Smartphone Start-up: Zone V

Zone V is a start-up, conceived by founder, Abhi Naha – who has an inspiring vision to bring to market a reasonably priced smartphone, aimed at amplifying sight, sound and touch, for ageing consumers and those with impaired sight and hearing, whilst making it pleasurable and engaging. He intends to target developed markets first and developing markets later, where there are high levels of sight impairment, usually accompanied by other disabilities, often amongst women.”It’s about creating a world where lack of sight does not mean lack of vision,” is how Abhi puts it.

The company, Zone V, whilst emergent, already has the backing of some of the most prestigious names in digital and software communications – ARM Holdings, Qualcomm and with Apple manufacturers Foxconn, ready to produce the first batch, having raised £4m to-date out of a total targeted £5m for launch and set-up.   The company aims to supply 2.5m mobile devices, creating net sales of over £350m with the intention of launching a new product every 18 months.  They already have a letter of intent from a UK vendor channel for more than twice the UK projected sales.

Abhi Naha, a postgraduate with a Masters in Business Administration from Aston Business School, has assembled an impressive board including high-powered names such as Sir Ronald Mason, Zone V Chairman and former Chairman of University College London Hospital, Frank Nuovo, Chief Creative Officer for Zone V and former Chief of Design and VP at Nokia, and Dr John Gill, former Chief Scientist, Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB), Sarah Guggenheim, Director of Product Marketing at Vertu and Virgin Mobile and with board advisers including Cherie Blair.

Not too many start-up boards can boast a combined experience of 100+ years in Nokia, Motorola, Virgin Mobile and synaptics, with three members of the team having, between them, brought 1bn handsets to market already. With £4m promised, subject to the final £1m match funding, the stakes for Abhi and the board are high. Investment to-date has delivered working and prototypes worth £350k , handled with the utmost care as he demonstrates the special features that have warranted the 10 patents pending.

“We’ve been working on this project for the best part of four years,” says Abhi Naha. “Whilst designed to support those visually impaired or with defective hearing, we have also designed our handsets to be attractive and easily accessible for any age group.  They operate off an Android system as these are more open to app developers who can get into the system, enabling them to be more creative and build-in more ‘hooks’, as well as providing location-based systems – mapping and integrated cross city journeys, for example. Using google we’re able to access a low cost platform that is considered more easily accessible.”

Apple make a lot of money from app development, every 0.70p in the £1 goes to developers working off their platform, with 0.30p going to Apple as platform providers.  They made $1bn revenue on iStore in the last quarter alone.  Google have been targeting the eco system around the mobile user experience.  “Thinking about the Midlands this might mean the driver or car owner accessing local search related content through Google enabled dashboards in the future, ” says Abhi. “Google are looking to get into vertical value chains, whereas Apple is looking at it more from a device-centric side. This will include location based services (multi-sided market technology platforms) and we are likely more innovative people moving into this space to trade personal data with consumers for services. Only question is how confident consumers will be in sharing personal data with these companies. Either way, consumers will have a lot more power,” he adds.

Zone V have a start-up office located in Cambridge where Abhi has been involved with networking group, Cambridge Wireless, involving around 400 companies developing products and apps around wireless, mobile, networks and semi-conductor and advanced software, and stimulating collaborative innovation focused on these services and other services, in a space which Abhi sees as crowded and already very fragmented.

“Personally I am frustrated that the UK missed out so much on commercial opportunities launched off the worldwide web, pioneered by Tim Berners-Lee, even though this is already some time back. Whilst we had a go with Sinclair and Acorn, this market has now moved on. However, with location based services and big data there will be a chance to go after this opportunity.”

Abhi Naha spent 7 years working in Silicon Valley on touch screen developments and is unable to forget the palpable energy generated by so many enthusiasts, all supported and backed to get to market and ‘have a go’. “They have an incredible attitude over there. It’s all about trying things out, experimenting and the speed and pace they move at is amazing. It’s accepted that some ideas will fail, but if you get enough into the pipeline some will come through and you don’t need many winners to get the returns ratio working.

“Having spent time in Cambridge I notice big differences between Cambridge and Birmingham. There is so much pressure amongst VCs to take a turn on their investments, rather than sticking with them…the ‘patient capital’ that people refer to. Cambridge itself, whilst a tight and eminent circle encompassing some world class expertise and technologies, is very focused around some core capabilities with the university culture and ethos firmly at its heart.  Birmingham has a chance to carve out space for itself, not only as the UK’s enterprise hot-spot, but with the capacity to bring together multi-sided partnerships with great flexibility and rapidity, thanks to some really well networked parties in the city.  If this can be accompanied by investor pace and enthusiasm, measuring speed-to-market for start-ups, providing post start-up personal support and mentorship, rather than academic mentoring, this could be very positive for the city. If Birmingham is serious about being the best place for business start-ups in Britain it needs to monitor not only the number of business start-ups but where they get to, how much support they have as they start and continue their growth journey to ensure that chances for success amongst these businesses are maximized. Starting up new businesses is not the most difficult bit, it’s the growth journey that is so difficult as you can be overwhelmed by the regulation, accounting, legal and HR minefields hitting you in the early stages – not to mention the money, cashflow, sales and customer acquisition, new product launch, brand platform and marketing – it is so much and usually handled by a very tight team.

“Universities like Birmingham City and the other universities in Birmingham have the opportunity to play a very important role in value creation in the city, kick-starting things, getting them going, perhaps a bit more under the radar at first. If they fail, they fail, but if they do get going the dividends for the city can be huge.

“With our idea we are keen to work with city partners to develop our smartphone eco system and make it easier through collaborative partnerships for more vulnerable people to get out, to access healthcare and information about what is happening and how they can get there. We see Birmingham as having strengths around software developers – many coming out of BCU courses. We also see Birmingham as having inputs around haptics, user-focussed design and app development.

“Working with designers has been quite an eye-opener,” says Abhi. “They tend to have a more holistic perspective centred on the user-experience. This perspective is very useful in any area whether in the public or private sectors and especially where design can help reduce duplication, cost and enhance the outcomes for the user.

“What drives adoption of the smartphone is the ecosystem of 3rd party software designers, content and service providers and app developers. They enrich the accessibility of the offer. By working with other partners in Birmingham we would be able to provide a live data-rich offer integrated into the handset and software. This is our aspiration and why we are hoping we will be based and working out of Birmingham as we take Zone V forward.”