In our final interview of the series, we talk to Sasha Afanasieva from Blubel; the satnav for cyclists.
How did Blubel come about?
When I first started cycling in London. I was getting lost, finding myself at busy junctions, risking dropping my phone, and thought – how can we make it easier to cycle? It’s a great way to travel around London but it feels as though there are obstacles, quite literally, on every corner.
I started having conversations with cyclists – and it really came about from there.
When was this?
I started thinking about it three years ago. The idea was to create a bicycle bell that acts as a satnav, connected to an app. And three years on, we’re about to start shipping the product!
How does it work?
You pop in your destination on the app, put your phone away and lights on the bell flash up to guide you in the right direction. So we can collect data on the type of routes that are most popular, common deviations – and any time the user rings the bell, we can ask them about what happened, to get a better understanding of the road network.
Plus there are sensors in the bell that can alert us to unusual movement, to help spot potholes etc. So it’s more than hardware; it’s a data business too.
Talk us through the product development process.
I wasn’t sure what the product would look like or exactly how it would work, so I was reluctant to give a vague brief to an experienced engineer. I got Arduino [an open source electronics learning programme] and taught myself in my spare time.
The first prototype was built in a yoghurt pot; I started building it two years ago. Then I tested it with cyclists to refine it and started working with designers to develop the aesthetics.
So, having mastered hardware, was the next step to teach yourself how to build the app?
No, no (laughs). Our CTO, Alessio, led on the app.
Where did the name come from?
It’s still a bicycle bell – so I wanted that to be clear - but it has the Bluetooth connection, hence Blubel. Plus, the B is designed like a set of handlebars, which I’m quite proud of as a design idea.
Who makes up the Blubel team?
At the moment, it’s just Alessio and myself. But we have a great network that we pull in from. We work with a design agency supporting the industrial development process, and freelancers too. We also have support from the European Space Agency (ESA) and Catapults, and Nitrous and TfL.
Every hire at a startup is critical. How did you find the right CTO?
I was talking to a lot of people and was introduced to Alessio through a friend. His background is in app and software development, so he was perfect for what we needed at Blubel.
How has the business grown?
It’s really ramped up in the last 12 months. We’ve secured funding from Innovate UK and won the IBM Smart Cities challenge. A year ago we also joined the European Space Agency (ESA) business innovation programme, so that’s helped with tech support, funding and generally navigating the diverse tech ecosystem.
Last year we also ran a Kickstarter campaign, and hit our target. We’re now continuing to put finishing touches to the product itself, and looking to launch in a few months.
What does the future look like for Blubel?
We are on a real mission to make cycling very easy, to the point that everyone is cycling if they can. There’s a huge potential to make our cities better.
And it’s about more than having a product – for us, it’s about creating a community of cyclists.
From a public sector perspective, we want to help local authorities and councils to improve their infrastructure to make it easier for more people to cycle, and connect with other road user groups.
How have you found being on the Nitrous programme?
I haven’t seen any other programmes that work with public organisations, so that’s been great. It’s been an interesting experience. There’s a real mix of business learning, mentoring, market validation sessions, and also helping to navigate the public sector procurement side of things.
The most exciting thing for us is the potential partnerships that we have been able to access, through exposure to a wider network of organisations.
How are you finding startup life?
In a startup, everything you do is quite new. It’s really fun; you’re always learning and picking up new things.
I used to work with tech startups helping them with business development and fundraising, but for later stage startups. So it’s interesting to see how it’s different for us, as a very new business. And to be on the inside.
How does the future look?
Once we have the product out, it’s all systems go. We can then scale up.
In terms of structure, we have a strong base of existing relationships and a flexible team, which is optimal. Blubel is current available for pre-order, and we’re continuing to expand ahead of expectations. It’s a pretty exciting time.
Blubel is in the April 2017 cohort of the Nitrous programme.