“I think many startups forget that their users don’t necessarily have the same level of ability than them, and are maybe not as tech savvy. We know that the public sector is lagging behind when it comes to innovation, and I believe that co-developing tech solutions with them is key.” — Talita Holzer, co-founder waytoB
Talita Holzer and Robbie Fryers are on a mission: to make the world more accessible. For millions of those with special educational needs and combined accessibility issues, the front door of their homes is an impenetrable barrier, keeping them housebound and prevented from reaching vital services without help. At the same time, local government efforts to support independent travel for this population are expensive, inconsistent, and intermittently applied, with many vastly underserving the population in need. Encouraged by a university project, Talita and Robbie devoted themselves to finding a solution to benefit both those with accessibility challenges and the cities they live in. Several years on, the team of engineers founded Dublin-based startup waytoB, which has developed a unique product to help people of all abilities navigate their neighborhoods with ease. Comprised of an app for both smartphone and a smartwatch, ‘navigators’ and ‘partners’ are guided to pre-set destinations through easy-to-follow icons, allowing users to build their confidence along the way. Over time, as ‘navigators’ begin to embark on more independent travel, user locations can be followed by ‘partners’ in realtime, ensuring safety, while facilitating a greater level of self-reliance.
waytoB has been trialing their product with local authorities in Ireland and the UK, with an anticipated market launch in early 2020. I connected with Talita to learn more about the company and what advice they had for other startups starting out in the govtech space.
The problem we are addressing is the lack of ability to travel from A to B independently faced by 79% of individuals with special education needs (SEN). This greatly affects their access to education and employment, and further marginalises them from society. As UK legislation compels local authorities to provide free transport to and from school for SEN pupils who cannot get there independently, £620 million is spent every year to address this problem. The problem is that this is only a “band-aid solution” – when young people finish school, with dreams to go to college or get their first job, that support might not be there for them anymore, and they are left in limbo. Because of this, they often choose to attend day centres, which are also provided by local authorities, and become dependent on these services for the rest of their lives.
Key opinion leaders suggest that the only way forward is through travel training, which is currently a time consuming and expensive process to train individuals to become independent travellers. Most of these programmes are limited and inconsistent, taking the form of a travel book of photos of landmarks of a particular route, which are modified on an ad-hoc basis. Individuals repeat the same route for months, until their trainer is confident that they can complete the route safely on their own. Then, if the individual is cleared to travel independently and they do get lost, there isn’t a process in place to support them. Research suggests that only 9% of individuals with SEN are involved in programmes to promote independent travel at the moment. With waytoB, we can support local authorities to meet this growing demand with the same level of human resources, while offsetting transport costs.
How big of a problem is this?
In the UK alone, 14.9% of all pupils have special education needs – there are currently 1.3 million SEN pupils in the country, and this number has grown 7.3% in the last 3 years alone. There are 217 Local Authorities in the UK, all who have a statutory obligation to provide transport to school for children with SEN who cannot travel independently. In England alone, the annual bill for private transport was in excess of £578 million in 2017/18. The Association of Directors of Children’s Services has described the situation as “unsustainable, some would say anachronistic” and reported that “the demand for home to school transport is increasing as the number of SEN pupils grow”.
In a wider context, one in six people in the EU have a disability – approximately 80 million. Disabled people have lower levels of educational attainment and are less likely to participate in the labour market all over Europe – the rate of unemployment for people with disabilities is 54%, as opposed to 6% in the general population.
How does waytoB work? Can you walk us through the user journey?
waytoB is a smartphone and smartwatch solution, which provides icon-based, turn-by-turn directions to get from A to B easily and safely. You can say it’s Google Maps for those who are not comfortable reading maps and following complicated instructions. We provide waytoB to Local Authorities, who use it to train individuals with SEN to travel independently, encouraging them to move from specialised transport to public transport. As a result, Local Authorities save millions of pounds every year, while individuals with SEN become more socially connected, show elevated levels of confidence and lower levels of anxiety, and are more likely to access education and employment.
