IoT Solutions Group was founded three and a half years ago by Chief Executive Emma Mahy and CTO Neal Forse. As two network professionals excited by the potential of the Internet of Things (IoT) they set out to deliver essential services more efficiently and costeffectively for the benefit of individuals, service providers and the wider community. From the outset, one of IoT Solutions Group’s guiding principles has been Tech For Good – a belief that technology, like the company’s new in-home sensor for independent living (see box), can make a positive difference to people’s lives. Solutions that save time and money as well have obvious appeal for service providers in local government, healthcare, facilities management, waste management and other sectors. Today, IoT Solutions Group solves remote monitoring challenges for more than 40 organisations both directly and in partnership with System Integrators (SIs) like Agilisys and CGI. With recent seed investment, the addition of a new Sales Director and Marketing Executive to its nine-strong team and the development of its first B2C solution, IoT Solutions Group is beginning an exciting new phase in its development. James Goulding finds out more from Chief Executive Emma Mahy
Technology Reseller (TR): What inspired you and Neal Forse to set up IoT Solutions Group in 2018?
Emma Mahy (EM): Before setting up the business, Neal Forse and I worked for a Low Powered Wide Area Network (LPWAN) operator that was building out the Sigfox network here in the UK. I had 2,000 gateways to find homes for all over the country and a small budget to pay for roof rental on the highest buildings I could find. My first port of call was councils and housing associations, and in meeting after meeting I heard the same thing: ‘I totally get the need for IoT, I understand the value, but where do I go to get the sensing devices, where do I go to get the connectivity, where do I go to get the software analytics and the dashboarding?’ The feedback was the same everywhere: ‘We don’t want to keep going to multiple vendors to fulfil our needs’.
We knew, as well, that the suppliers we were working with quite often sat within just one section of the value proposition, so there was clearly a gap in the market for an end-to-end IoT solution provider. Some of the big players professed that they could deliver that but at a cost of millions of pounds, which was not what councils wanted. We went to a Sigfox conference in Miami and decided that there was a real opportunity here and that we just had to go for it. Two weeks after returning from the States, I resigned, and the business was born.
TR: In your blog you say the fragmented nature of IoT solutions at the time was causing an ‘adoption crisis’. What were some of the major obstacles for end users and do they still exist?
EM: The biggest problem is retrieving the data from the IoT device. To send the information, the device has to connect to a Low Powered Wide Area Network. There are three main ones for IoT – narrowband IoT (NB-IoT), provided by Vodafone; Sigfox; and LoRaWAN – none of which have complete coverage across the UK. Vodafone is working hard at completing this network coverage, but it is taking time and many system upgrades to make it happen. That was hindrance number one.
Secondly, because IoT has been a buzzword and people are always nervous about taking that first step into a new world of technology, there have been multiple proofs of concept and pilot schemes. In a lot of these, IoT companies have provided equipment and solutions at too high a price. The remit with IoT is to deploy devices in their thousands, not in their tens, so you have to ensure that what you are delivering is at a price point that makes the total cost of ownership (TCO) and the business case stack up. When councils introduce technology in place of an existing service or person, they have to demonstrate value.
As a result of these obstacles, there have been very few early adopters. However, the value of these solutions is now being recognised, and deployments at scale are starting to happen. What we are finding, particularly in the adult social care market, is that there is now a cascade effect: when you have deployments of devices in the field, you have data you can show to people and outcomes you can demonstrate, giving people the confidence to adopt.
TR: What are the main constituent parts of an end-to-end solution?
EM: For an end-to-end solution to work, you need a sensing device to fulfil its brief, whether it’s monitoring how full a bin is or the temperature in a room or whether a parking space is in use. That information is then relayed via one of the LPWAN networks.
We mainly use NB-IoT because there is no onus on the customer to provide wifi or mobile connectivity. This brings the cost down and means the customer doesn’t have to manage a communications network, which is quite an asset.
One of our strengths is that we are network-agnostic. Many companies only produce devices that run on the Sigfox network, whereas all our devices can function on any of the three LPWAN networks. So, if a customer has a device in Birmingham, say, and doesn’t have NB-IoT coverage but does have Sigfox, the device will talk through Sigfox.
