Bringing Internet to the Railways: Interview with Alex Hudson, Founder of Tethir
We caught up with Alex Hudson, founder of Tethir - the startup bringing fast, reliable WIFI to trains and autonomous vehicles which recently closed funding on SeedLegals.
What does Tethir do?
Tethir is developing a solution to slow and unreliable internet on trains; something that is a constant source of dissatisfaction for passengers worldwide. This longstanding market failure can be solved with Tethir’s new optical communication technology that delivers ultra-fast internet between train and trackside (patent action in hand).
Tethir is a start-up company that was spun out from a research hub, now called Photon Engineers. Its purpose is to exploit the potential of infra-red frequencies for digital communications on the railways and eventually for autonomous vehicles. The primary development path is the VILIRI Project, which receives Innovate UK funding for proof of concept work. The private investment being raised allows Tethir to look ahead and progress more quickly towards industrial prototypes and trials on the UK's railway test tracks.
What made you start your company - was it a personal passion, or a problem you identified, or a market opportunity?
The founding team first looked at the challenge of helping the last 5% of the UK’s homes gain access to much faster broadband connections. Rather than let people wait for the installation of underground cables, the idea was to offer our wireless communications and use direct links to send broadband data streams with reception possible through people's windows. The need for redundancy was a key factor in the early assessment that neither the business case nor the technical development path could fully address.
A chance encounter in a London café introduced us to someone with deep experience of the connectivity challenges faced by various industries, including rail. He put us in touch with people who could see the potential of our technology for broadband connectivity on the railways and helped us understand the frustration driving a search for a real solution. Tethir was born with a mission to deliver a step change in capability and find a way through the morass of commercial and other constraints imposed by the railway franchises and mobile networks. The business model stood out, however, and things have moved fast ever since.
What funding have you received so far?
We won an Innovate UK grant (project VILIRI: Vehicular Links using Infrared transmission of Information) of around £550k, total project size, with Network Rail, Northumbria University and BAS LLP as partners. We’ve also raised over £110k so far in private investment as part of an on-going seed investment round.
How did you find your investors, and were they angels or VCs?
Our existing investors discovered Tethir through the New Entrepreneurs Foundation, where I’m an alumni, and Capital Enterprise, where I completed a 6 week course in fundraising. So far, our investors are all Angels but we’re speaking to a few VCs with early stage funds.
Do you think your investors invested in the idea, the product, the founders, or the team?
So far, it seems to be the combination of idea and traction that most wins people over. It helps to build confidence in our initiative that the co-Founder team brings together science, engineering and business skills, all of which have proved essential in building our early track record.
We’re targeting a 'global niche' problem and have won the support of key industry figures in the rail telecommunications industry. It helps that nearly everyone we talk to can relate to the problem of poor connectivity on trains.
Any advice for the perfect pitch deck?
Perfect would be good, and paradise even better, but we have certainly discovered that good slide design is important not least because it is often sent out without a human translator. It must communicate well by itself. This isn’t an exhaustive list but two important areas worth looking at:
1. Good information design. Our Version 1 had all the relevant information but the wrong words jumped off the page. We hired a skilful designer to make sure that the quick reader would immediately find the right words in the right place.
2. Good graphic design. First impressions and the sensation of finding something worth looking at are invaluable. Investors understandably feel let down if they are asked to respond to material that is anything but professional, expressive and succinct.
Final word on design from a deep technology team: We never abandon the relentless drive for content and quality that mean it is our presentation to be the first passed on to others. The subconscious brain of your investors is more likely to look favourably on the start-up if it likes what it sees. If your pitch deck looks creative and professional, it’s more likely to get passed along from one investor to the next.
What was the hardest thing about doing your funding round?
We made life hard by looking only for established investors who could bring something to the party. It’s a strategy that we hope will pay off when we come to the next round of investment. The hardest thing has been coming to terms with how long it takes. Everyone tells you it takes months, and I was ready in that sense, but you don't learn how all consuming it can be until you start doing it. Some aspects we’re grateful for, such as the steady stream of feedback, contacts and suggestions.
If there were three things you could tell a founder looking to do their round, what would they be?
Start early. You may find you need to get a bit further along before investors will take an interest.
Use SeedLegals. It will make your life easier and, more importantly, will make the process much simpler for investors.
Keep smiling and enjoy the best bits – e.g. meeting new people.
How did you hear about SeedLegals, and how was your experience?
I heard about SeedLegals from a fellow entrepreneur who was using them for his round. He was explaining how much money I’d save. When I saw the pricing I was a bit surprised because it’s definitely not cheap. I asked around though and the feedback was consistent – I’d save money this way. I was happy because the idea of being able to have all documents online and accessible to my team, who are currently dispersed around the country, was very attractive.
When it was time for signatures, I could almost hear the sighs of relief from investors and directors as they realised they could do it online rather than printing everything off and scanning it all in for posting.
What's next on the horizon for Tethir?
Tethir is getting its head down for an intense 12-18 months of engineering, after which it will reach its first milestone: a demonstration of the core technology in action, providing connectivity at least 10x faster than the nearest competitor, without moving parts and with very low power requirements.