CityVerve Citizen Journalism: Open Innovation Finalists

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This week, eight small and medium-sized enterprises triumphed in a hard fought CityVerve competition after showcasing their innovative plans to use Internet of Things technology.

Pathway AI, CitySwifter, See.Sense, Voltaware, Entelligently, Unifi.id, Qbots and Ultra IoT battled against nine other entrants during a lengthy Open Innovation selection day, which was held at the Bright Building in the Manchester Science Park.

Each pitched their ideas within just 90 seconds in a format not dissimilar to Dragon’s Den. They were then subjected to a gruelling Q&A before spending the afternoon discussing their ideas with the judges in a “speed dating” round that lasted three hours in total.

The eventual winners will now enjoy the opportunity of demonstrating their technology to industry leaders later in the year. They’ll benefit from eight-weeks worth of mentoring from partners from across the public sector, academia and the corporate world.

The successful companies are also receiving grants of £5,000 so they can make progress in taking their ideas to market. In doing so, they will seek to make their mark on a growing smart city industry which business consulting firm Frost & Sullivan estimates could be worth as much as $1.5 trillion.

In each case, their ideas have the potential to change lives and the way people use cities. The winners are also spread across the categories of health and social care, transport and travel, and energy and the environment which means they can have a truly wide impact.

Hit the road

Pathway AI, for instance, impressed the judges with its idea to make bus drivers safer and smarter. It works by visually analysing their driving, feeding the information back to bus companies for training and schedule planning.

The company’s software uses algorithms to find the areas most at risk of accidents, with founder and Manchester graduate Daniel Jaenicke – who previously created the dual car and micro action camera JooVuu X – now seeking to work closely with Transport for Greater Manchester.

“The idea is to start off small and look at trials on a bus route so that we can say, ‘this is what we did and this is what we can do differently’,” he says, of a plan to initially work with five to 10 buses. Pathway AI’s three-person team hopes the product will lead to cheaper insurance premiums. “We want our data to be cheap, accurate and fast,” Daniel adds.

CitySwifter is also working “on the buses.” It wants to use data to optimise city bus routes. using AI to predict the most cost-efficient bus timetables that will make routes more efficient and increase profitability.

For CEO Brian O’Rourke, who started his business in Ireland two years ago, being selected as a finalist presents a chance to drive his idea forward. Previously operating under the Huddl.ie and ConcerBus.ie brands, his team discovered in 2017 that Stagecoach was gathering terabytes of data but failing to use it.

By combining such information with weather forecasts, sensors, scheduled events, social media mining and traffic monitoring, CitySwifter can predict anything that might affect or influence journey times and passenger demands.

“We’re able to gather information and present it in a format that can be used,” Brian says. “It’s possible to adjust the timetable to have buses turn up at the times that people need them, adjusting the frequencies and being route specific.”

Also working in transport, albeit of the two-wheeled kind, is See.Sense, created by husband and wife team Irene and Philip McAleese. Born out of Philip’s unease about cycling around London on his daily commute, the company’s connected bike lights react to the environment. They detect risky situations and flash brighter and faster when cyclists near roundabouts and road junctions.

See.Sense pitched to CityVerve’s competition on the back of three successful Kickstarter campaigns. The AI bike light See.Sense ACE saw 3,938 online backers pledging a staggering £183,291. “We gave up our corporate careers and moved to Northern Ireland for this business,” Irene says. “We have been getting a lot of interest in what we have been doing and we are a hugely ambitious company which wants to go global.”

Indeed, it has grown fast and now has 16 staff. Its Icon product sells in 70 countries. “We want Transport for Greater Manchester to use the data we collect and make a difference by picking up on changes in the road, finding potholes and so on, to make traveling better for us all.”

Taking care at home

As it to prove that innovations can also take place inside as well as out, Voltaware seeks to reduce energy consumption in smart homes. It installs sensors on a property’s fuse box which measures the amount of electricity being used, transmitting data via Wi-Fi to a cloud-based server for analysis.

This not only allows for energy costs to be controlled and for consumption to be broken down by the level of individual appliances, it allows energy use to be managed and even acts to flag up abnormal usage for elderly and disabled people, potentially indicating a pressing emergency care need.

Chairman and founder Sergey Ogorodnov, who has more than 20 years working in the telecoms industry, says: “It will detect whether an elderly person has not been active in, for example, turning on the kettle one morning and warn a carer if needs be. We are working on getting as many pilots as possible and we would love to work with housing associations, the NHS and businesses.”

Environmental concerns

Qbots is also looking at energy. It provides a smart energy storage management system which can be used by the owners or managers of a building to optimise their electricity consumption by using battery storage. Founded by Li Yao, Vijay Natarajan and Kunrui Hua, they want to collect data in a robust and reliable way.

“Having real-time data is key,” says Li. “It is where our key competitive edge comes in. We can use the sources of data to build a model and predict energy consumption. We want to create and showcase our project as part of the CityVerve initiative because smart cities are an important area for us.”

Entelligently is a firm believer in smart cities too. It wants to make office buildings in urban areas more comfortable for staff by gathering data on how the environment is used and where improvements can be made.

Its app asks office workers to indicate how comfortable they are, before dishing out ‘smart nudges’ (or ‘snudges’ to use the term used by the creators). These tell workers what they should do to relieve or avoid their discomfort.

“We want people to be able to understand the building,” says Susie Tomson, the sustainability director of construction industry consultancy PCSG. “A snudge may ask someone to open a vent, a window or a door, or take a break if carbon monoxide levels are peaking.”

The results of the user feedback is mashed with internally-collected data such as the weather to predict what may need to be done in the future. “We use pithy comments to get the message across,” says Chris Cooper. “The idea is to give people a feeling they are part of the building’s success and that they’re feeding back.”

Equally intriguing is Unifi.id, which uses chipped cards to track the movement of people within a building. It identifies who is using a particular zone and who has strayed into an area they shouldn’t be in.

“One benefit is being able to know exactly who is in a building if there is an incident, something that is great for safety and for insurance purposes,” says COO Tim Swift.

Based at Canary Wharf’s tech accelerator Level39, the company places data sensors around the floors of a building and this creates a 3D model. According to the founder, the information gathered could inform the building operators how long it would take to evacuate and it would also help firefighters.

“It can also be used in universities,” says founder Paul Sheedy. “It would know if someone is late or didn’t turn up.”

Finding the optimum route

One company that doesn’t want to give people more excuses for not turning up is Ultra IoT. It wants to place modular mobile air quality sensor with a GPS tracker on to buses, shared bikes and Metrolink trams to measure the air quality of numerous routes.

The aim is to inform travellers of the best routes and means of transportation, with clean air in mind. “We are not yet at the point where we can be customer-facing so it’s very much a research project at the moment but we want to use the city’s infrastructure in a creative way,” says Joris Lam, Ultra IoT’s founder.

But that is exactly what smart cities are about: experimenting with concepts that can improve transport, air quality, office space, health care and more. CityVerve is about showing what is possible in a smart city – and that means being open to ideas from everybody that can be applied all over the world,” says Nick Chrissos, Cisco’s director of innovation for Europe.

Written by David Crookes