Once, they each had a dream to change the world with IT. Now, they're working on it together. Technology and entrepreneurship fans Roman Prytkov and Tolga Varol met at the EIT Digital Master School, then jointly sowed the seeds for their startup DriveTrust during the Summer School. Before they had finished their master's, they had already raised €1.5 million in funding when their Summer School project had become an EIT Digital Innovation Activity, seeing them partnering with big European companies.
Varol’s entrepreneurial drive started in Turkey. After his bachelor’s in electronics and telecommunications engineering, he began developing the startup KitchConn in the field of portable smart home systems. “Due to economic uncertainty and political changes in 2016, at that time Turkey was too volatile for starting up.” When an ad for the EIT Digital Master School mentioning blended Innovation & Entrepreneurship education and participating universities caught his eye, he took action to switch paths and successfully enrolled in the Embedded Systems programme. He spent his first year at the Technische Universität Berlin (TU Berlin) and his final year at KTH in Sweden. “I made the right choice.”
Prytkov, who was born in Russia and raised in Germany, had also been dreaming about starting a tech company. “My love for tech is to bring new innovations to market and make people's lives better.” Hence, to him it was quite logical that after his bachelor’s in industrial engineering and management in Karlsruhe, he should enter the EIT Digital Master School programme Internet Technology & Architecture. In the first-year of his master's at the TUB, he did meet Varol occasionally, but they never really talked to each other.
That they did, when they both were assigned the same hotel room at the Internet of Things Summer School They discovered that they both shared the same dreams. The EIT Digital Summer School is mandatory for the EIT Digital Master school students. In here, building business solutions alongside taking classes on how to turn technology into business opportunities and working with real-life case studies are core aspects of the summer schools, which are also open to professionals. At the end of the course, students get the chance to pitch their ideas in a final competition.
Together with two other team members, Prytkov and Varol came up with an idea which they called DriveTrust. The idea was originally inspired by the Volkswagen scandal, explains Prytkov. “We wanted to think about how to prevent pollution and promote environmentally-friendly driving. That was too complicated. We then came up with a smart tracking device that could analyse driving behaviours and help drivers to improve in order to support traffic safety and eco-friendly driving. I don’t like hot headed drivers who cut corners. They annoy me.”
Despite their strong confidence that they had a winning concept, they did not win the pitching competition. “That was frustrating”, says Prytkov. “We had worked so hard on it.” But, due to their clear belief in their idea, they could not let go of it. So, they decided to continue with it. The two other team members were not interested. There was only one problem: while Varol stayed in Stockholm to start his final academic year, Prytkov moved to Rennes to continue studying at the Université Rennes 1.
Starting the startup
With Varol in Stockholm and Prytkov 2,000 kilometres to the south in Rennes, they worked together remotely on scoping out their idea further, using online communication tools. Varol was building his business experience by working alongside his studies as an embedded systems developer and innovation and technical project leader for different hardware companies. “I learned a lot on the business side and did a lot of background research for our startup.” This research resulted in several minor theses and his final master's thesis in 2019.
After arriving in Rennes, Prytkov worked for one month full time on a prototype. He also saw a chance to leverage the EIT Digital Master School's infrastructure to further develop the idea; he could base one technical project and one Innovation & Entrepreneurship project around DriveTrust. “I also got accepted into the Incubator, a programme within the EIT Digital Master School in Rennes in which you can work on an idea and develop a business case. The time spent there can be counted as an internship. I got help from other students - including the one who won the summer school pitch. I am happy that EIT Digital and its partner universities offered these opportunities.”
EIT Digital Innovation Activity
One day, Alvaro Pina Stranger, the colocation manager of the EIT Digital satellite office in Rennes, suggested to Prytkov that he should put DriveTrust forward for an Innovation Activity at EIT Digital. EIT Digital annually issues calls for proposals to stimulate innovation in Europe. Proposers can submit ideas for a new startup, product or service based on deep tech. After approval, participants receive co-funding and have a year to come up with results. Prytkov had two days to prepare a pitch which he delivered at the EIT Digital headquarters in Brussel. “I got good feedback and collected business cards.”
Then the most challenging part of the application process started: finding business partners. One condition for applications is that a joint innovation plan should be submitted, with two to five other, complementary organisations from the EIT Digital ecosystem. “I had one month to get some industry partners on board.” He analysed EIT Digital’s partner list of over 200 European organisations and began cold calling all of those that looked like they might be a good match for DriveTrust and if they would be interested in co-funding. “This was mass marketing. I made hundreds of calls. That was a hell of a hard four weeks.”
