Episode 16: Gavin Neate

Gears, Gadgets and Gizmos
Dr Phil Friend
20 Oct 2020

After leaving school Gavin Neate joined the armed forces and served in the military police as a dog handler.

Listen to Gavin's Gears, Gadgets and Gizmos

He was based up at RAF Lucas, and just north of Lucas was a Guide Dogs for the Blind training centre and he used to go along and do voluntary work.

On finishing his military career and not unnaturally he applied for and then became a guide dog instructor. He saw first hand the difficulties that sight-impaired people faced in their daily lives and determined to do something about it.

He became involved in a project to explore how GPS might be used to help visually impaired people navigate the world around them. With the arrival of the smartphone, Gavin saw an opportunity to link smartphone apps and hardware and Neatebox was born.

In this podcast, Gavin talks about the applications he developed that are making a real difference to the lives of many disabled people throughout the UK.

Here are some link to the products Gavin discusses during the podcast:-

Transcript of the podcast

Phil Friend  0:14  
Hello, everybody, it's Phil Friend once again with the Gear Gadgets and Gizmos show. Now today I'm breaking with tradition because I think as you all know, we generally speaking have disabled people on the show who talk about the things that they use to overcome the barriers that they face because of their impairment or disability. Today, we're talking to somebody who is at the other end of this, because what Gavin Neate is doing is he's developing products and services that can be used by all sorts of people, to help disabled people overcome the barriers. So you see where we're going with this. So Gavin Neate runs a company called Neatebox. I'm not going to say any more than that, because I think Gavin will explain exactly what that is and what he's doing. So Gavin, welcome to the show. 

Gavin Neate  1:04  
Thank you so much, Phil. It's an absolute honour meeting you again, albeit virtually at this point because we've met before in the past and follow I followed your career.

Phil Friend  1:15  
Oh, that's very kind of you thank you very much. A short career. So Gavin, now, tell us a little bit about before the company was formed, what were you doing? What was your kind of interest? 

Gavin Neate  1:28  
So I left school at 16 and a half and then joined the military and became a military police dog handler. And that was 10 years of real interest in how to get the most out of a dog that went off and bit people. And then in my last two years, I was based up at RAF Lucas, and just north of Lucas is a Guide Dogs for the Blind. And I used to go along to Guide Dogs for the Blind and do voluntary work in my last two years of my time in the forces, and eventually realized that I wanted to become a guide, dog mobility instructor, which was the person who trains people how to use the guide dog. So I did at the end of the two years of voluntary work, I applied for a job and amazingly got it because there were 900 applications for this one position. So I was very, very fortunate. My two years of voluntary work had stood me in good stead as did my interest in humans rather than dogs.

Phil Friend  2:21  
I'm guessing that before we get on to Neatbox, your time with Guide Dogs began to show you the issues that concern you must have begun to realize just how difficult some things were for particularly those with visual impairments, certainly to get around and do stuff. 

Gavin Neate  2:37  
And from day one I was seeing things but from day one, I wasn't thinking about solutions. I was thinking, how do you get around these barriers? How do you get around badly installed pedestrian crossings? Or how do you get around the fact that the pavement has sandwich boards on it? And I think as a pragmatist, and as a practitioner, it was all about how do you circumnavigate the problem. But then in 2003, I think it was, I was involved in a project to look at GPS and how GPS was going to help visually impaired people get around. And of course, it was loads of kit, and you've actually had a laptop on your lap or on you're attached to your side at that point. But then in 2006 2007, I had more people turning up to train with guide dogs, and they would whip out their iPhone, and it would use voiceover and it would start talking to them. And I realized that my guys that were turning up to train with Guide Dogs knew so much more about technology than I did, and knew so much more about accessible technology. And at that point, I just started getting really interested in what the future was going to look like for my clients and friends at that point. And eventually, I just started thinking to myself, but what if, what if I could What if the tech did that? And it was a bit like a snowball rolling down a hill? Well, the truth is no snowball ever rolls down a hill unless somebody makes a snowball at the top of the hill. And then somebody else pushes it. And I had an entrepreneurial friend who said, You've seen some pretty good ideas, Gavin, you should maybe investigate that. And once that snowball is rolling. There's no stopping it, especially with somebody like myself who just wanted to get to the destination, which was, well, hopefully not the snowball crashing at the bottom of the hill. But hopefully it will be me coming up with some incredibly good solutions to help the people that I was destined to help.

