On November 5, 2016, Paulina Barria lost her best friend. That evening, avid bicyclist Ivonne Ramirez rode her bike through the streets of Santiago, Chile. While approaching an intersection, a bus hit the 28-year-old and Rameriz lost her life.
After learning what happened to Ramirez, Barria decided to create an application that could protect cyclists from hazardous road conditions. “When I heard that Ivonne died, I put all my passion and grief into something positive,” she says. Barria is an architect by training but had always been interested in how technology could help people, and saw this as an opportunity to make a difference.
Barria founded BikeLite, a provider of “urban mobility solutions,” and the company has developed two products. The first is a mobile app that maps the safest route for bicyclists. Second, the startup has created a wearable device that helps cyclists navigate the city, makes them more visible to vehicles, and alerts them of nearby danger.
To use BikeLite, which is planned for availability on Google Play later this year, simply enter a destination and the app generates a map highlighting the safest route. “We have developed an algorithm that avoids high-speed avenues and guides the cyclist to cycle lanes or parks, or to quiet streets with no more than 30 kmph speed limits,” Barria says.
The app also uses crowdsourcing. “Cyclists can upload different kinds of information relevant for other cyclists and let them know about dangerous conditions,” says Barria. “For example, if you find a hole in the street or bicycle lane or if lighting is poor, you can upload it into the app.”
People can also map the location of useful amenities, such as bike parking, repair shops, public bathrooms, or parks that offer scenic riding experiences. Barria explains, “I decided to develop an app because it can go viral and reach a lot of people. It’s the best way to have real-time updates.”
Her company has also developed a glove prototype that enables hands-free navigation. Connected to the app via Bluetooth, the glove signals when cyclists need to turn and acts as a blinker alerting nearby drivers. “The glove will also blink when you are approaching a dangerous corner. For example, the place where Ivonne died is very unsafe – five other cyclists have died there,” says Barria.
Sustainable Innovation from the Heart of “Chilecon Valley”
It’s fitting that BikeLite began in Chile. Santiago is one the top three most polluted cities in the Americas. To fight pollution, the government encourages bicycle riding; it has constructed 300 kilometers of bike lanes and installed 3,000 shared bicycles. Since 2016, there has been a 25 percent increase in bicyclists annually. Every day, 550,000 bicyclists hit the road in Santiago, totaling 1 million bicycle trips daily.
Santiago is also one of the most entrepreneurial cities in the world. Andres Iriondo is the co-founder of Socialab, a Latin American company dedicated to social impact, supporting both startups and large companies to address social, economic, and environmental problems.
According to Iriondo, “Chile is one of the top countries in the word for starting a social business. More than 80 percent of the business in Chile were started by founders who wanted to solve problems like education, health, or poverty.”
He continues, “Companies like Bike Lite are a great example of social businesses in Santiago. They’re using technology to gather information and make our cities smarter — and giving bikers a safer way to travel in the city.”
Social businesses flourish in Chile for several reasons. Since 2010, government-funded accelerator Start Up Chile has supported startups and entrepreneurs around the world, injecting cash into 1,600 budding businesses from 85 countries. The program has so successfully established an entrepreneurship community that Santiago is often referred to as “Chilecon Valley,” riffing off Silicon Valley.
As Iriondo explains while Chile has its fair share of social and environmental challenges, the economy is stable and growing — it was the first South American country to join OCED) Many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and large international companies have sites in the country and their presence helps create an ecosystem that nurtures social startups.
BikeLite Grows with a Little Help
Two years ago, Barria was invited to participate in an “SAP Innomarathon,” a program created by SAP Labs Latin America and the company’s Corporate Social Responsibility team. In its third year, the program supports startups focused on solving social and economic challenges in the region. BikeLite won the 2017 competition and received advice from SAP executives about how to scale the business.
Getting that feedback was a turning point for BikeLite. “This was a very good experience because before we were thinking very much in the reality of Santiago. With help from SAP, we saw that our solution could scale globally – that I could bring this idea everywhere,” says Barria. The SAP team also encouraged her to add a panic button to the app in case of an accident and suggested that BikeLite integrate its app with insurance providers, cutting down on paperwork if an accident does occur.
“Without SAP it’s possible that BikeLite would have never come to life or have the momentum we have right now,” she says. “Our big dream is to transform urban mobility and improve safety in the streets for everyone, not only for cyclists.”
In five years, Barria hopes BikeLite will be available in countries all the world and that there will be fewer fatalities caused by a lack of communication between bicyclists and drivers everywhere. And while she can’t bring Ivonne back, with BikeLite she hopes to prevent anyone else from losing their best friend.