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UK mobile firms ready to take on the world

Samantha Tomaszczyk
March 5, 2014

UK Trade and Investment’s annual Dragon’s Den-style event to help put home-grown firms on the map

Looking through the most recent Reuters 2013 Top 100 Innovators list two things stood out.

The first, unsurprisingly, is that many of the companies featured are focused on the telecom space – Apple, Ericsson and even BlackBerry get a mention. The second, and perhaps most staggering, is not one firm listed is British.

And it’s not just because it’s all coming from Japan and the Ã¥US – neighbours France managed to get 12 on the list.

To help rectify this, UK Trade and Investment (UKTI), a government organisation which aims to get UK firms recognised on both a local and global scale, held its annual Dragons’ Den-esque “Smart UK” project in London in a bid to find and promote the next big thing.

The event gave 20 selected UK mobile-focused, up and coming companies the opportunity to pitch their products to a panel of six judges. Six of those firms were selected by a panel of judges to go on and represent the UK at the World’s biggest trade fair, Mobile World Congress.

The chosen ones
These included ETAOI Systems, Obvious engineering, Routeshoot, SQR Systems, ViewRanger  and uMotif (which we’ll explain shortly).

During the conference, each will again pitch their ideas to the same judges, this time for 10 minutes, with the overall winner being announced on February 25.

That company will land the prestigious title of UK’s Most Innovative Mobile Company 2014, use of a winner’s logo on company literature and the guarantee of widespread exposure including press

releases and TV interviews. Last year’s winners OpenSignal, which measures network performances, featured on CNN and the BBC.

Chris Bignell of XL communications, PR for UKTI, who hosted Smart UK, said: “The purpose is to enable British companies with incredible innovations to fight against the huge amount of noise at MWC.

“It gives them the chance to compete and showcase their innovations at a time when the world is looking at mobile.”

Healthy appetite
One of the biggest trends concerned mobile health, with three companies producing applications aimed at monitoring either your mental or physical state. One of those was London-based software firm uMotif, formed in 2012, which caught the eye of the judges after building an application (mobile and desktop) designed to bridge the gap between patients leaving and returning to their doctor.

The app essentially holds all the information on a patient’s prescribed medicine, providing reminders, details and alerts as to when they need to be taken and what dosage. The patient will then confirm via the app the action has been performed.

The patient’s doctor or GP, who will enter the information themselves, is able to check how often the app is accessed and that all medication is being taken by accessing a secure uMotif web portal.

The product is yet to launch, but the firm is in the process of seeking partnerships and licensing agreements with health organisations, including hospitals and doctors surgeries.

Co-founder of uMotif Bruce Hellman explained to Mobile News that nearly 200,000 people die in the EU every year because of medication non-adherence, whilst unused medication and the associated complications cost Europe â‚¬137 billion (£114 billion) per year – something the app can help reduce.

The firm has been involved in a number of trials – declining to name specifics – working with patients, clinicians, patient groups, charities and academia across the world. Next month it will begin a trial with 220 people who suffer from Parkinson’s Disease, using tablet and mobile devices.

“At the moment there is no contact between doctors and patients between appointments,” said Hellman. “Our software allows patients to take care of themselves more effectively during that time when they are not with their doctor.

“Less than half of medication is taken when it’s meant to be, and this is very costly. We can help combat this.

He continued: “In our first trial last year we had 70 per cent daily use rate. And we didn’t have a problem with patients not having the tablets – it can be accessed via laptop, too. And tablets are so cheap these days, perhaps the hospitals will be able to provide them in future.”

Most of uMotif’s funding (Hellman declined to provide a figure) comes from the UK’s Department of Health, through a scheme called the Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI).

Rewriting the rules
Moving away from healthcare, ETAOI Systems impressed the judges with its five-button (tile) keyboard product, which it claims allows up to 100 words per-minute typing with greater accuracy than on a QWERTY keyboard.

ETAIO Systems claims just 34 per cent of users are satisfied with their phone’s keyboard, with the most common complaints being keys are too small, keyboard too big, and too many typos.
As the name suggests, 5 Tiles relies on only that number of tiles running along the bottom of a smartphone, tablet or smartwatch screen, taking up a third less space than the more traditional QWERTY, which needs at least 30 small keys to work.

Four or five letters (for example one tile = A, B, C, D and E), as well as a range of punctuation marks and symbols, are assigned to each tile.

Letters are selected by sliding your finger between the tiles – which whilst impressive in demonstrations, were difficult to understand. The firm claims it takes just half an hour to master.

