29 August 2022
Vish Gain spoke to Ambisense CEO Stephen McNulty about how the start-up helped one of the UK’s most ambitious infrastructure projects stay green.
London and its peripheries are some of the most traffic congested areas in Europe with millions crossing the river Thames every year. The Lower Thames Crossing is an ambitious multibillion pound construction project that seeks to ease some of this pressure. What’s more, it aims to do so in the greenest possible way. Lower Thames Crossing is a road tunnel that will link Kent and Essex with a 23km stretch under the river Thames to the east of Greater London. With an estimated cost of up to £8.2bn, it is one of the biggest infrastructure projects in the UK in recent times. But for a project of this scale to see itself through with minimal damage to the environment requires expertise in the area of environmental risk mitigation, and that’s where Dublin-based technology start-up Ambisense comes in.
Founded in 2014 by Stephen McNulty, Fiachra Collins and Dermot Diamond, the Dublin City University (DCU) spin-out partnered with Lower Thames Crossing over 12 months to reduce the carbon cost of the project ahead of its 6-year construction journey set to commence in 2024.
“The interest from our side is that many of these sites in the UK, the States and many parts of the developed world are old industrial sites,” Ambisense CEO McNulty told me in an interview, calling the project “the greenest road ever built in the UK”.
“In this case, the site that they’re going to build the tunnel on is actually a selection of old, heavily contaminated landfills.”
This means that in order to build the tunnel, developers will first have to “clean up” the sites to prevent contamination of the local environment. This contamination includes harmful toxic gases trapped underground that risk coming out during construction – leading to not only increased greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere but a health and safety hazard in the tunnel.
“So, there’s a good environmental story to cleaning up these sites and getting them back into productive use, but in the act of cleaning them up is where we come in. Because to know what to do you have to have the data.”
The answer is always "more sensors"
Over the last eight years, Ambisense has established itself as somewhat of an expert in the field of measuring environmental hazards using Internet of Things (IoT) based sensors. The technology has been deployed in large infrastructure projects and has potential for use in offices, schools, factories and hospitality venues. At the Lower Thames Crossing sites, Ambisense was able to identify and measure the risk different gases pose to the local environment and tunnel. McNulty said that, in partnership with a Canadian company, they were also able to measure the leakage of ground gases into the water.
Prior to the company’s involvement, McNulty said that the site would have deployed “tons and tons of people to go around taking readings with handheld instruments and trying to build up a picture of the contamination on the ground”.
Not only this risky – because they would be walking on contaminated land – but McNulty said that it also means the project won’t be able to build a dataset, only datapoints.
With a complex system of data collection across the various risk categories – including weather data – stored and delivered through a cloud platform to the client, Ambisense was able to give planners a more complete picture of what the actual risks of building on the sites are.
“What we try to do is approach the industry by saying, ‘You just need to tell us what pollutants you care about, or what things you care about, and we will come back and tell you what’s possible technologically’,” he said.
“They don’t necessarily know what sensors might be available to do what job – that’s the piece we tried to solve. We’re a sensor people. I’m one of those people that says, ‘I don’t know what your question is, but the answer is certainly more sensors’.”
While the Lower Thames Crossing Project was Ambisense’s biggest gig when they first bagged it in late 2019, the Irish start-up has made its mark in the sector and has since won a couple of projects “far bigger” than the ambitious Thames estuary construction.
“At the time, Lower Thames Crossing was I’d say 10 times bigger than anything we’d done before. Since then, a number of other projects have kind of eclipsed it. But the LTC is still only in the infancy of its of its development. The real work will kick in when the construction starts.”
Eyes on North America
Beyond infrastructure, Ambisense also employs its expertise in measuring gases in the air quality space. It developed an indoor air quality monitoring device during the pandemic which, it said at the time, could be used to minimise the spread of Covid-19 as the economy reopened.
A former Enterprise Ireland high-potential start-up, Ambisense raised its first round of funding in 2017 with an investment of €1m to back its international expansion. This was followed by another €1.1m round in 2019 and a third €3m growth equity investment led by BGF last year.
McNulty said that while it took a while to “get the business going” because of its unconventional business model, the past few years has given the start-up a big boost amid increased awareness around ESG and the climate crisis “in a way that’s reimagining how risk should be managed”.
Ambisense now aims to see through its current big orders while scaling in the vertical markets it has established itself in, including managing environmental risk in infrastructure projects, indoor air quality and monitoring the likelihood of flood defence assets failing.
“Like any small company, we’ve got to pick a number of verticals that are small enough and niche enough that we can craft something that’s competitive, differentiated and that has scale.”
Now a known name in its sector in Europe, Ambisense has its eyes on an expansion to North America soon – which, according to McNulty, is home is about half of the world’s market in the space.
Source: Silicon Republic