“we’re saving lives, & that’s important to us” — dr. sam chapman, the floowBack
Jennifer Lee O'Brien
The Floow, a telematics data company, is based in Sheffield at 4 Joiner Street, close to the River Don. The building is called OXO House, a former warehouse for OXO stock cubes. It was built in 1936 by a builder named George Longden. The style is art deco; it is sturdy, red brick’d and located far enough from the river to avoid the risk of rising waters dissolving the stock and flooding the streets with cold broth.
OXO House is now an office building. In the lobby is a series of burnt orange and grey chairs, each with its own integrated side table. They look like the future of First Class airline seating as imagined in the 1970s; really, they were made in 2003 by French designer Philippe Starck for the Eurostar business class lounge at Waterloo Station. In a book about travelling the Eurail Express, they are referred to as ‘egg chairs’.
In the room adjacent to the egg chairs, accessed through a glass-paned entrance, is a meeting space with wood-panelled walls, a white leather couch and a large table. On one wall is a stone mural relief; on another is a television. We’ve been told that dignitaries, tech entrepreneurs and engineers from places like Beijing, New York and London have watched presentations on this TV. Today, the television is off, but we can imagine these very important people in pant suits drinking ice water from tall, thin glassware, taking notes and nodding in vague approval.
We’re greeted by Dr. Sam Chapman, the Chief Innovation Officer, Co-Founder and Director at The Floow, who is sitting at the table using a laptop. A small piece of tape covers the laptop’s internal camera; it reminds us of the photograph of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his cam-covered computer that went viral earlier this year, and we’re impressed.
Last night, Dr. Sam Chapman was drinking champagne at a wedding for a colleague in the Peak District. By the time he got home, it was almost 1am. He awoke this morning, a Monday, before the sun. It’s not yet lunchtime and he’s already spoken to the press twice. When he tells us this information it’s in the restrained, sharp tone of a government official.
Dr. Sam Chapman is the sort of professional who can attend a wedding in the Peak District despite the sobering foreknowledge that he’ll be in three different press meetings before lunch the following day. We can imagine him as the fictional entrepreneur of HBO television shows, where time is depicted as effortless, shiny sequences of dinners with clients, late nights at his desk, dramatic boardroom presentations and martinis in airport lounges. From an LCD TV distance, Dr. Sam Chapman’s restrained, sharp tone, blonde hair and slim-fitting suit are the insignia of glamour, confidence and control. But here, in an art deco building that once stored chicken stock, they are the wholesome outcomes of hard work and passion.
“The name originates from the psychological state we were in when we were first working on the company, whereby you’re so busy and involved in what you’re doing you can forget to eat,” says Sam. “Which wasn’t healthy, but we were so driven to achieve what we wanted to do.”
The idea for The Floow came from Aldo Monteforte, an Italian entrepreneur and investor who saw a gap in the telematics market and co-founded the company with Sam, a researcher at The University of Sheffield. Aldo and Sam wanted to change the state of telematics, that before 2012 normally meant an expensive black box in a luxury sports car.
“It didn’t really meet the mass-market at all,” says Sam. “We started thinking that there’s more you can do with this information; you can see how people drive. And that starts to impact on risk. With that in mind, we saw an opportunity to launch something new.”
They wanted to launch a smartphone app that didn’t drain a phone’s battery and was able to collect reliable data, like a driver’s acceleration and braking, using GPS.
“We had a great idea but we were a very small startup of two people,” says Sam. “The only way to operate was to get there faster than someone else, and the only way to do that was completely in secrecy. We started completely in stealth; we didn’t have a website for a year.”
Most startups do whatever they can to get noticed, but The Floow did everything they could to keep their work a secret. When they thought they’d got the technology right, they approached Direct Line Insurance Group, who were so impressed they took the company on as its UK supplier of smartphone applications and telematics data analytics.
“At that point we started to put information on our website about what we did, but it’s never been our main emphasis,” says Sam. “It’s always been about speaking to the right people with the right technology.”
While the word ‘telematics’ sounds about as cosy as an aluminium mattress in a refrigerator van, at the heart of The Floow’s operation is a real concern for driver’s safety.
“I’ve always been interested in data,” says Sam. “Coding’s always a means to an end for me; it’s the act of understanding, more than anything else, and that’s what I’ve done here.
“We don’t gather this information for no reason; we gather it to save people.”
