Preventing human breakdown: how Soter Analytics is capturing and analysing data that treats people like complex machines
Soter Analytics develop wearable health technology for the industrial workforce. The resources tech startup participated in our online challenge Shield-X in April-May 2017 and won second prize (US$5000 and a 2-hour technology workshop) for their Soter Autonomous Safety Stop Device.
We recently interviewed CEO and Founder Matthew Hart, who divides his time between Perth, Western Australia (Soter Analytics is a foundation member at CORE Innovation Hub) and St Petersburg, Russia, to find out about the origins of their entrepreneurial journey, updates on their SoterSpine™ solution, challenges they have faced and overcome as a hardware startup, their recent crowd investing campaign and exciting projects on the horizon for Soter Analytics. Here's what he had to say:
How did Soter Analytics originate?
My background experience is around operational productivity. I used to be a Reliability Engineer and then a Productivity Analyst for BHP. I dealt with operational productivity challenges on a day to day basis, so I often had over 200 different problems to solve.
Around this time, I travelled to Russia and became particularly interested in St Petersburg. Over the next few years of travel I realised that there is a huge tech talent pool in St Petersburg.
So I thought, let's take advantage of the good market and resources industry in Australia and the great access to talent in St Petersburg and bring them together.
My Co-Founder Alexey Pavlenko and I met in St. Petersburg at a Finnish startup pitching event called Startup Sauna. I was pitching a fleet management system and Alexey was pitching another idea about on-demand car washing. Basically, our ideas didn't really get too far. We kept in touch and over the next 6 months, we got to know each other, became friends, and started trying to figure out why we weren't getting a lot of traction on our two individual ideas. Then he came across to help me, a little bit more with developing my first fleet management system idea. We started with a fleet management system design that was cheaper through the use of new technologies. But we just couldn't find the companies willing to pay up front.
We were going to target the junior minors because they don't have fleet management systems and they can't afford to have cellular connection or a hundred trailers to build Wi-Fi across their mining operation. The idea was good, but the willingness to pay wasn't there. It all ended up being just a bit too hard, so we turned to our second idea. We went through a couple of iterations, and we landed on the safety wearables idea and it's been a pretty good strategy.
In my role as Reliability Engineer, I took data from machines to figure out when they were going to break down, and then stopped that breakdown from happening. It's the same thing as the warning light on your car that tells you that there is a problem, that you have time to fix before you're stranded on the side of the road. This data is processed in different ways and then you derive actionable insights from that, for example: I need to change this component out at this time to stop the breakdown. I also used that same data for productivity analysis; looking at the lost productivity and then putting in solutions to stop it happening again.
This lead us to think: why don't we do that for people? People are just really complex machines. Why don’t we put a sensor on a person, nobody has really done it before? Let's capture data that stops the breakdown of a person.
We ended up building a concept together, and then brought that to our customer Roy Hill. I pitched it to them, and they were happy with it and agreed to support us while we built the MVP (Minimum Viable Product) versions, prototype versions, and to date we've done three trials with them. We have more business planned and the relationship continues to grow.
What is the team at Soter Analytics working on at the moment?
We are developing wearable health technology for industrial workforce, and we strongly believe that injuries will be eliminated with the insights that come from the data we collect and analyse.
We diagnose and coach workers to avoid the number one injury problem in industrial workplaces: the $140 billion musculoskeletal injury problem.
The SoterSpine™ is a wearable device and app that helps industrial workers by reducing preventable musculoskeletal injuries. This solution identifies and quantifies musculoskeletal risk, gives instant feedback to the worker if they make high risk movements, and our AI health coach provides personalised training for the worker on how to further reduce their injury risk.
What are the major challenges you have faced and overcome as a hardware startup? Any advice for startups in hardware?
Building hardware is extremely challenging. Firstly, to build the design is difficult, but the hardest thing we have found is the manufacturing process. Getting quality manufacturing when you're wanting to produce small batches of a new design that's never been done before is very challenging. The whole process around building your supply chain is difficult to manage: getting components to your manufacturer on time, getting the device back from the manufacturer on time, getting the devices to your customers on time, etc.
