A Chat with the Founder of San Francisco-based Startup Navisens

We recently spoke with Ashod Donikian, the founder of Navisens, an up and coming mobile 3D navigation software startup based in San Francisco. Their technology processes data from inertial sensors inside smartphones to provide a navigation solution without any external infrastructure needed.

Donikian recently pitched Navisens at our launch party in San Francisco. Check out our Q&A below to learn more about the Navisens technology and how the team plans to launch in the coming months.

What inspired you to create Navisens?

The technology for Navisens was born out of my PhD research in engineering. The inspiration for my research was to save the lives of firefighters by tracking them when they go inside buildings during emergencies, so that if they require assistance or become disorientated, help can be sent to find them as soon as possible. This is a tough problem, as the location of a fire is unpredictable making it difficult to install sensors and infrastructure within a building in advance, and even if infrastructure was installed inside a building, during a fire it would literally burn down and often power to the building is cut. To overcome these issues, I designed a wearable device rather than installing sensors within the environment.

The inspiration to create Navisens as a company came from a combination of my passion to see the technology touch people’s lives and the drive which I've had for many years for creating and leading a technology company. Also, during my early visits to the U.S. from Australia, I unintentionally found myself accepted into an event called Launch (www.launch.co) where I gave a pitch and my first live demo in front of an audience and I was awarded Best Technology. The feedback and approaches I got as a result of that event demonstrated a high level of excitement and demand for this type of location technology for smartphones and consumer applications.

How does Navisens work?

Navisens primarily uses inertial sensors (accelerometers and gyroscopes) to measure motion using proprietary estimation techniques I developed during my PhD which I subsequently further refined as I built the company. Inertial sensors were first used in aerospace and military applications, and the field of inertial navigation traditionally requires high-end sensors which are very expensive and only suited towards industrial applications due to their size and weight.

The last few generations of smartphones now include inertial sensors built-in, however these were first installed for simple low-accuracy applications like detecting between portrait or landscape modes and user input for applications like gaming. The techniques I developed make it possible to use these lower quality sensors to achieve similar results as much more expensive sensors which would otherwise only be available on industrial platforms.

What problem does Navisens address and how do you solve it?

Smartphone penetration is increasing. Apps utilizing Location Based Services (LBS) are increasing. However, smartphones have poor location capability. We spend 90% of our time indoors, yet there is no location system designed for urban environments.

Existing location systems require infrastructure. Cameras, WiFi access points, Bluetooth beacons, and GPS. These systems typically also require “fingerprinting” of signal measurements. This creates high infrastructure and maintenance costs, it adds a layer of friction, and it doesn’t scale. Existing location systems usually do not estimate the heading (the direction the user is facing) and typically exhibit poor location resolution. Both of these aspects are key requirements for a location system especially for indoors and next-generation applications.

What we’ve done at Navisens is allow location to work well in urban environments, without requiring large investments in infrastructure, and allowing new and exciting applications to scale. Our approach is that the sensor is the smartphone carried by the user rather than having sensors installed throughout buildings as infrastructure.

When did you start developing Navisens and when will it launch?

I finished my PhD in 2009 and spent some time after working as a postdoctoral researcher and then independently further developing the technology to bring it out of the research phase and into the commercial phase. I moved to the U.S. in 2013 to set up Navisens as a company. We currently haven’t launched our technology to the public but we are in evaluations with some major companies in preparation for a launch with one or more major partners.

Describe how you built your team.

I built my initial team using my contacts in the academic and robotics community which is quite unique due to my academic background as a PhD student, researcher, and university lecturer. I’ve also had good referrals from other contacts in the technology field both in the US and Australia, so having the link back to Australia has certainly helped.

What makes your startup unique compared to others in the mobile space?

The biggest differentiator in what makes Navisens unique is that our core technology doesn’t rely on any infrastructure to be placed within the environment. This has a number of advantages. It reduces the burden on facilities having to install infrastructure which can be expensive and time consuming to install and maintain. It also means we can scale - there are several retailers in the U.S. which have hundreds to thousands of properties, and of course with the ubiquitous nature of smartphones, scale is very important not just between different buildings of a retailer, but between different buildings across different apps across different cities and across different countries.

Not being constrained by infrastructure also means that the resolution of our location is independent of the level of infrastructure installed. Other location systems which are based on infrastructure have their resolution limited by the density of infrastructure installed, which means for good resolution they require a dense amount of infrastructure. Also, because we’re not limited by infrastructure, we can operate in all urban areas, indoors, outdoors, and underground.

Where are you based and what markets are you targeting?

We’re based in San Francisco. Within the smartphone market, we have quite a large number of requests for many different applications, but it’s important to focus. Our initial focus will be retail and shopping malls which are markets which stand to gain a clear benefit by introducing a location platform such as Navisens.

What's the next step for Navisens?

We will be unveiling our technology at a public launch, I can’t speak about the details just yet! Where we’d eventually like to be is to have our technology in every app which uses Location Based Services (LBS) on all mobile devices, including smartphones and wearables.

What is one piece of advice you would give to aspiring entrepreneurs in the space?

I don’t feel like I can say I’m qualified to give a lot of advice just yet. In my opinion there are a lot of important traits that are useful in entrepreneurship and it helps to be passionate, stubborn, resilient, and a perfectionist at what you do. My journey has gone through various fields where the direction I took wasn’t always rational from the conservative point of view of others. However, what makes us be the best we can be in life isn’t listening to what others tell us, but it’s in taking risks and pursuing our dreams. That’s how I like to live life in general.