Phil Friend  4:29  
Was this a moment where you crystallized thinking and then that led to what came next? Or was it a sort of process of elimination you just began to explore things and the idea then came to you I mean,

Gavin Neate  4:44  
it's I just instantly thought of arc i think is Archimedes who was in his bath. Am I right? And he said eureka. Yeah. If I had been waiting in my bath for all of these stars to come into alignment, I would have died of cold. The truth is that the present If coming up with a solution was within the building of 18 years of understanding disability from the visual impairment, person's point of view and understanding a lot more about their lives, the market research I did before I even came up with the solution was 18 years. But I think it was a moment where I just went, What if I wonder if this could do that. And as soon as you think that you are then on the route to finding out if it can, if the thing that you're thinking about can do that, and my initial one was, well, my clients get really close to the pedestrian crossing, but when they're wanting to cross the road, but sometimes it's in the wrong place, sometimes they can't reach it, sometimes by finding it, they've actually lost the orientation. And I would watch them from a distance. And I would think to myself, well, what if the mobile phone could press the button for them? That was my initial thought. And, and that's what led to Button which was, unbelievably, once we developed it in by 2012. It was the first pedestrian crossing world operated by smartphones. So the

Phil Friend  6:01  
development of Button was that was your first product, was it?

Gavin Neate  6:05  
Yes, but it was the only product I ever thought about. And the truth is that I never thought product, I was employed as a guide, dog mobility instructor. And I thought, well, this is the job that takes me to retirement, I had no intention of having a company. But by 2015, I realized that there was absolutely no way on God's earth that I was going to be able to have a product which had been invented in 2011. And actually, deliver it to the world unless I was able to do it full time. Up to that point, I was just doing it at weekends and during holidays. And you can't run a business like that. So sadly, in 2014, I put in for a sabbatical took a sabbatical for a year, and then realized about halfway through the sabbatical that this was something that was needed around the world. And then by the end of 2015, I had retired from Guide Dogs for the Blind had resigned, and was looking towards a future where I wasn't getting paid. And I was just desperately trying to find a buyer for this technology.

Phil Friend  7:05  
So okay, that's brilliant. So that tells us the kind of journey and the crystallization of all these ideas that are flying around. You're meeting people, they're demonstrating stuff, you're going well there, what if this would be? So the first product that you really dreamt up? Was Button there? Tell us about Button? How does Button work? What is it? What's its purpose?

Gavin Neate  7:28  
Yeah, so it's, it's just an app that you download, that's totally free. And I'll just state that everything I do is free to disabled people, it doesn't cost a penny, I think from the history of time, disabled people have been taxed by Oh, you're disabled, or you've got to buy this bit of kit. And then it ends up costing you more to live than anybody else. So I was just like, from start, I went, nobody's paying for it. So it's a free app, you download, you start the app running before you leave home, you walk up to a pedestrian crossing that has this piece of hardware installed in it, and your phone presses the button for you from inside your pocket or your bag. And of course, my intention at the start was this is going to be great for my visually impaired clients, or blind or visually impaired clients. But the more I studied it, the more I spoke to traffic industry, they said, Well, this would be great for somebody in a power chair, or a wheelchair, or with walking sticks, or a parent with a buggy or a person carrying bags or somebody who doesn't want to press the button. Back in 2012, the idea that somebody wouldn't want to just press a button was kind of really in the realms of OCD, and somebody who needed to be clean all the time. But guess what happened in the last eight months, we all don't want to press buttons. And the truth is that what we did with the hardware, we built it so that it could also open doors. Now, we haven't done any yet. But we've built into the actual hardware that if you approach a door running this app, the door could open for you. Now that is universal design because nobody wants to hold on to a door handle. Now the secret of good design is universal design. typewriters, a superb example of that it was made for a blind person. I know everybody uses it. Subtitles made for a deaf person. But now lots of people use sub subtitles, you're on the bus and you can read the subtitles as you're driving along. So universal design is the key here and having something that most people can use or the majority of people would want to use. And that's what we did with Button. But it also led to so many other things because we understood the tech.

Phil Friend  9:29  
Okay, so one of the big challenges seems to me Gavin to be the fact that obviously, I download the app because I'm the disabled person, I've got a power chair and I want to use Button. And it's free to me and it's a big incentive to download it costs me nothing. But surely the problem at your end is that you've got to persuade manufacturers or councils or whoever it is to fit the hardware that then makes the app useful. So how do you go about persuading people to fit the hardware?

Gavin Neate  10:06  
Yeah, so it was a big challenge at the start. And there's a very famous quote, which was Henry Ford, apparently, which was, if I'd asked them what they wouldn't, they would have wanted that said, faster horses. So when you turn around to the council, and you say, this is a great bit of kit, they go, Yeah, but we've got great kit already. But the more disabled people who were saying to me, we want it, the more I could then turn around the council and say, I've got 10 15 20 people that say they want this, would you like to have another look at it. And what I've always been about is the empowerment of the individual. So if a group of disabled people say we've got a particularly bad crossing, I wish it was here, and they contact the council and they say to the council, you need to install this, or we want you to look at this, or we want you to contact that company, or that's when we hear from the council, and then we give them a price or we give them a demonstration. Luckily, as we've now we've just installed it in an entire town, here in Scotland in the town of Irvine. And with Irvine installed, we've now got a shop window that we can say on here it is working. So councils can then look at it and then look at exactly how we managed to get it installed, and then how good it is and how useful it is to the individuals.