There are two main users of waytoB – the person with SEN, ‘the navigator’, and the social worker who supports them, ‘the partner’.
The user journey for the navigator starts on the phone, where the user chooses where to go from a list of pre-added routes – these can be displayed via text, pictures or audio, depending on the user’s preferences. Once the user chooses where to go, they can put their phone in their pocket and let a smartwatch guide them via easy to interpret icons – turn, crossing, or get on/off bus instructions. The watch indicates there is a new instruction when the user reaches ‘waypoints’ via vibration or audio prompt, so there is no need to keep looking at a screen, allowing users to focus on their surroundings. Waypoints are exact places where the user should change direction. The icons displayed on the watch, which indicate ‘turn left’ or ‘cross right’ for example, are based on the user’s real time location and orientation data, greatly simplifying the navigation experience. While on a bus, the app notifies the user when they’re getting close to their bus stop, which helps address anxiety issues.
For the partner, they can add tailored routes for the navigator remotely on their phone or laptop. The reason this is done manually is that the best route from A to B is often different depending on the individual – some prefer to cross the road where there is less traffic, while others prefer to walk further to a different bus stop so they don’t have to switch buses, for example. There is also a management tool for the partner, where they can monitor the user’s location, heart rate and battery life in real time, follow their progress during the travel training process, manage their own tasks and measure results. The partner can also get notifications if the user deviates from the intended route, and for other personalised key journey events, such as low battery on the device or stopping for too long.
What brought the founding team together, and how did you know that a startup was the best way to address this challenge?
waytoB actually started back in 2014 as a student project in Trinity College Dublin, as part of the Innovation in Product Development module. We spent the first 6 months of the project interviewing key stakeholders, with the goal of understanding which were the main barriers keeping people with special educational needs from being integrated into society. From over 100 interviews, there was one recurring issue: independent travel. By not being able to go to places by themselves, they were further marginalised and excluded from education, employment and leisure activities.
After finishing the student project, we felt like we could do more. We were in a position to make a real difference, and it just felt like we had found our mission. Both of us agreed we had to keep going, and we were subsequently able to secure a research grant from Trinity to keep working on the project and investigate the impact of the use of a navigation technology, now called waytoB, on the quality of life of people with SEN.
The research project had a very positive result, showing that waytoB had a meaningful impact on its user’s independence, quality of life, level of mobility and social connectedness. The identified problem was not being properly addressed by any ‘workarounds’ and was of such a scale that it represented a commercial opportunity. For this reason, we decided that the best course of action was to spin out, and we were able to secure a Commercialisation Grant from Enterprise Ireland in 2017. The grant covered expenses for a period of 22 months and allowed us to develop a market-ready product and test it with Local Authorities, and also refine our commercialisation strategy.
“Every single feature on waytoB came from our users. From the very beginning of this journey, we have involved people with a wide range of abilities in every step of the design process – people with learning disabilities, visual impairments and wheelchair users”
You’ve been piloting the project with some partners in Scotland, including the City of Edinburgh Council. As you’ve been working with different users, what have you been learning from them?
Every single feature on waytoB came from our users. From the very beginning of this journey, we have involved people with a wide range of abilities in every step of the design process – people with learning disabilities, visual impairments and wheelchair users, for example. We have run pilots with 9 organisations, in 3 countries, involving over 100 individuals and resulting in over 2,300 successful journeys. This allowed us to create a truly inclusive solution, that is adaptable to individual needs. A simple example we like to use to illustrate the important of user-centric design is one that came from a student in Hereward College. He is a wheelchair user, and he couldn’t feel the watch vibrating to indicate a new instruction if he had his hand on the wheel. The solution was pretty straight forward: we just added an option to have audio prompts. The interesting thing is that this proved to be useful for many other users, for example people with visual impairments who use a guiding cane, also could not feel the vibration and relied on audio prompts.
