An alumnus of the prestigious Y Combinator, Limerick-based Protex AI is on a mission to revolutionise workplace safety using artificial intelligence.
While it is impossible to put a value on the lives lost or injuries sustained by people employed in high-risk environments, there is underlying financial cost incurred by businesses that face it.
In the US, for instance, $62bn a year is the cost of workplace injuries as of 2016, according to the Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index.
“And as more industries adopt automated robotic technologies, humans and machines are working more closely than ever before, creating increased safety risks,” Dan Hobbs, CEO and co-founder of Protex AI, told SiliconRepublic.com recently.
According to the young entrepreneur, demand for safe workplaces is at an all-time high. And as people become more aware of safety issues in physically demanding jobs, governments on both sides of the Atlantic are rushing to pass and amend laws that address and prevent the problem.
But policy alone is not enough to tackle an issue as ubiquitous as workplace injuries and deaths.
‘Freak accidents aren’t so freakish’
Hobbs founded Protex AI in Limerick two years ago with his friend Ciaran O’Mara, who he met at BT Young Scientist when they were both 12 years old. Now based in Dogpatch Labs, Protex AI uses computer vision to identify health and safety issues, minimise injuries and make industrial workplaces safer.
“The company came to fruition based on a story from a close family member, an operations manager in a Fortune 500 company who spoke about a fatality that occurred on site,” Hobbs explained.
“While reviewing CCTV clips, what seemed like a freak accident was quickly revealed to be a result of repetitive non-compliant behaviour by the worker. After months of research and interviews with EHS leaders, we identified that freak accidents aren’t so freakish.”
According to Hobbs, a majority of accidents occur as a result of “repetitive risk behaviour” that is not identified prior to the accident.
“Safety is all about data, and its collection is currently incredibly manual and labour intensive. That made us wonder whether AI could be used to streamline the process, and Protex AI was born,” he said.
By plugging into existing CCTV infrastructure, Protex AI leverages artificial intelligence to audit customers’ workplaces across the port, logistics and manufacturing industries. Hobbs said that the company’s tech acts as a “third eye” for safety managers responsible for reporting incidents.
“AI vision enables CCTV cameras to detect defined types of hazardous behaviours. The data collected will allow you to see where problems are occurring and set about trying to fix them – before they lead to injury,” he explained, adding that the tech prioritises privacy and GDPR.
The idea is not to use AI reporting to identify who is ‘”cutting corners”, Hobbs said, but to use it as a reliable source of data when things are starting to slip – because near miss reporting can be influenced by factors other than the underlying safety.
“Very few workers want to get hurt, so if behaviours are not as imagined, you need to find the underlying causes.”
How it’s going so far
Hobbs graduated with a degree in Business, Economics and Social Studies from Trinity College Dublin in 2017. Before starting Protex AI, he founded a start-up called Better Examinations, an online exam management and assessment platform for third level institutions.
Better Examinations was snapped up by TerminalFour, a web content management platform for higher education, in 2019. The start-up led Hobbs to be named in the Sunday Business Post 30 under 30 tech leaders list while Better Examinations made it to their top 100 start-ups list.
Now, Hobbs and chief technology officer O’Mara are focusing all their time and energy into revolutionising workplace safety and changing people’s perspective towards it.
“Protex AI does not only focus on detecting and recording incidents, but on identifying risks and behaviours to prevent and avoid accidents and managing their subsequent resolution in case they occur,” Hobbs said.
“It is also fully flexible and configurable with any customer’s system and allows remote installation with their cameras.”
In only two years of its existence, Protex AI has already made itself known in Ireland’s buzzing start-up scene. The company was one of five start-ups with Irish roots that bagged a spot in the prestigious Y Combinator programme the same year it was founded.
Last summer, Protex AI raised $18m in a funding round led by British private equity firm Notion Capital to expand its technology across Europe and North America.
The duo are hoping to open a US office this year to service the coveted North American market and bag new clients. Hobbs estimates that the move will help Protex AI to break even in one year after starting commercialisation.
If all goes well, he expects annual revenues to hit around €100m by 2028 with a net income of around €20m and an employee headcount of 300 people – a remarkable feat in seven years if achieved.
Currently, the start-up consists of a team of 36 employees across Europe. Hobbs said he is looking to hire an additional 30 people this year to grow Protex AI’s commercial and technology teams.
“We’re still very young as a company but have experienced a period of rapid growth this past 12 months. Our team size has grown from nine to 36 in that space of time and we’ve had to learn quickly to onboard and get the best out of these amazing people,” Hobbs said.
“We are firmly fixed on the growth of the company and will look to raise our next round as a means to expand rapidly, but we’re too focused on our business goals right now.”
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