The network allows data from sensors to be received by our cloud platform, where it is analysed and visualised on a dashboard. For example, in the case of parking bay sensors deployed in a residential parking zone, a map will show the location of every single parking space and whether that space is empty or occupied. You can then drill down into quite a lot of granular detail for further analysis.
A sensor in each parking bay senses when a car parks above it. It then detects whether there is a dedicated tag in the car, identifying it as belonging to a resident authorised to park in that zone. If a non-authorised vehicle parks in the resident’s parking zone and a ticket isn’t purchased, then an alert is sent out to civil enforcement officers, such as ‘Unauthorised vehicle in bay 24 on Bernard Street, go and investigate’.
TR: So, your solution can also be integrated with other systems.
EM: Yes, people can either use our solution or we can integrate with thirdparty systems. For example, our parking solution can pull in data from pay and display machines, and, working in partnership with Ringo, we can offer a complete cashless parking solution. In adult social care deployments, we can integrate into the Doro alarm system for out of hours cover. During the day, councilemployed adult social care team members can use the system to monitor the status of their residents. Then, when they clock off at 5 p.m., the system can automatically switch over to Doro.
TR: Do you use generic sensors imported from China, say, or do you manufacture your own?
EM: We design and manufacture all our own hardware sensing devices in the UK. The only thing we manufacture outside the UK is plastic boxes, which are made in Hong Kong. Our main manufacturing resource is in rural Dorset, which you would not expect, but they make smart meters, for example, so they are a switched-on bunch. We provide the design, and they build to our specifications. By building our own system, we can ensure that every element integrates seamlessly and delivers the desired outcomes.
Manufacturing in the UK has worked well for us. It has been much easier from a management perspective and our customers like the fact that the solution is home-grown and supporting the UK economy. Everything from manufacturing to cloud hosting is UK-based, which also benefits security and issues around GDPR and dealing with personal data.
TR: How many customers do you now have?
EM: We have about 40 in various forms, with some small deployments that I would say are at the pilot stage. We ran a pilot scheme with Biffa and Northern Rail to deploy sensors in bins in railway stations. We are now on their approved supplier list for smart bin technology, which they are looking to push down other avenues. We also recently completed a trial with Biffa along Bournemouth seafront where they had a problem with people throwing disposable barbecues in bins. Embers that were still smouldering would cause bin fires; once a truck caught fire and another time a storage depot went up in flames.
There are many bin sensors out there, but ours will tell you how full the bin is; it will tell you if the lid has been left open; it will tell you if someone has kicked it over, and it will tell you the internal temperature. We won’t tell you your bin is on fire, but we will say this bin in this location is much hotter than another 100 feet away. From our trials, we have discovered that we can also detect if someone gets in a bin. This sounds funny but can be exceptionally dangerous if the bin is emptied by a collection truck.
So, we have a base product that we can add elements to, delivering far more granular data and added value.
TR: Is IoT adoption mainly driven by cost savings or are there other considerations?
EM: There are multiple drivers for IoT adoption. In local government, pretty much everyone’s budgets are being cut, but they still have many statutory services to deliver. A council, for example, has to monitor its properties for legionella compliance. This includes auditing the water supply, checking the water is at the right temperature and is not at risk of growing legionella bacteria. Historically, this has always been a manual task – a staff member with a clipboard has to go from location to location, turn a tap on, stick a thermometer under the water and wait until it comes to the right temperature. You are wasting time, burning fuel to travel around and are pouring hot water down the drain.
We can automate all of that: we can monitor the status of every single point that staff would have checked and only issue an alert if there is a problem. That saves costs and generates efficiencies. One of my colleagues always says we are looking to put that person with the clipboard out of business. If a facilities management team or an adult social care team can offload a very manual task into an automated system, they can use their people for something much more beneficial.
TR: Do you have any figures on the sorts of savings people are making?
EM: We analysed the data from the bin monitoring trial in Bournemouth, which showed a saving of 52% on the bin collection spend.
TR: How do people pay for your solutions? Is there an OPEX option to reduce upfront costs?
