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Kiwi start-up FaceMe's rolls out prison video conferencing

Kiwi start-up FaceMe's Richard Branson tie-up leads to prison video conferencing roll-out

By Fiona Rotherham

Oct. 16 (BusinessDesk) - Video conferencing technology developed by local start-up FaceMe is connecting Tasmanian prison inmates to their families in a programme that could be extended throughout Australia and the US.

The Auckland-based company’s tie-up to the Tasmanian prison programme resulted from it winning $100,000 and mentoring from Richard Branson in the Virgin Business Challenge in 2011. FaceMe has since developed a relationship with Branson’s non-profit foundation, Virgin Unite, whose board member Jane Tewson is the founder of Igniting Change and the woman behind Red Nose Day.

Igniting Change has been working for the past three years with Hobart pastor Norm Reed connecting families at Tasmania’s Risdon Prison through video, which was initially done though Skype, but had limitations. Virgin Unite then suggested using FaceMe's technology.

Founder Danny Tomsett said they were looking at a five-year roll-out with Australia being the fastest-moving at this stage.

“Richard Branson has got some airtime with President (Barack) Obama to talk about this and I don’t know if that might accelerate it from here,” he said.

FaceMe did the Tasmanian project on a pro bono basis, but would charge for its services if the programme is extended to other jails within Australia and beyond, Tomsett said.

There’s also an opportunity to use the video conferencing technology for rehabilitation work provided by others within the prisons.

Reed said FaceMe’s technology used in the past few months helped extend the video conferencing to a new programme allowing male inmates to help their sons do their homework, including being able to bring the work up on screen. Teachers go into the prison and take the dads through the homework before they then help their kids, he said.

The pastor is talking to Australia’s Department of Education about linking inmates to their children while at school. The biggest advantage with FaceMe’s technology is its security, which is an issue for both prisons and schools, Reed said.

In a recent blog Branson said he had joined an imprisoned father and his son via video. The father told him his family lived a long way from the jail and being able to see them “is everything to me”.

Branson cited UK Prison Reform Trust research which found 65 percent of boys who have had a father in prison go on to reoffend themselves. Creating and encouraging healthy family contact whilst in custody can reduce the likelihood of inmate reoffending by up to six times.

“When I visited Ironwood Prison in the US last year, I could see how this could have an impact far beyond Australia. Now we are looking into rolling out this video visiting programme across Australia and beyond, creating a model for international uptake,” he said.

FaceMe's Tomsett said exposure from the project has been good for the start-up, which sells through distribution partners in New Zealand, Australia, and the UK, and in Hong Kong and Indonesia from early next year. Some 60 percent of its less than $5 million revenue is derived from Australia.

The Kiwi start-up is growing at about 300 percent a year, Tomsett said. It’s just finalising a series A investment round to raise $2.5 million and, once its Asian entry is underway, a series B round to raise a further $10 million is likely in another six months, he said.

The main benefit from Branson’s mentoring advice was the belief the company could be bigger than Tomsett first imagined.

“It was more inspirational than anything else,” he said. “When we went to the UK people saw we had won the Virgin Challenge, and it did open doors for us.”


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