Phil Friend  11:16  
So how's that going? I mean, I can see lots of dots on your map in Scotland, where the devices are obviously installed. And it's beginning to spread throughout the country, isn't it? You're obviously making inroads?

Gavin Neate  11:31  
Yes, so we're just about to newsflash here. This is an exclusive

Phil Friend  11:37  
Exclusive to us. You heard it here first!

Gavin Neate  11:38  
Yes. We'll be installing in Brighton in the near future, which is great. And we're getting interested all the time from people. I think there's a crossing going to be in the highlands shortly. But the majority are on the west coast of Scotland is that's where the initial interest has been. But we've been focusing on Welcome more than Button and I will go on to talk about that in a second. But Button has definitely made progress in the last few months because of Irvine. The other one with Button was and we haven't really shouted about it yet was actually a Disabled Riding School, where the person who's on the horse doesn't have to lean across and touch the Pegasus crossing their phone presses the button for them. And that when we start shouting about that one, that's fantastic, because that's useful for all horse riders. Nobody wants to read it lean across and press a button when you're on top of a horse. And horses don't generally like to walk towards them. So the idea that you press it from your phone just by walking up to it is that's a nice step forward,

I can see a very real use for this for McDonald's to can't, you know, takeaways we lean out your car window. I mean, right. McDonald's Come on, get a life we need? 

Well, yeah, that's where the customer service can be improved with this kind of technology. And I know, I'm gonna jump in with a question or answer question you were going to ask me, which was how I got from Button to Welcome, which is customer service. Because it is very much connected, I realized that I could use Button for doors. So if I approach a door, I potentially can open that door. And disability access doors can be a nightmare to get through because there's different amounts of pressure for the button, the buttons placed in the wrong place, you press the button and the door opens towards you. If you're in a power chair, you don't want to press the button anymore. Nobody wants to press the button. And I just thought, Well, if I install the same hardware into a button door, well, I could press that button as I approach it. And then we looked at that. And that took me to a situation where I realized, well, if I press the button at the door, potentially the building knows I've arrived because it knows that I've pressed the button. And if the building knows I've arrived, just by walking through the door, I've informed people if I want to inform them of my arrival, and if I can inform somebody of my arrival, potentially I could help them give me better service. And that is where Welcome came from, which is a revolutionary new way of training staff based on the individual's requirements before they walk through the door. Because we didn't attach it to the door, we attached it to a geofence. And a geofence is very similar to when you order a taxi. And the taxi is three minutes from your house and you get a message to say your taxi is now three minutes away. Well, we basically did that. And it buys us the time to train staff. Not in a traditional sense, but in a way that's very specific to the individual. This is what I need. This is how I need you to interact with me. This is what I want to buy today. Here are some top tips on how you can interact with me or not. 

Phil Friend  14:44  
Okay, so I've got the Welcome app. I obviously have to in put details about me, my disability, the kinds of things that I can't or can do the sort of help I might need. And I guess it depends a bit and I know you've done a lot of work with the banking industry and RBS have been very supportive to what you've been doing. So let's assume for the moment I'm going into a bank, the app lets the bank know that I'm coming, as per your taxi example. What happens then when I arrive? What are they seeing their end?

Gavin Neate  15:18  
Yeah, so it's worth mentioning that they only know you're arriving if you want them to. Yeah, so not, we're not monitoring people by any stretch of the imagination, this is just the opportunity to let somebody know that you're coming if you want them to know. or indeed, you want them to ignore you when you turn up. So when you download the app, again, it's free. It's called Welcome by Neatebox, you download it, you set up a very brief profile, a photograph a name, and you're asked what areas you would like customer service to have awareness of, we don't mention the word disabled or disability anywhere in this application. So they say it says, What would you like them to have awareness of and that could be cerebral palsy, it could be hearing impairment, it could be an assistance dog, it could be anything, we've got loads on, we've just added stammer the other day, we're looking to add Fibromyalgia very shortly. And so it gives them an understanding of an area. And then when they click when they actually click on the screen, because it's a web service, they get a photograph, and they get an overview of your condition, and then top tips. But that's the same as it would be for anybody with your condition. It says, Please introduce yourself, it says Don't touch my wheelchair, it says, Don't touch my guide dog. It says, If you have a hearing impairment, please make sure that I lip read, please make sure you don't have a light source behind you. So very basic tips, the sort of stuff that you would get if you were being staff trained to a good to a good standard. So that's general, but it also allows the visitor to write in a box as to what they want to do that day. And that could be I want to withdraw money, I want to buy a flat white and a Danish pastry, I need a seat by the window. I prefer to take a seat rather than a queue. And it could be I'd like to put on a 10 pound bet each way on dragonfly on the 3:50 pm Chepstow. It could be anything you want to achieve on your arrival. And that's the only bit of message that you had in

