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Safe Bubble Building

Getting back to our way of life is the new focus. Two entrepreneurial Kiwis have one solution to help expand our bubbles quickly and safely.

Kiwis like to move around. A lot. A NZ Transport survey in 2017 found we travel nearly 52 million kilometres a year, and that's just in NZ. And on any one day a year there is more than 100,000 Kiwis travelling overseas. In the year ended in October 2018 we made more than 3 million international trips. Not bad for a population of 4.8m. Of course all that has changed. Your bubble has been restricted to your immediate family. As the local threat of COVID-19 starts to reduce, how can we get back to our free moving way of life and expand our bubbles safely?

COVID-19 has shut the world down. It has forced people around the world into tight family bubbles, restricted local travel, eliminated international travel, and is starting to cripple and in some cases kill businesses and entire industries. The only travel we’ve been able to do is to the grocery store for supplies, a process involving physical distancing, sideways glances and a underlying feeling of mistrust of our fellow Kiwis. You know that little thought bubble in your head “Is this person safe??” as you accidently get too close in the vege isle, or you see them pick up an item and then put it back.

COVID-19 is making the world and our country more negative, and this can have a spiral effect. When we are caught in negativity, it can spiral quickly and lead to feeling stuck and overwhelmed, increasingly stressed, and sometimes even hopeless. Things can get bad quickly if we let them.

Through the daily Government briefings we’ve heard constantly about the two main weapons in the fight against COVID-19: testing and contact tracing. While testing requires having the right medical process and laboratory protocols, contact tracing is all about investigation work to unpick how someone picked up the disease, where they have been and who else they may have infected. The way this is done today is highly manual – people on phones relying on honest answers from Kiwis who are feeling isolated and scared.

In 2020 the idea of using a manual process for something as complicated as disease contact tracing sounds archaic. But in the absence of a technology solution this is the best tool we have. Surely there must be a better way of doing contact tracing that is faster, easier and reliable?

How do we get back to as close to normality as possible? How can we open our businesses safely and get the volume of business we need to survive? How can we make our hospital environments safer? And how can we start to open borders so that tourists can come back, and international business can restart? These are the questions two Kiwi entrepreneurs have been focusing on, and they believe they have one solution to the challenge of minimising the impact of COVID-19 to the Kiwi way of life.

Paul O’Connor, a Christchurch based business owner is a lover of sport and a global traveller. He runs the successful car audio and EV charging business, OEM Audio based in Christchurch and has dedicated manufacturing capability in China, where his products are produced to the highest levels of quality. When he travels for business, he also uses any excuse he can to go to the game he loves, cricket, and to attend Formula 1, another passion of his. He is a self-confessed car guy through and through. But of course, COVID-19 restrictions have not only impacted his ability to travel, but also threatened attendance at major sporting events for some time into the future. “There are only so many re-runs of great events and Netflix you can watch before you go a bit crazy” he admits.

“As an island nation, we’re generally a nation of travelers” says Broomhall. “And with the type of business we are both involved in we tend to do a bit of it”. Broomhall, who launched Invisible Urban with co-founder Jake Bezzant in 2019, an electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure business has successfully signed up more than $88m in US based contracts. He managed to just get back from a business trip to New York before the impact of COVID-19 began to be felt everywhere. “It was my third visit to the US this year. We had a strategy session with one of our mentors in NY, met with a group of investment bankers and potential investors, and then spent a couple of days blowing off steam on a ski field. We just got home when the voluntary and then compulsory self-isolation started to kick in.” Broomhall has been in regular contact with the NY and Atlanta teams and he says everything has just ground to a halt. “While we know that the world will still go electric because it’s just better technology, we, like a lot of others, have hit a delay”. A delay he feels is just short term, because as a technologist and an optimist, he strongly believes we will solve this challenge together using technology.

To say they are both highly motivated to help Kiwis get back to our way of life would be an understatement.

