This Portuguese Startup Will Prevent the Next Terrorist Attack. Here’s How.

July 5, 2017

When I was a kid I believed I had some sort of super power.

I would tell myself that my brain had been genetically modified and as a result I could make things move with my mind. The TV was my favourite. I would stare at it and move my hand to the right to switch the channel, or move my hand up and down to control the volume, or briefly close my eyes to turn it off. It was that simple.

What I didn’t know at the time was that this mysterious power of mine came from my older brother’s brand new Casio watch which could control the TV from a distance. I hated him for it.

However, 20 years later the tables have turned and I have gained my superpower back.

No, I haven’t bought a Casio watch. I have only realised there is a startup in Lisbon who has built a technology that will pull all these tricks for me, and much more.

This startup is called Heptasense.

I have spoken to Ricardo A. Santos, who is the co-founder and CEO, about what Heptasense’s technology can do and how it will change the world as we know it. We’re talking about a mind-blowing technology which will help us control everything without having to touch anything, and as it so happens it will also potentially save future lives from terrorist attacks.

Find out more about one of the most promising startups in Portugal, which has been on the previous batch of Lisbon Challenge in this interview.

Follow the footsteps of startups such as Heptasense and get 10K to build your product.

Lisbon Challenge

Apply to Lisbon Challenge.

Can you explain what is Heptasense and what you have been working on?

At Heptasense, we have designed the first Artificial Intelligence software that learns and understands human patterns. It basically mimics how the human brain works. This means that with our technology you can transform any device into an intelligent system. It can be used in gesture control, where you control devices with the movement of your hands for example, in motion tracking, where you follow in real-time the 3D movement of the human body, or even in crowd analysis, where you can detect patterns in human behaviour and understand if someone’s behaviour represents a threat.

When you were in Lisbon Challenge you were pretty much focusing on using this technology in healthcare, for example, to help patients with their physical rehabilitation. However, you have taken a different path since then. Why was that and how have you been developing your product?

Yeah, when we were going through Lisbon Challenge we were focusing on the recognition of hand gestures, we were using movement sensors, and things like that. But now, we’re very focused on using our technology with cameras and we have developed our product to do more than gesture recognition like motion tracking, so we can now track the whole human body for games and sports and do crowd analysis for analytics. For example, one of the companies we’re working with is an American security company, and with our software, we can understand if a specific person in an airport is about to commit a terrorist attack. What we are able to do now is analyse any type of human pattern from the smallest thing like gesture recognition to the most complex thing like analysing crowds in a public environment. This crowd analysis can also be used in retail, to understand how people move within the store to improve their business, for example. So, basically, we’re talking about humanizing all cameras.          

Heptasense Lisbon Challenge

The first pitch of Heptasense on Lisbon Challenge

And who are your customers? You said that you’re working with a security company in the US, but are you focusing just on security or are you working with different companies?

We are a B2B company and the problem we are solving is a technological one. Our software is much better and faster than other existing ones. So, any company who wants to take advantage of human behavior through their cameras can easily work with our software and save time and money. For this reason, we are addressing different markets. We have customers in retail, security, sports, automotive, and many others.

But how have you realised that was the way to go and not what you were doing initially?

So, because we chose not to have any investment yet we could explore different paths. When you receive investment you have to focus on a specific product and because you have money in the bank you can afford not to monetize your product yet. In our case it’s completely different, we have to always be closing deals with customers. We decided to close the cycle of our product and of for any human pattern recognition, from the smallest recognition of one person to the biggest when you’re analysing a group of people. We needed to understand all the possibilities of our product, and we’ve come to realise that there was a lot of space for us to work with these different companies besides the hand gestures. So, we started hiring people in this area and we basically closed the cycle of the product.  

Why have you decided to bootstrap instead of fundraising?

