Steve Birdsall of Gaist would like to create a technology hub on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales, writes Deputy Business Editor Greg Wright
HERE’s a pub quiz question that will leave you floundering.
If you took the whole of Lancashire’s road network and laid it out in a straight line, how far do you think it would stretch?
Steve Birdsall can tell you; it would probably take you to Tibet. The CEO and founder of the Skipton-based technology company, Gaist, has just been named as entrepreneur of the year in the Heropreneur Awards, which recognise former Service personnel who have gone on to achieve great things in business.
Gaist is a highways technology company which uses artificial intelligence (AI) to collect and analyse a vast amount of data about the road network, such as the location and size of potholes. The data is used by local councils and utility companies to help shape their business decisions and repair strategies.
Gaist was set up 12 years ago by Mr Birdsall from his home in Oxenhope near Keighley. Today, it employs more than 50 people in Skipton – where it has recently launched an AI hub - and it is set to grow further in the UK and overseas.
Gaist’s work with the Department for Transport has included the biggest study of its kind into road markings, as the country prepares for the driverless vehicle revolution.
Gaist is using AI to review around 150 million high definition images of the road network. The company has also worked in collaboration with the DfT on a project called BridgeCAT; a mobile system which uses digital technology to survey bridges and assess the damage caused by floodwater.
It has been successfully trialled in Cumbria. It will help to open bridges more quickly after severe weather so communities can be re-connected.
“I started life as a surveyor in the army,” Mr Birdsall recalled. “I then went offshore. By a twist of fate I ended up working on the railway for a company. Following the Hatfield rail disaster we mapped the entire railway.
“I’ve pulled all that knowledge together to deliver a solution for roads which has attracted interest from all around the world.”
His story shows how former soldiers can make their mark on the corporate world.
He said: “I went from a playground to a parade square. I joined the military at 16. I just knew I wanted a bit of adventure.
“Living up in Oxenhope I was a bit out of the way and I realised there was a wider world out there.”
His army experiences gave him a lifetime’s supply of self confidence.
He added: “Anybody in business needs a bucket full of that so you can get out of the bed in the morning when things are tough.”
Earlier this year, Mr Birdsall signed two agreements to support the Kampala Capital City Authority and the Uganda National Roads Authority in developing their highways asset management capabilities. The agreements will see Gaist provide an assessment of the condition and maintenance needs of the road networks in Uganda.
Mr Birdsall added: “We are going global because it’s a global problem. Roads are in a bad state.
“They are built in a very similar way and they deteriorate all the time. They get worn away and you have to replace them.
“But if you put the maintenance in at the right time it can be cost effective. The longer you leave it the more expensive it can become. A lot of the work we do is working with our customers to look at what they are going to need over the next 10, 15, 25 years.
“A large part of what we do is building the case for funding.”
Gaist has collected a huge library of data about the UK’s road network. Last year, it secured a £2.7m investment from BGF to expand its ‘roadscape’ services.
Gaist captures and analyses continuous, high-definition imagery – 900 times the detail of Google Maps – about road conditions and the highways network.
Gaist has collected more than 1.5 billion megabytes of imagery over the past 10 years, including the entire classified road network in England, with more roads being added. Its machine learning research, smart algorithms and AI capability is being used around the country.
Mr Birdsall said: “We’re based in Skipton, which is a beautiful part of the world, so we tend to find that the people who settle down and work for us, stay with us.
“They love what they do. The business is very successful and it’s built on the back of those people. You don’t win awards on your own. You have got to have a whole bunch of people behind you.”
He believes calculated risk-taking is an essential part of business life.
“If you sit on the fence, thinking about it, you will never do it. You’ve just got to do it. If you fail, you learn a lesson and nobody can stop you doing it again.
“You’ve got to be realistic and take advice from other people, but ultimately you have got to go with your own gut instinct and take a chance because if you take a look at all the successful businesses, risk is an ingredient.
“Being in business is like a game of snakes and ladders,’’ he said. “You’ve got to try and find the ladders and at the same time try and keep one eye on the snakes.
“You’ve got to build relationships with people because business is people. The more people you can galvanise behind you the better.”
Where does he believe the company will be in five years’ time?
He said: “We have a strong partnership in Japan for Asia. I think we can be strong in Asia and we have got interests in Africa and the Middle East.
“It will definitely be a global business and several times bigger than we are now.’’ he added.
“We’ve got good investors behind us as well who are helping us on that journey. The BGF (Business Growth Fund) have been an excellent investor.
“We will always be based in this region,’’ he added. “One of the things I would like to leave as a legacy is to bring something high tech to the top end of the Dales.
“Bringing a company like ours there is creating new types of jobs and new types of skills.
“It would be nice to see spin off businesses and create a bit of a tech hub in the northern end of the Aire valley.”