How Brisk Synergies meets traffic fatalities – and builds safer cities – head onJackie Gill - July 22, 2020
You’re safely cruising down the road when a car suddenly pulls a right turn at an intersection, right in front of you. Your heart jumps as your foot slams on the brakes. Your knuckles turn white, wrapped around the steering wheel as you brace yourself against the forward lurch. Your seatbelt digs into your chest. You barely stop in time. You hear a honk and catch a glimpse of the other driver, their middle finger raised in your direction as they speed off.
Or you’re at a crosswalk on a cold and rainy day. You’re eager to find refuge from the downpour, but you still patiently wait for the light to turn green and the walk sign to appear before stepping onto the road. But that driver turning left? They were looking the other way when they started their turn… and now you’re in front of their bumper. You leap out of the way, dropping your umbrella. It disappears under the vehicle as its taillights disappear down the street. You stand there on the other side of the intersection, shaken and wet, but safe.
While near-misses like this are so commonplace that they mostly go unreported, they’re a treasure trove of data that can predict more serious traffic problems, says Charles Chung, co-founder of Brisk Synergies, an Accelerator Centre startup that’s now part of Transoft Solutions. And if more cities tapped into that trove, he believes they would be much safer.
“Traditionally, everybody has always been looking at past collision data,” he says. “The whole process is very reactive. You’re waiting for collisions to happen to know what problems there are.”
Then, once you identify those problems, they take time to fix – and more time to see if the fix works, he adds. All while more collisions occur.
That’s precisely what Brisk set out to change with the help of AI-enabled video analytics. Or, as Chung puts it: “Our solution is helping [cities] diagnose the problems, to get an insight on what is causing all those near misses that are going to result in future collisions, and at the same time, our technology is allowing them to validate the before and after.”
And it all began with a startup that didn’t work out.
Putting the brakes on collisions
In the next 24 hours, about 3,700 people will die in a crash involving a car, bus, motorcycle, truck, bicycle or pedestrian. Another 54,800 to 137,000 will suffer non-fatal injuries, many of which will cause a disability.
Not only are collisions the leading cause of death for those aged 5 to 29 and the eighth leading cause of death across the world’s entire population, but they also have an economic impact estimated at three per cent of GDP, factoring in property damage, medical costs and time taken off of work or school.
To Chung, those numbers are just the tip of the iceberg.
“The whole process is very reactive. You’re waiting for collisions to happen to know what problems there are.”
– Charles Chung, co-founder of Brisk Synergies
Traffic safety means measuring the collisions that don’t happen, he says. Think cases where a driver swerves out of the way, stops in time or honks their horn to prevent something worse from happening. “We are proposing to look at all the near collisions that have happened, that are happening every day. But at the same time, they hold very valuable information about what’s happening on the road that will potentially result in a collision in the near future.”
Through BriskLUMINA, which allows cities to run one-time traffic studies, and BriskVANTAGE, which is set up for continuous traffic monitoring, Chung and his team do just that by capturing video data and analyzing the frequency, location and severity of those near-misses via their AI. By looking at that data, both before cities take countermeasures and after, they’re able to predict where safety issues are most likely to arise, which are the highest priority, and what preventative action is likely to work best.
To date, they’ve helped cities like Houston, TX assess pedestrian and cyclist safety at problematic intersections, Toronto measure the effectiveness of curb changes as part of its Vision Zero initiative, and Bogota, Colombia diagnose and recommend a solution for a one-way merging lane.
Learning – the hard way
But Brisk Synergies wasn’t Chung’s first try at entrepreneurialism. After a corporate career in software engineering that took him away from his wife and two kids in Vancouver, he decided he was ready for a change – and ready to come home. “That’s when I decided that it is something that I wanted to do, to start a business. I just felt that I can contribute [a lot more],” he remembers.
