Dr Sue Bahn is busy building Tap into Safety, a range of Health & Safety apps that teach and test employees about hazard identification and awareness and safety knowledge. This is their story so far.
//SN: So how did this all start?
My husband and I have been in Health and Safety now for 20 odd years. My husband was working on systems, processes and productivity improvements, and we started another business, Keep It Simple Safety which was a system and consultancy business, and we did really well with that for about 13 years, and then he retired. While that consulting was happening I got bored and went off to do a PhD, so I ended up doing research for 9 years looking at hazard identification through the university. I didn’t teach, I just researched. And then I tried to commercialise the first thoughts around this area with the university and it all went pear-shaped. So I left it with them, and took legal advice which was to start again, and so Tap into Safety was born from that.
//SN: So, you had years of experience in H&S consultancy, and then did almost a decade of pure research on top of that?
I came out of the business school of ECU, I’ve spent my whole research life working on Health and Safety Management research. That’s the management of health and safety rather than actual health and safety practice itself. So my business is about helping businesses to manage their health and safety, and I’m always looking for ways to make the business work better, and that includes health and safety. We built these apps to help businesses reduce their risk of accidents. Because businesses don’t know what their workers don’t know until they have an accident, what we want to do is tell the business what their employees don’t know so the business can put in measures to address those gaps and prevent the accident. So we’ve built a range of apps to train and test employees so that we can do that.
//SN: A range of apps?
Yeah, it’s cost us a fortune, we’ve mortgaged the house again, and we’re just starting to write our own content management system and reporting packages, because we decided we didn’t like going to one of the commercial packages because they take our data and put it on their database, which then gives us issues around confidentiality, security and ownership. So we decided that building our own was the way to go. So there’s hundreds of thousands of dollars that has been pumped into the apps in the back and front end, it’s become a huge thing.We started off with an attitude of “Oh, we’re just going to build some apps, and we’ll have some strategic partnerships, and we’ll get Blond Gorilla to build them for us because they’re really good, and we’ll get another company to build our CMS, and we’ll get another company to do our analytics” and that didn’t work out, so now we’re doing the whole lot ourselves with continued help from Blond Gorilla. Which is nice in one way, because we don’t have the same dependencies and we’re more self-contained if we ever decide to sell the business.
//SN: Can you go into the commercialisation story a bit more?
It’s a sad story, and I’d really say to people looking at commercialisation with universities to be careful about IP. I can’t be that critical with ECU, because they’re operating the only way they know how, and they’d never really done this kind of commercialisation before, but our experience was pretty negative. Because of a previous experience with losing control of IP, ECU have a blanket policy that all staff and students must sign their IP over for all research done at ECU. They have a generous policy with that: 50% of any commercial gains of any commercialisation will be shared with the originating staff member or student. But what I experience was that their preferred way to commercialise research is by licensing, but this particular commercial situation meant we needed to spin out a company, and that apparently represented an unacceptable risk to the university. So we ended up in this situation where we couldn’t come to an agreement about what to do with the IP and nothing happened. We couldn’t use it and they were worried about using it.
The legal advice we got was to start again using the stuff in my head that wasn’t part of the patent or IP that ECU had control of. The funny bit is that a mining company that we were working with during the research was so impressed with our results; we reduced their injuries by 10% and reduced their machinery damage from 8 claims a month down to 2 a month during the trial, which is significant dollars, at least $300,000 a month minimum saving in just the claims reduction alone. So this company really wanted the product, and finally after a bit of negotiating back and forth the university agreed to let them use it, so they are the only company out there using it and no-one else can. Which is obviously a shame, but I’m glad we got there at least because they were really helpful in working with me during the trial research.
//SN: So you started again and built a new product from scratch then?
Yeah, we had a lot of knowledge and experience that was nothing to do with the IP, and a lot of industry contacts. So we went out to the industry and asked them what they really wanted, and they said they really liked what we’d already done, but wanted a bunch of other product and features too, so we built them. We had this idea that it all had to be multi-platform (ha! if only we knew then what we know now!) so we built one app, and then realised we could replicate that app by configuring it differently, so we ended up with four apps. So we went to market with four products, all on Android to start with, which cost us $50K, and then we started looking at porting that to iOS. Luckily at that point Skilled Group came on board as a fantastic customer, great to work with, and they wanted it on the web so we bit the bullet and paid for building it all for the web. We partnered for a while with a company that was helping us with analytics and content management, but that didn’t really work out, so now we’re building our own content management and analytics packages. And we’ve extended it to wellbeing now, that was completed on the web in February, and we’re looking at moving that to the other platforms now.
Yes, that’s a separate discussion almost, it’s a response to the FIFO suicide inquiry that the WA govt are going forward with, and I’m part of a community group called FACE (http://facenetwork.com.au/), which is a FIFO Australian Community of Excellence, a community of FIFO workers, counsellors, industry partners and others, which is an interesting group looking at FIFO working, health and lifestyle. FACE hasn’t specifically contributed to the wellbeing tool, but by associating with them we learned there was a gap there, because business doesn’t actually know the wellbeing of their staff. This creates a vulnerability for businesses because the only time a person presents for assistance using an Employee Assistance Program is when they’re seeking help because they’re already in trouble. So what we’re suggesting is that if the business knows how its staff are tracking on a regular basis the business could actually be proactive; preventative actions could be in place to support people before they go off the deep end. So that’s what we’re looking at with that. We’re really excited about the potential for the wellbeing product, but we only released it three weeks ago and as of right now, we haven’t made a sale. Everyone loves it but no-one’s put their hand in their pocket yet, but it’s early days.
//SN: This sounds like a lot of money, have you got any funding?
We’ve applied for an Accelerating Commercialisation grant to help pay for the Content Management system and improved features of our app platform, and we’re one of the first 3 WA companies to get in front of the approval committee, so hopefully we’ll have a result by the end of the month. Which will be great because the next thing we want to do is get into panoramic 360 degree functionality in our training app, because at the moment it’s a 2D scene and we really think it’ll be improved if it’s an immersive experience. And the bit we can’t do at the moment is attach a hazard to a moving background, so we’ll continue to develop that, and everyone’s excited about that because it’s actually new technology. So that’s a good fit for the Accelerating Commercialisation deal because that program supports investing in new tech and real R&D, so we really hope that comes through. Otherwise we’ll have to support all this R&D from our sales.
//SN: Not from another investment source?
We’re not really after investment right now. The sort of money we’d need to be after to make it worthwhile would actually give us a problem because we wouldn’t know what to do with it, in that almost everything we would want to spend it on we can do anyway from sales cash, just over a longer timeframe. What we would really need an investor for is referrals, we really need some more referrals, but we’re more interested in doing that on a commission basis than selling equity for it. That’s what we’re actively working on now, is finding referral partners who can introduce us to the right people in the resources sector, for example, to get some more sales. We’re finding the same old problem; when you’re a startup and you’re small, like we are, then getting the attention of a decision maker at these large organisations is really hard. It’s not only the resources sector, though, our product is suitable for anyone with a Health & Safety awareness problem, which is pretty much every industry.We’re equally relevant to Hungry Jacks as BHP, but getting their attention is hard. Even with the reputation we’ve got from years of consultancy and research, it’s hard to get in front of the right people to get a sale. So we really need partners who can get us in front of the right people. Once we’re there we can handle the sale, and we know we bring real benefit to our customers so we’re not worried about that, but we need help getting those introductions. So if anyone reading this can make some of those introductions then please get in touch!
//SN: Thanks a lot Sue, good luck with the business!