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TapSOS: Tech For Good

  • Becca Hume is founder of TapSOS and an entrepreneur in residence at Ormeau Baths, part of the Invest NI Propel Pre-Accelerator programme delivered by IGNITE. She originally studied silversmith and jewellery design before starting her own business.

    What’s the pitch for your product?

    TapSOS is a highly visual, non-verbal method for contacting the emergency services – police, fire service, ambulance or coastguard. It’s for people who, for whatever reason, cannot verbally communicate. The TapSOS mobile app can transmit precise GPS coordinates and vital information to the 999 services.

    There are many reasons why someone may not be able to vocally reach out for help: deafness, speech impediments, asthma attacks, allergic reactions, or if English isn’t your first language. A discreet method of contact without the fear of being heard may also be needed in situations of domestic abuse or being held against your will.

    What was the inspiration behind TapSOS?

    As a 16 year old I had a part-time job and worked with a colleague who was Deaf. It was the first time I was faced with a major communication barrier. It inspired me to learn sign language and my tutors encouraged me to really involve myself with the Deaf community. I jumped in, went to social events and got to know a lot of people. Building upon those friendships I realised there was an opportunity. I could understand their frustrations with limitations of products and services and a few ideas started floating around my head.

    I was doing a Masters in Multi-disciplinary Design at Ulster University’s Belfast campus and at the start of the course, the tutors challenged us to do some blue sky thinking. I had the time to really explore the idea and while on the course I raised £20k of funding which allowed me to form TapSOS and develop the idea after I graduated.

    Is TapSOS an example of Tech For Good?

    Yes indeed. The product is very people-focused, or user-centric to use the current buzzword. The idea came from seeing a problem and sensing a frustration and coming up with a solution that addresses how the quality of life for people can be improved and people with additional vulnerabilities can be empowered to become more independent. I think that ticks the boxes for Tech For Good!

    People always ask ‘how are you making money?’ Yes I understand I’m a business, and revenue is part of my planning and strategy. But it was never the reason why I started.

    Where have you got to in the product’s journey?

    The bulk of the development finished at the end of May and we’re now moving into the testing phase. We’ll be piloting the product with a mobile network operator in July which will be a big milestone.

    When people hear that I’m building an app they often wonder why it wasn’t completed long ago. The reality is that I’ve spent the past two years building trust and relationships with different stakeholders – including the emergency services and with BT who handle the 999 calls – to get them on board so we’re not perceived as a threat but seen as something that will benefit wider society. We’ve partnered with Devon and Cornwall Police to make sure all the design, functionality and testing are approved and we’ve had a lot of good feedback.

    How do you keep going?

    I’m motivated by how much change this will bring to people’s lives. That’s enough to wake me up in the morning and to get me into work no matter how hard the day is. I just know the potential of this to change lives and save lives. For me that’s worth it.

    I’ve been supported by grant funding, particularly from the Nominet Trust. https://www.nominettrust.org.uk/ They fund social tech that impacts society and communities and saw the opportunity with TapSOS. They’ve been fantastic and supported us back in March 2017.

    Another big linkup was British APCO (Association of Public Safety Communications Officials). There’s no money involved but it’s the organisation that oversees all the emergency services and network operators. We’re one of only two apps they’ve so far accredited to integrate with the 999 system.

    As well as funding from TechstartNI, we’ve also had angel investors – two this year – who have put in some money and that’s helped us get the development phase finished.

    You’ve had a lot of success at pitching competitions?

    Some of my mentors tell me to stop applying for awards! I understand what they mean, but I’ve a spreadsheet that lists every award and competition I’ve applied for, and every single entry has a name beside it or a lead or another opportunity that it’s led to.

    It’s time consuming, but I tend to keep precious office hours free for work and then write up applications in the evenings. TapSOS won this year’s Best Technology-based Business award at the Belfast Business Awards, run by Belfast Chamber of Commerce. Last June after pitching to Virgin Media Business I won £5,000 and a brunch meeting with Richard Branson. I’ve also benefitted from advice and mentoring through Catalyst and Ulster Bank’s Entrepreneurial Spark.

    Awards are encouraging and they create a bit of traction. There may not be money every time but there’s value in going for them. Because we’re still developing and testing the product we need as many people as possible to know about us and help get the story out there. I have said no to some opportunities, and I’ve become more cautious with how I spend my time.

    I applied for InvestNI Propel Pre-Accelerator programme delivered by IGNITE at Ormeau Baths. It provides me with office space for at least six months, access to mentors, and £15,000. Being in a shared space is brilliant because there are events happening all the time with people walking through the building who you can get to know: bankers, investors and motivational speakers. It’s a good way to be seen and be present in the midst of that kind of entrepreneurial world.

    When will you stop being a startup?

    That’s always a question of mine. I know companies that have millions of pounds of revenue and who still call themselves a startup or fall into the category of being a startup.

    The exciting thing is that I don’t feel TapSOS is the only product idea I have. Once it settles down I’ve plenty other ideas I want to explore that aren’t necessarily too separate from TapSOS – they could just be a spinoff from it or an added layer to the product.

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