SME Spotlight: Fotech, an MK:5G Accelerator SME whose innovative sound-sensing technology makes smart cities a reality
Fotech is part of our MK:5G Accelerator SME cohort. We set out on a mission to ask Fotech’s team a few questions about what it means to be a successful business that continues deploying innovative technology across the existing and new markets globally for more than a decade. In this short Q&A session, we spoke to Chris Shannon, Fotech’s Chief Executive Officer, who shared his thoughts on the journey to success, the effects of the global pandemic and the future of innovative technology in smart cities.
Fotech was founded in 2008 and acquired by BP Launchpad in 2019. Currently, the company employs around 100 people. Fotech creates a fibreoptic sound-sensing technology used in the energy sector. The technology detects movement around buildings and critical infrastructure, and monitors pipeline leaks, which not only helps to protect the assets from theft but also minimises the impact of oil leaks on the environment. Today, Fotech has systems in more than 25 countries and monitors oil pipelines, international borders, airports, railways and roads in Latin America, Asia Pacific, Europe and North America.
What was the founding idea behind Fotech?
The fibreoptic sound-sensing technology originated during fibre-sensing research at the University of Surrey. Back then, one of the key problems with fibre sensing was the vast amounts of data. For many years, computers were not capable of processing that level of data. What finally made it possible was not just the growth in the computing processing power and the widespread use of cloud storage, but also edge computing devices that bring computation and data storage closer to the location where it is needed to improve response times and save bandwidth.
At the time, the founders of Fotech ran a company that monitored temperature using optical fibre in oil wells. It became clear to them that the new sound-sensing technology developed at the University of Surrey could bring a wealth of value to the oil and gas industry. It was about the vision and the role that this technology can have in reimagining energy, realising carbon neutral future as well as delivering values to smart cities. It can provide operating efficiencies to wind farms, solar farms, oil pipelines. This prospect brought a lot of excitement about the next phase of the company.
Is it easy for a start-up to bring new technology to the market?
I’ve been in the tech start-up business for 30 years. Bringing new technology to the market is all I’ve ever done. Of course, everyone needs to work hard to sell, but, in my experience, for someone who’s new to this, the main three things to concentrate on are vision, focus and resilience.
When someone starts an innovative business, they must have a clear idea of what value their innovative technology will bring to the market. However, a degree of flexibility is needed when by the time the business idea has been formulated, the market needs have changed. The businesses that become successful are the ones that listen to the market and adapt their technology offering, even if it’s not what they were imagining when they first set out developing that technology.
On the other hand, in the early days of a start-up, when you just want some sales and finally manage to get the cash flow running through the business, it’s easy to be pulled in many conflicting directions. With each potential client on the phone, you can end up pivoting every day. And that’s damaging. So, it’s important to be agile but also keep the focus on what’s important.
What makes Fotech stand out from its competitors?
We have a unique combination of expertise in fibreoptic sensing, machine learning, artificial intelligence and cloud computing. And if you think of a smart city, the fibreoptic cables which we use as sensors are already in the ground and can be utilised for our purposes without having to build completely new infrastructure. All we have to do is connect to those fibreoptic networks and we’re ready to collect and utilise the information to improve the flow of traffic through a city, provide security, and, no less important, help protect the environment.
I’m fascinated by the concept of smart cities. The main feature of the smart city is the ability to use real-time digital information to inform decisions. Either immediate or long-term planning decisions that ultimately make that city flow better and make the value of the operations of those cities be delivered efficiently.
Tell us about a Fotech project you’re proud of.
Back in 2012, we had the first installation of sensors on an oilfield pipeline in India. We were trying to make a market at a time when the technology was still a novelty. In this scenario, you need a client who shares your vision and has faith in your product. In India, it took us six months to get the technology working in 70 kilometres of pipeline. It ended up being a huge success and the system is working 24/7 for nine years to date. In addition our technology is an industry standard in India, and we have scored an award for innovation from the American Society for Mechanical Engineers along the way. So, we’re proud that we were the first company to have kicked off the deployment of this technology in India.
How did Fotech respond to the challenges of Covid-19 ?
The Covid-19 Pandemic allowed us to shift the focus away from selling and toward the wellbeing of our team. With this attitude, we have been able to achieve a sense of what’s important. As a result, everybody’s work and life balance became better and we were able to get as much, if not more, done in the same amount of time. Covid-19 has changed our values and made us realise how we appreciate people in our team.
Another positive thing one can envision resulting from this crisis is a chance to improve our carbon footprint. I don’t think we’ll ever go back to working in the office full time. Reducing the need to commute can result in saving tonnes of CO2 emissions. The amount that we used to travel as an international business has been adjusted exponentially. My own personal carbon footprint, just in minimising air travel over the last year, has been drastically reduced. I think we’ll use these lessons to ensure that it doesn’t get back up to the same level as before.
The fast development of Machine Learning and AI also made us rethink the need to fly teams of specialists across the globe, and allowed us to start installing our systems remotely. The automated setup certainly improved things for us as well our customers and reduced carbon footprint of getting this stuff done.
There are of course horrible impacts of the pandemic, which makes this a tragedy of huge proportions. But we were to look at the lessons learned and possible long-term benefits, I think there are many.
What will you be working on during the MK:5G Accelerator?
The rollout of 5G in the UK will lead to an even greater density of the fibreoptic cables, ensuring better connectivity between the 5G base stations. Deployment of those extra fibreoptic cables means that now we have billions of sensors available to us. The Milton Keynes MK:5G Programme offers a fantastic opportunity for us to trial our product, watch how a city breathes, learn how the traffic and crowds move, and how we can react in real time to improve flows for everybody.
We’re already working with Connected Places Catapult within their Simulate accelerator, a collaborative innovation partnership between Staffordshire County Council, Amey and Connected Places Catapult, In this accelerator, we’re connecting to a road junction in Staffordshire, in the vicinity of a primary school, and using the fibreoptic cables that exist along the roads to monitor traffic flows, congestion and queue length. We feed that information into dynamically controlled traffic signals, which, in conjunction with pollution sensors, ensures that we minimise the congestion and air pollution in the close proximity of the school, particularly around the times of drop off and pick up. We hope to be able to incorporate sensing-as-a-service into a wider city grid.
ABOUT MK:5G ACCELERATOR
MK:5G Accelerator is an innovation and business growth programme for start-ups and SMEs, is focused on four key innovation challenges in Mobility Data, Health & Wellbeing, Low Carbon Energy and Energy Data. The programme is part of the wider MK:5G project, funded by its collaborating partners and South East Midlands Local Enterprise Partnership (SEMLEP) via its Local Growth Fund programme. The MK:5G Accelerator is delivered by Connected Places Catapult and True Altitude.