Author: Gabriel Dunsmith

Reinvent the Pen: How an Icelandic Startup Is Tackling Diabetes

One day while visiting his father, Sigurjón Lýðsson realized a gaping hole in the medical treatment of diabetics: there was no straightforward way to monitor injections of insulin. Insulin pumps were too expensive—and though insulin pens might abound, patients could easily lose track of measurements and dosage.

For Sigurjón, the issue is personal. His father, who has type 1 diabetes, relies on daily insulin injections to stay alive.

And in 2010, when his father was also diagnosed with cancer, a brain tumor began to affect his short-term memory.

Thus the scene unfolded: while the two chatted over coffee, his father checked his glucose and injected himself with insulin. Moments later, he turned to Sigurjón and asked, “Did I inject?”

Sigurjón realized that, if he hadn’t been around, his father could have gotten himself into trouble: severe overdoses of insulin can cause seizures, loss of consciousness, comas and even death. Thinking that there must be an easy fix, he began to hunt for a device that could help his father keep track of his injections.

“Sadly,” says Sigurjón, “nobody has that yet.”

Undaunted, Sigurjón pressed on. His zeal for a solution led him to cofound the startup Medilync in 2012. After years of market research, the company has designed an app that utilizes computer vision and artificial intelligence to read usage on insulin pens and glucose meters, then readily tells patients when they’re due for another dose.

At the moment, those with diabetes still have to write down their entire regimen.

“It’s 2018,” says Sigurjón. “I’m like, ‘Why?’ It’s baffling that my dad’s insulin dosage and glucose readings are still scrawled on a piece of paper.”

So far, the company has netted a technology research grant from the Icelandic Centre for Research as well as a European Commission grant. A connection with technology titan Microsoft has proved particularly fruitful: Medilync is part of the corporation’s IoT & AI Insider Labs. Microsoft’s Iceland office also named Medilync its “Startup of the Year” in 2017.

Medilync plans to debut its app within the next few weeks.

Getting investors, however, has proven to be a struggle. Multiple factors could be at play—not only Iceland’s relatively small size on the global business stage, but also an ongoing stigma around diabetes. All too often, patients are blamed for a disease they did nothing to cause.

And Medilync sees its own goals as providing a fundamental service, not churning a profit.

“Everybody that you talk to—other than investors—they get it,” says Sigurjón, noting that most people are enthusiastic about a company that’s trying to help patients navigate the intricacies of a complex illness. “We need an investor who knows what this is about and understands what we are trying to fix. Perhaps we just haven’t been introduced to the right one yet.”

In the meantime, the company plans to take its show on the road: in September, it will partake in the UK Health Show, a London-based event that brings together a multiplicity of groups around the world working to interweave technology and personal care.

Medilync is also developing its own hardware—an all-in-one insulin pen with AI and computer vision—for markets with little smartphone adoption. For example, an estimated 82 million people have diabetes in Southeast Asia alone.

For Sigurjón, his dream is taking flight. He sees a streamlined, user-friendly insulin tool as just as necessary in 2018 as it was on that day with his father in 2010.

He often keeps in mind the story of a Microsoft employee who, won over by Medilync’s vision, began volunteering his time and resources to help the small Icelandic startup. When Sigurjón asked why, he said, “It’s really simple: I want to use my spare time to create something that helps people live better lives.”

Just One Click: Car Parts, Instantaneous Orders and a Late-night Email to Jeff Bezos

The company started with a basic idea: help businesses streamline and automate their sales processes. The usual administrative headaches ensued. Late one evening, in a fit of bleary desperation, a cofounder concocted an email to Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO and the world’s richest man. And that’s when things started taking off for Clicksale, a small IoT startup based on the outskirts of Reykjavík.

Bjarni Ingimar Júlíusson, Clicksale’s CEO, has long been involved in information technology. His family owns Stilling, a company that has sold spare automotive parts in Iceland for almost 60 years, and Bjarni worked on a first-of-its-kind platform whereby vehicle owners could find all the parts they needed simply by entering their license plate number online.

But Bjarni soon encountered a problem: placing orders for products was far from efficient. Automobile shops often had a glut of general car-related materials but were often lacking in specific car parts. Furthermore, too much time was spent on ordering parts and waiting several days for them to arrive.

Why not allow mechanics to order parts immediately and have them delivered within the hour? Bjarni wondered.

So, in 2017, he formed Clicksale with Árni Jónsson, the first developer at Plain Vanilla Games, makers of the wildly successful trivia game QuizUp. The company ordered several Amazon Dash Buttons, which are physical pads a client can press to order prespecified products instantaneously over WiFi.

“We essentially hijacked the delivery system,” says Bjarni.

Clicksale wasn’t just buying up a bunch of buttons and redistributing them, however. The startup wanted to plug the gaps in Amazon’s system.

