Startups revel in opportunity to hear feedback from industry experts
Across the two days of Highways UK, the Intelligent Infrastructure Hub offered shortlisted organisations an opportunity to present their ideas under cross-examination from a panel of industry experts and asset-owning clients, reports Antony Oliver.
Digital technology is changing all of our worlds - and creating massive opportunities across the highways and construction sectors. From BIM to advanced data analytics to offsite manufacture; sensors, IOT, drones and data management; computational fluid dynamics and artificial intelligence.
Technology and intelligent infrastructure is helping to boost efficiency and ramp productivity but also, perhaps more importantly, presents professionals with new solutions and new opportunities - opportunities to do things differently and to transform the entire process of infrastructure design, construction, operation and maintenance.
I had the pleasure of moderating the Costain Intelligent Infrastructure Hub (IIH) at last week's Highways UK. Although I'm biased, it was unquestionably a highlight of an exceptional event.
Conceived in 2016 as a showcase for the application and integration of new and largely digital technologies within the roads infrastructure sector, the Hub demonstrably shifted gear in 2017 with the introduction of its challenge-based solutions approach.
Across the two days of Highways UK, shortlisted organisations presented their ideas and were cross-examined by a panel of industry experts and asset-owning clients in a Dragon's Den style showdown.
The theatre in reality represented the culmination of a six-month process. Back in late Spring, Highways UK convened an influential and well-connected IIH steering group which invited asset owners to identify areas where new "intelligent" infrastructure (intentionally a loosely defined term but effectively a short hand for innovation involving digital and communications technologies with the potential for economic, social and environmental benefit).
This produced six challenges set by Highways England, Transport Scotland, England's Economic Heartland, Transport for the North, Bristol City and London's Air Quality Taskforce. Next the IIH invited innovative technology based solutions to these challenges through Highways UK's stakeholders but importantly reached out beyond its normal sphere of influence thanks to the efforts of Innovate UK and the Knowledge Transfer Network, who oversaw and managed the "competition" element.
This resulted in some 50 entries, which the judges whittled down to the 18-strong shortlist presented at Highways UK.
Entries fell into three categories: "national" focusing on safety; "regional" spanning real-time travel information and management across roads authorities; and "urban" covering road network management and air quality. You'll find further details on the shortlist within this 9-page pdf, extracted from the event guide.
Across all categories it was evident that the judges were impressed by the scale of ambition of the contenders - and their drive to make a difference. But in any competition there have to be winners and our congratulations go to:
2017 Intelligent Infrastructure Challenge Winner
Valerann won the overall challenge with its innovative technology that turns road-studs into smart connected devices, making ITS accessible to roads that could not afford it till now.
Regional Award Winner
Elgin and TomTom won the Regional Award with its Pro Real Time Traffic software which correlates the cause of traffic jams against planned and unplanned disruptions such as roadworks, public events and incidents, which the judges considered to have an immediate impact reducing congestion on the sub-national network.
Urban Award Winner
Gaia Group UK won the Urban award with its Solatainer, a 20ft container-mounted solar panel that provides an alternative to a conventional diesel generator with silent, emission free power.
National Award Winner
University of Birmingham won the National award with its non-invasive and self-contained road surface temperature sensor which the judges felt would have an immediate impact on their ability to better control their gritting routines in the winter. The judges in this category commented that all of the ideas presented were worthy of being embraced and invested in to transform the UK transport network. They were also struck by the passion demonstrated by the contenders - particularly the practical products such as the Fit2Go tyre pressure monitor and the walking and dancing Robocone, both of which were driven by small teams of totally committed people.
So what does winning actually mean? Last year, Vivacity Labs won the inaugural IIH Award for its machine learning approach to gathering data on how road spaces are being used from video feeds.
As part of this year's awards ceremony we asked Peter Mildon, Vivacity's Chief Operating Officer, to give an update on what had happened over the last twelve months. He told the audience: "At the time we were were about a year old as a company, and had been running a number of trials for clients deploying prototype hardware which ran the software locally.
"Winning validated to our founding team that we were on to something that the highways market space both wanted and needed. The award gave us credibility with potential clients including Highways England, employees and investors and kicked off a year which saw the company almost triple in size, win large contracts, raise an investment round and set up industry collaboration."
And according to Michael Dan Vardi, co-founder of this year's overall winner Valerann, the company has already benefited from being part of the Intelligent Infrastructure Hub Challenge. He told me:
"The decision to enter was not an easy one. On the one hand, we really wanted the exposure, on the other hand we were not sure that we were "ready". We took the decision to go for it because we knew that Highways UK would be the best opportunity we could get to validate our work with industry experts. The fact that we knew our company would be scrutinised by leading figures in the industry meant we had to dedicate a lot of time to make sure our story, our message and our value proposition were crystal clear. This process alone was worth our participation in the challenge.
"Getting the opportunity to hear feedback on our product by experts in our field is also of massive value. Engaging with potential customers and partners is very rare event for start-ups doing RoadTech. In the IIH we got plenty of opportunities to do so, both during the pitch and in the designated exhibition space. This has already helped us sharpen our message and learn what the market values more and what it values less. I cannot stress enough the importance of such exposure.
"It will take us time to appreciate the full impact of winning the challenge. However, we are already now seeing some immediate effects. More organisations are looking to engage with us and it is evident that industry players are willing to spend more time discussing future collaborations. We are very excited to see how these develop.
"Personally," Michael continued: "I would want to share that being a start-up in the roads industry is tough: for good reason the level of proof required is incredibly high and processes take time. These things make it much harder for a start-up to succeed in this space. Winning this competition showed us that we are on the right track, what we are doing provides substantial value to road owners and to the communities that use our roads. This achievement is something we celebrate now, and something we will recall when things are tough.
"The Intelligent Infrastructure Challenge is one of the more important mile stones in our start-up to date."
Congratulations once again to the winners Valerann, Gaia Group, Elgin and TomTom, and the University of Birmingham and to everyone who contributed to this amazing process. Our thanks too to Costain as the gold sponsor along with silver sponsors Atkins, Inrix, Thales, Innovate UK, the Knowledge Transfer Network and the Transport Systems Catapult, the IIH steering group and supporters.
Thanks to the following who contributed to the judging process: Daniel Ruiz, Chair, Transport Technology Forum (IIH steering group chair); James Bulleid, Divisional Technology Director - Infrastructure Division, Costain; Rachel Skinner, Head of Development, WSP and Vice President, ICE; Mark Garrity, Strategy, Sales and Marketing Director, Thales Ground Transportation Systems UK; Adrian Ulisse, Business Development Director, INRIX; Mike Wilson, Chief Engineer, Highways England; Paul Doney, Director of Innovation and Continuous Improvement, Highways England; Annette Pass, Head of Innovation, Highways England; Hugh Gillies, Director of Trunk Roads, Transport Scotland; Martin Tugwell, Programme Director, England's Economic Heartland; James Golding Graham, Innovation Lead Officer, England's Economic Heartland; Peter Molyneux, Strategic Road Network Director, TfN; Barney Smith, representing Bristol City
Antony Oliver is a freelance editorial consultant, former editor of New Civil Engineer and launch editor of Infrastructure Intelligence.