Connexin: from medicine to smart cities
Written by: Philip Mason | Published:
Furqan Alamgir, Connexin's founder and CEO

Philip Mason talks to Connexin founder and CEO Furqan Alamgir about the future of the Internet of Things (IoT), and his belief that the technology industry itself might just be the element holding up a widespread roll-out of IoT

In January, Land Mobile reported on a series of awards given out by industry organisation IoT Breakthrough.

These awards included a variety of categories – including ‘connected home’, ‘connected car’ and so on – with the intention of showcasing, according to the organisation that ran it, “excellence” in the IoT realm. While all the winners certainly have a compelling story to tell, one of the most fascinating has to be Connexin, which came out top in ‘smart city deployment of the year’ for its involvement in the groundbreaking Newcastle Smart Road project.

In the first instance – as indicated by its win – the company is clearly worth paying attention to due to both the innovative nature of its tech and the attitude which it brings to the IoT enterprise. At the same time, meanwhile, it also has what you might call an interesting origin story, with its core focus having shifted several times on the decade-long journey to its current status within the industry.

The company’s founder and CEO Furqan Alamgir has no technological background at all, relying, at least initially, on guiding principles acquired during his time training to be a doctor.

Parallels with anatomy
According to the company’s website, underneath a headline announcing its ‘vision’, Connexin began in 2006 as what it refers to as a “bedroom hobby”. This hobby belonged to the aforementioned Alamgir, who at the time was simply looking for options to keep his head above water at medical school. “I have zero technology experience,” he says. “I basically started Connexin as a way to get through university. The other option was Tesco, who told me that I was overqualified.”

Elaborating on why he started the company in the first place, he continues: “I’ve always loved technology and in particular the way things work, which ties into the anatomy for me. At the time, I found myself becoming fascinated by the internet, how voice calls are made and so on. I just didn’t understand why it cost 50p to call Nigeria but 5p to call Spain.”

With that in mind, Connexin’s first foray into the world of comms involved coming up with a cost-effective way of providing voice over IP, something which in itself was prompted by a massive telephone bill accidentally run up by its founder during a trip to the United States. This subsequently led to a move from the provision of software only to the building out of entire networks, through which the company now offers, among other things, hosted phone systems, SIP (session initiation protocol) trunking and managed Wi-Fi.

The most high-profile project in relation to this (prior to Newcastle) was the installation of wireless broadband serving the city of Hull’s headline ‘living and workspace complex’, K2.

Speaking of the way his company has evolved, Alamgir says: “When I describe us to investors, I say that we’re a software developer which essentially had to create its own DHL because we didn’t have the right delivery mechanism.

“Thinking about Hull in particular, it was a monopolised location when we started, with an average broadband speed of something like two meg on ADSL2+. We started delivering 60 meg symmetrical fixed wireless access services for something like £25 a month. We really disrupted that market.”

Connecting cells together
As mentioned, one of the main reasons for Alamgir beginning a technology company was because of the parallels he saw between computers and the workings of the human body, for instance in terms of the interdependency of their respective parts. (Indeed, Connexin itself is named after a protein molecule which, according to him, “connects cells together at ultrafast speeds”). With that in mind, 13 years down the line this is apparently something that still fascinates him, only now with the Internet of Things as the focus of his attention rather than just software.

Speaking of how this perspective has informed the strategy of the company as it has moved forward, he says: “Everything in the human body is essentially connected to everything else, and if you look at how technology now operates on a macro level, it’s exactly the same. Taking computing as a particular example, with cloud solutions and edge computing there are clear parallels with the human nervous system – the cloud is the brain, where the big data is being crunched, while solutions which are sat at the edge are like the peripheral nerve routes. Biomimicry is the technical term for that and it’s a principle that we keep in mind in whatever we do.”

According to Alamgir, the fundamental way in which this ‘biomimicry’ helps to drive his company’s approach to the roll-out of IoT technology is in its embrace of multi-vendor systems and open standards. The rationale for this would seem to be, quite simply, the question of how the body could be expected to function if its constituent organs belong to a number of different random species.

He illustrates the point by discussing the origin of his company’s involvement with the aforementioned Newcastle Smart Road project.

“After we built out our ISP infrastructure in Hull, it was obvious that we needed to explore what else we could use the technology for, in particular to see if we could help cities run more efficiently,” he says. “We started engaging with other local authorities, at which point we were approached by Cisco – and another company that shall remain nameless – who made an offer to invest in us as an enabler of their technology.

“Cisco has a platform called Kinetic for Cities, which ‘normalises’ data. The best way to describe that is as the ‘pulling-through’ of information while creating an application over the top, no matter who is providing it. Without the ability to do that, if you buy your car-parking sensors from vendor A, you’re pretty much stuck with them. Obviously that’s fine, but what if those sensors don’t perform as expected, or six months down the line vendor A goes bankrupt?”

Staying on the subject of smart parking – which was just one part of the Newcastle project – he says: “Traditionally, the vendor which sold you the sensors would also provide the software stack to go with them.

“By contrast, we’re able to pull the relevant information out from any source regardless of who provided it, which means you can have a camera looking at a car-parking space reporting to one platform, on top of which you can have a separate application letting you know the car-parking situation overall across the city. That not only gives the local authority more control, but also saves them a lot of money.”

A few issues ago, this section consisted of an interview with Julie Snell, managing director of city-wide test bed Bristol is Open. Asked why she believed that IoT technology was being taken up more quickly by certain UK local authorities, she suggested that a crucial difference was how ‘engaged’ some council leaders were compared to others.

As might be expected, Alamgir gives a slightly different answer, reflecting his company’s core ethos of connectivity above all – ie, that technology companies are, for whatever reason, simply making it more complicated than it needs to be.

“The challenge we’re currently seeing in this space is that companies with massive balance sheets want to get in on the action, but don’t currently have a completely appropriate solution,” he says.

“As a result, they vamp up what they already have, which often isn’t able to achieve the outcome that local authorities want to see. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, in that some use-cases need exceptionally long battery life, some – for instance in safety and security – need ultra-low latency, and so on.”

But isn’t the answer actually simpler than that, in the sense that the IoT business case hasn’t been proven over a sustained period of time? How long will the sector be stuck in test-bed hell?

“On the contrary,” he says, “I believe we’ve reached a point where the data is good enough to prove the business case. Cisco on its own now has almost 200 deployments around the world, for instance.

“With that in mind, there will come a point where the IoT simply becomes business as usual for local authorities, in the same way that Wi-Fi has already changed businesses and cities to an extraordinary degree.”

Hopefully, the success which Connexin has had in Newcastle and elsewhere will ultimately bear that out.

CV – Furqan Alamgir
Founder and CEO of Connexin, Furqan Alamgir, began his career studying medicine at Imperial College, London, attaining an MBBS and BSc Hons in Cardiovascular Sciences. Prior to founding his current company in 2006, he worked as a surgical registrar in the National Health Service, something which – according to a corporate profile released by Connexin – has led him to believe the technology “will play a huge part in how healthcare is delivered over the coming years.” He has a special interest in telehealth and the use of information technology, and in particular the internet, in providing 21st century health care.

Alamgir is an ambassador for Imperial College, giving presentations to entrepreneurs across the country. He is also an ambassador to the Goldman Sachs High Growth Business Development Program, in association with the Said Business School and University of Oxford.

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