The firm’s co-founder Margaret Gold said the free version of the product, which launched last May on Android, has been downloaded more that 20,000 times.  A more advanced version, which comes with editing features such as copy and paste, costs £1.99.

Gold added that in addition to smartphones, the product has great potential in the smartwatch space – given its smaller form factors.

“The most exciting bit is that it works on smartwatches,” said Gold. “At the moment we are all dreaming about what smartwatches and other wearable tech is going to mean – but they are not smart yet. They are just dumb alert gadgets. We are the first product that will open up a wide range of use cases.

London-based SQR Systems also made it to the finals in Barcelona after demonstrating its now-patented mobile and tablet video conferencing app.

According to SQR, it is the first company that can manipulate encrypted data – which in simple terms means users can take part in a live video conference with no risk of a hacker listening in.

The product, which is yet to launch, also allows users to prioritise certain aspects of the conference call – sounds, for example, or a person’s face.

Users with a poor data connection can also manually direct and prioritise bandwidth to specific areas of the screen; reducing the quality of the image in some areas to boost it in others.

Consumer experience
The product works with a number of video-related services, including Skype. It is also working on a service to enhance user experiences on YouTube.

“Unlike a lot of cyber security solutions out there at the moment that just get in the way of consumer experience, our approach actually enhances it,” said CEO Dr Nithin Thomas.

“It is all about prioritising data. Most people aren’t interested in what is going on in the background – it’s mainly about the speaker’s face. So using our technology we allocate all of the bandwidth to specific regions in the video. It can track faces across the screen.

“If there are lots of people taking part in the conference call, we can divert all the bandwidth to the person speaking. As soon as he starts talking, the quality of the other images go down and that person’s voice and visual get a lot clearer.”

Recording adventures
Finalist ViewRanger has created an “app for adventure” which allows users to track their route and share it on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

The app, which launched last year on Google Play and the Apple App Store, has so far been downloaded over 500,000 times on each platform. While the basic version is free, a “premium” version offering more detailed maps is available for £9.99.

The software relies on GPS technology, found within smartphones rather than a mobile connection, to work. This means users can use ViewRanger’s maps – the company works with guidebook creators, hotels and map and trail agencies to exchange data and create these – even while offline.

Co-founder Craig Wareham said the app consistently ranks as one of Google’s most highly rated. He said it stood out from other apps by successfully encouraging users of the free version to pay for upgrades.

Wareham told the judges: “We are successfully executing a ‘fremium’ model to be the top-earning health and fitness app on Google Play, and have been named one of the best apps of 2013 by Google Play.”

Fellow finalist RouteShoot also makes use of smartphones’ GPS capabilities, allowing businesses to track employee movements using live video recordings to increase productivity and monitor health and safety compliance.

Video logs
The software takes the form of an app which enables users to create video logs of their trips and to upload these onto a server so they can be viewed by employers. All routes are time and date stamped.

The Exeter-based company – which at the moment is purely B2B – already has some large clients. In the US, for example, oil pipeline contractors Willbros has paid $75,000 (£44,900) to install the software on 480 employees’ smartphones. In the UK, however, the product will be priced at £10,000 per 10 users, co-founder Gary Wilson said.

Willbros uses RouteShoot to record employee surveys of pipes, and land, which may need to be dug up. Since installing it late last year the company has seen a 20 per cent increase in productivity, Wilson said.

RouteShoot is also working with a civil engineering company called Skanska Balfour Beatty, which is working on improvements to the M25 and M27 motorways. It will use RouteShoot on a daily basis to record any issues with construction works, to help it defend against actions from third parties for injury and damage.

Wilson said: “Using video in our industry isn’t new. Companies in the UK operate multi-million pound survey machines. These guys book their vehicles out for £5-£10 per kilometre, you could spend £140,000 straight off. And you can only do it once a year.

“What we’ve done, and disrupted the market in doing so, is to take everything they can provide and squeeze it into a smartphone and say ‘You can do the same thing yourself’.”

Moveable 3D
Obvious Engineering’s Seene application allows users to capture moveable 3D images.

The software works by capturing an initial image and then, as the user moves their phone around, a 3D model is built up. The two are combined to create what the company calls a “scene”.

It also allows users to share images via the app or via a link to a web page which is generated as each picture is taken.

Launched in October last year, the app is currently available for free on the Apple App Store, where it has received almost one million downloads.

Based in London, the company is looking to meet with potential strategic and fund investors while in Barcelona.

Full article in Mobile News issue 558 (February 24, 2014).

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