EM: Yes there is. We do not charge a CAPEX cost for the hardware but supply every element of the solution for a small monthly fee. We provide the hardware, the connectivity and the software analytics, all for a fixed price.
Not selling the hardware makes the solution more affordable for a local authority and helps us be more sustainable. We have just signed a three-year contract with Watford Borough Council for legionella and emergency lighting monitoring, including continual monitoring of device function. If we receive signs that a unit is failing or its battery is declining, we will automatically ship out a replacement. The failing unit will come back to us for analysis and then to the factory for refurbishment.
TR: You have already mentioned how you work with system integrators and enable your solutions to be integrated with third party solutions. Are partnerships important for your growth and product development?
EM: In the past, there was the attitude that a company could do it all. We have found working in collaboration with people helps deliver the optimum solution for your customer; your customer will then be happy and will stay with you. Don’t profess to be able to do everything if you can’t.
The system integration work is going well for us, and while we own the IP on our products, which is a nice place to be, we recognise that we will sometimes need a product that is not within our portfolio. For example, the emergency lighting solution that we offer is not ours, having been developed by a Dublin-based company over the last four years. They have gone through all the testing and the compliance so we know that it works; why would we try to replicate what they are doing. We should work in partnership with them and have solutions that are proven to work.
When we started the business, we probably thought we could do tens and tens of different verticals, but when you drill down into it, you realise you are better off having a smaller range, doing them really, really well, and working with key partners to bring in additional capabilities.
TR: What’s next for IoT Solutions Group as a business?
EM: Last year, after the first Covid lockdown, we received seed funding for the business which changed things dramatically. It meant we could grow the team and had far more capacity.
At that stage, we operated in stealth mode and were starting to raise our heads above the parapet. Now, we are in the position where we are getting client recommendations, which is great. We have got proven products, are growing recognition in this sector and have got some big names that we are working with, all of which helps to validate us as a business.
To date, we have always worked in B2B, but with our adult social care product, we are being pushed quite rapidly down the B2C route. The ability to monitor an elderly parent and see that they are up and about and being active at an affordable price point is attractive to individuals, not just care providers. We are getting a lot of interest from people saying this is just what I need for my Mum or Dad, but shifting from a B2B model to a B2C one is a whole other story.
IoT Solutions Group is increasingly well known for remote monitoring car park spaces, rubbish bins, lighting, water pipes and other physical objects. Its technology can also be used to monitor human activity and therefore enable older or vulnerable people to live independently for longer.
It has developed an ‘in-home sensor’, code-named Doris, that discreetly monitors the physical wellbeing of older or vulnerable people by detecting activity in the kitchen (i.e. when they are making a cup of tea or preparing a meal). Should behaviour patterns change, it will send automated alerts to an Independent Living Officer or a family member.
“The beauty of the solution is that it doesn’t need any power, it doesn’t need the internet, it doesn’t need to collect any personal information,” explains IoT Solutions Group Chief Executive Emma Mahy. “It arrives through the letterbox, you take it out of its jiffy bag and put it in the kitchen, and it just works. The system maps that person’s routine within the first 48 hours – it knows that they have a cup of tea at 8 a.m., lunch at 1 p.m. and go to bed at 10 p.m., for example. If they deviate from that, it sends an alert: ‘Your Mum’s not up yet; maybe give her a call’.”
In this way, the sensor acts as an early intervention system, providing peace of mind for carers of elderly relatives and the possibility of significant efficiency savings for the public sector and commercial care providers, for example by reducing the requirement for scheduled appointments.
It can also save lives as Sutton Council discovered when it deployed 100 of the sensors in Sutton Housing Partnership properties. In one case, within five days of the sensor being installed in the home of a lady in her 90s, Independent Living Officers (ILOs) were alerted of a dramatic decrease in activity levels. A family member was contacted and found their relative lying on the sofa, unwell and unable to move. Even though she wore a pendant alarm around her neck, she had not used it and it was only because of ‘Doris’ that her carers knew anything was wrong.
In another case, within a week of the solution being installed, ILOs received an alert of a drop in activity levels for a resident who was not due to receive a visit for another six days. This alert prompted an emergency visit to the property, where the elderly resident was found lying on the floor with a broken hip, unable to reach her emergency alarm.