Location company hits the spot again

27 Nov 2003

Mapflow, the provider of software to support location-based services and geographic applications, is one of 13 companies that have appeared in all four Fast 50 polls, and this year achieved its highest ranking with growth of 192pc. CEO Richard Bryce (pictured) puts Mapflow’s consistency down to the fact that “as a company we are careful with growth” – a far cry from the ‘growth at any cost’ mantras that were all the rage when the company was established in 1997.

For Bryce, being careful with growth means establishing the right client base, selling the right solutions into those clients and ensuring clients have realistic expectations that Mapflow is then able to meet. In Mapflow’s early days its focus was on the telco and mobile operator market according to Bryce. While that market is still key to the company it is also building enterprise applications on top of its core Location Agent product that can be deployed into businesses where geographic information is important. Examples include transport companies looking for applications such as vehicle and asset tracking.

“The strategy three years ago was to build a geographic transaction server – Location Agent – and that’s been very successful as a managed service,” says Bryce. “But we’ve grown by putting applications in front of that product.”

Mapflow customers include O2 Ireland, Myhome.ie, Esat BT, the AA, British Gas’s maintenance and distribution offshoot Transco and the Dublin Transportation Office (DTO). The DTO has recently announced that it intends to expand its online route planner for cyclists and walkers, based on Mapflow data, to include bus, train, tram and driving information. The deal with Transco was won in partnership with a number of other technology companies including Dublin-based vehicle tracking specialists WS2.

In addition to O2 Ireland, Mapflow is working with a UK mobile operator that Bryce cannot name for confidentiality reasons. The relationship with operators has changed over the last six years – initially they were seen only as end customers as they wanted to control the complete value chain. Now they are increasingly partners as the location of handsets on the network is used to power applications.

Mapflow has implemented mobile applications for the AA and Myhome.ie that enable users to receive information on traffic conditions or houses for sale in their immediate area via SMS (short messaging service). According to Bryce, the GPS (global positioning system) mobile system can be pinpoint a handsets location to about 500m and up to 100m in an urban area. That accuracy can reduce to about 7km in rural areas but Bryce believes this still provides enough accuracy for most business applications. “GPS can be about €1,000 per vehicle per year but many companies mightn’t need that level of accuracy,” says Bryce.

“It’s nice being able to ping a handset to see where it is but what is the business application?” he continues. “Being able to overlay mapping data is they key to it.” To this end Mapflow uses data from both Ordanance Survey Ireland and its UK counterpart, as well as having developed its own geographical databases.

In July Mapflow was awarded a six-figure contract from the European Space Agency (ESA) to study the feasibility of a European-wide satellite-based tracking system for road tolls. The contract was awarded by the ESA rather than any transport body as it is currently deploying Gallileo, a global satellite navigation system, which unlike the current GPS system is not dependent on US military satellites.

According to Bryce there are a number of drivers for a pan-European tolling system including the €350bn that the EU will invest in road infrastructure over the next few years.

“The EU sees that as a deficit that needs to be addressed so tolling and road charging have been pushed up the agenda,” says Bryce. He believes the ESA project will spin off other opportunities for Mapflow – the feasibility study is currently being completed and the next step is to turn it into a technology showcase to show how it can be practically deployed. “We are currently identifying partners and potential customers for the system,” says Bryce. While Ireland and the UK account for about 90pc of business, it is hoped the ESA contract will open up doors in Europe. Bryce believes the US market is still problematic and cites the maturity of the market and the cost of entry as the main reasons for not crossing the Atlantic.

While Bryce appreciates being recognised by the Fast 50, he says the company is not focused on revenue growth as performance indicator. “As a business out entire focus is on profitability and has been for the last couple of years,” he says. “It’s nice to get the recognition and it’s a good showcase for young companies, but the market has changed to demand a focus on cash flow and profit growth.”

Mapflow has received two rounds of funding of over €4.5m from a number of investors including Trinity Venture Capital, Merrion Capital and Enterprise Ireland. Since early 2001 the company has been trading on its own revenues but Bryce says it will always consider any investment that brings strategic opportunities with it. The company currently employs 20 staff and has a permanent sales presence in the UK.

By John Collins