OTIV is a dynamic new addition to the Pitchdrive community. This smart start-up is looking to revolutionise on-rail transport in complex environments like cities and busy industrial areas by using autonomous technology to improve safety and efficiency.
OTIV is currently in pilot phase after a busy first year in development, working with public transport operators and private industry to bring their vision to life.
We caught up with co-founders Niels Van Damme and Sam De Smet to hear about their start-up journey and how they look forward to Pitchdrive playing a valuable part in their next steps.
Can you tell us exactly what OTIV does?
“We teach vehicles on rails to drive autonomously in complex environments. For urban environments, that’s generally trams. For industrial areas, locomotives and industrial freight trains. Accidents still happen in these places because there are people and other vehicles around. So there’s real potential for assisted and self-driving technology to make things safer and more efficient."
“First, we fit sensors on the vehicle and assist the driver using our software. This helps us move towards a smarter system that keeps learning from its own data. Ultimately, the vehicle learns to drive itself.”
How did the idea for OTIV come about?
“I was working in Silicon Valley as a biz dev, helping other start-ups find funding. I saw there was a lot of investment in autonomous technology over there. I have a mechanical engineering background and I was fascinated by the idea of software driving cars. I wanted to bring the technology to the European market in a way that had potential for more immediate impact. I thought about the tram networks in Belgium and across Europe, and it felt like a good fit."
“The next step was seeing if there was a market and if anyone was looking into it. Having less competition might be appealing, but having no competition at all isn’t good! Fortunately we discovered there’s a real demand for automation and autonomous vehicles. And so we were officially founded in February 2020.”
How has OTIV progressed since your launch?
“OTIV has evolved incredibly in that time. Covid hit just two weeks after our launch, so we had to keep finances in check and keep developing with a small team. Then, around the middle of last year, we started hiring and accelerating our product development. We’ve now started working on our first big pilot project with NS (the Dutch national railway), one of the industry’s major players. Together with industry leaders and industry standards bodies we are working out how our products need to evolve."
“It’s an exciting time. Interest has been great, people have been approaching us to ask if they can work with us. In fact, more people want our software than we can deliver at the moment, which is a nice problem to have!”
What have been the benefits of working with Pitchdrive so far?
“It’s early days for us as the seed grant only closed a couple of weeks ago, but it’s been very good so far. There is a willingness to develop together, to push us to be real entrepreneurs. And, of course, Pitchdrive is not just about investment, it’s business development too. They have a big network of investors and they’re easy to contact. We just go to Pitchdrive and they’ll match us with someone who has experience in the field we need help with."
“We’re hoping to learn from their expertise in a lot of areas, but particularly on the commercial side —how to sell B2B, how to get a product out there into the world. They have a lot of experience with that side of things.
“We’ve just had our first Power Board with Koen, Boris and Wim, which was a one-hour masterclass in tackling problems as a start-up, including business development, internationalisation and HR. We immediately felt that these sessions will add tremendous value to OTIV. What’s more, there’s a clear collaborative spirit, a feeling of ‘we’re in this together’. We’re all working to develop OTIV.”
“We’re first time co-founders and it’s always good to have an accelerator or platform like Pitchdrive to guide you through the maze. There’s so much to consider. For example, if you’re the technical lead, you need to source hardware from manufacturers, manage and hire employees and so on. It’s not just doing something technical then selling it. So you need to optimise your time.”
What advice would you give other early stage start-ups thinking about investment?
“Make sure every part of your story checks out before you get in front of investors. We went through the whole OTIV story from every angle: commercial, technical, financial. That way we had an answer for every possible question. And if we didn’t, we made sure we had it ready for next time."
“Then you need to find the right people, and keep trying until someone lets you in. Go for it!”
If you’re seeking funding, guidance and support for your early-stage start-up, get in touch with the Pitchdrive team today to get started.