“The Bench” — a favoured seat that acts as an informal village council where locals sit, chat, drink and generally put the world to rights — is an institution in the former Yugoslavia. So it’s perhaps not surprising that a Croatian firm was the first in Europe to take the bench into the 21st century by launching a smart bench, and has since kept its position as the market leader in this area. Ivan Mrvoš, founder and CEO of Include Ltd, which developed the Steora smart bench, explains how the company developed its product and became a supplier to smart city projects around the world.
The idea actually came from the firm’s previous idea to create an LED chair for coffee shops, which customers could use to charge their phones; the chairs would also light up. However, the idea flopped fairly soon because of both the cost of producing the chairs and the need to charge them every few days. Out of this, however, the idea of a solar-powered smart bench, where people can charge their phones and use WiFi, and which also relays data such as local weather conditions, was born.
“I started thinking what could be the solution to people’s daily simple problems and how could chairs be that solution. I realised that upgrading chairs to the bench which would be solar-powered, could be a solution to multiple problems,” the youthful Mrvoš said in an interview with bne IntelliNews.
Making the benches solar-powered was an important decision because there was no need to install cables or other infrastructure, one of the obstacles raised by Include’s customers who include cities, municipalities, colleges and airports.
A year and a half after their launch on the market, Steora benches are installed in more than 20 countries from the capitals of nearby Czechia and Slovakia to the Expo international fair in Astana, Kazakhstan.
Their growth has been helped by the growing number “smart city” initiatives launched around the world, yet Mrvoš cautions against allowing technology rather than the real needs of citizens to drive such projects.
“When we talk about smart cities of the future I personally believe that everything starts from the people. We can create any technology and do amazing stuff on the field of smart cities and [Internet of Things] IoT but if citizens don't recognise the real value of the solution or the technology is just too complex then the project doesn't have purpose,” he says.
The smart bench fits with this philosophy since, Mrvoš says, “It’s simple to explain and to use, it doesn't need any infrastructure changes and it makes its purpose to the citizens.”
As smart city projects multiply, Steora’s competitors have also mushroomed. Yet the firm, based in the coastal town of Solin, says it has an advantage over its rivals in terms of size alone. Most of the startups in this space are still small companies with just a handful of employees, while Steora now has 32 people working only on the bench in areas from development and production to sales.
Steora also stands out because of its “bench sensors, analytics and dashboard. We have developed an advanced web platform where our customers can see data collected from their benches and change specific software settings from a distance,” says Mrvoš. Aside from power and WiFi, the benches are also temperature-controlled, with ambient lighting and in-built protection against vandals.
He points out that everything is done in-house aside from sourcing some parts from suppliers. This includes assembly and testing of the bench, which Mrvoš says ensures the quality of the end-product. “Our biggest strength is in the R&D team with currently 13 people working on development of different technologies.”
There is, however, a downside to being a Croatia-based tech company. “Croatia, unfortunately, is still not so great a location for tech companies and startups,” says Mrvoš. “By that I don't mean that you can't work in Croatia, but the problem is that you cannot be 100% focused on your job as there are always some administrative things, weird laws and regulations... which makes things really hard sometimes.”
Despite this, Include has ambitious plans for further growth ahead. Having produced 400 benches so far, Mrvoš believes it could double that number by the end of the year, as he anticipates demand will continue to grow strongly. The firm also plans to raise a new investment round; it previously raised around €465,000 in an initial funding round early this year. The additional funds will allow it to develop new products and expand the functions of the smart bench.
“What we are also targeting in the future is controlling other smart products from Steora bench,” explains Mrvoš. “[The] technology that we have developed inside Steora bench is super advanced and can be used for tens of different products and systems so we really see our opportunity to enter big new markets with new products.”