An interview with Francesco Pessolano, co-founder of XETAL
My name is Francesco Pessolano and I am one of the co-founders of XETAL. My background is electrical engineering, I have obtained an honours degree in Italy, a PhD in England and an MBA in Rotterdam – so a bit of a mix. I’ve been working mostly in the semiconductors technology industry – spent quite a big part of my career in Philips and its subsidiaries, down to NXP, where I was covering all sorts of innovation and management positions up to the NXP CTO management team. Then I moved out to work in consultancy for business development in Altran and finally to IMEC, again for program management and business development.
In between, I started my passion for start-ups – I first tried to spin-out a business from Philips in 2008-2009. The start-up was short-lived because our major investor withdrew their funds after a year due to business reorganization and very big bank scandals in Japan. Now I am busy full time with XETAL, which I founded together with a fellow Italian, VITO and our lead investors.
We started in 2013 as a company focused on monitor assistance and elderly care. Since then we developed ourselves into a technology provider for monitoring systems – we spent a good three years trying to sell in the elder care market just to realise that the market was not mature enough. Over the last 2.5 years we have mostly been working on selling our technology to other parties who actually make products, or who make solutions and deploy them for internal use.
Our key technology is based on using temperature sensors – simple ones, like the one that you use for non-touch thermometers – to detect and track people with a precision of about 30-40 cm in real time. This allows our customers to do various things such as counting the people present in the office, estimating the density of people in a given area, etc. Since we use temperature sensors, we can do the same with anything emitting heat; we can detect fires, temperature anomalies, pets and how they move, 3D printers, and so on.
How did you come up with this product?
We tried to spin out from Philips to create a company which was using a custom-built smart camera to detect and track people. This was back in 2008 with a larger team of nine people. Even though it didn’t go through, we learned a lot of lessons – one of them is that you don’t want to use cameras for various reasons: cost, complexity, inefficiency, privacy and so on.
One of our team members then went to VITO and started to work with someone else – who ended up being one of my co-founders – to understand how we could do it differently. It was kind of a battle between these two people, one wanted to use cameras, the other wanted to use a cheaper option. And the latter developed the very first version of our technology.
It had such a performance that, together with VITO, this was shown to several experts in the Belgian market. It turned out this technology could solve problems in security, elderly care, smart buildings and so on. From that moment the project was created with the specific goal of setting up a company. All this started in VITO in 2010, and from then on, until 2013, it was all about verification, prototyping and expanding.
What problems does the technology solve? Can you elaborate on the specific benefits and the questions the technology answers?
The main thing we address is the desire to monitor behaviour to control for example energy, access, etc. That need has existed for a really long time and has been tried to be addressed with all sorts of sensors, wearables or cameras. However, a wearable ends up not worn because the people who need to be monitored do not want to wear it or they forget to wear it. Even worse, cameras have three serious problems: they are very expensive; today you need a 3D camera for such a system, which easily costs $1500-2000 apiece and you need at least 1-2 per room.
The second problem are privacy matters, of course, which change from country to country – there are countries where this is not really a problem, like the UK, while in Italy or Australia this is truly a problem to the point where it is easy to sue anybody if you film them, even on a mobile phone.
The third element is the fact that cameras do not perform very well – we have done a project where we noticed that one of our sensors could do what eight cameras were doing. Even if we were performing the analysis in real time and the cameras was performing the analysis offline, you still needed to store data for a day and then analyse it. It is a limitation of the technology itself. The same can be said for solutions like radars as they have similar problems: they do not perform and are expensive.
We address a need with something that is low cost, that works and that is not invasive both in terms of privacy and visibility. We do not create a need, we just developed something to fulfil a need which was never fully met.
What is your impact on the industry? How do you see your technology changing and informing the industry on decisions that are taken?
We help the industry to automatize a lot of processes which today are not or cannot be automatized due to privacy concerns by taking away things like wearables, cameras and putting invisible sensors in their place.
A bit like what Google has started back in the day for internet behaviour, but in the real world. For example the consumer industry today wants to know as much as possible what people are doing – be that at home or in the shop. And our technology can allow that: our sensors could be embedded in a television, people would buy a TV and never see our sensors. At the same time whoever sells the TV could actually know everything the viewers are doing while watching TV, so they get access to a set of data in an anonymous way – respecting privacy – which can greatly impact the marketing department.
In the security market industry would benefit from our technology because it would be able to detect people or have an understanding of what they are doing without invading their privacy, without having big cameras, without having expensive materials or computers, without having people looking at camera feeds all the time. We can actually use our sensors to detect suspicious activity, for example in a room, in a fully automatic was instead of having people watching screens to try to figure out suspicious behaviour. And what is really important is that even in most stringent countries, there won’t be any problems regarding privacy laws because we don’t have videos – we only use sensors to detect something. That helps in any market.
What challenges did you face growing your company?
There were several, of course – nobody believed that our idea would actually work and every company we talked to, Intel, Samsung, etc. was convinced it was impossible, so there was a very technological challenge. But the real challenge is that this is something really new which is addressing something that many other technologies have been trying to address for 15 years and failed. I believe we have a solution which fits a need which unfortunately in the past 15 years has been addressed with the wrong technology and resulted in lack of trust by customers. That’s the biggest challenge we have. It’s very difficult to convince them to try us out and to be the first to deploy our technology.
Any anecdotes you would like to share?
Like every start-up, we ended up being involved in the usual start-up circles, the web summit kind of things. It happens that the first time we went to the web summit in Dublin we were pitching in front of the three most famous US venture capitalists, which shall remain unnamed. At the end of our pitch they looked at me and the most famous of the three said: “This is great, but I really wish you go bankrupt, because the last thing I want is that all the companies know what I do at home without me knowing it thanks to you.”
It felt quite weird, both insulted and proud at the same time. I just smiled and said I would do my best that it would be in his house.
One funny thing is that we are a Belgian company, made in Belgium but developed by Italians. Depending on who we talk to, they consider us an Italian or a Belgian company. If I were to use the Apple working, I would say “Designed in Belgium, made by Italians”.