Using digital surveys to create a roadmap for the future
Our survey says…
Steve Birdsall started down the road that led to founding Lancaster-based digital mapping company Gaist when he trained to be a surveyor as a young soldier working with the Royal Artillery in the British Army. “Surveying became a theme in my life from that moment on,” says the entrepreneur.
He left the service after eight years, taking a job surveying for offshore oil companies before a slump in the oil market pushed him towards the railways. He managed a large survey of all the railway tracks in Britain following the Hatfield rail disaster. From there, he moved onto employing new technologies onto roads, joining highway surveying company DCL as its operations director.
The firm's high-definition highway imagery – 900 times the detail of Google Maps – is used for everything from fixing potholes to ensuring the safety of driverless cars.
After an introduction by BGF, Ross Smith was appointed non-executive chair.BGF Talent Network
A need for innovation
“I found that the way the highway industry was surveying roads wasn’t very innovative,” says Steve. “The data wasn’t easy to interpret and didn’t really give our customers what they needed in terms of understanding the maintenance need of their roads – essentially what to fix and when.”
Steve founded Gaist in 2008 to fill that gap, using the latest technology to give customers a clear picture of road conditions around the country. Realising early on that innovation would play a large part in their success, the team worked with Innovate UK to set up Knowledge Transfer Partnerships with the University of York, an agreement which saw the company working closely with the university to develop technology over a six year period.
“We developed cutting-edge analytics and computer vision systems,” explains Steve. “It was the foundation of an innovative culture in the company – the postdoc graduate that worked with us at that time is now our director of innovation and research.”
BGF's funding helped Gaist to...
Meet its fast-growing demand by hiring and buying specialist equipment.
Move into new premises.
Invest into R&D in artificial intelligence.
Rapidly growing demand
Gaist grew organically from there, until it reached a point when Steve and the team knew they needed investment to achieve the growth they wanted. Following an introduction by Gaist chair Craig Slater, BGF backed the company with £2.7 million in 2018, enabling it to meet the rapidly growing demand – bringing in more people and buying specialist equipment.
“We also moved into a new premises and invested into R&D in artificial intelligence which is starting to bring our costs down significantly and provide new innovative services,” says Steve.
One of the things we’ve really appreciated about BGF is the fact that they let us get on with running the company how we think it should be done. They have helped us to think clearly about certain things, offered guidance and challenged when necessary – but we’re pleased to see that they trust us to get on with it.
Steve Birdsall, chief executive of Gaist
Invested by BGF as growth capital.
Safety for driverless cars
The company now works closely with the Department for Transport on projects such as BridgeCat, a mobile bridge inspection system which uses a sonar system to inspect the foundations of bridges. Gaist is also working on a project to check the condition of road markings across the country.
“Driverless cars rely on these road markings so we’re ensuring the roads are up to a standard where this kind of technology can be trialled and rolled out,” says Steve. “We’re looking forward to more projects like these in the future – driven by plenty of R&D.”
Gaist is still growing rapidly and is now developing business outside the UK in Japan, Africa and the Middle East.
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