We sit down with Abhishek Sen, co-founder of NumberEight and cover everything from music to finding a co-founder on Facebook.
Tell us about NumberEight – what do you do?
We’ve developed a piece of software that, using the sensors in smartphones and mobile devices, lets us map user journeys. And by doing this, we can understand movement through specific modes of transportation and therefore help to improve user experiences.
How did you come up with the idea?
I’ve always been interested in mobile – since 2006 I’ve worked at BlackBerry, Palm and Apple. My journey’s been from Canada to US to Netherlands for my Master’s and now here to the UK.
For my thesis, I wanted to do something interesting with understanding sensors in mobile devices. So I developed a piece of software that tailored music playlists to different contexts. Whether it was waking up in the morning, being in the library or working out, the music I was listening to was perfectly complementary. It was a lot of fun, because I was basically building it for myself. It ended up winning two awards (the 2015 IEEE CIS Mobile App Award and the 2016 Buma Music Meets Tech Award) and it’s really evolved from there.
That’s quite a switch. How did you go from music to transport as an area of focus?
I moved to the UK in April 2016 to join the Entrepreneur First (EF) programme. It was an interesting and useful experience to go through to help me test and refine the idea and although the relationship with my first co-founder didn’t work out, meeting entrepreneurs from all over the EU was another bonus of being on the programme. I’m still in touch with them, and I even live with three of them. It’s like living in an incubator – it’s a great environment to be in.
The great thing is that the software it can be applied to so many different contexts – but we found it was a boon and a curse at the same time. We had to invalidate a range of sectors including adtech, retail and healthcare, before we settled on transportation – because we see a real demand in this space.
What does the name mean?
I remember exactly how it happened. I was sitting in my dorm and my roommate and I started brainstorming a name – the previous name for the music app, ImpliciTunes, got rejected by the App Store because of the ‘I’ and ‘Tunes’ in the name. I wanted something completely unrelated to what I was building. My roommate suggested infinity, which I liked. But decided to flip the infinity symbol to get an '8'. The eight symbolises the infinite possibilities that sensors can give us. Quite cheesy, I know!
Since finishing EF, how has the business evolved?
In November, I met my co-founder Chris – through a former co-founder of mine, who posted about my search for a co-founder on Facebook. Chris is finishing his PhD in Cambridge and we’ve been working together across Cambridge and London. He’s got the academic experience as well as industry experience from working in real-time sensor data processing.
That’s actually something that I think is part of NumberEight’s DNA – that blend of academic and industry rigour. We work well together, he’s fast and it’s great to have someone who really gets it.
I’m currently leading on both the business and tech side at the moment, but the plan is for Chris to take on the CTO role once he’s finished studying, and lead the scale effort.
Are there any particularly exciting projects you’re currently working on?
Rail companies have to spend 1% of their funding on innovation or they lose it – and we’re currently speaking to two rail companies who are both very interested in working with us. The goal for them is to understand end-to-end customer journeys to improve the passenger experience and ultimately make rail exciting for passengers.
Our software can work within existing apps which means that scalability is a relatively straightforward process. So the fact that we’re getting closer to developing a use case is a big step for us.
How are you finding the Nitrous programme?
The programme itself is so well structured, which wasn’t unexpected – but the detail involved is definitely higher than I thought it might be.
And the opportunity to connect with TfL – which is already relatively advanced in understanding individual and aggregated modes of transport, but doesn’t have the end-to-end point of view required for transportation mapping – is invaluable. We want to understand how public sector organisations work, what challenges they face and map out how to best work with them and their partners in the future.
What does the future look like?
We see mobility and transportation as an area ripe for innovation so, for us, the future looks great! As devices advance we’ll have more capabilities available to embed into our product. And what’s more, the growth of the sharing economy, autonomous vehicles and moves to reduce congestion are all elements that play into our favour.
What is your long-term objective?
We want to drive mobility as a service (MaaS) – it’s so attuned to the millennial attitude of being mode agnostic. People don’t care what they use to get from A to B – all they want to do is get there, and get there as efficiently as possible. At this stage, we’re focusing on understanding specific modes but eventually we want to encompass all components.
It would be awesome if we can get to the point of MaaS like with cell phone plans – where we can buy a monthly package of movement, from rail, to road, to air…
NumberEight is in the April 2017 cohort of the Nitrous programme.