Building tech that puts us in control
It sounds like a nightmare: trying to teach illiterate, violent teenagers to read when they’re likely to throw a chair across the classroom if they get anything wrong. That was the challenge a young John Shermer faced in the early 1980s, with a classroom of young offenders at what used to be known as the ‘borstal’ secure unit in Erdington, Birmingham.
"I was trying to teach what must have been the worst set of pupils in the city – child rapists and murderers among them," recalls Shermer, now aged 59. "One kid was a double murderer, with a Romany background, who couldn’t read or write. You posed a question to this guy and, if he didn’t know the answer, rather than suffer humiliation he’d just pick up a chair and chuck it across the room.
"Do you remember those early, basic BBC Micro computers? Well, we had a couple of those, and I found that in front of a computer screen this kid could sweat his frustration off, because the computer didn’t judge him, and he just wiped the screen if he got anything wrong.
"It transformed his attitude, and he told me he wanted to learn to read. So we devised a simple, reward-based word game. If you spell a word, you get to play a game. But he could fail privately, and so not lose his temper.
"Over time, he started to succeed and build his confidence. His crimes were so bad that he’ll never leave prison, but he was motivated and did learn to read and write."
This was a ‘lightbulb’ experience for Shermer. Fast-forward 30-odd years and he’s the co-founder and chief technical officer of AIM-listed LightwaveRF, pioneering technology that allows businesses and homeowners to control power, lighting and heating from smartphones or tablets. But back then, Shermer was just a teacher – although one who’d always loved electronics, building his own hi-fi system at the age of 11. And he had the confidence to find the right people to tell about his ideas.
Once he realised how a basic computer could motivate young offenders, Shermer wrote to Adrianne Jones, then head of social services at Birmingham City Council, explaining: "We’ve got some opportunities here." She agreed to meet him.
"Once the council saw what we were doing they gave me a budget to buy another ten computers and train other teachers. We went from not putting any kids in for exams to putting all kids in for exams.
"They asked if we could replicate it in other schools, so we did. Then we moved it into day centres for the mentally and physically handicapped. These people were as good as written off. But within weeks, they were queueing up outside the room just before I arrived, because technology got them excited. Once again, the computer wasn’t judging them. We humans make all kinds of assumptions on what these people can do. Technology doesn’t, so they were learning."
Shermer frowns as he remembers how Birmingham threw away what he says was a "massive chance" to lead the UK in this new form of education. Camden Council had asked if the system could be rolled out for its special schools and homes, and Shermer went to his council bosses with an idea.
He recalls: "I told Adrianne how this could take the burden away from Birmingham tax-payers, how we could make it into a self-sustaining organisation. But she lost heart, and the council dropped the chance.
"For them, I think it all got a bit too commercial, but I didn’t mean it in a profit sense. I just thought it was unreasonable to ask Birmingham to build something that Camden used. For me, Camden should have paid – and were willing to. It should have been the start of something huge, but was an opportunity missed, and I left."
Instead, Shermer started investigating how technology could make level playing fields for disabled kids playing computer games. He was inspired by an Atari joystick adapted with a simple straw mechanism to allow disabled players to ‘press’ a virtual fire button by blowing.
On the back was a sticker saying the joystick was developed by a software engineer called John Sinclair, and so he called him up. Before long, the two Johns were designing and developing all sorts of appliances for profoundly disabled children.
"It was hugely satisfying," Shermer remembers. "We must have changed the lives of thousands of people over the years. We were working with children who’d been in serious road traffic accidents, with smashed vertebrae, where they can do little more than bat an eyelid. We were getting them to use Play Stations again, and developed a train that a kid drove with his chin.
"There were chin controls to work things like TVs, video recorders, turn lights on and off and make phone calls. It created big savings for the NHS, moving patients from intensive care into slightly less intensive care, less expensive but also restoring some self-esteem and privacy."
The two Johns realised they needed to go mass market to make a serious business. In the late 1990s, they developed their first product: a text-based, touch-screen handset that used infrared radio commands to change TV channels and switch lights on and off.
