How Neatebox stood with Giants, an interview with Gavin Neate by Barbara Franzoni

Gavin Neate once worked with military police dogs and guide dogs for the blind, but he had an innovative idea which led to Neatebox, a small company that stood alongside Facebook and Microsoft as the three finalists in the Disability Smart Award for technology initiative of the year (won by Microsoft for Office 365). In short, he uses technology to make the world better and more inclusive.

I wanted to know what it takes not just to come up with world-changing ideas like ‘Button’ and ‘Welcome’ but also how to bring those ideas to fruition, so I asked Gavin how he did it.

In 1996, Gavin Neate landed his dream job as a mobility instructor with Guide Dogs for the Blind, he refers to this as “the best job in the world”. He was also involved in a project testing how GPS could help vision-impaired people to travel from A to B using palm pilots – something he found really interesting despite the kit being big and clunky and costing an absolute fortune.

As time went on he noticed that people were turning up at guide dog training with mobile phones in their hands. This mobile technology was becoming more mainstream and people with sightloss could use it just like anyone else if they bought an add-on speech package from Nokia. Then Apple brought out an iPhone with voiceover built-in, meaning that vision-impaired access to mobile technology came as standard, without having to buy another piece of kit. This was exciting and opened his thoughts to how else mobile technology might assist people.

A burning question for Gavin was how people with various disabilities pressed the button at pedestrian crossings; if you want to go anywhere, then at some point you’ll need to cross a road, so this was something to be addressed. “Wouldn’t it be good if you could press the button with your mobile phone?” he thought. A friend encouraged him to investigate the idea further and by 2010 he had a working application along with PCBs to go into pedestrian crossings. This system evolved into “Button” and has now been installed in a number of locations, including the Scottish town of Largs where every single crossing has been enabled for the Button app. It’s also used for horse crossings, enabling riders to reach pedestrian crossing buttons not only from their more elevated position but also from several yards away from the road to avoid spooking the horses.

The Neatebox team also grew and they looked at another problem to solve. Button was helping people to get to their destination, but what happened once they got there? Would staff at that location know how to deal with their needs?

“The problem was that when a disabled person (and bear in mind that 75% of people with disabilities have invisible disabilities) walks through a door,” said Gavin, “it’s not just the disabled person who might feel uncomfortable or anxious, it’s also the person on the other side of that door.” Gavin and his team took time to consider this problem and they built the app that became “Welcome” to help disabled people be properly welcomed wherever they went. He describes their thought process at the time.

“If I can use my mobile phone to press the button at a crossing, then I can use it to press the button at a door. If I can press the button at a door then the door knows who I am from my phone’s IP. If the door knows who’s coming through it, then the people inside can be alerted and pre-trained in how to interact with me (if I am disabled). This means that I can help people in businesses and public amenities to understand how they can better support people with disability.

I didn’t know nobody had done it before, but there we were in a situation where we were the first people to do it.

The door bit was an important part of what we did, letting people know when you’re walking through the door. But we also started putting geo sensors around buildings so we could tell that the person visiting was a number of minutes away, a bit like when you’re ordering a taxi and you’re notified that your taxi is two minutes away.”

So what does it take to turn an innovative idea into a successful business?

“I had no idea how to run a business. I left school with minimal qualifications but I have a Buzz Lightyear attitude so I don’t think about whether I can do it or not, I’m just going to do it. As long as you can take a punch and you’re prepared to keep getting up, then you will succeed. And if you don’t succeed then dammit you’ve given it your best shot.”

Gavin continues the Toy Story analogy when talking about Allan Hutcheon, the Neatebox COO who he describes as ‘amazing’.

“Buzz is an activist with a very high moral code who just goes and does things, wanting to save the world right now. Whereas Woody wants to plan it out, saying we need to ensure everything’s in place, we need to tick the boxes, dot the i’s and cross the t’s, so everything will go well. If you think of those two characters, they’re designed to work perfectly together and when they do, they’re the best of buddies and things work out. Allan is the Woody to my Buzz Lightyear, he joined and made the company be a company. But it takes more than just Buzz and Woody, you also need Rex and Bo Peep and Mr & Mrs Potato Head and the whole Round Up Gang. You need diversity, including the people who will pull back and ask questions. And when you put them all together and they work well together then you have an amazing, unbeatable team.”

The Toy Story analogy is great advice for new entrepreneurs in a field based on technology and solutions. In fact, Gavin believes that we need more people to jump into developing real solutions.

“There’s been a real weight on university graduates for such a long time, whereas someone who has been working in a particular area for 20 years will understand what the problems are. Society often asks younger people for their ideas, which we then consider and nurture, and that’s great, but we rarely go into a busy hospital and approach experienced people to seek their new ideas. We need to encourage experienced people to develop solutions by letting them know that they too can be the change they want to see in the world. If you have an idea, you can do more than write it on a piece of paper and pop it in a suggestion box that will hopefully travel up the chain of command, dissolving as it goes. There will always be somebody like me close by who has a twinkle in their eye and is just looking for an opportunity to put a solution into practice.”

When asked what’s next for Neatebox, Gavin replied that his own personal goal is societal change.

“When somebody who you don’t know posts on social media about this fantastic experience they had using your app, it’s easily the best moment because you realise that the thing you thought of has just changed someone’s life. That’s massive!”

But he think that putting solutions out there isn’t enough, it’s also about changing attitudes so that the able-bodied world will adopt and use the solutions that make life easier for everyone. An example is social media which is getting more accessible; we can now add subtitles to a video and image describe a photo. But inclusivity depends on the people using social media to add those descriptions and subtitles to their content. In the case of an image description, it’s something that takes a moment, but makes a huge difference for people using screen readers.

Right now, mobile phone accessible pedestrian crossing systems and in-the-moment disability awareness apps don’t exist anywhere in the world apart from the ones that Neatebox puts out there, and Gavin Neate wants them to be all over the world.., to infinity and beyond.

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