We had a trial with Roy Hill late last year where the Bluetooth in our hardware device just wouldn’t work and a lot of our solution is built around transmitting data and then processing the data. So, we had all our devices, but none of the hardware worked as expected. We could still download the data manually, but we didn't have that real time Bluetooth transfer, because it needed to be re-flashed, or reinstalled and we hadn't put any connections in our design to connect the Bluetooth to be re-flashed.
We've had other problems where components weren't attached properly due to poor manufacturing. We use a lot of new components in our device because we've designed it in a way to have a very long battery life. Because they were new components, our manufacturer wasn’t used to working with them and they made mistakes with attaching these components to the board. Therefore, at a certain point last year, we were manually soldering components to the board ourselves; taking them off, and then putting them back on.
However, all these challenges, all these steps we went through, ended up giving us the ability fail fast, learn from the experience and come out the other side stronger than before. We secured our first customer, we did trials with our MVP, and we built our own hardware.
It wasn’t all plain sailing, but we got investors on board because they saw that we were making progress and we were getting our solutions to start working and that investment has now allowed us to bring a hardware designer in-house.
My advice would be to avoid making hardware for as long as possible, until you know exactly what you need.
When we started, we were going to have a smartwatch and we realised that third party hardware wasn't going to be the perfect solution for us because the battery life was too small, and it was running too many things that we didn't need. At the very beginning we got a quote to build our own smartwatch. Imagine if we had actually built this, we didn’t end up needing one! So, yes, avoid building it for as long as possible. Hack third party hardware, find third party sensors or the equivalent for whatever you're working on until you realise what you want and are at the point where you are confident in designing your own.
You have recently completed a crowd investing campaign. Why did you choose to do this? How does it fit into your overarching funding strategy?
To date we have raised US$500,000 in seed funding and we are now three months away from bringing the final product to our customers. As a hardware startup, we need working capital to build an inventory of our devices. We are starting to see demand exceed what we initially expected, so it is very possible that when we have the solution ready, we will need to scale quickly. Therefore, we have built that pool of money to be able to do that and get ready for this situation.
In early 2019 we're going to raise a large series A, which will be with an institutional investor.
We decided to crowd fund, as we had built up a lot of interest from investors over the last year. We closed some of them in our initial $230,000 of seed funding, and just last week we brought the remaining angel investors into the company through the remaining $270,000, so that we can really focus on growth in the second half of 2018 and then get ready for the series A round in 2019.
Any other exciting projects on the horizon for Soter Analytics?
We're rolling out the final product with our customer Travis Perkins from July this year. They are like the Bunnings of the UK, but bigger with brands that also focus on larger construction projects and customers and have over 28,000 employees.
In addition, we have an upcoming trial with Vinci Construction in Belgium next month, who are the biggest construction company in Europe. We have been approved by their union, which is a good validation of how we put the worker in charge of their data and insights.
Soter Analytics will be giving a one-hour presentation at the American Society of Safety Engineers’ (ASSE) Safety Conference in the US in June.
We are the proud recipients of a $20,000 National Energy Resources Australia (NERA) innovation grant that allowed us to improve the design of the SoterSpine device hardware and get it ready for production; an Innovate UK grant, which involves us working with the University of Derby to validate our device; a Minerals Resources Institute of Western Australia (MRIWA) grant; a state government innovation grant from Western Australia, and a Curtin University grant.
We are testing new solutions around coaching workers to be more accurate and productive. We see ourselves as a coaching and improvement company. So, the first problem we are solving is musculoskeletal injuries, but it is not the last we will solve. We are testing other things around how we can feed data back to the worker to help them make smarter and safer decisions too.
Currently we are targeting construction, energy and resources, logistics and healthcare as industry verticals. Occupational health providers are going to sell it to their customers as well and we’re designing a way for them to build new business models off our solution that will also enable them to scale. One is in Australia, one is in Chile and we are looking now in the UK.
Thank you to Matthew Hart for taking the time to share the Soter Analytics entrepreneurial journey, his advice for other hardware startups and Soter's plans for the future.
We wish the coaching and improvement company every success in their quest to improve health, safety and productivity outcomes for the industrial workforce.
To keep up to date with Soter Analytics' developments, visit: http://www.soteranalytics.com/
For more information about upcoming Unearthed competitions, visit: https://portal.unearthed.solutions/