The Floow drives Sheffield tech onto roads worldwide

Vicki Shiel, March 8, 2016 7 min read

This article was originally posted on the Tech North website.

The Floow has turned advanced telematics data management – the ability to remotely gather information about the mobility of vehicles or objects – for motor insurers into a mass-market concept in just a couple of years.

Based in Sheffield, the high-growth company has expanded from its 2012 startup team of three to more than 60 staff. It’s continuing to recruit well-qualified people to bring its ideas to new international territories and develop additional applications for its technology.

As the company recently featured in our Tech Nation 2016 report, we decided to catch up with them and find out a little more about how things are going. Here’s co-founder and chief innovation officer, Dr Sam Chapman, on how the product works, being secretive at the start, transforming conventional telematics, reaching out to new industries, and why they chose to base the business in Sheffield.

What’s The Floow all about?

At the heart of everything we do is the belief that driving should, and can, be safer and cheaper for all. Our approach, our products and our services are all geared towards this one common goal across the company.

We do this by supporting leading insurers worldwide with the industry’s most advanced recording technology. The device-agnostic data capturing enables us to drill down into the behaviour of a driver – looking at a number of factors including speed, braking etc – and feed back on two levels.

Firstly, how the driver in question could drive more safely, and in a manner that is less damaging to the environment (and their pocket!). Secondly, to the insurance companies themselves who are then not reliant on relatively archaic ways to calculate risk when it comes to setting a premium.

To put it more technically, we offer device-agnostic, actuarial analytics and digital services that increase return investment and customer loyalty. For motor insurers, it helps them to understand risk, provide offers, incentives and added value services.

Because of our reputation within the sector, and because we were founded by telematics industry veterans, we’re now firmly established as the leading telematics partner to insurance organisations like the Direct Line Group, RSA, AAA and Liberty Mutual.

We’ve radically transformed conventional telematics by spearheading the use of smartphones and harnessing contextual analysis for enhanced prediction of claim propensity. Our technology and solutions are currently being piloted and deployed in Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia.

You were very secretive when you started up – why was that?

We formed in 2012 because we believed that there was gap in the sector – to go mass market. At the time telematics was only really being offered to expensive sports cars like Ferraris, because of the cost of deploying and fitting the electronics. We saw an opportunity to bypass the need for a ‘black box’, so to speak.

This was achieved by pioneering work in mobile development which allowed the replacement of fixed hardware devices with an app on smartphones utilising sensors built into the phone, like GPS and accelerometers.

We decided to develop it in stealth mode because we knew we were on to something and didn’t want our competitors to get wind until we had something to ‘sell’. Over the first six months of operating, we didn’t even have a website or external visibility.

We were the only ones doing this, and as soon as word got out it may have invited competition, so in the early stages we completely operated in stealth. Great, in theory, although it did present some pretty unique challenges when it came to finding our first customers.

We applied for tenders from funders and the first was with Direct Line in the UK to supply telematics across its entire range of motor insurance. Direct Line is the largest insurer in the UK, so it was a big coup.

The Floow

Chief Innovation Officer and Co-founder at The Floow Dr Sam Chapman

What were your initial challenges?

They were mainly technical with the differing devices to gather data – smartphones, black boxes etc. There was a range of ways of capturing mobility information, whether that was using something installed in vehicle, added after, or on a mobile phone.

We don’t care where the information comes from but data from each source is somewhat different. One of the biggest challenges was how to deal with it and provide equally understandable scoring and ratings of people’s driving behaviour.

Other challenges involved gathering information from mobiles because utilising GPS was making the batteries run out, which meant people may delete the app or not turn it on.

Now we have applications that seamlessly gather information and don’t impact the end user, but still maintain the level of data we need.

That led to rapid growth for us because we managed to address and open up entire markets, giving insurers the potential to sell it to their entire book of policyholders. Once we had the first sale, very many more followed quickly.

Why is Sheffield the right base for you?

I was based in Sheffield, it’s my home and I thought it would be a good place to start the business. There was some disagreement and we had to decide between London and Sheffield.

Sheffield won because one, I’m belligerent; but two, primarily because the staffing potential in Sheffield and the North is far more beneficial to the type of company we wanted to start.

Loyal and highly-qualified staff are hard to find and maintain within London, because people tend to jump around between jobs. Sheffield was also cheaper, and we had connections with the University of Sheffield where many of the early staff came from.

