The response to COVID-19 from Australian businesses has been inspiring – we’ve seen small operators completely pivot their business plan to survive, larger companies changing up their production lines to help make safety equipment and tech companies trying to engineer solutions to the problem.

In the past month, we’ve partnered with another start-up – Vimana Tech – to develop Proximity Pal, a smart sensor which detects physical proximity between people and helps to maintain social distancing.

A prototype of Proximity Pal.

As well as working the muscles of our talented machine learning team, it’s also been fascinating experience to go from idea to launching a product in under four weeks.

Here’s the timeline of Proximity Pal’s conception and creation.

 

Thursday 26th March

Around 4pm, I took a call from Joel Kuperholz, a pal who is one of the founders of Vimana Tech, small technology firm based in Melbourne. We’ve partnered with Joel and his team in the past. They were working on a physical device to do proximity detection and needed help with the algorithms. Our machine learning team are mainly mathematicians and physicists by background and so we were happy to help. We were on a zoom call by 5pm and spent the evening and all of Friday exploring the concepts.

 

Sunday 29th March

After a few long days and late nights, we had a working model using 3D printed parts, simple electronics and some clever software.

How Proximity Pal alerts users.

We began sharing within our network for feedback; one of our construction clients was ready to trial and sign up. There was also interest from mining companies and other retailers.

 

Thursday 9th April

Most of Australia was preparing for a very different Easter weekend. The country was in lockdown, and the press coverage was focussed on keeping everyone home. It was a critical weekend in controlling the spread and flattening the curve. Some business were already closed and more seemed likely to close imminently.

For us, a working weekend; but we didn’t have much else to do in any case!

By now, we’d agreed a joint venture between Vimana Tech, Red Marble AI and investors, created a company Proximity Pal, sorted branding and logos, filed a patent for the innovative technology, had the computer boards manufactured and created test devices. Results were promising.

 

Wednesday 15th April

We ran trials at a large hardware store in Melbourne with good results.

It was clear that the technology can detect proximity between humans and help keep people safe. But it was also clear that environmental conditions would affect the performance of Proximity Pal. Indoor or outdoor, different ceiling heights, different acoustic conditions and other factors all individually have minor impacts – but when coupled, could add up to be significant.

By now it was also clear that Australia wasn’t going to experience the horrors that many other countries had seen. Our rate of doubling thankfully had decreased from 25% to low single figures to a handful of cases each day. The threat of closing more businesses had turned into a narrative around easing lockdown and getting back to work sooner.

Our story had changed too; our new customers were now talking about how they can make the technology do more, and have a longer-term focus, to have applicability beyond the lockdown.

 

Monday 20th April

Proximity Pal is officially launched, 25 days after that first phone call.

We have a product in the market in three and a half weeks which meets a market need, and we’re now working on version two to give it applicability beyond the lockdown.

 

What have we learned?

Firstly… that everything is accelerated at the moment. Planning assumptions are out of date within days or even hours. Speed, agility and the ability to rapidly prototype, innovate and pivot have never been more important.

Secondly… it’s amazing what you can achieve with some bright people, clear focus and lots of urgency and belief. Companies need to find a way to harness that kind of energy in their normal operations.

Thirdly… that innovation requires constant experimentation. It requires a healthy scepticism to be blended with a “can-do” attitude. Collect and trust the data.

My final takeaway is that every meeting you have with every network contact can lead somewhere. Joel and I first met 8 months ago, we hadn’t worked together before now, but the seed was sown one morning in the middle of last year.

The world is experiencing lots of horrors at the moment; but through every crisis there are things we can learn and should maintain once we are through the worst.

Find out more about Proximity Pal and see our explainer video.