If that seems like an exaggeration, then take a minute and think about someone you know who’s a bad driver. Imagine being in their car, and remember that knot of pure fear that expands in your stomach; think of checking the seat belt, one, two — ‘bit of a tight turn there, eh?’ — three times.
And hey, this driver isn’t a bad person. In fact, you probably like them a lot. But every time you get into their car, listening for the click of the seat belt and watching them turn the key in the ignition, you find yourself sat next to something closer to a Nascar-loving Grim Reaper than your best friend, and gosh, why didn’t you just pay for a taxi?
But now, imagine this driver wants to save a few pounds with their insurance company. They’ve agreed to be on a programme powered by The Floow, and every journey they take is recorded. And if they’re having a bad driving day, they might be given a little advice about how they could improve, so that their insurance prices can improve. And so, slowly, they start to improve and eventually they save money and can buy the hot tub of their dreams, and the roads are safer for everyone.
“Minor advice starts to change behaviour,” says Sam. “We do see a lot of changes, and because of that we see a change in statistics which means we’re saving lives, and that’s important to us,” says Sam.
But it’s more than just road safety. The Floow have developed a programme to see what they can do for problems with pollution, working with hefty organisations like the Department for Transport and the European Space Agency.
Sam tells us that pollution is generally monitored in a city by several large base stations with sensors. In Sheffield there are six city-owned stations, with two additional sites owned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
“And what’s known about pollution in between those is only gathered through models of mathematical predictions of what is happening within the gaps between these sensors,” says Sam.
Which can mean that the information that comes from these mathematical predictions is “largely guesswork,” and doesn’t offer much opportunity for the kind of analysis needed to come up with solutions.
“And this is where we come in, because a lot of pollution comes from vehicular traffic,” says Sam. “As vehicles are travelling we can see the whole physics of these vehicles. We can see how they’re braking, accelerating, to what degree the accelerator is being pressed, and so on. And if you see that information you start to see patterns of behaviour and where they occur, which can lead to innovative solutions for things like air pollution.”
Where they occur is important; with data collected by The Floow, analysts can see patterns that might suggest problems with infrastructure. Maybe drivers aren’t driving aggressively for aggression’s sake; maybe there’s a tight corner, or a congested area that’s making them brake or accelerate.
“And these interventions are very cheap to fix, and can start to change cities for the better,” says Sam.
Spend a morning at 4 Joiner Street, in a room where international dignitaries drink from tall, thin glassware; where a few floors above ground more than seventy scientists, engineers, designers and developers are collecting, processing and interpreting data for some of the biggest insurance companies in the world. Spend a morning in OXO House where there are egg chairs, talking to Dr. Sam Chapman about his company that was created in stealth, and you might forget for a moment you’re in Sheffield, the city that has grown The Floow from two to seventy staff members; the very city where The Floow needs to be.
“There was always a debate of where to form the company,” says Sam. “Aldo had a strong interest in Silicon Valley and London; I managed to convince him that Sheffield was the right place, because we needed to grow a company and have access to staffing that would stay here.
“Technology can be developed anywhere, and deployed anywhere,” he adds. “There’s no reason that all technology should be grown in Silicon Valley.”
In December 2014, two years after Aldo and Sam began working on their good idea in stealth, The Floow received the Made in Sheffield mark — a brand mark of origin and quality for products made in the city. It was the only the second software company to receive the mark.
“We’ve always seen ourselves as engineers,” says Sam. “Although we don’t make a physical chunk of metal, we’ve always seen what we do as crafting.
“Getting the Made in Sheffield mark was a recognition that we actually put that level of care into what we do. Having that local indication meant a lot to us, and it also helped a lot in the early days.”
Less than two years later Sam was inducted as a Freeman with The Company of the Cutlers, an almost 400 year old organisation that protects the quality of Sheffield’s manufactured products like cutlery and steel. Sam was the first digital engineer to be invited into The Company.
“To become a cutler they have to recognize you’re a quality manufacturer,” says Sam. “The only thing that has changed is what people are manufacturing. Nowadays not everything is cutlery. It changed from general manufacturing and it’s also changed to digital manufacturing.”
Nowadays, what Sheffield is manufacturing is saving lives, helping to reduce pollution and change cities for the better; from the same buildings where OXO stock cubes were kept. Where dignitaries visit and admire egg chairs designed by Philippe Starck, and scientists read stories from data, carefully, uncovering human truths from the numbers that flow around us, like a billion buzzing, electric fireflies.
Originally published in The City Talking: Sheffield — issue 06