"Eliminating supply chain inefficiencies by making packages speak"
Earlier this summer as part of the Gandhi Centre’s ‘Social Impact Day’, we again held our annual ‘Ideas to Impact (i2i) Challenge’, bringing together university student teams to present their innovative ideas to solve some of the big global challenges we face in society.
Shortlisted teams were brought forward to pitch at the final challenge event on 20 May 2020 to a panel of industry experts, to be in with a chance of winning one of three finalist seed-funding prizes, and take advantage of Imperial’s world-class academic and industry coaching and mentorship to help them develop their prototypes and pilots over the forthcoming year.
We wanted to take a more in-depth look at Monoceros, our third place finalists who are tackling the three main supply chain challenges that NGOs face: lack of exhaustive data, unviable real-time information and delayed reaction to unexpected events by using cheaper AI powered sensors and a simple detection platform.
The team comprising of Théophile Griveau-Billion (who undertook an MSc in Statistics at Imperial College) and Federica Andrisani, first conceived their idea early in the new year of 2020, beginning work shortly after that, and quickly established their goal to positively impact one million lives with this enterprise, through the various NGOs they are working with.
Monoceros began following a discussion with the supply chain manager of a big NGO in charge of the food distribution in Zimbabwe. Listening to the problems they were facing captured Théophile’s curiosity and his engineer mind started considering various solutions.
“I’ve been working with optimisation algorithms on time series since I started applied mathematics and published my first paper on this topic. Hence, discovering this real-life impactful application of such an algorithm naturally motivated me to go further.”
“Thanks to the great combination of technical and business skills of our team, we evolved and shaped the idea from a theoretical solution into a product answering exactly our clients' needs.”
“Thanks to my PhD experience, I was able to construct a revolutionary solution to a complex problem from a blank page.”
Since the i2i Challenge, the team have been working full time on Monoceros, developing most of the Cloud and back-end features of the software, establishing a partnership with a Spanish supplier to design and produce customised hardware, designing the custom 3D-printed case for their sensor and launching the front-end development with a third-party firm.
Over the summer, they secured 54,000€ from the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes and Réseau Entreprendre, a French entity supporting innovative ventures in the region, and they are now working on further grant proposals and will start raising capital in November.
They have also been testing their sensor prototype in the field for the past three months and are now planning a pilot with a mechanical engineering company, to kick-off in February 2021. Additionally, as well as working with perishable products, the team have recently decided to look at the art market with the aim of helping organisations preserve and keep track of works of art all over the world.
Théophile, who is currently finishing a PhD on Machine Learning for time series analysis in the Statistics department, has research interests including evolving datasets, dynamic models, and finding connections between large sets of time series, which he likens to “looking for a needle in a haystack!”.
Monoceros’ main research focuses on three topics: low-powered cellular-connected sensors, low-powered transport mode detection algorithms and large-scaled time-series causal graph construction algorithms. They are currently working on these projects alone, but are looking for partnerships with universities to pursue this research further. Given that the product stands at the cross-roads of different fields, they are looking to get in touch with experts from different industries facing the same problem.
With timing being the biggest problem in this field, Monoceros are not the first to be looking at providing customers with supply chain monitoring solutions, but despite their current competitive advantage, being able to deliver as soon as possible and entering the market on time is crucial for the idea to take off and succeed. Linked to this is obtaining the funding they need, quickly. Consequently, they have been able to garner investors’ trust and support in progressing the idea.
Another obstacle they face is with regard to negotiation time with suppliers, and the associated potential delay in operations. Internally, the team are conscious that they don’t fall prey to rush and pressure, taking ‘easy’ decisions under the illusion of saving time, and handling complex situations properly and fairly.
“We will keep on working hard and with determination to achieve our goals in the expected timing, while ensuring a structured approach to maintaining the highest standards we intend to provide to our customers”
The team have a well-nourished network of mentors and coaches helping them to build the business, and they are achieving strong traction from several customers in various industries, all willing to know more about the idea and to see results in the field before exploring next steps.
Monoceros have been creating impact with this startup already, which in such a short space of time is impressive and indicative of the level of support for the idea. They are preparing to launch a pilot in February 2021, dealing with the delivery of some delicate mechanical components to the Middle East and Africa. To achieve this, they have a tight schedule consisting of both sensor and software tests to be run by the end of this year. They are also seeking additional funds to be able to support the production of their v2 sensor, its relative certifications and general pilot expenses.
Currently, they are starting the platform production with a software provider company and are finalising the custom features to include in the hardware with their supplier.
They are measuring social impact carefully, using a number of metrics including the number of alerts/thefts detected, oversupply prevention and money saved. Operationally, the team are monitoring lead-time in providing the sensors to clients, sensor battery consumption, sensor indicators, ease of navigation through the platform and how quickly users are getting to grips with using the platform.
As with so many this year, the Monoceros team have also experienced impacts on their schedule due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They have had to push back the testing of the initial version of their hardware by two months, a delay that they are now making up for with daily motivation and focus to achieve their original goals and timings.
The main implication of this was a longer period prior to receiving their first funding award, during which they had to reinvent and reorganise themselves in order to develop internally most of the features they had originally planned to outsource, e.g. Cloud, platform back-end and firmware, website, and case design.
“Despite the virtual-working mode we have all been forced into over the past few months, we are very proud to have been able to deliver on all mentioned fronts, including securing our first investments and crucial partnerships.”
These challenging times have put the team to the test, highlighting their resilience, strengths and complementary skills and last, but not least, their true commitment to realising their valuable project.
Their next goal is to have the v1 pre-series of their sensor and software out before the end of the year, in time to launch their first pilot in February 2021. To achieve this goal they are engaging in partnerships on electronic, mechanical and software design as well as financing organisations. They are also in active talks with government funding agencies, banks and private investors to build the best financing structure they can, to develop Monoceros for the years to come on a solid foundation.
In addition to the i2i Challenge at Imperial College Business School, Monoceros has taken part in the ‘Female Founders Office Hours’ event, organised by Playfair Capital, during which they pitched to four different VC investors and achieved some visibility among more than 60 other participants.
They are currently also going through the selection process for the ‘BHeroes’ Italian program, which brings together innovative startups operating in different sectors, both nationally and internationally. The team are also a ‘2020 lauréat’ from Réseau-Entreprendre Haute-Savoie, which, in addition to equity-free funding, provides the team with coaching and access to its network of CEOs for the next 2 years.
Future research & impact
In addition to the three research projects they are already pursuing (highlighted earlier in this article), and seeking universities to partner with, the team have now started the process to protect their IP in Europe and are working on registering their trademark. Future plans include expanding the team to boost marketing and sales areas, and they are having preliminary discussions with insurers and 3PLs to partner with and further get the word out about Monoceros.
Monoceros are now looking for an additional 250k€ to fund the IP registration, solution certification and production of the sensor volumes needed to run the pilot in February.
They have also been selected among the 10 finalists for the Cohort III Demo Day 2020, hosted by Conception X accelerator program, which they have been participating in since February 2020.