Absolutely. The initial idea came from this hackathon based here in Cambridge held by another start-up, Medic Mobile, with co-founders here in Cambridge. Isaac Coleman was presenting the idea and the challenge behind the hackathon. That challenge was - a lot of the world systems which were paper based, are going electronic now, specifically data collection, form systems, those type of things.
To give a concrete example, in many rural areas healthcare is delivered directly to the village. A community health worker or local doctor will go to a specific area and deliver a specific kind of health care as an initiative to that area. The way they track these programmes were all paper based. They had a big bag full of notepads and pens and forms to collect someone's information. And the challenge was a lot of this, thanks to Android and other developments, started going electronic based.
So instead of having paper-based forms, a community health worker would have an Android device with an app to start collecting data in that device. Which was really great and it was pushing a lot of stuff forward. But there was one area that, despite all the new technology, wasn't moving forward. And that was identification. So being able to identify the user, the person in front of you, whether you're using a form or whether you're using an app was still a big challenge.
And it's a challenge that we're not aware of in the UK and the Western world, because when we go to a hospital we have an NHS number, in the US you have a Social Security number, or you have a driver's licence or passport. You have valid ways provided by the government to identify you as an individual. This is how you get access to services. Unfortunately, that system doesn't exist across the world – the World Bank estimates that there's about a billion people who don't have any formal ID.
There’s no way to show up somewhere, get a service and say, I am the person who I'm saying I am. So please give me access to the service. So that was the hackathon challenge – we have data collection platforms, we have Android phones and devices and we have these electronic medical record systems now being created. But how do we actually ID people in this system? How do we link a real human being to this record that's now being created electronically? And that's when the first idea to use biometrics was thrown out.
It wasn't called Simprints at the time, it was a group of students who basically said, what if we take biometrics and we link a biometric record to this form and use that as their ID? It was a classic start-up idea - buy the scanners on Amazon for about £20, we'll write a little bit of software and we'll link it all together and throw it out there. So that was the first idea - that group won about £1000 from the hackathon. It was shortly after that, with that initial £1000, when Toby reached out to me – I had foolishly told him my master's degree was not very challenging and I had tons of free time. He explained he had this really cool idea and asked if I’d look into it. I was studying computer science and they were looking for technical people to flesh it out. And so again, I very foolishly said, yeah, that sounds cool, I'll take a look at it.
I always tell people, only a little jokingly, you need to be pretty naive to start a business, especially a not-for-profit business. I think we kept that naivety for a while, which kept propelling us to the next step.
It seems like it all happens very quickly, but at the time it actually happens surprisingly slowly. I always tell people, only a little jokingly, you need to be pretty naive to start a business, especially a not-for-profit business. I think we kept that naivety for a while, which kept propelling us to the next step. We’d say, oh, it doesn't exist! But we can build it ourselves - it won't be that hard and it won't need much money.
The very initial idea that came out, and it's actually where the name Simprints came from, was that it needs to work on what we call dumb phones, a J2ME (Java 2 Platform Micro Edition) - basically those old Nokia bricks. The idea was to create or buy a fingerprint scanner that takes a fingerprint, sends it via SMS to a service somewhere else, and then texts back a unique code linked to that fingerprint. And that's where the name Simprints come from - sim card fingerprints.
The first hurdle we hit was when I started doing research on how you actually do that? How do you make that process work? It became very apparent that it was not going to work on J2ME phones and that we needed to move to smartphones - Android specifically. So we then had to ask - can we find a biometric algorithm that works on Android? And amazingly, the answer to that was no.
I dove in thinking, this is going to be so simple! Fingerprints have been around for 40 years, and we've been using systems called AFIS's (automatic fingerprint identification systems) for 20 years. Every detective show you've ever seen, you know, they swipe some stuff, they take a photo and all of a sudden, they get the person's identity. Which is great! But I think the thing at the time is, it was all centralised and none of it was designed for Android.
So that was our first challenge - can we take one of these biometric algorithms, an open source one, and make it run on an Android device? It’s meant to run on a rather powerful server, and we needed to make it run on a device – so we had a resource constraint and a money constraint. Most large biometric companies will sell supercomputers to do massive biometric matching with a licence which starts at about £100,000, and the machines go up to about two million. And we're trying to create this thing for small projects where we can give it away for $5,000.
