Start-up of the week: Chirp

9 Jan 2017

Kevin Evans, chief commercial officer of Chirp. Image: Chirp

Our start-up of the week is London-based Chirp, which enables data to be transmitted between devices using an audio signal.

“Chirp is the inventor of the internet of sound,” explained Kevin Evans, chief commercial officer at Chirp.

“We launched in 2011 and our core product is an extremely robust and reliable data-over-audio technology that enables data to be sent between machines and devices using only streams of sound, whether they are connected to a network or are completely offline.”

‘Our ultimate goal is to bring this new magic of sound to the world better than anyone imagined possible, enabling billions of disconnected and disparate ‘things’ to be connected to the wider IoT ecosystem in a seamless, scalable and cost-effective way’

Future Human

Any device with a speaker can encode and emit a ‘Chirp’ (the data) and almost any device with a microphone can decode that data, from smartphones and robots to payment terminals and legacy industrial equipment.

“Any data or content can be converted to a Chirp, from photos and tickets to business objects such as payment IDs and even robot commands.

“We have effectively created a ‘language’ that machines can use to communicate with one another. And it is magical to see it in action,” Evans said.

Chirp has many unique characteristics that make it particularly useful in many situations. It does not use radio frequency and there is no need to pair, or know email addresses, phone numbers or social handles.

“You’re simply sending sound over the air to any device able to hear it,” said Evans, who added that it can work offline or online, or in one-to-one or one-to-many applications.

Data received by Chirp can then be re-shared within the system itself.

“Chirp makes things more social. Chirp connects platforms and it connects old and new technology. Because it uses existing audio hardware, Chirp enables many ‘dumb’ machines to communicate. It can be audible or inaudible (ultrasound) and it is extremely robust. Chirp is designed to work in the real, very noisy world we live in.”

The market

Start-up of the week: Chirp

Chirp enables the transmission of data by sound or ultrasound between devices. Image: Chirp

Evans said that Chirp transcends any particular market and can be implemented into a huge array of different sectors.

“Chirp technology is being used in transportation, financial services, interactive gaming, retail, robotics and industrial IoT. IoT is an area we are particularly excited by, and one of our strengths is our ability to connect old, un-networkable equipment to an IoT infrastructure.

“Chirp is at its best when other networking technologies are not available or are not suitable (such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or NFC). Going one step further, Chirp can actually be used in conjunction with these other technologies to remove the friction of connecting with them. Think about the process of logging into a guest Wi-Fi network at a hotel or a client’s office. Chirp can completely streamline that process, removing entirely the need to type in login IDs and passwords.

“The beautiful thing about Chirp is that there is no limiting factor to where it can be used. If there is an opportunity for two devices to speak to each other and share data, or if a brand is looking for a innovative way to speak to their audience, Chirp is able to facilitate.”

The technology

Start-up of the week: Chirp

The Chirp technology works across a variety of platforms and devices. Image: Chirp

Chirp was born out of a research project led by a team of leading experts in acoustics and communication at University College London.

“Our technology in its first iteration was released to market as an iOS and Android peer-to-peer sharing application, enabling consumers to share content such as videos, photos, MP3s and more between devices.

“Although highly adopted, we recognised the opportunity to further develop our product suite to enable broader applications, and transitioned from a B2C proposition into a global B2B research and technology house. This offers our clients the ability to create unlimited innovations and communicate with their customers inside their own branding and ecosystem, simply powered by Chirp.”

Evans has 20 years of experience in start-ups and tech and media businesses across Europe.

“I joined Chirp because I saw the immense market potential for it, and I was also super impressed with the quality of the team and the tech they’ve built.

“Our ultimate goal is to bring this new magic of sound to the world better than anyone imagined possible, enabling billions of disconnected and disparate ‘things’ to be connected to the wider IoT ecosystem in a seamless, scalable and cost-effective way.”

The future is looking Chirpy

According to Evans, 2016 was a pivotal year for the company.

“We successfully completed our transformation from B2C to B2B. Chirp launched in 2011 as a B2C proposition with a consumer-facing smartphone app for sharing photos and URLs. We realised in 2015 that the bigger opportunity was to allow other companies to build Chirp into their products and services, so we completely rebuilt our technology from the ground up. We now have a robust, true enterprise-class piece of software and the support infrastructure needed to support the largest clients globally, and we relaunched Chirp as a B2B proposition.”

