See Sense, a look into the future of cycling

I’m a huge fan of See Sense and their intelligent lights. I consider them a vital piece of safety equipment, particularly when commuting, but they’re pretty good all year round given that their so adjustable. And I sense that we’re only seeing the start of what See Sense might eventually offer. They’re a step ahead of the curve. And they’ve launched a big online funding campaign on Crowdcube which I reckon they’ll pass very shortly. With that in mind I caught up with founders Philip and Irene Mcaleese earlier this week to see what the future holds. I’m really looking forward to seeing what they come up with next.

Can you talk us through how See Sense was originally thought up? 

The See.Sense intelligent light was designed in response to a problem See.Sense founder Philip McAleese faced daily as a cycle commuter. He was living in Singapore at the time with his wife and family, working as a Director for a large multinational investment bank.

He had taken up cycling to work to keep fit, but found that cycling through the busy traffic in Singapore could be quite scary at times. Philip explains, “Over there, they have the concept called ‘kiasu’, which is the idea of wanting to come first. It’s hard to describe – it’s not that Singaporeans are aggressive drivers, but they’re very assertive. If there’s a millimetre of space, somebody will dive into it. They think nothing of passing a cyclist and then immediately turning left into their path. That’s quite acceptable as they consider they have road position, because they’re there before you.”

Having previously been hospitalised following one collision on his bike, he started to think deeply about what he could do to improve his safety. Looking into the stats he discovered that nearly 80% of accidents involving cyclists actually occur in urban areas, in daylight, at road junctions and roundabouts. He realised that most cycle lights are simply not bright to be seen at these times, and the ones that are have a very poor battery life, or require a heavy external battery pack that is not suitable for the regular commuter. He knew he needed something to give him road presence during the commuting peak times of dawn and dusk, when most bike lights are not effective.

The inspiration to create See.Sense happened during a commute home. Philip explains: “I was thinking about the smartphone in my pocket. There was a lot of sensor technology on that device and I wondered could we use some of that to develop a light that’s bright when it needs to be and conserves energy when it doesn’t”.

It was really from there that he looked at the sensor technology that was in smartphones and integrated it into See.Sense to create the first intelligent bike light. Philip said, “I wanted to create a light that was really attention-grabbing, even in daylight. Light performance is usually a trade-off between high brightness, long runtime and compactness. See.Sense uses power intelligently, enabling it to be bright when you need it and still have a long runtime in a small package”

Philip was able to draw on his background in electronic and software engineering to come up with his idea. Prior to working banking, Philip had graduated from the Queen’s University of Belfast with a Bachelor of Engineering (Electronic and Software Engineering). Following University, Philip had spent two years designing air traffic control simulators for National Air Traffic Services (the UK equivalent of the Federal Aviation Administration).

What started off as a personal quest to make something that was more convenient for him as a commuter, started to grow as he spoke to his colleagues in the cycling club at work. Although he didn’t intent to create a product and bring it to the masses, word began to spread, and the more he spoke to other cyclists, the more he realised that they shared the same problem and were looking for the same solution.

Having thoroughly researched his idea and working closely with cyclists, Philip and his wife Irene believed they had a potentially successful idea. They decided to leave their corporate jobs and return to Northern Ireland from Singapore to focus on the development of the business and it was in Northern Ireland that See.Sense was born.

You’ve come a long way very quickly. What do you see as the reasons for See Sense’s success?

A key differentiator for See.Sense is that we love both technology and cycling – and we have deep in-house technological expertise, innovative culture and strong design ethos to carry us through from design to execution. All of our tech is designed in-house.   We feel that this is a big differentiator in the cycling product market. We also manufacture our products in a factory that is less an hour’s drive from our office, so that we can oversee set up and being able to make tweaks to production in the early stages. All of this makes us fast, and able to iterate our designs quickly. We’re constantly learning.

Additionally, we wholeheartedly believe that people want great products, not just technology, so that’s why we’ve worked with hundreds of cyclists to develop our products. We’ve had two successful kickstarter campaigns, raising over £114K from over 1400 backers and taken on board much feedback and learning throughout the process. Since launching three years ago, we’ve built a strong community of over 27,000 across our different social media platforms.

Your original project was funded by Kickstarter. How did that come about and what made you choose that over more traditional methods of financing such as venture capital?

We worked with hundreds of cyclists around the world and tested several prototypes with our local cycling club, North Down CC. We also worked with Queen’s University Belfast as well as the University of Ulster on the casing design and testing of the light, before launching on the crowd-funding website Kickstarter in October 2013.

We chose to go on kickstarter because, as a startup, finding the money up front to pay for the tooling is very expensive. We knew the kickstarter funds would help with that, but the real benefit of a kickstarter campaign is actually getting market validation. Our first campaign, in October 2013, raised nearly three times our funding goal, at over £33,000 in 30 days, with over 850 lights ordered. This market validation put us in a much better position when we subsequently spoke to potential retailers about stocking our lights – you have effectively shown retailers that there is a market waiting for your product. We also found that as a result of being on the kickstarter platform, we received amazing press in the cycling and tech media as well as some of mainstream newspapers, such as the New York Times and The Guardian. As a startup we never would have achieved that kind of coverage if we’d launched any other way. The success on Kickstarter, and the fact that we followed through and subsequently delivered a high quality product built our credibility, which definitely helped to open discussions with retailers including Chain Reaction Cycles, one of world’s largest online cycling retailers who became our first stockist.