The second challenge was finding a fingerprint scanner to use on Android. It needed to be rugged enough, work via Bluetooth or communicate with Androids and have a battery that would last out in the field. It didn't exist. The only scanners we could find were the really high-tech, rugged ones that they used at military bases. They started at around £2000. And we had this dream of ‘the $50 scanner’. So we made one! Not realising how much manufacturing and hardware design, electronics and all that costs. We didn't get it down to $50, but we got it to between $150 to $300.
I think those were our first two big realisations that this was going to be a time-consuming project. That we have to create these two pieces of technology and we have neither the skill, the cash or the time to do it.
In the early days it was very unstructured and it was mostly a student group. The four co-founders of Simprints were the four students who stayed with it - but we had tonnes of people in the early days helping out. Our initial plan was - okay, we have £1000 and that's enough to buy pizza. So every Sunday at a certain time, we are going to meet, we're going to buy pizza and we're going to capture this area of the student Union building to talk about the idea and what we can do and how people can help.
We had tonnes of people who came through and helped at different stages. And that's the first lesson I share with people when talking about start-ups - you need to get very comfortable and practised and a little bit shameless at asking for help. You just have to ask everyone for help.
When it became more full time we started to get a little bit closer to role definitions but it was quite organic. Of the four co-founders, we were each brought in because of our specific niche. Mine was specifically software. Alexandra, although she didn't have any hardware experience, got roped into doing hardware. Toby was always the idea person and a great public speaker. So he was busy drumming up support, finding and raising money, these types of things. And Dan was a great researcher, and you need to do quite a lot of research when it comes to biometrics to prove its accuracy and to prove your impact. So we fell into those specific roles quite easily – but roles which have evolved hugely over time. They're very different now six years down the road.
But at the initial kick off we left it very undefined, which I think helped us. Everyone just focused on what they were good at and what they were interested in. But there was a point later on, probably a year in where it had to get more structured, where the titles appeared, when hiring happened. And that was really when we realised that it would be a company and not just a student idea.
We applied for this grant called ‘Saving Lives at Birth’ and a range of other small grants from the UK government and from Innovate UK. We just kept incrementally taking those steps. The first was around £5000, which got us some space at Makespace in Cambridge, to buy us more pizza to keep people fed, to buy coffees for externals when you would go and bug people at Arm and all the other companies around Cambridge. The next one we won was around £12,000, kind of a proof of concept and also market proof of “could you actually sell this thing?
It’s one of the great things about Innovate UK - they will give you incremental grants and there's a lot out there if you put in the time and effort. Then we got the Saving Lives at Birth Award, which is a mix of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, UK Aid, Canada Aid, US Aid where they pull money together and I think they gave us about $150,000. Which for us was that flipping point - we were all still students, we have $150,000, we're can start a company!
I joke that just our overheads now are about £250,000 a month, but with our initial windfall of cash, we were like, wow, what are we going to do? Let's start a company! We'll turn it into real business and that's when that structure started to appear.
I think one of the early things that we got right was putting together a business plan. I think calling a business plan in the traditional sense is probably a little generous. But I think what we really focused on and what we spent all of our initial money on was talking to clients and consumers and the people who would need to use something like this. So the first £5000 that we scraped together was from a Kickstarter or an Indiegogo campaign or something like that.
We spent the entire thing to fly ourselves out to Bangladesh to talk to BRAC (Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee), which is the world's largest NGO (non-governmental organisation) and say, hey, we have this idea. Is this a pain point for you? And it was one of the things that kept us going initially - everyone just kept saying, yeah, we need this. Why does this not exist?
It was always one of our things to not focus on the small stuff - no shares or ownership or titles will matter if Simprints isn’t around in a couple of years, so we don't get caught up in that.
We didn't know specifically who the customer was, in the sense of who exactly we would be selling to, versus who was going to be using it. Even today that's a bit of a challenge. I think for most businesses, it's always this kind of evolving customer base. The one thing that we didn't know then that we know now is, in international development, who gives you the money and who uses your product are not the same, and it's a huge pain point of this space. Money comes from foundations and funders and grants and these types of things. But the users are the people in the field, the people who are bringing this tablet out or the patient who is being visited.
It's a very difficult thing to do that we initially didn't understand. We had to put a lot of time and energy into figuring out how to balance it – to say, we are going to sell to this one group over here because they have the money that is going into international development. But we need to design and build for this group over here who are actually going to be using the product and have very different needs than what your initial customer wants to see.