Phil Friend  17:08  
What are they getting at their end?  They've got a panel of some sort or

Gavin Neate  17:12  
it's a web service. All they have to do when somebody books a visit indicates they get an automated phone call and an email to say somebody's coming. They then look down at the screen and they get a photograph, they get the name, they get an overview of a condition you want them to have an awareness of a message from you as to what you want to achieve. And then also a link to the charity that gave us the information. We promote the charity for free. And the charity gives us three URL links that can be used as further training. So Ataxia, say for instance, which is a little known organization, or an AtaxiaUK, Ataxia is a little known condition. Although there are 10,000 people with Ataxia here and only 5000 people with guide dogs, it's still little known but Ataxia UK gave us a link to a video, which the staff can play the day before or two hours before you walk through the door. And that video gives a really great explanation of what Ataxia is. And I think that's where this in the moment staff training can totally and is totally revolutionising how staff training is delivered because it's personalizing interactions.

Phil Friend  18:16  
So what's next, then Gavin,  come in, come on what's on your agenda? Because clearly, you've moved from this very simple but very clever idea around the Button to now the staff getting support in order to receive me when I've pressed the button to get in. What's next? Some plan that you can share?.

Gavin Neate  18:41  
Again, I mean, bearing in mind that I'm a guide, dog mobility instructor, three years training 18 years mobility instructor, no idea about business hadn't got a clue about how you scale a business, no, nothing, fundraising, no, nothing at all. And so the last five, six years have been how do I run a business or grow a business. But now this is about the key. And who knew that I actually had invented the first pedestrian crossing in the world operated by smartphones, and then the first proximity aware staff training tool. So for us now as a company is building awareness of what Welcome and indeed Button do with the people who can use them. The more disabled people and we've got 13 million disabled people in the UK 1.3 billion worldwide. If everybody knew that Welcome existed, we would change staff training in every single venue where there were staff to help you. And that would be down to the disabled person dictating the relationship. I want my company to be owned by the users by its members. I want them to tell me what they want and where they want it. My intention is for this to be in the States for it to be in Australia, for it to be everywhere.

Phil Friend  19:56  
As we draw this to a close the message. I'm getting loud and clear really is that we, the disabled community need to be firstly aware of what you're doing and aware that these services exist. And then what we need to do is to, in a sense lobby for our service providers, whoever they are, it could be a pedestrian crossing through the local council, but it could be a health centre that this service is available. And all they have to do is contact you to get the hardware that's required to make this thing work. So our listeners to this show, you have been told what to do, it's pretty simple. You start lobbying for this service because it sounds to me like a brilliant idea. And so simple to use. 

Gavin Neate  20:46  
It's incredibly simple. We've made it as easy as we can, but we're always updating and improving it. So we're just about to launch a messaging system. We're working with a train company, who said, but what if you're on a train, and you need to let the passenger assist people to know that your trains late? Well, we're now going to have a two-way messaging system. So you could contact them directly via your phone to say my trains late or it's been delayed, or I'm not even on the train so that they would know that you no longer needed that service that was probably nowadays had to be booked 24 hours in advance. 

Phil Friend  21:16  
When do you see that as being live? I mean, that's a very interesting development.

Gavin Neate  21:22  
So the train one we just found out, we got the go-ahead yesterday. I can't tell you where it is yet. 

Phil Friend  21:28  
But this is the future, isn't it? Well, look, Gavin, we, unfortunately, we've run out of time. So what we'll do is we'll get you back, we'll do show number two when you've got 43 more things to tell us about. But I'm really grateful for your time now. What I will make sure of is that your web details and the products and services you provide are clearly shown on our websites, so that people can get in touch with you directly if they feel the need to do that.

Gavin Neate  21:54  
Phil, it's been an absolute pleasure talking with you today. It's been a goal of mine for a while. And I know that you're going to reach some good people out there.

Phil Friend  22:03  
All right, Gavin. Well, that's been fantastic. So thank you so much for sharing your ideas and thoughts with us. That's great. And I think it is a tremendous service and one that we should all make sure we have in our local neighbourhoods. So thank you, once again. 

Gavin Neate  22:16  
Thank you. 

Phil Friend  22:17  
If you've got some gadgets or things that you use to overcome the difficulties that your disability may cause, please let me know and maybe we can arrange for you to appear on the show. My email address is brinkburn@gmail.com. Or you can contact me via the Research Institute for Disabled Consumers at www.ridc.org.uk and thanks for listening.