On February 23, 2021, Highline Beta announced its second cohort of the Safe x Connected Cities Accelerator in partnership with Aviva Canada. Since then, the three participating startups have been actively working with Aviva Canada, Highline Beta, and other supporting partners to design pilots and secure industry collaborators to kick off projects in-market that aim to make roads safer across Canada. The planning phase is officially done, and we are set to switch gears and go into execution mode to bring the pilots to life. Here is a conversation with Tara Pham, co-founder of Numina, about their startup journey, program experience and future ambitions.
Numina measures all kinds of curb-level activity. Anonymously and in aggregate, Numina delivers the volume counts, paths, and traffic behaviours of travellers and objects in streets.
Highline Beta: Tara, can you please explain what kind of ‘curb-level activity’ does Numina measure and how does it work?
Tara: We make a sensor and data platform that focuses on detecting pedestrians, bicycles, cars, buses, trucks, and even other things like dogs and bags of trash. Rather than just counting them, we actually trace their movements through the street, but in a completely privacy-first and anonymous way. And then we translate that information into analytics that urban planners and facility managers can use to design more accessible, more efficient, and safer places.
Highline Beta: You’ve been working on this company for 5 years and today are deployed in dozens of cities arounds the globe. Tell us a little bit about your background and where Numina's journey began.
Tara: My background is in public health research focused on studying how city design and transportation decisions affect people’s behaviours and wellbeing. In my research, I quickly learned that often cities and planners are doing their work using, basically, car counts. They just don't have the data about how everyone else uses streets.
The defining moment for me was when my co-founder Martin McGreal and I had been hit by vehicles while riding our bikes within a month of each other. And that just brought things into focus. It is politically easy to justify accommodating for more cars because that's where most cities’ traffic data is focused. We do recognize that even when planners want to prevent crashes, like those that we had, they simply lack the data to do so. And you know, the silver lining of those crashes is that it motivated us to start a company to provide better data to planners.
Highline Beta: Can you please elaborate on the Privacy by Design? Why is it so important?
Tara: One of our biggest differentiators in the market is that Numina is completely based on “Privacy-by-Design”, which is, incidentally, a concept that was designed in Canada! It’s important to build privacy in from the beginning because we measure the public realm, where all kinds of people walk and move, and they don’t get to opt in or out of being measured, like you can with an app or website online. Some of our sales process involves educating customers about valuing privacy, as it is unfortunately not a common priority for all municipalities. It's great to be able to point to examples, especially with Canadian cities who already have privacy-forward regulations in place.
Highline Beta: How does Numina help make roads safer?
Tara: I think there are a lot of solutions out there that focus on traffic counts that feed into larger traffic demand management models. So, you can think of a grid level view of where people are moving from and to, throughout the day. When I say that we focus on street level, what I mean is that we actually show where things move in a specific streetscape. So, are bicyclists still riding on the sidewalk even after a bike lane has been installed? And why is that? If we can, for example, deploy different signage, can we measure how that actually affects people’s behavior? You can think of it as a piece of experimental design, or a science experiment. You're going to apply an intervention, and you're going to have measurement tools like Numina that tell you the impact of that intervention in streets that previously didn't exist. We essentially quantify the impacts of their work, so that they can approach it more empirically because, otherwise, a lot of these efforts end up being left to guesswork.
Highline Beta: What attracted you to apply to the program?
Tara. Honestly, we were very interested in this program because we've never worked with an insurance company before, and insurance companies like Aviva are some of the largest stakeholders in traffic safety issues. The cost of traffic safety are things that we tend to think of as priceless, in the sense that it’s difficult to quantify the value of our physical safety and lives. However, insurance companies have to, as part of their work. So, they are naturally interested in making streets safer for their customers and quantifying the impact of certain safety measures
Highline Beta: What was the experience like thus far working with Aviva Canada?
Tara: This program with Aviva is very unique. We haven't really seen any other companies take this approach to road safety. I will say that this program has been really well-structured. Essentially, from Day 1, when we were meeting with mentors from within Aviva, it felt like they had really familiarized themselves with our solution and the specific problem we’re tackling. We got very direct feedback as to the ways that our data could feed into insurance operations, from seeing auto claims data and road safety issues. For a startup, this insight from a large company who actually can influence markets and regulation is extremely valuable.
Highline Beta: What are some of the key takeaways or learnings you can share from the pilot design phase.
Tara. I feel like Highline Beta really set us up for success by preparing Aviva’s teams and mentors with the background on how Numina works and by having a deep understanding of the urgency of our specific kind of niche area within road safety.
Having a very open collaborative opportunity is the ideal for us. We really appreciate all the structure that the team is providing in terms of communication, assistance with navigating through internal corporate structures, sourcing and onboarding municipalities... It's great to have this whole team around the project. It feels like we're sitting around a table where the project is in the middle, instead of, like, on opposite sides of a boardroom table.
Highline Beta: What is next for Numina?
Tara: A part of what's next for us is deploying our pilot with Aviva Canada and bringing it to life. We're very excited about a couple of new product features that we've begun prototyping, which we plan to validate and make commercially available by way of our pilot. I think that's very exciting! The other thing that goes along with that for us is hiring. We currently work in more than 25 cities, and everyone on the team basically touches all of these projects. The use cases we're building through our pilot with Aviva Canada have a big potential to open up new opportunities. As this pilot goes on, we're going to be developing an exciting case study that builds off the momentum of how everyone has been rethinking streets in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I am eager to see what learnings we can take to other places, and I think that's going to be part of our expansion story.