Fulfilling a need for healthy social distancing

When it comes to the coronavirus (COVID-19) everything has happened fast. As the pandemic spread earlier this year, many employers realised the only way they could survive was by providing a safe environment for both clients and employees.

Janneke van den Heuvel was such an employer. As the CEO of TryLikes, a company specialised in enhancing the customer experience, she was hit hard. “My cofounder Steven Kroon and I began to think about how we could make the 1.5-meter society a more pleasant one without using non-interactive stickers and signs,” she says.  
Aura Aware sensor

Taking a risk on a desperately needed product 

Within weeks of having her first ideas, they had a tested prototype of a smart (and rather friendly) device that starts glowing if people get too close. Other entrepreneurs and investors got excited and joined the team. Regulatory bodies proved speedy in their approval. 

“The biggest surprise was how large companies and governments were so quick in deciding to support our product,” says Van den Heuvel. “The speed was amazing. Everyone was taking a risk, yet they decided – and paid – within days.”

A few months later, the Aura Aware is being used by thousands of businesses – including IKEA, Hertz and Vodafone – in dozens of countries. Last week, they entered the US and Canadian markets. 

“We’ve already shipped about 10,000 [units] but we don’t actually know how many we’ll be selling. It all depends what happens this winter and what the needs of companies will be.”

Using previous success to push her product forward 

Van den Heuvel attributes her success to the experience built up within her core company, TryLikes, which bills itself as the “internet of experience agency.” “This is actually what we do: helping companies with physical locations, like retail and real estate, provide a better quality of experience for their customers.” 

In short, it makes devices that gather real-time data and uses it to improve business-customer relationships, whether it’s by managing queues or keeping bathrooms stocked with necessities. 

In the case of social distancing, the Aura Aware uses highly accurate LIDAR technology, which is currently being applied to self-driving cars to prevent accidents. If people get closer than 1.5-meters (though the distance can be customised for localised laws), the device turns from green to red. When the distance shrinks to 90 centimetres, the device starts beeping.

Aura Aware server

Knowing who to call

“One of the main reasons we could move so quickly was that we already had years of experience building hardware solutions. We knew who to call,” says Van den Heuvel. 
She also gives the City of Amsterdam credit for the product’s accelerated success. “Through being connected with Startup Bootcamp and the greater ecosystem, it’s easy to get the word out and find each other and the media. People, even very successful ones, are always up for a coffee.” 

Amsterdam has a free vibe and a can-do spirit 

Amsterdam has a very free vibe of ‘Let’s just try things!’ It’s a fun city, so people are more willing to take a fun risk. People are not overthinking things.” And Van den Heuvel certainly doesn’t overthink being a female entrepreneur.

“I do think we should reach out and inspire the very youngest – those who are the least influenced by old-fashioned thinking. I tell them it’s best to avoid these gender discussions. And I give them the same advice I would tell any budding entrepreneur: dare to be bold and take the stage. Just show what you have and what you have to offer. And always embrace your failures.”

Amsterdam canals autumn

An affordable product for people in need

Meanwhile, she’s enjoying the success of Aura Aware. “It was an interesting ride from the get-go. And now I am seeing the general sentiment changing. We realise it might take a while – perhaps even a very long while. But the initial big panic is making room to look for decent, solid ways forward in this new situation. And our product fits that changing mood,” says Van den Heuvel.

“It’s a paradox: we’re selling something that we would prefer not to be necessary. And sometimes, I wished we had more time to consider long-term strategy. But because of all the uncertainty, we just followed the simplest of business models: sell an affordable product to people who most need it. That’s it,” says Van den Heuvel. 

“I am most proud of the fact that while we were also hit hard by the coronavirus, we were able to quickly see and execute an idea that now helps companies in the same situation.”

Read more startup news from around Amsterdam.