Jetting off to California to take part in an engineering competition run by the world’s richest man was an early career highlight for Hamish Geddes; but meeting Elon Musk of SpaceX four years ago was just the start of a promising journey for the young entrepreneur.
Lenz Labs accelerates innovation in rail
In 2019 the former Edinburgh University student – and two other co-founders of Lenz Labs – secured £30,000 through what was the ‘Transport – Technology Research and Innovation Grants’ programme (now TRIG) delivered by Connected Places Catapult for the Department for Transport.
Their funding was used to develop technology based on the principles of electromagnetism found in emerging ‘hyperloop’ transportation systems (the focus of the university’s Californian trip) to improve a train’s traction on existing rail lines.
Since receiving the TRIG funding, Hamish and team have switched their attention to creating predictive maintenance software for railway tracks in the UK.
“Our grant through the Catapult was the first funding we received, and really kicked things off for us as a company,” says Hamish. “We looked to take hyperloop technology to the railways, and the funding allowed us to start doing that. But after speaking with rail representatives, we decided to build data analytics software to predict where seasonal disruption could occur on the network, so maintenance teams can plan track cleaning accordingly.
Hamish says the support of the TRIG programme helped Lenz Labs to progress through the Rail Industry Readiness Levels with its technology and demonstrate its systems on a miniature railway near Leicester. This led to a large scale test on a heritage train operating in Scotland.
Despite the challenges of developing its technology during the pandemic, the company managed to begin testing on the main rail network and secured its first contract with Network Rail two summers ago. Recently, the company has been working to introduce its predictive maintenance system to routes in the west of England.
“It can be challenging for small companies like ours to break into the rail sector, as there are several established players involved in large packages of work,” he says. “But the railways need innovation and that is where firms like us can help. It is nice to be in a position to help drive change.”
Hamish advises other SMEs to get involved with as many working groups as they can; in his case listening to the needs of railway maintenance engineers. “The most valuable thing is to talk to users; and we found they were happy to have us along to meetings,” he says. “You learn so much listening to the people you are trying to help; it helps build a very good picture of how a sector works.”
Hamish portrait: Pawel Tichoniuk