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Urs Hunkeler. (Img: Geosatis)

Urs Hunkeler. (Img: Geosatis)

01.06.2016

“In five to ten years we could cover 70 percent of the market”

The start-up Geosatis now employs more than 10 people in Le Noirmont, Canton Jura. This spin-off from the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) produces electronic ankle bracelets to be worn by offenders. Urs Hunkeler is Chief Technical Officer and responsible for the further technical development of ankle bracelets by Geosatis.

In our interview he explains why Canton Jura is the ideal location for Geosatis and what distinguishes its product from the competition.

Geosatis produces electronic ankle bracelets – how did this come about?
Urs Hunkeler:
When my business partner, CEO José Demetrio, was working for a security firm around 10 years ago, he installed a prototype for mobile phone monitoring in a prison in Geneva. In a discussion with the prison governor, he was told that far too many prisoners disrupted the regular running of the prison because they did not belong in prison. The prison governor said he would like to see a product with which offenders who do not pose a danger could serve their sentence outside the prison. José Demetrio then showed him an Asian product, but the prison governor was not satisfied with the quality. Our CEO remained hooked on the idea until he sought a partner for his project at the EPFL in 2010. One of my friends was assigned to develop the hardware, and he asked me whether I would like to get involved with the software. This ultimately led to Geosatis.

The company is not the only manufacturer of ankle bracelets. What does Geosatis do differently from the competition?
With our product of course it is the hardware that stands out. We are the only company in the world that distributes the entire electronics around the ankle. Our competitors make two-piece devices with an ankle bracelet and an add-on device that has to be worn as well. And because the electronics are distributed around the ankle, it is also not so easy to break or cut through the ankle bracelet – and this despite the fact that that no tools are needed to attach and remove the devices. Our product has a mobile charger, whereas competitor products require the offender to plug in a cable and wait two hours for it to charge. In addition, our ankle bracelet is waterproof to depths of at least 30 metres – we took the Swiss watch industry as our reference point here.

It sounds as if the software is secondary.
No it’s not, but we don’t promote it so much. Essentially what you do through the software is define how often the ankle bracelets transmit data, stipulate zones and set times. Typically, for example, a person with an ankle bracelet stays at home at night, but has to leave his or her apartment during the day because social contact is important. You also define escalation levels which the system works through if an offender does not abide by the rules. First of all, the wearer is usually informed by means of a vibration that a condition has not been met. If the situation is not resolved, the parole officer may be informed by text message or email in a second step, for example, and he or she will then contact the wearer directly. We often receive feedback telling us that our software is much easier to use than that of our competitors. This is partly thanks also to our industrial designer.

Geosatis is based in Le Noirmont in the Jura. What’s the advantage of being here?
We started as a spin-off from the EPFL and still have offices in Lausanne. We considered several locations for setting up the company. What was important to us was to have mechanical skills in the vicinity – for example, from the watch industry. The conversations we had with the various cantonal economic promotion institutions were fascinating. But no other canton received us with such uncomplicated ease and expertise as Canton Jura. And even today their door is always open if we have any issues. To my mind, this uncomplicated manner is something very typical of the Jura. We have often experienced situations here in which a simple, quick and creative solution could be found for a problem.

You have a lot of well-qualified, young people, including many doctors – what attracts them to Le Noirmont?
Generally our choice may be somewhat smaller than in Zürich or Lausanne. But on the other hand, those who apply to join us are highly motivated and very interested in the company. Added to which, our employees find the work so inspiring that we now often receive applications from friends or acquaintances of our employees. Anyone who does not already come from the region is usually a recent graduate without family commitments when they join us – so they are very flexible. A further plus point is that you can rent a whole house here for the price of an apartment in Lausanne. We really have fewer problems finding the right people for our company than you might imagine in a region like the Jura.

The company already has several financing rounds behind it. Who invests in Geosatis?
We have decided not to take up any venture capital at the present time, because we want to retain control of the company. Geosatis was planned as an independent company from the outset, and we have shown for example through the establishment of an apprenticeship that we are planning for the long term. As a result we have primarily private investors today. These are usually wealthy individuals from the local region who find our company interesting and the product convincing. Because we aim to produce in Switzerland and keep company operations in the country, we are creating jobs for highly qualified people – that is also a good reason for some investors. It’s a little like crowdfunding on a higher level.

