Posted on Wednesday 24 February 2010 byUlster Business
Fusion Media Group
Stumbling across one of the most exciting companies to emerge from Northern Ireland in many years reaffirms the belief that this region can be a leader in whichever sector we set our mind to. David Elliott went along to Lightstep’s offices to hear more about a company making waves in the life safety market with a seemingly simple yet highly effective product.
Not many people know the London Underground extends far beyond the confines of the metropolitan area to a station which emerges at a commercial park in Dunmurry.
The Lightstep stop - complete with train, track and a vending machine - is tucked away in the offices of the company of the same name, one which is making waves in the increasingly important sector of life safety. Lightstep Technologies has attracted interest from some of world’s largest organisations and could, its directors believe, become one of the biggest firms to come out of Northern Ireland.
Before rushing out to Dunmurry to catch the next train to Covent Garden, it’s worth mentioning at this stage that the Lightstep station is a mock up of the real thing and part of a demonstration suite which offers an insight into the company’s products.
In an underground station, a high rise building, an airport or any one of the hundreds of other situations where the product is quickly finding a use, its intelligent evacuation system does exactly what its name suggests: it uses a built-in “intelligent directional lighting system” to evacuate people from a building, plane, tunnel etc quickly and safely in the event of an emergency.
It’s probably best explained from the user’s point of view. During the evacuation process, green LED lights form arrows on the floor, steps and lower walls and point to the quickest and most efficient way out of the facility. Red lights, formed into Xs, stop evacuees from going in the wrong direction. At its most basic, a simple system which is easy to understand even in the most pressurised emergency environment and, crucially, language non specific.
That’s not to say the system’s technology is basic; far from it. The clever part is Lightstep’s software which feeds information from sensors throughout the building or as the emergency situation develops and changes the LEDs to direct people away from dangers such as fire or crowded areas. And that’s one of the reasons Lightstep’s products have grabbed such immense interest across the globe, but particularly in the US.
Founder and executive chairman Kieran Patterson uses the 9/11 Twin Towers disaster as an example of where the system could have saved lives.
“The vast majority of people lost their lives in the Twin Towers not from the impact of the two planes but on floor four,” he said. “First responders (fire fighters) were coming into the building using exactly the same stairwells as the people trying to get out and it became a crush situation on floor four.
“This was worsened by the fact some of the people climbing down were exhausted and had to stop on the stairwells for a rest. But there were two empty stairwells in each tower which weren’t being used. Our system would direct people to those empty stairwells.”
The principle sounds simple - direct people out of an emergency situation safely - and is something you’d have thought would have already been developed but in reality there is little or no direct competition.
The closest are standard emergency signs but these are generally placed above head height and quickly become obscured by smoke in a fire situation and, not being connected to an intelligent software system, could just as easily direct evacuees to a dangerous area.
“Ours is the only system in the world which will help you get out of the building rather than merely alerting you to the existence of an emergency,” Andrea Morrissey, the company’s public relations and marketing consultant, said.
Understandably, those responsible for protecting lives in situations where a high density of people are present have not only sat up and listened to Lightstep’s offering but are signing up to the system.
The wall of Lightstep’s meeting room is littered with flow charts listing interested organisations but most impressively is probably the New York Fire Department and the US government.
“We’re dealing at the highest levels within the US government, the very pinnacle of the security industry in the US,” Kieran said.
At a recent conference in Florida at the Centre for Global Preparedness, a gathering of some of the world’s leading security professionals, the company’s presentation left industry experts speechless. And at a trade fair in New York, the President of the American Institute of Architects was so impressed with Lightstep that the company has now been appointed an associated member.
Couple all this with the personal support of the US’s NASDAQ Stock Market International President John T Wall – who had been in Lightstep’s Dunmurry office the previous week – and it’s fair to say there is serious potential for this relatively young company.
The brainchild of Kieran while searching for a way to placate the planning department’s fire regulations during the building of a three storey house, the company has come a long way from humble beginnings in 2003.
“I scribbled the idea down on the side of a newspaper on a Sunday afternoon, went off and bought colouring pens, looked at my drawings and thought ‘this thing has legs’”, Kieran said.
Turning those legs into a product meant working closely with Dr Andy Barr from Marturion, a Lisburn company which develops high-tech medical devices.
“The fit with Marturion works perfectly but it wasn’t a straightforward process. I wanted it to do certain things, I knew where I wanted the product to go but I didn’t know how we’d get there.”
“But after working on it for some time I remember getting a call from Andy to say he had cracked the technology.”
With the technology worked out, it was on with getting the product out in the market.
An initial trade mission with Invest NI to Boston was the first contact with the US and since then the country has become the biggest potential market for Lightstep’s products. But as word has spread, interest in the technology has emerged throughout the world and throughout many different industries.
For instance, it’s currently in discussion with one of the largest coal producers in India which, with 3,000 kilometres of underground tunnels, is another huge potential customer.
“It’s not just a product for buildings,” said Andrea. “We’re looking at mines, aircraft, airports, trains, and ships.”
While initially publicity shy, Lightstep has now embraced all forms of marketing, in particular e-marketing through the likes of Twitter and Facebook.
“We had an international launch on October 1 2009 and since then the coverage has been astounding,” said Andrea. “It’s been a really effective way to get the Lightstep name out to a global audience plus it’s a great way for shareholders to hear what’s going on with the company. We can see increased traffic to our website and general enquiries through this medium.”
Kieran starts most of his enthusiastic stories with “we, the team, here at Lightstep...”
It’s easy to see the levels of enthusiasm in all of the team and why this has become such a huge success in a relatively short period of time. The culture and the spirit which has grown in the company is best described as ‘the best available... plus one!’
While there is no direct competition, industry leaders in the field of emergency alert systems are obviously cottoning on to the huge gap in the market Lightstep is filling. To protect their copyright, Lightstep has nine patents against the technology and Kieran reckons they have a 24-month development advantage.
“This company has gotten so big, so quickly,” he said. “It’s amazing how quickly a simple idea became potentially Northern Ireland’s biggest company.”