How winning InfraChallenge helped IRIS to scale up their AI solution for infrastructure maintenance
In 2021, the winner of the GI Hub’s global innovation competition, InfraChallenge, was Canadian start-up IRIS with their InfraTech solution that uses artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled cameras to detect road hazards in real time, enabling faster and securer maintenance for safer roads. Maintenance is critical to the safety and resilience of our infrastructure, yet most technology that gathers asset condition data is expensive or impractical at scale. IRIS’s winning solution enables cities to monitor road infrastructure at substantially lower cost by using dash cameras with AI to detect road hazards and defects in real time.
Infrastructure is one of the least technologically transformed sectors of the economy. To help change this, the GI Hub created InfraChallenge to advance emerging technologies by giving start-ups an opportunity to bring their solutions to a global market.
We recently sat down with IRIS CEO and Co-founder Emil Sylvester Ramos to find out what’s happened since winning InfraChallenge in September 2021 and how it’s helped them to achieve their aim to localise and implement IRIS’s road infrastructure assessment technology across the world - including emerging economies that need the solution the most.
Q: How has winning InfraChallenge helped you scale and amplify your solution?
Starting a company, growing it through a pandemic, and building something truly impactful in highly regulated markets intertwined with government is a daunting task - and we cannot do it alone. It takes a community of thought leaders, innovation champions, and industry experts who are willing to challenge the status quo and light the spark to drive meaningful change, that is what winning InfraChallenge has empowered IRIS to do.
It’s also helped us identify greener pastures beyond the municipal sector and into global infrastructure projects in developed and emerging economies. We also looked at the bigger picture around infrastructure maintenance funding, concessions management, and regulatory compliance using blue ocean strategies. More importantly, we now understand the critical role we can play for the public sector to upgrade core infrastructure including roads and highways into the 21st century. This sector is in dire need of technical, operational, and maintenance support from private technology companies such as IRIS and the first step in this journey is data. Winning InfraChallenge cemented IRIS as an internationally recognised pioneer in solving difficult data collection challenges facing the roads, tunnels, and transport infrastructure sector today.
Q: As the winner of InfraChallenge you were invited to present your solution to the Italian G20 Infrastructure Working Group (IWG) in 2021 – what was that experience like and were there any outcomes following the presentation?
Presenting to the G20 IWG increased the morale of the whole IRIS team. Hearing the IWG’s commitment towards infrastructure maintenance, its part in stimulating the economy, and its role in extending the life of ageing infrastructure motivated us to focus on helping cities, infrastructure owners, and concessionaires to maintain their infrastructure using IRIS proprietary AI technologies. Today, we have turned this project into reality with cities and concessions in five continents benefiting from the solution’s proven economic, societal, and environmental impact.
Q: What are some of the key milestones that IRIS has achieved this year and how did winning InfraChallenge help?
We have exceeded our revenue targets year-on-year. In 2022 the Federal Government of Canada committed CAD 2.5 million to help IRIS advance its technology and scale across world markets. We were also chosen by the International Canadian Trade and Export to receive continuous support and programming that included participating in Canada’s 2022 Auto Mission to Silicon Valley, California.
IRIS also won the International Road Federation’s Start-up Label Award and presented at the International Road Federation’s ‘Decarbonise, Finance, and Digitalise the Road Sector for a Sustainable Mobility & Growth’ Conference in Marrakech, Morocco.
We have also received numerous Canadian awards and I’m pleased to share that in 2022 I was proclaimed a Top 75 Finalist in the Top 25 Canadian Immigrant Awards and an MNP Future Leader in 2021.
Q: Over the last year, has IRIS grown its footprint? Where have your solution expanded to?
IRIS currently has roads and tunnel maintenance projects in five continents. We have a 400-kilometre concession in Brazil, and projects in France, Australia, Japan, and South America. We’ve established strategic partnerships with local and international telecommunication and infrastructure companies in North America, Asia, Australia, Europe, and the Middle East.
Q: When you competed in InfraChallenge, what stage was your solution at and how has InfraChallenge helped you to arrive at where you are today?
InfraChallenge helped us focus on solving the data gap in concessions and roads management and we have worked extremely hard in ensuring that our solutions drive bottom line impact and contributes to the environmental, social, and governance aspirations of our clients and partners.
Today, we are in five continents and commercialising our three solution offerings:
- Concessions and road patrol (defect monitoring, winter maintenance, patrol record keeping, and compliance)
- Pavement assessments (civil engineering data)
- Right-of-way asset inventory and assessments (vegetation, barriers, markings, signs, etc.).
Q: Mentoring was a key component of InfraChallenge. You were paired with Sara Alvarado, Executive Director at Institute for Sustainable Finance. How did the intensive mentoring with Sara help you with building IRIS?
Sara’s insights continue to be a game changer for IRIS. For example, the intensive mentoring with Sara helped us understand the amount of stakeholder buy-in that needs to happen even before an infrastructure project gets off the ground. We then looked at how IRIS could get involved during the initial planning phase - helping create bankable road infrastructure projects all the way from design, construction, operations, maintenance, and decommissioning.
Furthermore, Sara helped us understand existing challenges in the infrastructure industry and highlighted the need for sustainable, and practical technologies that help build better, more resilient infrastructure and proactively maintain existing assets to enhance quality and resilience. Sara remains an ally of IRIS and we are grateful for her continued support.
Q: What advice do you have for technology entrepreneurs who are looking to scale up their solution?
One advice I can give is to achieve velocity and continued momentum. Never take your foot off the pedal and use competitions like InfraChallenge as a springboard towards product validation, market acceptance, and sustained revenue growth.
Most importantly, create more leaders and build great teams – this is the only true competitive advantage in a rapidly maturing market and an exponentially changing world.