He launched Bits Republic Technologies, a cloud-based data security and privacy service in 2007, just before the global financial crisis. And while it was a landmark year for technology – Apple introduced the first iPhone, Radiohead self-released In Rainbows entirely online and Amazon’s Kindle hit the marketplace – it wasn’t a good time to start a new business from scratch.
“It was a very exciting time where there’s a lot of new innovation in technologies in the marketplace that allowed you to really expedite the process from ideation to commercialization,” Chung says. “We were looking at creating these really amazing solutions, and we realized that the technology’s amazing, but the market was not there. We were too early back then. I’m not sure whether we’d still be too early today!”
Still, Chung learned a lot from the experience, albeit the hard way – so much so that he wanted to try it again, this time in Waterloo.
“We realized that the technology’s amazing, but the market was not there. We were too early back then. I’m not sure whether we’d still be too early today!”
– Charles Chung
In the years between graduating from the University of Waterloo until his return to the city, he kept in touch with a university friend, Dr. Luis Miranda-Moren, who had landed a job as a professor at McGill University. Now that both were in the area, they got together to catch up.
The pair were sipping beers when they started chatting about the problems of measuring and improving traffic safety, something Miranda-Moren was studying. “He was telling me about what he does in his research, talking about transportation safety,” says Chung. “I was very fascinated about the whole concept. At the same time, he was really intrigued by the concept of applying it to the real world, beyond the research stage.”
At the time, there was no such thing as commercially viable video analysis, he adds. It was something researchers used to get one-time results, not something that cities could roll out for large-scale projects. But through his last venture, Chung already had experience in bringing new tech to market. “That’s where we decided that we should get together and really explore this thing together.”
From first sale to acquisition
Chung took some lessons from his first startup – ideas like going to market early to validate a product as soon as possible, and talking to as many clients as they could. The co-founders also found they made a formidable team, not only because of the trust they shared from their long-time friendship, but also because they balanced each other out.
“When there’s more than one founder of your organization, there will always be different opinions,” Chung says. “We were able to frequently reconcile and find the right way to balance our direction. And I really appreciate the ability to talk in a very unreserved way. We are able to find a common point of view.”
In 2013, Chung and Miranda-Moren officially launched Brisk Synergies, and it didn’t take long for them to land their first client, despite their early stage. In fact, Chung says, it was the sign they needed that there was a real market out there, even if there was still work to do figuring out the best way to serve it.
The intervening years were full of tweaking, pivoting and refining their products, until earlier this year, when Brisk agreed to an acquisition by Transoft Solutions, a specialist in software for aviation, civil infrastructure and transportation.
“[The acquisition] was very exciting, that the vision was not just a silo vision but actually that it’s more than just us ourselves seeing the potential of what we’re doing,” says Chung. “This is something that worked, has a great advantage to other people, other organizations, and that we can bring to the next level collectively, together.”
More than a community
The final piece of the puzzle to Brisk’s success: the help they received through the Accelerator Centre. The decision to start a business in Waterloo was no happy accident. Chung knew that there was a strong ecosystem of support for startups and new businesses like their own.
And the AC was a stand-out in an already stand-out community, says Chung. “They have a unique position where they are able to have in-house mentors to work closely with the company, to really understand the early stage challenges of businesses going market,” he says.
“People speak the same language to find the same solution, hopefully, that addresses the same problems.”
– Charles Chung
In addition to the mentors, he also found a community of like-minded entrepreneurs in the AC’s other clients, he adds. “They really excel in providing that environment for these individual companies, small companies, startups to all get together, work closely together, send messages to each other, understand their challenges,” he says. “People speak the same language to find the same solution, hopefully, that addresses the same problems.”
Through that guidance, Chung and his team have learned how to do things like sell to cities and governments, handle their public relations and create marketing strategies. And he’s also eager to pay it forward someday, sharing his own near-misses with others in hopes that it’ll help them navigate the same ups and downs he did along the way.
“I think I’m fortunate to be able to go through this far, but everybody’s journey is different … Mine’s just one of the many.”
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