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Estonian intelligent building solutions company wins Japanese innovation contest and steps towards planet-wide application

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We all know what a tremendous effort it is to turn our technology and ways of life sustainable. This year, 292 businesses from 53 countries took part in the “Japan Challenge for Society 5.0” innovation contest offering ecologically and socially sustainable solutions. An Estonian company – Bisly – won in the environmental category and proved that they can offer a planet-widely scalable approach. 

Buildings amount to 40% of annual global CO2 emissions. While you might think it is the construction that is the main contributor to this, in reality, it is the operation of buildings that are responsible for 28% of those emissions. While we can’t stop heating, cooling, and lighting our buildings, we must do it much more efficiently.

“Smart buildings” is the common label for automatisation solutions for optimising operations. While unquestionably useful, this field has two main interconnected drawbacks. First, this is the field where currently old and established companies reign with high-end solutions. Second, because the technology for sensors and automatics is delicate and complicated there are a lot of costs included in the development, planning, instalment, maintenance, and so on. This is where Bisly steps in.

Bisly’s CEO Siim Vips.  

“When we analysed the problem of smart buildings, we understood that the problem lies not in the price of the hardware. It is the cost of overhead that can contribute up to 70% of the price. So, when we were looking for solutions, we realised we must tackle the overhead costs,” says Siim Vips, CEO of Bisly.

A scalable product

For the first two years, Bisly teamed up with scientists at TalTech in order to develop robust and easy-to-use hardware. They have now developed a product that can be manufactured in any electronics factory. Mr. Vips compares this to using any printer for producing copies of the same document.

At the same time, they developed software that was able to optimise processes from planning to maintenance.

“Previously I had been the co-founder of Modera, a software that optimises car sales, and I had the experience of making this process at least four times faster. This gave me confidence that we are on the right track,” Mr. Vips recalls.

Losing switches cuts costs five times

The development phase paid off. Bonava, the leading residential developer in Northern Europe, offered them two houses to be made “smarter” as a proof-of-concept. Instead of the usual 2-3 months, Bisly completed the task in 2 weeks. This proved that smart building operations are not reserved for high-end luxury apartments but are available much more widely.

Bisly’s solution at work.

“Basically, we have a product that could be installed by an electrician instead of an engineer,” Mr. Vips smiles. “And as a result, you have a building where you actually don’t need thermostats or light switches.”

Bisly’s first business real-estate solution was at the office of Utilitas, an Estonian energy provider where various sensors enable human-centric lighting, ventilation, and temperature. The result – cutting costs of lighting five times. Bisly aims to improve its optimisation through incorporating climate models and energy costs predictions so that in addition to adaptation also proactive steps can be taken, and even higher optimisation achieved.

Japan as the litmus test for the world

The focal points of the innovation contest “Japan Challenge for Society 5.0 – Accelerate Innovation with Japan” organised by the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) indicates that the country perceives many of our common challenges even more clearly. Japan’s population is dense, urbanized, and ageing. Therefore, solutions that would support sustainability transition amidst a shrinking workforce are especially sought after.

Bisly’s first contacts with Japan came through the network of Enterprise Estonia’s consultants that operate in 16 countries. A market survey conducted with their help indicated that Bisly had tangible opportunities. Entering the innovation contest was a gateway to improve their reliability and visibility. Although they were confident of their product, Mr. Vips was still pleasantly surprised to have won in the “Environmental Friendliness” category.

“I’m pretty confident that we could have been strong contestants in other categories, as well,” Mr. Vips speculated. “I think one of our strengths is that because of the peculiarities of Japanese society, the overhead component might actually be up to 90%. Therefore, our product has a truly competitive edge.”

Winning the competition opens opportunities for entering the Japanese market that is known for being slow to open for newcomers. Next steps organised by JETRO include meetings with prospective clients and participation at high-threshold events. Contributing to solving our common problems in Japan is an important step towards global change.

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Written by
Peeter Vihma

social scientist at the university of helsinki and the estonian university of life sciences

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