Given the success of our first campaign we went back to Kickstarter in April 2014, with our second product, ICON – the intelligent and connected cycle light. This time we had an even bigger success, raising over £80,000 from 934 backers. We feel that the second campaign performed even more strongly because proved the company was good on its word by delivering a high quality product from the first campaign, and this contributed to the conversion rate we saw on this one. Effectively, we showed we can deliver once, so we de-risked it for a lot of people.

However, we would say that we feel Kickstarter is changing, and getting harder. For ICON, we had to work quite hard to get our message out into the media. Our sense was that some journalists were becoming slightly jaded with Kickstarter because there were companies before us that had failed to deliver. Also, larger, more established companies are moving into Kickstarter now and spending a lot of money on their campaigns, using slick videos etc which is changing things.

Now you’ve chosen Crowdcube to fund the company itself. Given the success of your product what made you go down that road?

We have some hugely innovative new products in the pipeline, and we’ve some amazing opportunities opening up with cities who are interested in our crowdsourced data. To give fuel to the fire, we want to take on investment. Rather than just go straight to a VC firm, we wanted to invite our community – the people who use and love our products – to help us grow.

With Crowdcube, our community can invest from as little as £10 to as much as they like to join the company and be part of our journey. Crowdfunding for equity builds upon our ethos of involving our community, so to us it just makes ‘sense’!

How pleased are you with the Crowdcube take up so far?

We’re delighted with the uptake so far. We’ve achieved 90% of our funding goal in the first week and are well on our way to achieving our target of £500,000.   The great thing is that we recognise many of the investor names coming through as our customers, who are investing alongside institutional investors, so we are excited that we have a great journey ahead of us.

A lot is made of “connected cities.” Have you been able to use much/any of the data provided by the Icon lights yet?

See.Sense ICON is actually a lot more than a market-leading cycle light that keeps you safer on the road. ICON is also capable of collecting high quality sensor data about any crashes, near-miss events, road surface, light levels, temperature levels and more. This information is very useful for city planners who want to create better cycling infrastructure and connected, ‘smart cities’. Possible use cases include:

  • Informing cities about ‘hot spot’ areas where there are high frequency of ‘near-miss’ events and crashes – showing where the priority areas are for cycling infrastructure provision.
  • Identifying potholes, even before they’ve fully formed, so that cities can repair them before they become hazards and repair at lower cost.
  • Integration with traffic lights, so that cyclists can get a green light and be prioritised.
  • Identify where gritter trucks should be located for best results.
  • Monitor condition of off-road cycle paths – and much more!

We are delighted to announce that See.Sense was the winner of a prestigious international award, the BT SME Awards for Connected Cities (Overall Winner and category winner for ‘Smart Cities’) . The awards were run in conjunction with the Cabinet Office, MK Smart and Techhub. This award gave us prize money, but more importantly, the opportunity to work with a city to apply our technology.

We were excited to present a paper at at world’s leading cycling conference called Velo-City Global, in March 2016 in Taiwan to update on our progress. We’re delighted to say that our paper was very well received, with a number of transport planners in the audience expressing interest in being able to use this data once it is available.

We have held closed beta trials with our beta group from Kickstarter and across Northern Ireland. We are continuing to work with Professor Adele Marshall, Director of Research at CenSSOR, Queen’s University Belfast, to further validate and refine the algorithms.   We are about to start a trial with the city of Milton Keynes with hundreds of cyclists. The project will map the city’s cycle paths known as ‘redways’ in ways never before seen, generating data that can be used to encourage more people to use the redways. The project will initially focus on the 200 miles of ‘redways’ that crisscross the city, identifying popular routes taken and the speed of the cyclist over the route, and then will extend into mapping other variables. We also have another trial starting in an European city soon (can’t announce that city publicly just yet) and are planning to start one in India very soon as well. Once we are finished these trials, we’ll have a better idea of the use cases for the data, and how we can best help cities.

Data collection is NOT currently enabled on ICON lights. It is currently only enabled through a special app that our beta test groups and city trial participants have access to. Whenever we come to enable it, we will ask the cyclists’ permission first via the app. All data will be anonymous and aggregated and we’ll always protect the privacy of the cyclist first and foremost.

You’ve recently signed a distribution deal with Raleigh for the UK. Can you tell us a little more about that?

We gave much consideration to the decision to appoint a distributor in the UK/ROI. As a young brand with currently only one product, it is important to choose a distributor with real passion for your product, our brand and our future direction. Raleigh genuinely has that. They understand brands – they are themselves one UK’s best loved cycling brands, and as well they have the expertise and market power of being one of the leading distributors across both UK and Ireland. So although we are already stocked with more than 60 retailers across UK and ROI, we’re excited to be working with Raleigh to bring ICON to even more stockists.

Compared to the original See Sense how are sales of the new one going?

With the newly released ICON, we’ve built on all the good things from our ground-breaking intelligent light and delivered something even more exciting by adding connected features.

See.Sense has almost doubled its turnover year on year since it was established in 2013, now selling into more than 50 countries worldwide.

And, finally, can you tell us about where you want See Sense to be in 5 years time and what types of products you are thinking about? (If you can!)

We want to continue to focus on making great products for cyclists, using cutting edge connected and sensor technology to address real needs such as improving safety and reducing theft. We have a hugely innovative and exciting product roadmap, with a number of products planned, and we’ll continue to work with our community to help shape them. The crowd-sourced data that we can collect from the products will help cities identify where and how to make the infrastructure needed, as well as inform policies needed to promote cycling, and make our cities smarter.

 

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