O’Connor started the lockdown playing the Worlds Longest Monopoly game with his teenagers, something in hindsight he feels was a ‘strategic error’. Broomhall jumped into the garden at his lifestyle block with some serious power tools and the chainsaw. During one chainsaw session his loving wife Melissa informed him that perhaps he should climb down out of the pine tree and hand the chainsaw over to her for safe keeping. Both men it seems, are comfortable with risk. And of course, they had started turning their minds to what to do to get the country going again once we got the virus under control.

Broomhall put together an infrastructure project for the Government which involved hiring up to 200 people in the technology space, creating new inner-city flexible green spaces, and installing EV chargers across the country. Basically, taking what his company Invisible Urban is doing in the US and growing the business much larger here in NZ. The idea being that as the global operation grows, more skilled Kiwis can be hired in NZ, and fast. Broomhall estimates that over 10 years this approach could contribute more than $300m to the NZ economy, hire 200+ people quickly, improve air quality and encourage rapid electric vehicle uptake. All for a loan, not a handout. The jury is out on whether the Government will accept this proposal and kick start the business here in NZ. Broomhall was also recording interviews for his podcast, The Electrify Everything Show, which O’Connor had featured in. In one of the conversations between the two, O’Connor mentioned he had an interesting approach from one of his manufacturing contacts who was building a new COVID-19 related product, something O’Connor encouraged.

“When Paul initially told me about what he was bringing into NZ it didn’t really sink in. I remember thinking that was interesting, but mentally put it aside. It was only until he had it in-country and showed me the test video that the lightbulb went off.” With a background working for IBM, a stint in predictive analytics at Mindfull NZ, building a global consulting business, and connections in the US, Europe and China the lightbulb literally exploded. “With EV chargers it’s a combination of hardware, the chargers, and the software required to manage, monitor and monetise them globally. The technology Paul is developing aligns perfectly with this”.

O’Connor followed up with his contact and some products were shipped to NZ for him to trial. The product which has both him and Broomhall excited is a combined facial recognition and temperature scanner in one. With the ability to store up to 30,000 faces locally, a <98.3% temperature scanner accuracy, and taking less than a second to scan, they believe they have found one part of the puzzle needed to get Kiwis back to our way of life faster and safer. “We’ve seen that this virus is highly contagious, so the need to contact trace is critical to isolate those who may have been in with the virus”. Contact tracing is basically investigating a person’s movements and those they have been in contact with. “We believe that installing this type of hardware at the entrance to workplaces and businesses is the first step in getting us back to a new normal and moving around” says Broomhall.

Broomhall is so passionate about this solution he has created a new company called Bubble Access, which plays on the name given to our direct family unit, our bubble. “We’ve got a three-prong strategy we’ve put to the Government. Phase 1 is Bubble Access Local, where businesses and workplaces work to widen their local bubble safely. The second phase is Bubble Access regional/national, this is where we integrate a regional/national anonymized database so Kiwis only have to sign up once and then we can move more freely. The third phase is Bubble Access International. This is where borders integrate hardware and the database to pick up potentially sick people before they get on planes and we can start to get back to tourism and global business”.

“The plan at the moment is to start getting the hardware into NZ businesses and move fast to tackle COVID-19 by focusing on high-risk threats and rapid contact tracing” says Broomhall. “Our objective is to help create safer and wider bubbles for people, continue to expand this as fast as we can, and expand overseas. We’ve actually started discussions with our global contacts and major players in the UK and the US have got really excited.”

Of course this idea of centrally captured personal information is nothing new, and it raises all the old red flags around privacy and restriction of movement. “No-one wants to turn NZ into a socialist state” says Broomhall, “However we also don’t want to have to resort to national lock-downs every time we have a local outbreak”. The heart of what the two are trying to achieve is all about rapid contact tracing and identifying and restricting individual movements rather than everyone. “Imagine” says O’Connor, “That all workplaces, businesses, public buildings and sporting events had this type of technology. The initial phase provides the ability to identify sick people and restrict them from entry so we can all feel safer”. In the event of someone failing a temperature test, the data is made available to health professionals and rapid contact tracing can be done looking back over building entry data from other devices the person has interacted with. “When and only when an event is triggered could the persons personal information be accessed by professionals” both argue.