It's one of the unfortunate reasons that so many product-based companies die off in this space as they can't resolve the realities of what needs to happen in the field with what's being funded. We always joke that companies like Apple have it so easy. If the person buying the phone doesn't like something, they tell Apple and Apple fixes it. If they don't, less people buy their phones. It’s a very direct relationship. Whereas for us, we are going to get large funding opportunities from the likes of US Aid, UK Aid, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. But our users are the community health workers, the regional managers, and the district managers who work for the NGOs or INGOs who are directly applying that service. Figuring out how to link your product between those two needs is something very important that you must get right in the early days. To be able to say, this is going to fit both of your needs, and we're going to figure out how to balance that - that took quite a long time to get used to.
It’s something which we focused on heavily, and as the technical person, I say way too heavily because by the time that we sold our first range of projects, we had no product. We were making promises of what we were going to do long before we were ready to deliver on those. But the upside of that was, we were getting a much clearer image of both the need, and the realities of what we would have to build and deliver.
Yeah, you need a mix of boldness and stupidity! It's definitely one of the biggest tension points. If you're going to start an idea that is technical in nature, but you also have to sell it - that is your most painful area. The promises that you need to make on one side and the realities of delivering those on the other side is what so much of our time and energy went on. I think there's two main areas which the founding team focused quite heavily on. One was to keep everything flat - no politics. When it became a company we split everything evenly and don't argue about who's been here longer, who does what, the importance of the different roles, etc
It was always one of our things to not focus on the small stuff - no shares or ownership or titles will matter if Simprints isn’t around in a couple of years, so we don't get caught up in that.
The other was always team dynamics. It’s one of the areas I have to give Toby a lot of credit for - he was very passionate about strong teams and team dynamics. We read the book ‘Five Dysfunctions of a Team’ so many times. I think I had that book memorised! We had many off sites where we’d discuss the dynamics, discuss the pain points and the frustration points. He was constantly drilling in that area which is why I suspect we've lasted quite a long time - despite all the early promises and failed projects.
I remember that getting from zero to five customers was my goal. I spent a long while getting to three customers, and it was a real slog and really hard work, before really realising that if I did get to five, would I be prepared to go and build a proper product? I had an MVP I'd sold to three clients at this point, but did I have the will to keep putting in the time, effort and energy while doing it alone? Another learning point - I wouldn't do it alone again.
I had no accountability to a co-founder or investor. It was a very lonely place building a start-up from scratch on your own.
Yes, I think so. One of the big inspirations in this space, and one of the reasons people have stuck with it is that we care about the cause behind it. Some of us are more passionate about the technology itself, some are more passionate about the NGO specifically or the research, but getting to actually go out in the field and see the users, the use cases and the scenarios is hugely rewarding.
When we started hiring people, we knew we could never compete with salaries, especially for engineers. One of the big things that we focused on were the field opportunities. It's not as simple as buying a ticket and there’s tonnes of work which goes into making a field visit impactful – so we allocated several thousand pounds per person to make sure they could visit these sites and see the real use cases.
It was an incredible experience to see how amazing some of these organisations are and the work they do. Also to see the reality of how it all works, and it’s from visiting that you realise things like - there's no mobile phone service or no access to charging. It’s an eye-opening experience.
We loved ideaSpace. It was great to have an official working space and meet other companies and people. It's such a nice ecosystem with all these events happening - it's one of the really great things of Cambridge as a whole.
We had a couple of projects which started at roughly the same time - one in a very rural area in Western Nepal and one in an urban slum in Bangladesh. One of those projects didn’t go well - the technology wasn’t ready. There were some use cases that we just hadn't thought about. We spent a year or more getting the design, the feel, and the usability of the scanner right. We had reached out to all these firms who helped us design how the PCB would work and the different components. We’d put it through environmental testing to make sure that the electronic component could survive. But when we got out into the field in Western Nepal and we needed to charge up the scanners, every single scanner, which were switched off and charging, turned themselves on. They basically wouldn’t shut off. Which meant that their batteries would be flat by the time we'd done the training and they were out in the field.
We called it the zombie issue because the scanners kept coming back to life. It turned out that when a component in the scanner reached a certain heat, it would overflow and trigger the power cycle. In short, it would turn on the unit. In the environmental testing here in the UK we hadn't covered the use case of the heat that you reach in Western Nepal and the high level of humidity.
