Falco: smart marina management
It was within Inria’s Eva team that a high-performance wireless communication technology was developed. This technology has since been deployed by Wattson Elements, which uses it in the pleasure boat industry. With support from Inria, it has developed a platform around this technology, dubbed Falco, which offers new services to port managers and amateur sailors alike. Interview with Elsa Nicol, chief executive at Wattson Elements.
Your start-up has developed a solution called Falco. What is it and who is it aimed at?
It is primarily aimed at managers of marinas. It can be used both for dynamic berth management – the presence or absence of a boat at each berth is detected in real time – and for measuring the power consumed by each boat when moored, also in real time. Until now, most ports have at best one meter per pontoon and charge a fixed fee to each boat owner.
Falco also includes a service element for recreational boaters: a box installed in the boat, which detects an outbreak of fire, an intrusion, movements indicating a mooring problem, and so on, and sends any alerts to the boat owner via an application and to the port over a user interface. If the owner is not there, the port can take action.
What is the technology at the heart of Falco?
Originally, there was the research conducted by Inria’s Eva team, specialists in wireless networks, which led to the development of a wireless communication technology. It has unrivalled performance in today’s complex marina environment. Unlike other systems, where data can be lost or where the link can be broken if the environment changes, Inria’s system is extremely robust and has 99.999% reliability! It is a mesh network: each part of the network can be used as a relay to transmit information, which offers much greater reliability than a configuration where only a central component dispatches the data. But in playing this role of transmitter, there is also a risk that each component will consume more energy. This is where the Eva team’s expertise really comes into its own: it strikes the perfect balance between reliability and energy use by optimising the programming of each part of the network.
How did the idea of using this technology in marinas come about?
The Eva team has been working on this IoT (Internet of Things) technology for more than three years and has already deployed it in several environments at the request of its partners. In this case, it was the port of Cap d’Agde that asked for a proof of concept for dynamic berth management and measuring power consumption. At the end of the project, the port agreed it was the perfect solution and wanted to know where they could buy it.
And that’s when Wattson Elements got involved?
Exactly. I had heard about the project and, since my background is in project management and product development for industrial applications, I set my sights on deploying the solution to market.
How did setting up the company go?
We were fortunate enough to have the support of Inria’s Technology Transfer, Innovation and Partnerships Department (STIP). The person we were liaising with helped us put together an application for a Technology Transfer Initiative. As a result, we received a grant of around €100,000, which funded an initial prototype – essential for approaching prospective customers – and an engineer’s salary – a young Doctor of Engineering – for a year. We were also able to participate in an Inria training programme, in partnership with the EM Lyon Business School, to work on strategy, sales approach, value proposition, building a business plan, etc. We had to do a significant amount of work to develop our project, because the ultimate objective was to take part in BPI France’s I-Lab competition. Which we did at the end of February... we are currently waiting for the results. Winning this competition could lead to funding – up to €600,000 – and would bring us considerable recognition and increase our visibility!
How is the collaboration with Inria going today?
We have finalised the licensing agreement with the STIP. This allows us to leverage Inria’s technology. The STIP also put us in contact with an incubator, into which we have been accepted. We will therefore leave the Eva team’s premises, where we have been based until now, at the end of the year. But our links with Inria will remain strong: we are part of the Inria Business Club and, of course, we will continue to promote Inria as our partner; Inria is also a mark of quality. Having a technology that emerged from Inria positions us as a deep tech start-up, based on public and innovative research. This improves access to certain grants and gives us visibility among prospective customers.
What are the next steps for Wattson Elements?
Falco will be deployed from June in our first two connected ports for customers and partners: Cap d’Agde and Kernével, in Lorient. Between 50 and 120 boats will be equipped with boxes, and we will collect feedback from ports and boat owners. This is because, if the technology is proven, we will still need to correct any defects in the user interface. Our objective is to have the final product ready for the boat shows to be held in Cap d’Agde and Paris at the end of the year. And in the meantime, we need to step up our efforts to respond to invitations to tender from French or overseas ports in order to convert our pilot projects into real deployments as soon as possible!
Wattson Elements: key dates
- 2015: Eva team formed
- 2016-2017: development of the innovative wireless technology, SOLSystem
- 2017: SmartMarina project (proof of concept in Cap d’Agde)
- 2018: Falco conceived
- January 2019: Wattson Elements was set up
- June to October 2019: Falco deployed in Cap d’Agde and Lorient