For anyone who has travelled into the US, or used a new smartphone with facial recognition software and hardware the horse has already bolted on personal information. It is something we give away freely to be able to access the latest and greatest piece of technology. But that doesn’t mean these guys aren’t taking it seriously. “We’re in discussions with the Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) group to incorporate their concepts into our data protection protocols” says Broomhall. “Like any other Kiwi I want to know my data is safe. But if you asked me to choose today between a bullet-proof system which could take months and years to build, or the ability to move around more freely now, I know what I’d be choosing”. Instead, he argues, “We need to get solutions into the market know and rapidly refine them, with a core principle of making personal information anonymous unless an event is triggered”.

Of course, this solution does not address those who are asymptomatic, people not showing any symptoms but carrying the virus and infecting others. “Our initial solution is very localized and designed to keep the workplace or local shop bubble safe, but it’s not foolproof” both agree. “But where it gets really interesting” they argue, “is where we provide health professionals access to the database to alert the system of possible cases. These are cases where someone has come into direct contact with a COVID-19 sufferer but does not yet have any symptoms. “In that scenario we can get ahead of the virus by enabling rapid contact tracing, isolating all those that have come into contact and the places they have visited, and restricting an individuals’ movements, not the whole region or country” says Broomhall. “When it comes to hard and complex things there are no silver bullets. To quote Ben Horowitz,” says Broomhall, “we’re going to need a whole lot of lead bullets, and the Bubble Access Scanner is our first bullet which will only get better over time”.

A lot of focus has been going into developing mobile apps around the world and we asked Broomhall and O’Connor their views on this. “In my view access points into buildings, just like border control, are a key part of the chain and must be protected. Denying access to potentially sick people protects everyone. I see mobile apps using Bluetooth technology as complimentary to a building access scanner, but unless compulsory they can face a few challenges as they are seeing with the Singapore app which has less than 18% take-up” says Broomhall.

The key to getting us back to our way of life as soon as possible is speed, argue the two. “The virus moves fast and that’s what we need to do” states O’Connor. “In the technology game we have to always stay one step ahead, and in our particular industry, ensure that everything is 100% safe”. “We need, even more so than other nations, to get solutions like ours into the market, continually refine and perfect them, all with the purpose of keeping people safe while getting back our way of life”.

Both these guys have strong reasons to get back their way of life. For O’Connor its’ about getting back to travel and to sport. “I need to get back out on the pitch doing what I love” highlights O’Connor, a cricketer now turned crick umpire. Broomhall on the other hand was in the middle of capital raising in the US, and expansion into Europe for his EV charging business. “I need NZ’s borders safe and open” says Broomhall, “there are only so many things you can manage remotely, and nothing beats face to face when things get tough”. He also wants to get back onto the tennis court, the ski field and to sporting events. In the world of business, nothing motivates more than scratching your own itch.

Their first product is designed to help get us expand our bubbles safely. “Our initial product and overall approach are just enablers to help Kiwi’s get back to life. We are not a nation, unlike some others, that live our lives in fear. We have been reduced to sheltering in our homes in fear of an invisible enemy. By creating safer and wider bubbles we can all get back to restarting our great country together” says Broomhall. “And if the only change we need to make is a simple one second scan at the entry to workplaces, cafes, restaurants and sporting events, I’m up for that” says O’Connor.

This is not a solution they can achieve without help. “We need the help of experts within key organizations to help make our solution stronger and more effective to ensure they keep the doors open to employees and customers” says Broomhall. “NZ has a unique opportunity because we are ahead of the rest of the world in the battle against COVID-19. We want to take advantage of this and build a really effective solution in NZ, and then take it globally to get the world closer to the world we knew”. And globally is exactly where these two want to go, after they have delivered for NZ. “Our focus first and foremost is how do we increase the size of our bubbles in NZ safely. We’re committed to learning a lot over the next 12-18 months, and to moving as fast as we can. We’ve got a great team lined up to work with us on this and we’re ready to go. Our first product is ready, and we’ve started promoting it through Bubble Access Limited” says Broomhall.

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