Safecility: Lighting the way to IoT-enabled building safety

29 Mar 2021

Cian O Flaherty. Image: Inpho

Safecility founder and CEO Cian O Flaherty illuminates us on how his company is automating building safety checks using the internet of things.

Emergency lighting is the kind of thing the average person will never have to think about day to day, but would certainly notice if it was missing or malfunctioning in a time of need. It’s a legal requirement in all buildings except individual homes. And while the hope is that it would never be needed, regular testing is necessary to ensure it’s fully capable should that moment ever arise.

“Traditionally, this involves a technician walking around checking each light, repairing them if needed and recording the result in a logbook or spreadsheet,” said Cian O Flaherty, founder and CEO of Safecility.

“Not only does this process take massive amounts of time, it’s expensive and open to human error. What we do is automate the whole process, saving time and money, and improving safety and compliance.”

‘We truly believe that by using sensor technology, companies can not only save resources but also save lives’

Safecility uses sensors and technology to automate these safety checks. Its first product is focused on emergency lighting, but the company aims to automate even more safety tasks in buildings.

“If you consider organisations with lots of buildings spread out across the country, technicians travelling from site to site each month completing testing and repairs equates to countless hours. It’s absolutely essential that testing is completed, even though it’s inconvenient and time consuming. Automation is the perfect answer to make this process more efficient and accurate,” said O Flaherty.

Results from Safecility’s automated testing can be viewed on any desktop or mobile, meaning estate and facilities managers wouldn’t even have to leave the office to ensure these checks are made as frequently as needed.

A key client base for Safecility includes housing associations facing increased compliance pressures across a wide spread of buildings. The emergency lighting product is wireless and brand-agnostic, meaning sensors can be fitted to any available emergency light without the need to rewire.

“Automation of emergency lighting testing is not a new thing, but in the past required rewiring or a complete change over to a single brand of lights,” said O Flaherty. “We have a far more flexible solution for companies that want a quick retrofit option without being locked into one specific vendor or needing to invest large upfront capital to install.”

O Flaherty said this is counter to the approach taken by other building tech companies who lock may customers into a proprietary system as a way to force brand loyalty. “We design flexible easy to use options that solve real problems and inefficiencies, and we design them to be as open and interoperable as possible,” he said.

Ultimately, Safecility is about using technology to create safer environments. “We truly believe that by using sensor technology, companies can not only save resources but also save lives,” said O Flaherty.

Safecility’s technology is wireless, using internet-of-things (IoT) networks such as NB-IoT or LoRaWAN to connect the sensors directly to the internet. “These networks allow massive quantities of small sensors to stream data to the internet wirelessly at a low cost,” explained O Flaherty.

“The sensor monitors the status of the light and sends the test results to a central software platform where compliance status and light failures can be seen in real time,” he added.

“What we see in our daily conversations are estate and facilities managers responsible for thousands of buildings understand the value of IoT but face hurdles when they try to scale up. We always keep this in mind with our R&D and aim to design products that are the most flexible and scalable on the market.”

The potential for the technology doesn’t stop at emergency lighting, either. Other mandatory compliance testing, from fire door inspection to monitoring for Legionella in water systems, can be automated in the same way.

The result of increased automation, according to O Flaherty, would be more accurate records and efficiently targeted repairs. “And by eliminating frequent site visits, a reduction in fuel usage and carbon emissions is seen,” he said.

Branching out to fire safety checks is in itself a big business opportunity for Safecility. On the back of the Grenfell Tower disaster, the UK government announced a £1.6bn building safety fund last year to help building owners with fire safety improvements.

‘We’ve probably lost some good businesses to lockdown and restrictions and the slow pace of change to funding mechanisms like EIIS’

O Flaherty began building Safecility in 2018 and unexpectedly found he was pioneering in the space. “We didn’t realise how early we were in our segment,” he said. “We anticipated more of the technology we would rely on was already available, so our time to market was significantly longer than we hoped.”

The company benefitted from grant funding to support early development and has gradually grown to a team of seven.

However, last year’s travel restrictions presented an enormous challenge for a small team in Ireland whose main market is in the UK. “We have had a long period changing our strategy to support local channel partners in the UK, educating and developing their skills in selling our product, and that is finally bearing fruit now,” said O Flaherty.

He estimates that Covid-19 extended Safecility’s early pipeline sales cycle by about 12 months, on average. But even with this unexpected hurdle, the company still managed to launch its flagship emergency lighting product in September 2020.

At the start of 2021, it launched what it claimed to be a world-first commercial wireless emergency lighting system. In partnership with Irish company Sensori Facilities Management, this system uses Vodafone’s NB-IoT network.

The company is also continuing its work in research and development. “We’re working closely with Limerick City and County Council to develop sensor solutions to help encourage restoration of the city’s Georgian core and get people back living in the city centre. We’ve also won over €150,000 in non-dilutive European funding from the European Space Agency and Horizon 2020 to develop more IoT compliance solutions for the housing sector,” said O Flaherty.

It’s no surprise, then, that he promises “several other exciting projects in the pipeline for 2021” and the company has secured further financing to achieve this. Earlier this month, Safecility was awarded €42,000 in funding from the EU-backed initiative DigiFed and is currently closing out its seed funding round.

O Flaherty is conscious, however, that some start-ups haven’t been so lucky in the past year. “We’ve definitely seen start-ups struggle through Covid-19. It has been a difficult time for those who were bootstrapping or running out of runway,” he said. “We’ve probably lost some good businesses to lockdown and restrictions and the slow pace of change to funding mechanisms like EIIS.”

However, he is optimistic. “I think we are seeing more opportunities for early-stage founders to develop themselves and their business ideas through various accelerator and pre-accelerator programmes and the quality of many of these is improving,” he said.

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.