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Thurs, April 15, 2010
The Straits Times
   

Charting their way in business

By Francis Chan
 

In the fifth of a six-part series on innovative start-ups, LEE YEN NEE talks to navigation software firm Quantum Inventions to find out how it took a concept from lab to market with a little help from Spring Singapore's Start-up Enterprise Development Scheme (Seeds).

RESEARCHER Saurav Bhattacharyya felt confident he had a commercial winner on his hands after developing software to help motorists navigate their way to avoid traffic congestion.

He and a few fellow researchers had been working on the routing software technology at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

So five years ago, fired with enthusiasm, aspiring entrepreneur Mr Bhattacharyya, now 31, left his job to start up his own firm Quantum Inventions (QI).

Initially, he had to run the firm single-handedly, until his colleagues also decided to quit their jobs to join the firm.

But then, the trouble was that while they knew all about navigation software, navigating their way through the business world was a different matter.

"What works in a lab never works outside. None of us had any business knowledge, we were just passionate researchers wanting to commercialise our technology," said Mr Bhattacharyya, who had studied computer engineering.

"We totally underestimated the challenges when we first started out."

The team spent nearly a year struggling to get a commercial foothold.

They spent the time working to make the technology more suitable for commercial application. Their perseverance paid off when the firm landed its first collaboration - with the Land Transport Authority (LTA) in late 2006.

Even then, their inexperience meant they did not fully comprehend the nature of the contract with LTA.

Despite that, the partnership was a successful one. LTA and the firm jointly developed the Traffic Information Platform (Trip), which allows motorists to receive live traffic information on portable or in-vehicle navigation devices such as the global positioning system (GPS).

While the GPS technology enables drivers to plan driving routes without taking into account traffic conditions, the Trip application is able to plan the same routes around difficult traffic conditions.

GPS alone is unable to guide drivers around traffic congestion, but Trip, using the live traffic information that it receives, offers this welcome service.

Motorists are also given the option to avoid Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) gantries and to select the fastest or shortest routes to arrive at their destination.

QI played a crucial role by supplying technology to process raw traffic data into the type of data used in these devices.

Mr Bhattacharyya, who is QI's chief executive, said the technology involves a system known as geographic information system coupled with standard computing technology and algorithms.

He regards the LTA deal as a lucky charm. It not only allowed him to pick up marketing and business skills, but also helped the firm gain market exposure as well.

For instance, QI took part in the Intelligent Transport Systems Asia Pacific Forum and Exhibition held at Suntec City in 2008, where it showcased Trip.

Since then, QI has clinched several other partnerships with major firms, one of the latest being Google, which uses QI's technology on Google Maps Singapore.

The firm, which employs 16 people now, became profitable within two years of its inception - and now has grand plans for regional expansion.

Last year, QI applied to Spring for Seeds funding and received the grant in June. He declined to state the amount but said the funds were used to kick-start the firm's overseas expansion.

"We started to explore international opportunities," he said, adding that target countries included Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia.

Mr Bhattacharyya is confident the technology will prove widely popular given, for example, that it helps tackle traffic jams - a problem in many centres.

"When half of the population is stuck in a traffic jam, at least the other half doesn't come into the same jam. They get diverted to other roads," he said.

In a broader sense, it allows governments to plan the urban landscape better, as traffic analysis can help to identify better locations to build roads and buildings.

An "angel investor" who has pumped vital funds into QI since June last year, Mr Leslie Loh, agrees that QI has significant potential for growth.

Mr Loh, 51, who helped QI secure Seeds funding, said: "With rapid urbanisation in Asia and the global emerging market, there will be growing interest for our innovative intelligent transport systems and technology."

Looking ahead, Mr Bhattacharyya has a vision to use this live traffic information seamlessly across the Internet, mobile phones and navigation systems.

"The idea is that you check everything onlinebut when you go inside the car, you don't have the Internet with you, what you would like to do is to recall your search on devices like GPS or mobile phones and just get driving," he said.

"Whether that's for a car, whether that's for a bus, whether that's for a train or that's for the air, we're hoping to provide a platform for full mobility services, which gives you a seamless experience across all the different platforms."


Innovation seeds

UNDER the Spring Singapore Start-up Enterprise Development Scheme (Spring Seeds), Spring Seeds Capital - a wholly owned subsidiary of Spring - co-invests with third-party investors for up to $1 million in local start-ups.

To qualify for the scheme, these firms need to have innovative products and processes with intellectual content and strong international growth potential.

To be considered for investment, a firm must:

  • Be located in Singapore;
  • Have been in operation for less than five years;
  • Have a paid-up capital of $50,000 to $1 million; and
  • Have an independent third party committed to invest at least $75,000 in the business.

The scheme covers growth sectors such as information communications technology, science and technology, and business services.

More information is available at www.spring.gov.sg/seeds


For more information, visit http://www.spring.gov.sg

 
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