We catch up with Emil Hewage and Anna Jordan from Alchera Technologies, and find out what shopping malls and buses have in common.
How did Alchera Technologies begin?
Emil: Two and a half years ago, we saw some big transport infrastructure projects going on, and wanted to help develop technology to support these. Looking specifically at railways and train stations, we realised that real time data capture and interpretation was being missed.
We were fascinated by the growth of mobility technologies and thought that we could create the missing piece of the puzzle.
How did you go from there to where you are today?
Emil: We started as a couple of Cambridge and UCL researchers, and tech engineers who all came together to work on a problem we liked. We had a laser-like focus on the technology – getting that right.
The next stage was to bring on people with infrastructure experience, to help shape our roadmap and start commercialising our product.
Once we picked the core tech architecture we wanted to build, we put tech into one box, and in the other started to strategise about where we wanted to be, and how we were going to get there.
Now, each day, our tech team does a better and better job of interpreting real time data.
Tell us about your team.
Emil: We have a team of computer vision and machine learning engineers in Cambridge and a commercial and management team London. We push and pull our capacity as we need, depending on prototypes we’re developing and live deployments.
Anna: Emil is one of the original founders, and works with our tech team based in Cambridge.
Emil: They’re computer vision and machine learning engineers who lead development of our platform and experiment with new AI and prediction capabilities too, so it’s an exciting place to be.
Anna: I run operations and delivery of projects as part of the core commercial and management team that helps bring our tech to market through products that are tailored for our customers. I work closely with Ed, another member of our core team, who brings 30+ years of industry experience and connects us with the biggest firms in the space.
In terms of focus, is this where you thought the business would be today?
Emil: We’ve been through different phases. As advanced mobility companies have evolved, we’ve shifted to building underlying tech for companies and local authorities to use themselves. That’s not something we saw in the beginning, but it’s a great place to be now.
Transport was clearly the inspiration for the business. Is this the sector you want to stay in?
Emil: Definitely. You see so much uninformed decision making – just look at packed tubes and relatively empty buses at rush hour in London. What we can do is provide more information so that the transport network – whether it’s a bus manager being able to coordinate different buses better to reduce congestion, or managing passenger flow through stations – can make better decisions.
But retail is the traditional space for this tech and we also have some relevance there. Through working on key projects, we found that there were similar themes in mass transit, road networks and multi-use sites, like shopping malls. All of them ultimately involve moving large numbers of people.
These were the fields we became more well-known in, so they became our main areas of interest.
You’re based in Cambridge and London. How does that work?
Anna: I’m based in London and the tech team is in Cambridge so yes, there’s a physical distance a lot of the time. But with technology, we’re always connected. What I think is really great is that both sides of the business play a big role in keeping on top of market developments. And this means that the whole business is in a strong position to stay at the forefront of changes, and bring our vision to life.
What does the future look like for Alchera?
Emil: This is still an early industry – there’s so much scope for what it will look like in the future. I’d argue that, except for retail, no one uses data to the extent they think they will in five years.
Data and technology is getting faster cheaper and more accurate, and this is going to enable next generation smart city systems to be established. Our technology can sit underneath this whole process and means that a smart city future is a bright one for us.
Anna: We have such a broad capability and are already finding ourselves in high level conversations with CEOs and local authorities, which is exciting. And we’re only at an early stage.
How did the name come about?
Emil: I wish there was a better story… When you start a startup these days you are told you really just need a name around which to build your company's identity.
Alchera is unknown widely but is also an aboriginal word that talks about a virtual or imagined representation of a landscape. The founding team have all spent a large part of their careers on projects across Australia so the name seemed to be fitting moniker for the tech we would be developing.
What’s the most exciting project you’ve worked on so far?
Emil: We’ve recently been given access to road traffic information in a large country – initially just a small part of the dataset. So we’ve been chipping away at the data and showing the client more and more of what we can do. And as they see the real benefits, we get access to more data.
Anna: It’s a virtuous cycle, a self-fulfilling prophecy.
What stage is the business at now?
Anna: With the technology well-developed, it’s exciting to be building partnerships now. I’m quite new to the business but already, in such a short time, we’ve made so much progress with generating and converting leads.
Emil: Obviously, we’ll always be working on the tech side of things; the product is never really finished. But yes, we’re now powering ahead with commercialising our current platforms as they are starting to show some real traction.
It feels like this is a good time for you to be on the Nitrous programme.
Anna: It’s great for several reasons. Tech is our strength, and now that we have this support to help us understand companies – potential clients and partners – we’re perfectly primed to grow fairly rapidly.
And from a team perspective, it’s a great ‘crash course’ in terms of getting to know everything we need to get our heads around.
Emil: And TfL is a flagship programme for us to engage with and potentially trial some ideas.
Market validation sessions are really important to us, for getting the market fit right and tightly defining projects.
Anna: We’re certainly on the programme at the right point in our lifecycle.
Alchera Technologies is in the April 2017 cohort of the Nitrous programme.