Their company was called JSJS Designs – the acronym spelling out both their names – based in Willenhall, in the Black Country. The entrepreneurs soon got talking to a Taiwanese business to help produce radio-frequency devices for every light and mains switch in the home.
"Our skill was in making the technology not only easy but also retrofitable," says Shermer. "We had to devise ways to work with all these different remote controls – sometimes reverse-engineering to control them."
Before long, the company was re-launched as LightwaveRF, raising £2m in funding by floating on the AIM stock market in 2007. It developed warehouse, distribution, branding and sales deals with the likes of Siemens, B&Q, Maplin and Megaman. Not everything went smoothly, says Shermer: "The hoops Siemens had to jump through before they decided anything were quite extraordinary. Once they said we’d have to wait six weeks because one person was away on holiday. So we sacked them! They said: ‘You can’t do that – we’re Siemens!’ But we just couldn’t work like that. Now we do it all on our own, negotiating with manufacturers, distributors and sales outlets directly."
Sinclair left the business a couple of years ago, and Shermer recruited expertise at different levels of LightwaveRF. "We’re a technical business," he says. "We weren’t great at things like chasing invoices and transportation. So I pulled other people into the business, because I’m a great believer in getting people in who are better than me."
Shermer is now LightwaveRF’s chief technical officer with his "gifted team", while experienced businessmen Mike Lord and Barry Gamble work as chief executive and chairman respectively, looking after operations and City perspectives.
"This frees us up to get on with our products," Shermer says, describing how LightwaveRF now sells more than 60 lines in 230 Maplin and 300 B&Q stores, as well to the electrical wholesale sector and the new-build trade.
After various venture capital investments, Shermer himself owns less than 10% of the company, but is unconcerned: "I’d rather own 10% of something worth a fortune than 100% of something worth nothing!"
LightwaveRF, now based on the Innovation Campus at Faraday Wharf in Birmingham city centre, reached a turnover of £3m in 2014, and plans to reach £30m by 2018. Its leading products are sockets, light switches and radiator valves that can be retrofitted into homes and controlled by remote devices. But its real expertise is developing one device to control all these different switches from a single tablet or phone, from anywhere in the world.
"Our systems can save individual homes hundreds of pounds a year," says Shermer, "because they completely change the way you heat your house. You can control each room’s temperature individually from a virtual control centre – a dashboard for your home.
"It’s the same with lighting. Using the same device, you can make lights go on and off in each room so it looks like you’re in if you’re away. Basically anything electrically powered – like all those switches behind your TV – can be controlled from one handset. And this means you can reduce the amount of energy used.
"Our slogan could be ‘One home, one app’, because you can already do those things with your suppliers, like British Gas, but they’re all in silos. We’re the only ones doing that joined-upness, all in one place. Now we’re applying this to offices as well."
LightwaveRF’s success is not only in its products, it’s also in the type of radio frequency used. As the company’s title suggests, it uses ‘lightwave’ radio frequencies, much better at penetrating buildings than those currently used by the sector, and with simpler electronic language. Industry giants are slowly accepting that this approach is both more practical and less expensive.
Shermer, who’s married with four grown up children, says: "We used to be chasing the market’s interest, but now all the big household names are approaching us. It’s close to becoming a dot.com thing. People are almost competing to own it. It’s about to explode."
But it’s not just financial success that Shermer’s after. Unsurprisingly, given his borstal teaching days, he also wants LightwaveRF’s technology to help society. He says: "The iPad has destigmatised products that the disabled and elderly need for independence. And you can use remote control centres to monitor the elderly, for instance warning you if ‘Doris’ is not moving around as normal.
"I’ve been speaking to the NHS and they’ve told me they have 104,000 vulnerable people in Birmingham alone. So how can they use our technology to make that more manageable? We need to put our products in front of people who need it, because we all live in the same world.
"It’s about taking the medical badge off this kind of stuff. And in doing that, you can take 75% of the cost off. This technology should be mainstream, and the elderly and disabled should benefit."
Published: 04 December 2015