We sat down with the Co-founder and CEO of TravelAiAndreas ‘Zac’ Zachariah to discuss their response to the COVID19 pandemic, their work with Highways England and levelling the playing field between transport incumbents and disruptors.

Hey Zac, can you introduce yourself and TravelAi?

I am Zac, I am the co-founder of TravelAi. We are an international team split between the U.K., Portugal and Finland. Whilst we all have different backgrounds, we are passionate about trying to make transport infrastructure systems and services work better for everyday citizens and commuters.

We’ve developed an entire tech stack in-house that helps us deliver what we would best describe as a set of business intelligence tools. Our clients can embed our SDK into their consumer-facing apps or instead, they can commission us to build bespoke apps.

Ultimately, these tools are for anyone in transport and mobility who is interested in the relationship with their customer and use that as a primary metric. This same information can be used to measure the environmental or carbon footprint of individuals from transport.

2020 has also highlighted how movement trajectories can be used for epidemic (eg. COVID19) contact or spread tracing.

You mention COVID19 how are you dealing with it and can you explain how you help with ‘spread tracing’? What is that even?

So like everyone, everywhere, we’ve been impacted, but having remote teams already means we’re already used to this type of working. The difference now is we have parents in our team juggling work with being teachers and entertainers of young hungry minds. Otherwise, I’m being transparent with the team about our cash flow, runway and pipeline, ensuring live projects are on track and chasing down new client use cases.

Regarding COVID19, it is highly contagious. It has a long ‘shedding’ or infectious period, dangerous to those with heart and lung complications and can survive on hard surfaces for 2-3 days. All of which combine to make it very lethal. Spread tracing is a crucial tool of epidemiologists (‘virus hunters’) who track down anyone who may have been in contact with a known carrier, to both warn them and isolate them so they can’t be a spreader also. 

COVID19 isn’t just spread from droplets in the air when at close quarters but picked up from hard surfaces which a carrier may have touched on their travels. This trail of destruction is much harder to pick out then dwell points and that’s where our automatic movement detection in a smartphone app could capture traces,  then alerting those at risk and/or notifying known contacts of a recent positive tested carrier.

In China, Singapore and Taiwan, they have used apps or mobile network data with much success. An Oxford University and Nuffield Sciences team (who we’ve been in discussion with) produced a study soon after the crucial Imperial College study of COVID19 changed everything. We’re trying all we can to help lessen the impact of this global pandemic which is why we’ve submitted a proposal (at some haste) to a EU-EIC-SME instrument call just last week.

Sounds great, what kind of other projects are you working on? 

We’ve been working on a project with Highways England for the last year and it has been fascinating. They’re beginning to rethink who their customer is and how they use their roads, including the wider journey taken before and after using motorways. These questions are helping them plan for increased levels of EVs and Connected Vehicles on the roads, including understanding where to put infrastructure and which service stations will make the best candidates for adaptation. 

Also being reviewed is the concept of Superhubs, which are transit interchange points between public transit infrastructure and motorways. The app we’re building for them will automate the collection of mobility data and will be hugely helpful for understanding how road users are using the roads.

We’re thankful to be working with Hertfordshire County Council, where much of the trial is taking place. They’re in a really key location, with three key arteries running through a small area, each with critical connections to Stansted Airport, London and the rest of the country. 

So this project is with Hertfordshire County Council, has it been hard bringing in other counties? 

Working with HCC is supposed to double as a proxy for working with other counties engaged with Highways England, but the team feels very strongly that you can’t think about transport in specific locations and who has jurisdiction over them. Consumers don’t think about which authority has control over which piece of road they are using, so how can we innovate and change policy that way? 

Information gathered in one region, but not in another cannot give a holistic view of the system, which is often essential to planning for the future; especially on motorways. So it is challenging working between the different counties and getting them to align.

Where we see lots of growth as a company and where we’re aggressively looking is in the EU. They’re thinking much more about how they invest in and coordinate infrastructure that works across countries. There, you have a more holistic view of the world, with travellers often traversing both public and private infrastructure across geographic boundaries. 

So this holistic view, what can be done better in the UK to make it a reality?

I think it’s about understanding the customer and reacting to them, but doing this through utilising data.

Both I, and my co-founder Peter came from engineering in investment banking. As an engineer, you want to have data so you can make the right decision. This was the first thing that really struck us as we got deeper into the transport Industry was just how little information there was being collected.

In London, transport organisations rarely have in-depth data on how pedestrians act or how many cyclists there are. They do about cars because of the ANPR (Automatic Number Plate Recognition)  network inside the M25, but before that point, you don’t exist. Somewhere along the way, you started a journey which might be influenced by various factors. This should be interesting to know to create more holistic transport policy and drive effective innovation.

There must be a better mechanism to understand how factors shape the transportation of people and goods and how this is affected over time.

People’s expectations have grown significantly and citizens are a lot less forgiving as more options become more readily available. How does that affect your business model? 

Well, that’s a perfect segue. How we interact with services has dramatically changed with users expecting to have various options, on-demand. You don’t buy an album, you download or stream the track you want; the same is becoming clear for transport. 

Obviously that’s why Mobility-as-a-Service seems like something that represents this transition in consumer behaviour and gives consumers that flexibility. As companies like Uber and Lyft are running their businesses on the basis of data and consumer-led decision making, the incumbents in transport will have to do the same to compete. 

Through these mobility disruptors, the industry has been exposed to radically new ways of thinking and doing business. This is affecting the traditional organisations who often don’t have the tech and data resources to adapt to the new status quo. 

Through these mobility disruptors, the industry has been exposed to radically new ways of thinking and doing business. This is affecting the traditional organisations who often don’t have the tech and data resources to adapt to the new status quo. 

And that’s where you come in?

Our aim and ambition is to give the incumbents in the transport space – who perhaps don’t have the tech expertise or resources – to fully understand their customers and the tools so they can compete with disruptors in the space. 

We want to help give them a level playing field. 

How’s your time been at the London Connectory?

For us, it’s been great. Engaging with key stakeholders is the main challenge that any startup will face and I certainly think that this rings true in transport. You’re always dealing with large-sized entities who often don’t have experience dealing with startups, but this is changing. Being at the London Connectory helps us stay in the loop, build connections and keep apprised of the mobility community in London.

What’s surprising about London is that we really don’t have a focused community for transport and mobility: it’s been very disjointed. You would expect with all the challenges that London faces and the history with the automotive sector that this would be the contrary. Clearly this has changed and between the Connectory team and Bosch they’ve undoubtedly increased the number and quality of mobility themed evening events we now have in the big smoke. 

It’s great to be involved in a space where you see an unusually high amount of people, events and discussions going on because it hasn’t been easy to find that in London in the past. The community at the London Connectory is growing and providing that central point and brings it all together. 

Thanks Zac! 

You can find out more about TravelAi on their website here: https://www.travelai.info/