Involving the councils in the design process was also very important. It was the only way to understand the pain points when it came to travel training, and to develop a technology solution that was intuitive and easy to use. I think many startups forget that their users don’t necessarily have the same level of ability than them, and are maybe not as tech savvy. We know that the public sector is lagging behind when it comes to innovation, and I believe that co-developing tech solutions with them is key. If we hadn’t involved social workers, travel trainers and others from the councils in the design process, we would have ended up with a very different solution, that would probably not be very user friendly or even useful.
As a startup working in the govtech space, what are some of your top tips for working productively with public authorities? Do you have any suggestions when it comes to customer acquisition?
So far, most of our traction in the UK has been organic. We won the Tech4Good Award in 2018, which is based in the UK. This led to a social media post, which led to a social worker in Edinburgh City Council getting in touch to learn more. We have been extremely lucky to work with the Edinburgh team. Although there was a lot of red tape to get things started, they stuck with us and we were able to launch our first pilot with them in September, involving two special education needs schools and 11 pupils. The pilot is going smoothly, and everyone is impressed with the progress of the pupils using waytoB, as they are way ahead of schedule. We were able to show that waytoB can help to greatly reduce the time required to travel train an individual, and save thousands of pounds in transport costs. Once we started sharing this success story, other councils have approached us in Scotland, Wales and England.
I think one of the lessons we learned through this journey is that you never know what will get you in the door. In our case, winning a few awards, like the James Dyson Award and the World Summit Award, has definitely helped put us on the map and gave us more credibility. Attending and speaking at relevant events and conferences was also essential in making the right connections. So, it’s important to take advantage of any opportunity that arises.
Another key factor for us was finding the right people to work with within the council. The team in Edinburgh are really passionate about empowering people with disabilities, it was easy to see that we shared the passion from the very first meeting. So, when they had to go through endless paperwork, or if there were any technical issues, they were understanding and kept their spirits up in order for us to achieve our end goal. I also think that involving them in the design process helped them feel part of our journey, and I believe they see our success as their success as well, because it is, in a way! I think that dealing with the public sector can make people think of unmotivated workers, but that hasn’t been the case for us most of the time. It is important though to identify the people who want to join you in this journey because they truly understand the proposed value and want to help you make it a reality.
What’s next on the horizon for waytoB? When will the waytoB app go live beyond the pilot phase?
The pilot with Edinburgh City Council ends in March 2020, and we are currently negotiating a full roll-out of the solution for the following month. We have a SEN College trialling the app in Coventry, and 17 organisations in the UK, Ireland and Portugal in the pipeline who are interested in piloting waytoB, so we plan to expand quickly after our first sale in Edinburgh. The app will be available only through local authorities and other organisations, such as colleges and disability support service providers. However, we still encourage interested families to get in touch with us, so we can bring their interest to their local authority. Having parents on our side, showing the local authorities how waytoB can change the lives of their kids, really helps in getting new pilots. This was exactly what happened in East Lothian, where a mother heard about the Edinburgh trial, asked to see it in person and brought it to her council. They got in touch with us and we are now planning to start a trial with them early next year.
Although we have identified the UK as our initial market, we know that people with SEN lack independence all over Europe, and we plan to address that as we scale. We have been in touch with The Association for Cerebral Palsy in Portugal, who is interested in running a trial with us, and have identified a number of other potential partners in the public and charity sectors in EU countries to approach next.
Looking back on your startup journey thus far, what once piece of advice do you have for other founders that are just beginning?
Be passionate about the problem you’re solving, not about your solution. We have had so many ‘incredible’ ideas for features that we certain our users would love, only to bring it to local authorities and realise that they would never go for that. It is hard to come back from receiving bad feedback if you are too protective of your product. Being passionate about the problem makes it easier to take criticism in a positive way, and incorporate that into the product. Even if that means pivoting! When we started waytoB, our vision was to be an app that anyone could download on their devices and instantly become more independent. It was only by listening to individuals with SEN, their families and travel trainers that we learned that there was much more to it, and we had to adapt it so it provided support to travel training programmes.