The hellish weeks paid off. As well as garnering a lot of positive feedback, he and Varol were finally able to submit the proposal for DriveTrust together with IMEC (headquartered in Belgium), the University of Rennes in France and CRF in Italy. And the proposal was approved. It even got designated as a so-called 'early-bird project', which meant the activity could start from 1 October, 2018 instead of 1 January, 2019. The approval includes 1.5 million euros in funding from the partners and EIT Digital. EIT Digital will be a shareholder of 25 per cent after the legal startup creation.
Change of strategy
Then, new challenges arose. The first was a change in strategy. Varol and Prytkov had done a lot background work; testing, reviewing and researching, and, based on that, they were looking at more advanced technologies. Prytkov: “We initially wanted a camera to record driving behaviour based on a device with a USB charger, equipped with two or three sensors. But we realised that artificial intelligence (AI) and computer vision would be better to analyse video and automatically recognise behaviours detected in the video. We wanted to change it into a vision-based product, making the product more complex. That required some convincing for our partners. But, in the end, they were all enthusiastic.”
The two EIT Digital Master School students see opportunities for their device in the business to consumer market; for example, parents might want a behaviour-measuring camera for their children when they have just passed their driving test. However, they see more potential in the business to business market; car fleet owners and, in particular, the shared mobility and carpooling markets, with companies like Uber and BlaBlaCar could be potential customers. “These companies do want to ensure that drivers drive safely.”
DriveTrust is not the only company that makes driving-behaviour tools. The difference is, say the founders, that DriveTrust's solution is cheaper, more accurate and customisable. Varol: “As far as our research has shown, the competing products offer a maximum of two or three variants. In our case, without additional customisation costs, it is possible to have five to six variants in terms of AI accuracy, long and shortrange connectivity and optional V2X (vehicle to everything).” “We have a modular approach”, Prytkov adds. “We can easily customise products to the customer’s needs. Our competitors mostly offer a one-size-fits-all solution.”
In 2017, they were each alone with their idea and dreams. Now, they have an office in Rennes, a small office in Paris and 12 people on the payroll. In total, 25 people work for DriveTrust, excluding subcontractors. Both IMEC and CRF are seconding engineers, product owners, team leader and developers to the startup, while the university is lending fulltime technical employees.
Managing these people is a big challenge for the founders of DriveTrust, says Varol. “Not all people are equally skilled or experienced; the team is very diverse team and some work in different time zones. Our critical path is super fixed, so we cannot afford to make mistakes coordinating this. Making sure everything works is a major challenge. It is quite hectic. It takes a lot of time to align all the people to achieve the results to which we aspire. It is probably one of the most exciting parts of our journey.”
Nonetheless, the results are coming in. “We are beginning to make deals”, says Prytkov. “Last week, we had a request for quotation (RFQ) for 10,000 cameras. We also have new partners: Id4car, a French company focused on mobility and innovation, and several companies like Uber are helping us pilot our cameras. GFT is also interested in our technology, but from a different angle; they believe that DriveTrust's hardware for a powerful AI dash camera could be used for blockchain technology to enable smart contracts between drivers and insurers.”
End of the project
However, the biggest challenge still lies ahead of them. After the Innovation Activity is completed at the end of the year with the delivery of about 75-100 devices, the people who joined DriveTrust via its partners will decide whether or not to stay on and work with them. That will depend on the startup's prospects and sales. “In 2020, we plan to sell 10,000 devices. We will require seed funding of about €1-2 million for initial mass manufacturing of the hardware, then we will seek additional funds to scale fast," says Varol.
The founders truly believe it will all be worthwhile. “Founding a hardware startup is high risk. But if it works, it is highly profitable,” says Prytkov. Varol derives his belief in the market opportunity from a competing US startup, which was founded in 2015 and is now valued at $3.6 billion. “It strongly signals the potential in the market for startups like ours. Moreover, in about five to ten years, leveraging on our IP and know-how, DriveTrust will be moving away from evaluating drivers to evaluating self-driving cars. There lies a huge market and future for us.”
Prytkov graduated from the EIT Digital Master School in 2018, and Varol will receive his degree at this year's Graduation Day in Berlin.
EIT Digital Summer School