“What Amazon does is actually quite limited: they have this physical button that connects to the internet,” says Bjarni. “The purchaser have to do a lot of heavy lifting: connect it, program it, use the Amazon cloud. We created a cloud service for companies to implement this easily and also developed an app to deploy this service within a few seconds.”

Why not make the Internet of Things more accessible and intuitive? The only trouble was, ordering Dash buttons in bulk wound up being more cumbersome than the cofounders had anticipated.

“It’s almost like they don’t want you to order it,” says Bjarni. “We were getting really frustrated.”

It was only then that he considered writing to the founder of the world’s largest online marketplace and a man whose net worth was recently pegged by Forbes at nearly $140 billion: Jeff Bezos himself.

“It was kind of a moonshot idea,” Bjarni admits.

He fired off the email right before he went to sleep, and by the next morning he already had a reply from one of the corporation’s vice presidents. That executive invited the Clicksale cofounders to re:Invent, a massive annual developers’ conference sponsored by Amazon, where the Icelanders met the Dash Button team and ultimately resolved their ordering issue.

One question remained: did Jeff Bezos actually see Bjarni’s email?

The answer was unclear. Amazon staff simply said his email had had been forwarded to the director of their department.

“I don‘t know if Jeff Bezos personally forwarded the email or his team did, but it really paid off,” says Bjarni.

Today, Clicksale is focusing on expanding beyond the automotive sector and developing a platform for the optimization of all kinds of product sales. “We’re not a company that replaces your whole IT system,” says Bjarni. “We have small solutions you can hook into your existing infrastructure.”

By focusing solely on software and programming development, Clicksale hopes to respond nimbly to marketplace changes and hone its swift online ordering model. The startup is also partnering with Sigma, a Swedish technology company, to develop their own physical ordering device that would be more tailored to Clicksale’s needs than the Amazon Dash Button.

In the end, Clicksale’s vision is one that could restructure businesses’ purchases and free up a lot of time and creative energy as well.

“We think these repetitive processes—which currently tie down the market—can be automated,” says Bjarni.

Better Boats: An Icelandic Startup Sets a New Course for the Shipping Industry

The global shipping industry is a sprawling network of companies with a presence on every continent save Antarctica, responsible for delivering around 90 percent of the world’s goods. Its vessels move massive amounts of raw materials across national boundaries, shaping the ocean into a highway for trade. However, the industry is highly pollutive and grossly inefficient: air pollution from shipping leads to 50,000 premature deaths per year in Europe alone, according to the nonprofit Centre for Energy, Environment and Health. Maritime shipping is also a key driver of global warming. The industry is so vast and complex it seems impossible to change. But that’s exactly what a small Icelandic startup aims to do.

Enter the fray Ankeri, founded in 2016 by childhood friends Kristinn Aspelund and Leifur A. Kristjánsson. Engineers by training, they recognized a need for creating a shipping marketplace that rewards efficient, low-emissions vessels.

“We identified a problem in shipping management that hasn’t been solved,” says Kristinn, who also cofounded marine performance company Marorka in 2002. “The [industry’s] focus is more or less on the shipowners. But their customers pay for fuel. We wanted owners and charterers to examine fuel performance together and try to improve it.”

Thus Ankeri was born—an online platform that weaves real-time data, weather reports and performance metrics into one interface. Designed to increase transparency by utilizing available data, the technology carries the potential for partnerships across various parties in the shipping industry.

“Owners can share past performance of the ships and charterers can find the most suitable vessel for their trade,” says Kristinn.

But tackling emissions and energy consumption in the maritime world is no small order: there are over 50,000 cargo ships across the globe. Ankeri hopes to start small and gradually build partnerships, picking up steam as the model spreads. Already this year, the company has deployed a prototype to use with its first customer.

Kristinn notes that the service will expose shipping informatics normally left “under the hood” but which have an outsized impact on fuel efficiency, including engine maintenance and ship design. And the startup’s effort may very well dovetail with new environmental regulations: the International Maritime Organization (IMO) declared in early April it would slash emissions in half by 2050 (compared to 2008 levels).

Ankeri, only one among numerous Reykjavík-based startups, may be entering the market at a crucial moment for global shipping.

By founding a startup rather than going a more traditional business route, Kristinn says he’s been able to quickly see ideas into fruition. “The first few weeks, when there are no rules, anything is possible—there is complete freedom,” he says. “There are no shareholders, customers or employees. It’s just two co-founders with a piece of paper.”

But Ankeri has already taken off. Whereas the shipping industry is historically slow-moving, Ankeri can be agile and push the industry to innovate.

Kristinn also notes that, with the local startup scene booming, it is relatively easy to gain access to business leaders, clients and the broader innovative community. “We’re beginning to accept that, here in Iceland, people are creating solutions for the whole world,” he says.

Nortstack – Reporting and analysis of the Icelandic startup scene