‘The first generation of successful entrepreneurs are now re-entering the start-up scene as advisors and investors, bringing much needed first-hand, real-world experience to the next generation of young founders’

In 2015, the company completed an oversubscribed crowdfunding round in Q2, and then raised a Series A in Q4, bringing on two strategic investors.

“Having relaunched, we’ve seen a tremendous reception from the market, not only in the west, but also in developing markets where networking infrastructure is not as prevalent or reliable. Already this year, we’ve launched with Activision Blizzard as part of their $4bn Skylanders franchise; Shuttl, which is one of India’s most exciting start-ups and a key player in transportation in big bustling cities like Delhi; and Amdocs, [which is] the world leader in telecommunications software, and [has] integrated Chirp into [its] mobile wallet and merchant POS solution.”

In terms of future opportunities, Evans said Chirp is having very interesting discussions with large companies in telecoms, industrial, energy and banking.

“Chirp is being recognised as a solution to the challenge of connecting old and new devices together, or connecting across different technology platforms, particularly in an offline environment where traditional networking technologies aren’t suitable or aren’t available.”

In terms of the platform’s ongoing technology expansion, at the beginning of 2016, Chirp was available on iOS and Android as a consumer app only.

“At the end of 2016, we are now a full suite of enterprise-class SDKs, supporting both audible and inaudible (ultrasound), for a wide range of platforms: iOS, Android, Python, Javascript, Windows, Raspberry Pi, Mac OS, Linux.

“This range of platforms makes Chirp the only data-over-audio solution that enables the connection of devices from virtually any sector or ecosystem and enables the IoT revolution to extend to legacy machines. The technology has also been architected to make it customisable, allowing us to create bespoke protocols for clients quickly and easily, to handle differing data payload sizes and acoustic environments.”

In parallel with Chirp’s expansion to more platforms, the company has bolstered its commercial and marketing teams, having brought on a chief commercial officer and VP of marketing.

“We will continue to expand the sales and marketing teams in Q1/Q2.”

A bird never flew on one wing

The start-up has had to transform and pivot to fly level, said Evans.

“Chirp originally started as a B2C proposition with a consumer-facing photo-sharing app. The business model was unclear, the need for consumers to download the app in order to use Chirp was a barrier to expanding our reach, and the use case was limited. As a result, growth in the first few years of Chirp was slow.

“That has completely changed now. Since we successfully pivoted to B2B earlier this year and opened up our core technology to third parties to build into their products and services, we have seen a step change in our business, with traction with major brands like Activision and Amdocs, and many exciting deals are in our pipeline for 2017.”

Start-up lessons from London

Evans founded his first company in 2007, just in time for the financial crisis.

“The start-up ecosystem back then was starting to develop nicely, with many exciting companies being founded, and the first signs of a vibrant angel community starting to form. The Lehman crash in 2008, followed by years of downturn and recession, hit the UK start-up scene very hard, with seed capital virtually evaporating; and most start-ups struggled, with many failing.

“The scene was knocked hard, but has come back bigger and stronger than before. There is no shortage of start-ups in London for example, and many other cities around the country and around Europe are making names for themselves, particularly in specific sectors.

“The UK government’s SEIS/EIS tax breaks for angel investors, coupled with government-backed investment vehicles such as the Angel Co-Investment Fund, LCIF, regional co-investment funds and the British Business Bank, have been incredibly helpful and effective in unlocking seed capital for the UK’s start-ups.

“Angel investors, networks and clubs are popping up everywhere, as are so-called ‘micro-VCs’ or early-stage venture funds. The first generation of successful entrepreneurs are now re-entering the start-up scene as advisors and investors, bringing much needed first-hand, real-world experience to the next generation of young founders. There has never been a better time to start a business in the UK.”

Evans’s most critical piece of advice for any founder is: firstly, find a mentor.

“Test your sales pitch on absolutely everyone. Absorb all feedback and be objective – don’t be precious about your idea. Try to get your business as far as you can on your own steam before you try to raise money – you’ll be in a stronger position when it comes to negotiating valuation.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years