App to aid disabled close to big time

Gavin Neate holds a smartphone showing the app he designed. Picture: Toby Williams
Gavin Neate holds a smartphone showing the app he designed. Picture: Toby Williams
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Entrepreneur Gavin Neate, who created an app to help disabled people cross the road safely, is on the verge of a major breakthrough after attracting interest from Transport for London (TfL) and technology giants Apple and Imtech.

Neate, who spent 18 years training guide dog users after serving as an RAF police dog handler, is also in talks that could see his system – which allows users to activate pedestrian crossings with their smartphones – put into use in Singapore.

He told The Scotsman that, after giving a presentation to a symposium for traffic signal professionals at Warwick University last week, audience members “rocked back on their heels” because they did not appreciate how difficult it can be for people with mobility problems to use conventional pedestrian crossings.

Following his talk, a representative from engineering firm Imtech, one of the largest players in the traffic signals industry, said the Dutch group would be “very interested” in working with the Roslin-based creator, whose Neatebox system lets people “virtually” press the button at a road crossing using their smartphone, which then signals when it is safe to cross.

Neate added: “TfL said this is exactly what they’re looking for and we’ve ­already started talks about how we can work together.

“I’ve already given TfL an idea for something they’re working on. Accessibility is a big thing in London right now and they have the money for this.”

There are about 6,000 traffic signals in London, and TfL has pledged that audible alerts or tactile rotating cones for visually impaired people will be installed at all pedestrian crossings by 2016. However, Caroline Pidgeon, leader of the Liberal Democrat group in the London Assembly Group, last week said more than 130 of the city’s crossings fail to provide “the most basic safety and access requirements that are needed to assist blind and partially sighted people safely across a road”.

Neate, who said he has assembled a “dream team” of directors from the technology and medical sectors, also presented at the Royal National Institute of Blind People’s Techshare conference in Glasgow earlier this month. At the event, a senior manager for special markets at Apple told Neate that the US maker of iPhones and Mac computers had been following his progress since January.

“It’s quite a strange position to be in,” he said, adding that one of his non-executive directors, Biju Krishnan – the dentist who counts celebrities including TV presenter Holly Willoughby among his patients – is in Singapore to meet creative agency Digimagic “to have a look at putting something into the city centre”.

Neate’s other non-executive is Professor Charles Swainson, the former medical director at NHS Lothian, while Dubai-based technology entrepreneur Robin Mehta acts as chief technical officer.

Earlier this year Neatebox won the support of Edinburgh City Council to install devices at pedestrian crossings near the Scottish Parliament, and the firm is now in talks with LaunchMe, the Scottish accelerator programme that aims to secure funding for early-stage social enterprises.

“It’s definitely a route I want to go down because it means I can be evangelical about what I’m doing without having to worry about shareholders,” Neate said.

“It also means I have the potential of getting funding from other areas. There are a lot of big companies that are interested in investing in social enterprises.”