We sat there with pieces of paper on the floor looking at the firmware, trying to figure out how do we shut these things off? Because we can't fix the hardware at this point. And shipping them to Nepal took three months, one month to ship them, two months to clear customs and all the other logistics. We basically had to figure out a firmware fix. We created a sliding window where the power button had to be held down for a certain period of time before the unit would power on. Not a perfect fix but good enough to keep the project going. We hit so many issues like that.
I think the first time it was all working end to end was probably the Bangladesh project where we started. When the flow of feedback changed directions from our partner saying, you need to fix all these issues, to the flow of feedback finally going in the other direction. I think that was the first real moment of - ok, the system works. We reached that point between two to three years after the initial hackathon.
My other three co-founders were still PhD students at the time and were living off their PhD stipends. I moved into my parent’s basement for six months with no salary and no idea what to do. When we got the first grant from Saving Lives at Birth, we gave ourselves ‘salaries’. We paid ourselves 18k a year, which was basically the PhD stipend amount that we knew we could survive on. But it also allowed us to hire our first couple of employees when we incorporated in 2015, a year after the hackathon. We moved into an office - which was ideaSpace and we were working full time. Which was when we finally said, this is no longer a weekend project!
Yeah. We loved ideaSpace. It was great to have an official working space and meet other companies and people. It's such a nice ecosystem with all these events happening - it's one of the really great things of Cambridge as a whole. We couldn't afford our own office or anything like that so just having a place to work and a place to meet other like-minded entrepreneurs was great! Also the access to people and University. It's that same lesson I give to people, which is get shameless asking for stuff. We knocked on every door we went to, every meet up that we could find. We annoyed everyone at ideaSpace. I jokingly say that by the time we left ideaSpace, everyone was so sick of us!
We put quite a lot of effort into finding mentors and an advisory board early on. The first thing to being a good entrepreneur, at least just from my point of view, is you must be comfortable admitting that you know nothing. You have an idea and you have something that you want to do, but you don't know how to do it.
One of the really amazing things is people love helping. Of course, some people will say no, but that’s the worst case scenario - that when you ask for help they might say no! But so many people in Cambridge said yes. So we very quickly put together a board of advisers. We had Dominic Verging from Arm and Darren Disley, who has been a huge supporter of us over the years - I know him and Toby still frequently meet. We've all had mentor groups and one which I really enjoyed was GLG – The World’s Insight Network. They are a kind of consulting group who link industry experts to each other. If you're a social entrepreneur, you can use it for free. That was huge because we put together a mentorship programme where I worked with Matthew Davie from Kiva – also a non-profit. We also just reached out to everyone we knew! Jonathan Jackson founder of Dimagi, the world's largest data collection platform, now sits on our board. And so again, it's the shameless begging for support I mentioned earlier - it's really important! We had an advisory group of between 20 -30 people at one point but we now run a proper full time board of about eight people.
I think I went through a very classic CTO start-up lifecycle! Which is, you get called the CTO because you're the first and only engineer on the team. You build the initial technology, which as a student, really means you learn how to build it and then rebuild it properly the second time around. I was still working on bringing people in and also what I jokingly call cheerleading - that ability to say, ‘this is really cool, come help us!’ But then we had real projects to deliver so I went from being the only engineer to hiring engineers who were way more experienced than me. There was a leadership learning curve of, ‘how do I now manage people, their expectations and their performance’ as I one day realised, I'm managing eleven engineers. I'm not an engineer anymore, I'm a full-time manager!
I do a small amount of leadership and guidance but I still have actual genuine CTO time. If I can crack stuff open, I can look at the next thing and then I can bring that stuff back to the team. But yeah, I've done that full loop all the way around.
To run an organisation you need to constantly learn and you need to constantly move. There's so many people out there who will help you do that. So just start knocking on doors and asking for help.
It was something we instigated very early on. When we started hiring, we quickly realised that not a lot of people would go for 18K a year, especially at the time when salaries for engineers were skyrocketing because of Google, Apple and Microsoft.
We said, if we can't compete in salary, what are the things that we can compete in? We honed in on a few areas - meaning and work, flexibility and time, responsibility, accountability and autonomy and lastly, learning and opportunities. We made it very clear that we couldn’t pay what other companies were offering but you get to work for a great cause with great opportunities to go to the field, with a budget included to use specifically on learning, courses, conferences, and hackathons. We also offered flexibility.
