves may be replenished when the user doesn’t have their adaptor to hand. The company even has ambitions to apply their business model to electric vehicle infrastructure in the longer term. The challenge with this is how convenient will it actually be - as it is clearly dependent on close proximity to the chargers. Currently the company has some 200 vending machines dispersed across London. The density of these will have to increase considerably though, if people are going to be near enough to pick/return up a charger without having to travel to some distance (and therefore impinge too greatly on their schedule). It could be a short window of opportunity here too. The proliferation of wireless charging points in coffee shops would mean that, in the near future, an alternative charging option might be found on almost any street corner. Perhaps, as more rechargeable applications emerge, other opportunities will be forthcoming for this energy focussed startup.
Though it proved to be an interesting event, and gave me an opportunity to learn more about the current strength and depth of the European startup community, I felt the format could benefit from a slightly modified approach, giving more time for both the presentations and scrutiny of their ideas. The limited time for each company representative to speak meant they could only give a very brief overview. Also, there was no provision for either the panel of experts or the audience to converse with them - yet this would have really been of value, allowing anything not covered in the companies’ presentations to be tackled. It seemed like too much emphasis was placed on the members of the panel - with each one having an extensive introduction prior to the pitches beginning, and then some of them giving fairly generic appraisals to the startups after the pitches had concluded. An arrangement where each company had a minute or two longer to explain their technology, then a short period after this for interrogation by the panel, followed by a couple more questions fielded from the other attendees, is likely to be more conducive. That said, I certainly hope this event continues into 2019 and beyond. With a few minor adjustments, it could really be an important channel via which tech entrepreneurs might reach out to the industry at large - raising their profiles and possibly gaining them the investment they need.