The Startups That Will Change Our Lives

I was asked recently – what technologies are most prone to change the world in the next 3 years?

It’s the type of question where you’d naturally start thinking about artificial intelligence, 3D printing, robotics and other advanced science topics.

But, after giving it some thought,  I think what will impact us most is not new technology, but a very clever use of the technology we already have.

Namely: smartphones and the pervasive permanent connectivity that they bring.

Mark Pesce, a futurist who was with me at an Innotribe event last year , calls it “hyper-connectivity”.  Erik Kruse, networked society evangelist at Ericsson and another Innotriber, calls it “the internet of things”.

Because smartphones make each one of us a geo-located, connected, data beaming and data absorbing walking entity, they enable a complex person to person or person-to-business mesh or grid. This was not possible before, simply because we were not connected in the way we are now.

I’ve been privileged to be on the jury of the Innotribe Startup Challenge and the Accenture Financial Services Innovation Award, and I’ve seen three innovative uses of smartphones by startup companies (or startup units within larger companies) that illustrate what this hyper-connectivity means.

1. The truly remarkable effect of the hyper-connectivity is removing “friction”, to use another of Mark Pesce’s term, in the day-to-day transactions.  Peer-to-peer is replacing hub-and-spoke models for more efficiency, volume and convenience.

Uber is an excellent illustration. It’s an app produced by a start-up company that connects people in need of transportation with participating drivers of luxury vehicles. No intermediary needed. It started in San Francisco streets, and is expanding rapidly in other cities in the US and Europe. You can imagine what Uber does to traditional dispatch (hub and spoke) cab companies. And you can understand why the cab companies are desperately trying to stop Uber.

I’m watching closely Uber in its quest to make friction disappear.

2. Another additional clever use of smartphones is in the person to person (peer to peer or P2P) payment space . There was a lot of talk in the last couple of years about NFC and related technologies to enable P2P payments with a hardware proximity based sensors. But right now NFC proves to be more of a friction than an enabler, as it requires a massive upgrade of all the smartphones to support the technology. A feat that requires Apple and Samsung to agree to roll it out…

A Belgian payments company called Bancontact/MisterCash has not waited and is rolling out a P2P payment solution using a very simple thing – the QR code.

Rather than relying on the hardware, they realised they can solve the problem with onboard technology already available on smartphones:

  • a high definition screen, on the vendor’s smartphone, to display a QR code with all the selling information (amount, nature, location etc)
  • a camera, on the buyer’s smartphone, to scan the QR code from the vendor’s smartphone screen, and initiate the payment using Bancontact’s existing debit card payment scheme

This solution requires both the buyer and the seller to be part of the Bancontact scheme, and to have the Bancontact app installed on the buyer’s and seller’s smartphones.

In Belgium, these are very low, frictionless, requirements and I predict a big success to this scheme.

3. The last illustration of hyper-connectivity is in the couponing space – enabling consumers to manage and benefit the coupons provided by merchants.  When you think of it, coupons are nice – as they give you price reductions and other benefits at your local stores – but they don’t really empower the consumers that we are. We are supposed to collect coupons, store them, understand how and when to use them, understand how they can be combined etc. Rather than a benefit, coupons prove to be a headache in many situations.

Apple has released last year an app called Passbook that allows to store some of these coupons and other items such as boarding passes. But this is only scratching the surface. There are startups out there that use hyper-connectivity to enable much more powerful scenarios. The idea is that your smartphone realises through geo-location that you are approaching a participating merchant and, suggests, in real-time, how to best use the coupons you have on your smartphone. Truaxis, recently acquired by MasterCard, is one such startup. Fidelsys, in Belgium, is another startup providing innovative solutions in this space.

It’s amazing to see how the hyper-connectivity brought by smartphones enables innovation. The smartphones are a platform on which infinite and clever new business models can thrive.

It’s truly the Far West of the internet.


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