And what can you promise your investors? Will there be an exponential growth in the use of ankle bracelets?
There are different areas of use for ankle bracelets; they are an established instrument for use in people remanded in custody, as an alternative or partial alternative to prison and for offenders on probation. In fact, the proportion of ankle bracelets in use is on the increase, but in many countries – including Switzerland – there are no legal provisions for their use. Governments in general are under enormous cost pressure. In Switzerland, an offender in prison costs around 8000 francs a month. This does not even include consequential costs such as loss of employment, assistance in job searches or psychological support. With an ankle bracelet, an offender costs around 1000 francs a month. Our market is also growing on several levels: There are more and more people in the world, ever more cases in which the punishment of a fine achieves nothing and ever more possibilities for offenders to serve their sentence with an ankle bracelet. In developed countries, around 10 percent of offenders could wear ankle bracelets. We believe this can be increased to 30 percent, because as long as an offender is not dangerous, there is no reason not to use an ankle bracelet. Around 70 percent of prison inmates in developed countries are not dangerous – so a cautious estimate of 30 percent is realistic.

Is it a punishment if you can be at home?
The ankle bracelet is definitely a punishment, because you cannot simply go to the cinema or drive off somewhere in the evening. The offender is given very clear rules on where he has to be when. In the current pilot projects in Switzerland, a person can register for an ankle bracelet. We have already seen offenders who would prefer to go back to prison after a few days. They could not cope with the psychological pressure of being under constant surveillance. You immediately get a phone call if you forget to charge your ankle bracelet – and you can get the feeling that you are being constantly watched.

How do you find buyers for your ankle bracelets?
We lease our product primarily to governments. Because the data from the ankle bracelets are highly sensitive and government like to keep the data under their control, we usually offer our product through a local partner in the country concerned. So the servers are located in that country and thus under the control of the government. We obtain our orders mostly through tenders that we are personally invited to submit. We have been engaged in South Africa for 18 months and at the moment they are considering whether and, if so, how the country would like to continue with our ankle bracelets. But the signs so far are positive, and other countries are also increasingly interested in our product.

Which countries are you speaking of? The USA?
Ankle bracelets have been used in the USA for a long time already. There are lots of companies vying for orders there; the price pressure is huge and there are already highly specialized products on the market. In Europe, they have very concrete ideas as to what an ankle bracelet should do. This makes it difficult at times to market our product. In the Asian market, prices are extremely low and they set great store by Asian products. That leaves the emerging markets, where our product is a perfect fit for their needs. We link our further developments closely to the needs of the countries and try meet their requirements where possible.

What does the market in Switzerland look like?
There have been invitations to tender for pilot projects so far. Now it looks as if the whole of Switzerland wants to introduce a single system. This call for tenders will probably be launched in 2018 and we will certainly be getting involved.

What are you aiming to achieve? What are your business objectives with Geosatis?
Our main competitor and international market leader is 3M. Our objective is to become global market leader. We are still in the start-up phase, have around 300 ankle bracelets in use in South Africa and 200 in other countries. But you can shoot to the top very quickly, because the countries differ in size and winning an order for 10,000 ankle bracelets can represent a giant step forwards. If we win large orders, of course, we will have to expand our company accordingly. In five to ten years, we could cover 70 percent of the market.

What makes you so certain?
We are the new generation of ankle bracelets and so far the competition has not come up with anything comparable. If the political pressure for secure and reliable ankle bracelets grows, then I believe Geosatis has the best offer: a high-quality ankle bracelet with a long service life at a fair price. At Geosatis we like to think one step ahead, and we run through a wide variety of different cases. That makes our product better than others in many details.

Interview: Thomas Brenzikofer and Nadine Nikulski, i-net/BaselArea.swiss

Urs Hunkeler has a PhD in telecommunications from the EPFL and is the author of several scientific publications and patents. Before his studies he worked as a programmer and software consultant. For his PhD thesis he researched on wireless sensor networks at the IBM research laboratory in Rüschlikon.

Geosatis is the second company he has played a major part in founding. In the founder team he is predominantly responsible for the technology. Urs Hunkeler is committed to sustainable corporate development and to high-quality innovative products, and he developed the original version of the software. Today he supervises product development and makes sure Geosatis also has further surprises in store for the future.

Urs Hunkeler is a member of the IEEE and Electrosuisse.

 

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