Why we invested in Protex AI


Protex AI has raised $18m from Notion, Playfair, Firstminute, Elkstone and Y Combinator to empower health and safety teams and protect workers with AI-powered technology.

How it all started

Dan Hobbs and Ciarán O’Mara, CEO and CTO of Protex AI, approached us via our website’s open pitch form in April 2021 and were also connected by our former analyst Jeremy Luzinda (thanks Jez!).

As an investor, I take a dozen pitches every week (~600 every year), and it is extremely rare that I leave that first call with an unequivocal feeling that I have to be part of this company’s journey, whatever it takes. My call in April 2021 with Dan and Ciarán was one of those lucky ones and we didn’t look back.

Why health and safety

The technology used by people working in ports, factories and warehouses has evolved rapidly in recent years, but the processes and technology protecting workers in those industrial settings has barely changed in decades. Health and safety is a slow, human-led process of workplace inspections and behavioural audits, whose intermittent nature means major safety issues and hazards are often missed. Technology that can be used to track and log the frequency and nature of accidents has been around for a while, but it too is reactive. Accidents have to happen, or nearly happen, before steps are taken to prevent them. As a result, more than 5,000 people were killed in workplace accidents in the US alone in 2021. As more employees work alongside automated machines, the potential for accidents is increasing.

We liked how the Protex AI team summed up the state of the health and safety industry on this slide from their original pitch deck.

Alongside the tragedy of lost lives and injuries, accidents cause enormous financial and reputational ramifications for businesses. A National Safety Council model puts the average workplace fatalities cost at $1.42mn. US companies pay out $62bn per year for workplace injuries, according to EHSToday.

The demands for safe workplaces are at an all time high, for several reasons. People are becoming increasingly aware of safety issues, so laws protecting them are expected to be developed further. The US and Europe have already passed stringent regulations in recent years. And as more industries adopt automated robotic technologies, humans and machines are working more closely than ever before, creating increased safety risks. In light of all this, the global environment health and safety (EHS) market size is expected to reach $88.39bn by 2027, growing at a CAGR of 6.9% (Grand View Research).

So, to summarise: many thousands of people are still dying or being injured at work. Workers, unions, and lawmakers are calling for greater protections. When accidents do, tragically, occur, companies face huge financial and reputational repercussions. And the only way companies at present have to prevent these accidents is with more inspections, more audits — more people on warehouse and factory floors who then are also at risk.

This is why we see health and safety as such an exciting whitespace. If computer vision and edge computing technology can help enable a shift from reactive to proactive health and safety decision-making, more workplace accidents could become preventable, and the costs — human, financial and reputational — avoidable.

Protex AI’s solution

Dan and Ciaran’s AI-based computer vision technology platform spots potential accidents in industrial settings before they happen and allows EHS teams to adapt their processes and culture to reduce future issues.

Their software plugs into CCTV systems to detect and map people, PPE, vehicles and more. It then measures how they interact with each other, and determines whether the interactions are safe or unsafe based on pre-configured safety rules.

This data is combined with a facility’s other data inputs to provide reports and analytics for health and safety teams to use to improve safety behaviours and prevent accidents in the immediate future.

Our investment thesis

Beyond the exciting whitespace opportunity in the health and safety market outlined above, our investment thesis is built around three core pillars:

The team

Ciarán and Dan are two passionate and extremely smart founders with the drive to build a startup from the ground up. They complement each other brilliantly and we are delighted to be working with them. In many ways they reminded me of when I first met the Recycleye founders in 2019Victor and Peter — and learnings from that investment were crucial to us partnering together.

Dan, CEO, is a natural entrepreneur, who has already founded and exited a business that he started at university. He studied business at Trinity College Dublin, won a Young Scientist competition award and was named BT’s young businessman when he was just 17.

Ciarán, CTO, is an exceptional and charismatic technical founder who deeply understands the problem Protex AI is trying to solve, the technology stack he needs to build, and where he wants to take the product in the future to keep the company ahead of the game. He has a first in electronic and computer engineering from the University of Limerick and has already worked at three startups with embedded computer vision products prior to founding Protex.

The tech

The strength of this product lies in its end-to-end platform, underpinned by strong technology. Mark Lawless, operations manager at Doyle Shipping Group, Ireland’s leading shipping & logistics company, uses the platform and has said that Protex AI can spot ten to twenty times more incidents than the human eye — and that if it can prevent a death it would be “priceless”.

In addition to that, Protex AI are building their solution on the edge, rather than in the cloud, a key strategic technological decision. Data is processed as close to the source as possible, which means higher accuracy, privacy, lower costs, lower bandwidth requirements and protected IP. We think this gives Protex AI a competitive advantage as no other current player applies non-cloud-based technology to detecting hazards.

The paradigm-shifting potential

There are two opportunities here. First, as we’ve covered above, Protex AI’s product shifts health and safety tech from being reactive to proactive. Secondly, and consequently, it can turn health and safety from a cost centre to a profit centre for companies by dramatically reducing or even eliminating injuries and fatalities on work sites. The resulting insurance and regulatory costs can run into the millions for a company in a single year.

What’s next?

Today, Protex AI is a team of 18 people helping enterprise EHS teams to revolutionise how they make proactive safety decisions that help contribute to a safer work environment. Their AI-powered technology is enabling businesses to gain greater visibility of unsafe behaviours in their facilities. The privacy-preserving platform plugs into existing CCTV infrastructure and uses its computer vision technologies to capture unsafe events autonomously in settings such as warehouses, manufacturing facilities and ports.

The future is focussed on three core pillars:

  1. Growing in core markets geographically (UK/IRL, North America, mainland Europe) and by industry (logistics, retail & warehousing, manufacturing, ports & maritime and waste management)
  2. Developing new and existing partnerships in the EHS tech space
  3. Growing the exceptional team, all across the business

A personal note

Dan and Ciarán have always said to me they have many VCs on their cap table and one therapist. I’m definitely not medically qualified, but I do see my role as an investor at the pre-seed and seed stages to be much closer to the human side of building a company. Publicly we all often only talk about the highs, but there are many lows along the way that need to be discussed and worked through. From my experience, having a close and deep enough of a personal relationship with founders is essential to be able to raise these challenges and find solutions together.

I feel very lucky to be able to call these two guys friends as well as portfolio founders. What they’ve achieved in less than 18 months since we first met has proven how fast you can build solutions to problems the world desperately needs and how fast you can bring other people along with your vision of how the world should really look. I can’t wait for the many more years ahead.

. . .

If you’re a business looking to improve your health and safety practices, you can reach out to the Protex team directly here: [email protected]

If you’re a founder at the very earliest stages of building your company, I’d love to meet to debate and brainstorm your vision for the world. You can find me on LinkedIn here or pitch the wider team at Playfair here.

You can follow the Playfair team on LinkedIn, Twitter, Forbes, Vimeo and here on Medium.

Go to Publisher: Playfair Capital Blog – Medium
Author: Henrik Wetter Sanchez