We’re now considered to be one of the leading tech firms in the North, and last year our CEO, Aldo, was chosen to accompany Prime Minister David Cameron on a trade mission to Asia. We were also awarded the prestigious Made In Sheffield mark in 2015. An accolade normally reserved for physical manufacturing, so we were very proud.

Being in Sheffield has only served to enhance our offering; it certainly hasn’t been a hindrance.

What’s the digital scene like in Sheffield?

It’s growing hugely. Sheffield is renowned for manufacturing yet its creative digital industries are less well known externally. However its leading universities, one of which beat Oxford and Cambridge for its computer science in the latest rankings, means there is a pool of qualified staff.

Whilst the wider digital scene across the North is also good, in particular Leeds and Manchester, interestingly The Floow is attracting a large number of commuters. We have a number of people who commute from Leeds, Manchester and nearby cities, and a few who have chosen us over London-based competitors. They tend to work here Tuesday to Thursday, and work remotely on Monday and Friday (although it is only a matter of time until they are lured north permanently by Sheffield’s proximity to the Peaks).

Is there much collaboration between digital firms locally?

There are a large number of small companies growing in the Sheffield region, and larger companies across the North in the general tech sector. They are breaking traditional moulds, collaborating and learning, largely through social activity, but the insights available are hugely beneficial for the businesses involved.

What’s the next challenge for The Floow?

The biggest challenge at the moment is the speed of the growth of our technical team.

Despite having access to the alumni of two excellent universities on our door step, and with the region now attracting more candidates than ever, in the first quarter of 2016 we aim to employ 20 new people, and continue our rate of doubling in size every year. Any company of any size based anywhere in the UK would find that tough-going.

We want to maintain our reputation for excellence whilst also maintaining our culture and ensuring that everyone buys into our ethos. We’re established now, and that means a totally different mind-set, but these things are important to us and we will do what it takes to keep that front of mind.

How do you keep innovation on your daily agenda?

My title is innovation officer. It’d be a challenge to find another company that places such importance on ensuring that we’re challenging what we do, and how we do it, daily.

This approach means that we are always looking for new ways to use telematics, and reaching out to new industries/sectors.

For example, we’re getting involved in leading research across Europe – ranging from a £5.5 million driverless car programme, to pollution work with the European Space Agency.

All the projects are working with world leaders in various areas in order to build the next generation of our technology.

Day to day, all members of staff are encouraged to innovate. We try to internalise the work we’re doing, so we build unique solutions to the problems we find. We are very agile, allowing fast changes of direction to satisfy clients’ latest trends.

Related: Sheffield sees turnover increase 45% / Tech Nation infographic

What are your thoughts on the 2016 Tech Nation report?

It’s very valuable for highlighting the tech industry in the North, which is primarily made up of many smaller firms and is often overlooked on a national scale.

The report highlights in particular the impact tech companies have made on the economy and growth in the UK. I think the sector’s economic impact took a lot of people by surprise, and we’re proud to be included!

It also identified the need for the industry to focus on centres of excellence and highly-skilled staffing, and that’s important as we look to the future.

What’s exciting about the North’s digital scene?

The digital scene and innovation potential coming from the North of England is unlike anything that’s gone before.

It brings huge potential to transform the economy of the North, which is often regarded as running on antiquated old industries.

What would improve the Northern digital economy?

Primarily, visibility. A huge amount of work and potential is being grown but visibility thus far is still firmly focused on London.

To maximise its true potential, the technology industry in the North needs to collaborate and shout about its achievements to get recognition globally.

What’s next for The Floow?

Growth and expansion into many more new markets, including Europe, Africa, and in particular, the Americas and the Far East.

We plan to continue our technical developments within the North of England. However to accept the growing demand from clients, an even larger expansion is required.

We’re also looking at new technologies and new markets beyond insurance telematics, developed by world-leading research and innovation within our companies.

Plus, we’re continuing to look for highly-skilled individuals in the North of England. It’s key to get the right people through the doors.

Read more:

Sheffield sees turnover increase 45% / Tech Nation infographic

Performance Horizon branches out globally from North East roots

Starship connects the world with Liverpool-developed virtual reality technology

Enterprise & Cloud Software, Growth, insights, Startup stories, Topics, Sheffield, Yorkshire, Tech Nation Report 2016