Well, we spoke to many different VCs, business angels and investors but, up until now, we felt it wasn’t the right way to go. The investors we spoke to wanted us to focus so that we could have 3-year projections and we just weren’t on the same page when it came to the vision we had for the company. In order to get the investment, we would have to follow the exact footsteps of all the other companies and we were doing something different. So, in the end, we weren’t willing to sacrifice our own model for the company and we chose not to take any investment just yet.  

And from all the customers you already have can you give me an example of a company you’re working with and how are they are using your technology?

We made two interesting partnerships: one with Starburst Accelerator, which allows us to close contracts in aerospace market, and other with an ambitious Google project that uses a new type of sensor technology, that we are going to reveal soon. Recently, we also closed a new big client which was BMW. We’re working on gesture recognition with them. So, companies like BMW, Audi, or Volkswagen are now having cameras in the cars they build so that drivers can control everything through gestures. What we’re doing with BMW particularly is for example allowing the driver to customize the controls of the car with gestures using our technology. But, I can’t reveal much because we’re talking about a car that will only be launched in 2021.

Oh, and we don’t want to ruin that partnership for you. Can you give another example?

Yes, of course. We’re working with companies which operate with cameras and deal with security for example in airports. By using our technology they can see if anyone represents a threat like if they have a gun, or if we detect any pattern of movement that is suspicious, the company and the airport security will be able to take preventive measures and save people’s lives.    

And how have you been reaching out to these big companies? How were you able to close a partnership with big clients such as BMW?

For us, it was surprisingly simple. So, most of these big companies are always looking for innovation and we took advantage of it. For example, if they have open calls for startups to apply or any kind of competition we just go for it. Another thing we do is going to tech fairs. We’ve met a lot of people and got many different leads from this kind of events. I’m talking about conferences like CUBE Tech Fair in Berlin, and the Web Summit here in Lisbon which was very good to us. We usually set a few goals when we attend these fairs and decide beforehand who we want to contact, but you actually end up meeting more people than what you had initially planned. For example, at CUBE Tech Fair we wanted planned to talk to Audi and Volkswagen and we ended up reaching potential clients in banking and manufacturing market.   

Heptasense at Web Summit

The Heptasense team at Web Summit

 What do you think will happen to this type of technology in the future? I’m talking about wearables and gesture recognition. What will the future be like?

In the future things will change drastically, particularly when it comes to interaction. When you talk about augmented reality, holographics, or even voice controls, it demands a different interface from what you’ve had previously. I’m talking about allowing the user to control everything without having to touch anything, it will all be controlled at a distance. In the future, the user will be empowered with these new features. Also, we can make things much more autonomous and safe which will benefit us all. For example, in the security sector instead of having a person watching 20 or even 100 cameras at the same time, we can have an intelligent software to monitor everyone simultaneously and in real time, and then provide feedback to the person who is watching, that is absolutely incredible. In the end, that’s where Heptasense is heading up next.        

We have now open applications for our accelerator, Lisbon Challenge, which you participated in the past. How did Lisbon Challenge turn out for you?

Lisbon Challenge was great for us to improve our positioning in the market. Through the program, we talked directly with potential customers and to other experienced people from our area. It also helped us in preparing our pitch. We started Lisbon Challenge without a single customer, we only had a product, and we left the program with paying customers. As a young company, you need to surround yourself with influential people with experience, in order to mitigate the initial mistakes that most startups make and that often destroy a startup. I’m talking about product market fit, time to market and investment.  

Do you have any tips for the entrepreneurs that are now applying to Lisbon Challenge?

Try to tell the story of what you’ve done so far and what you’re going to do throughout Lisbon Challenge. You’re not selling your product to Lisbon Challenge, you’re explaining who you are as founders, what you do and who you do this for. Everything needs to make sense overall. In the application focus on what you’re the best in the world at, but be humble and say how Lisbon Challenge can help.

If you want to follow the footsteps of startups such as Heptasense, apply to Lisbon Challenge and get 10K to build your product in Lisbon for 10 weeks.