Treating people like complex machines
How Soter Analytics is capturing and analysing data that prevents human breakdown
Matthew Hart is CEO and Founder of Soter Analytics, who develop wearable health technology for the industrial workforce. The resources tech startup is a foundation member of CORE Innovation Hub, having been based at CORE since its opening in October 2016.
We recently caught up with Matthew to find out more about their SoterSpine™ solution, how they initially uncovered the industry problem, the challenges they have faced as a hardware startup and their plans for the future. Here’s what he had to say:
Can you briefly describe your industry solution and the problem it is solving?
I am busy working with our team at Soter Analytics to develop wearable health technology for the industrial workforce, 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 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 the worker on how to further reduce their injury risk.
How did Soter Analytics come about?
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.
How do you see the SoterSpine™ entering the supply chain? Does it have an application beyond the energy resources sector?
The SoterSpine™ will be available as a solution ready for easy implementation in July. We have three enablers for this. The first is that our solution works. On-site testing has delivered a reduction in the amount of high-risk movements by up to 70%, so we can make a big impact on the workplace. The second enabler is the low cost of the product, and the third is its easy implementation.
It’s effectively plug-and-play, so employees can set it up themselves in under a minute, clip it on and go.
The SoterSpine™ can be used in any industry where people undertake manual tasks. We have existing and potential customers from the mining industry, and trials scheduled in the energy industry in Western Australia and Queensland, and in the construction sector in Belgium and the United Kingdom.
How were you first introduced to CORE Innovation Hub?
I met Tamryn (CORE Innovation Hub CEO Tamryn Barker) at an event about 2 months before CORE even opened. I explained what we were doing and told her about our deal with Roy Hill.
We then discussed the concept behind CORE: fostering innovation and collaboration between industry, startups, government and innovators. The concept sounded fantastic and I saw the value in it instantly, as big companies often operate in their own little silos.
This is a way of overcoming that and actually coming together as an industry collective to drive innovation. Obviously, we were very interested in that and so that’s why we initially became members of CORE and the rest is history. We have been based at CORE since its opening in October 2016.
What do you see at the key benefits of CORE membership?
CORE exists because they recognised that there needs to be a space where resources-focused startups, operators and suppliers can get better access industry and unlock new insights and collaboration opportunities with them. This is part of the solution to address significant barriers to entry in the resources sector.
CORE assists by keeping us in the loop about everything that their Foundation Partners and other resources companies, government organisations and startups are doing. CORE hosts valuable events and programs that provide us with access to networking, funding and resourcing opportunities. Moreover, CORE’s proximity to all the big energy and resources organisations is a massive advantage.
CORE couldn’t be better located. Any time an event is held, whether it be a competition, a funding dinner or a pitch night, if it is outside the Perth CBD, people do not go.
Have there been any tangible outcomes that have resulted from your CORE membership?
Through CORE, we were introduced to their Foundation Partner NERA (National Energy Resources Australia). NERA is fantastic.
We received a $20,000 grant from them last year for our SoterSpine™ solution. The NERA Innovation Voucher allowed us to improve the design of the SoterSpine™ device hardware and get it ready for production.
Since then, NERA has held collaboration forum events at the Australasian Oil & Gas Exhibition (AOG 2018) a couple of weeks ago where we were sitting down with influencers from the big oil and gas companies, which was a very valuable experience.
We also became aware of Unearthed’s open innovation competitions and events through our CORE residence, as they are another Foundation Partner. We participated in their online competition Shield-X in April-May 2017 and won second prize, US$5000 and a 2-hour technology workshop, for our Soter Autonomous Safety Stop Device.
What are the major challenges you have faced as a hardware startup? How have you overcome them? 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, avoid building hardware 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 an Innovate UK grant, which involves us working with the University of Derby to validate our device. We have also received a Minerals Resources Institute of Western Australia (MRIWA) grant, a National Energy Resources Australia (NERA) 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.
We would like to thank Matthew Hart for taking the time to talk with us, sharing his Soter Analytics startup journey and the learnings he has gained along the way. We can’t wait to see what the next 6 months brings for this talented and ambitious team.
For more information about Soter Analytics, visit: http://www.soteranalytics.com/
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