With that, we just said – there’s unlimited paid time off. Our goal is to make sure that your work is very clear, you know how much time you need to get that done and how you do that is completely up to you. It's not a perfect system. It's gone through many fluctuations and changes over the last six years from when it started. But it's a genuine system of, ‘do whatever you want’, which in reality ends up with less time off being taken.
Of course, you have to take at least the legal minimum, so our employees take at least that and we also track employee overall health. We've gone through cultural changes, where at different points in time, we’ve adjusted. And I think ultimately, we have organisational guidelines and things that we just have to adhere to. But then internally it comes down to the team. And we, from an organisational level, just want to track health and happiness of those teams.
Yeah. My hair is a lot more grey! It was really hard. This is where just finding as much support as you can is really important to help you through those conversations. I still remember the first person I had to let go. They were significantly more experienced and older than I was, but it just wasn't working out. And I made all the classic start-up mistakes.
Everyone tells you that the worst thing you can do is hire a bad person and keep them for a long period of time. To be clear – I’m not saying bad person because they are a bad person – but a hire which isn’t working because they're just not fitting with the company and the culture. And so I did all the classics – I said we can adjust, we can change it, they'll come around - to then having the tough conversations and realising that doesn't work.
One of the early skills you get is stress management, for sure.
Covid was very hard on us and our space. A lot of the organisations in this space ran out of money in the last two years because every project stopped. All of our projects stopped as well. But we were very fortunate because we’ve kept a very close eye on things and keep the purse strings tight! Which meant we were able to plan out and forecast well ahead and push stuff quite a bit. We didn't have to let anyone go or shrink or even furlough people. We were able to keep it together and continue to run throughout that period of time. But while that was happening, we had all these internal issues starting because we weren’t seeing each other anymore. I know it's been more in the news recently, but in the early days, we were really seeing what’s being called the great resignation. A huge percentage of people, especially mid-career people, quit their jobs and we saw that early on at Simprints - about 20% of the staff just said, I'm leaving.
It was about stability, especially when it came to engineers. They said, look, I love this, but these other companies are offering me more money, less work, longer runways. There was no worry about those companies going out of business - a lot of people, especially with families, found it very, very difficult. But then on the flipside there’s now some really great people in the market to go and snatch up if you can. I think all you can really do at this point, as a leader, is really lean into reiterating to people that personal health is our utmost priority.
For the last six months, we've been focusing on adjusting and rebuilding the team, which for us, has been hugely rewarding. It's really exciting to see the new team starting to get their hands on the projects and a lot of the stuff that we built survived throughout the pandemic and kept working. So it's great to see we have this strong foundation.
We're now getting more government level projects and they're coming with their own complications. We have about 1.7 million people enrolled, and a lot of that has come in quite recently so there's quite a lot of growth happening. And for us, as you mentioned earlier, with Vaccination tracking - there's a lot of exciting things happening in that space. Unfortunately, programmes like COVAX didn't work out very well, but it is really showing people the importance of getting good identification systems. I think the next couple of years for us look like we’ll run to a similar size as pre-Pandemic, but we have a great velocity and a really exciting team.
I always find it kind of cheesy and a lot of people say it (but then I end up saying it a lot myself too) - find something that you are really passionate about to strive towards. Because every job is work. But if what you do is what you love, then it's going to be that much better. Right? And as an entrepreneur, you're going to have to put in a lot of hours. So make sure that the thing you're putting your hours into is something that you're very passionate about.
And I’d follow that up with, take that leap! If you're sitting there on the brink thinking, should I do it? You should because it's always worth doing. There's no downside to it. I think one of the great pieces of advice that I got early on was when I was in later round interviews with Facebook and they were saying, come join us and you'll get a great salary and join big tech! (six years ago when Facebook was less hated and much more exciting).
The advice was - look, you have nothing to lose trying to do it yourself, because either it works, which is amazing, or it doesn't. And what you now have on your CV is that you tried and you learned all of these things on the way and any recruiter or someone building a team (worth their salt) is going to recognise you have great experience, what you’ve learned is huge and it doesn't matter that it failed. So do it – take that leap!
And thirdly – and I've been harping on for a while now about this – is to be shameless in asking for support! To run an organisation you need to constantly learn and you need to constantly move. There's so many people out there who will help you do that. So just start knocking on doors and asking for help. There's tonnes of great people out there, especially in places like Cambridge, where you have these amazing ecosystems. So be shameless!
Tristram, thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate it. There's so much takeaway from the last hour. You’ve had such an interesting, fascinating journey, so genuinely thank you.
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