#Asia South Korean startup gets $1m to ‘stop distracted driving’

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Fingertips Lab - O6 Bluetooth rotary dial

The startup had a big hit earlier this year with its O6 dial, pictured here on a steering wheel. Photo credit: Fingertips Lab.

“If we want to stop distracted driving, we have to eliminate the need for people to actually look at the screens on their phones,” says PK Mishra. That’s why his startup came up with a rotary dial which, paired over Bluetooth with its app, allows drivers to attend to what’s happening on their phones without having to actually touch the screen.

The South Korea-based startup announced yesterday that it has secured US$1 million in funding from some major backers including 500 Startups.

Most people only spend about 2 percent of their phone time on things that voice commands are good at.

It comes six months after the team conducted a smash-hit Kickstarter project that saw just over 1,200 people pre-order the Bluetooth dial for around US$100 apiece. It attracted US$160,000 in advance sales for the cute gadget, which ships in March.

PK and the team see the need for the gadget despite many new cars coming with voice activated features. “Based on what we’ve seen, most people only spend about 2 percent of the time on their phone doing things that voice commands are good at, like asking questions. The other 98 percent of the time they’re scrolling, browsing, and sifting through lists. That’s why we developed O6.” That’s the name of the dial.

Fingertips Lab - O6 Bluetooth rotary dial

Photo credit: Fingertips Lab.

The idea is that you can keep your eyes on the road most of the time, using O6 to navigate through stuff on your phone – like your email, Twitter – with only the briefest of glances at what’s selected on screen. Frankly, I’d rather drivers do absolutely nothing except drive, but that’s probably not going to happen. So the dial is apparently the safest option in the real world.

Wheeler dealer

Each day in the United States, more than nine people are killed and in excess of 1,150 people are injured in crashes that are reported to involve a distracted driver, shows data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s what PK and the team are battling.

O6 dial on steering wheel

The O6 dial along with the startup’s companion mobile app. Photo credit: Fingertips Lab.

PK, an alumnus of University of Michigan and University of Pennsylvania, is having a busy week, having yesterday won US$100,000 at the K-Startup Grand Challenge demo day, an event aimed at boosting Korea’s top startups. The crew is in the current 500 Startups batch – the 19th for the voracious Silicon Valley accelerator – along with 43 other startups.

Eric Reis, author of the influential The Lean Startup, is one of the team’s angel investors.

Its rotary bezel dial can be used when not behind the wheel as well. The startup points to Matt King, Facebook’s first blind engineer, working on an AI-powered tool for Facebook and Messenger, using the gizmo to browse through his Facebook on his phone with speech read-out turned on. Alternatively, anyone could use it as the remote snapper for your phone’s camera.

But the startup is largely focused on drivers. Indeed, one of its other investors is China’s SAIC Motors, the gargantuan state-owned firm that runs the China Volkswagen, Buick, and Chevrolet joint ventures as well as a handful of its own homegrown marques.

“We have pilot projects with and pre-orders from three of the world’s largest automotive OEMs,” two of which are top secret for now, PK tells Tech in Asia. The other is SAIC. “We will work with these companies to integrate our mobile service and hardware interface into their future vehicles. We have also started working with government agencies – e.g. Seoul City – to promote our device for public safety.”

The team is small right now – four full-timers and four part-timers split across Seoul and a US office – but it’s growing ahead of the gadget shipping to its Kickstarter backers. After that, it’ll go on sale via a dedicated web store. “We are also putting agreements in place with large retailers and distributors,” adds PK.

In addition to 500 Startups and China’s largest auto company, the startup’s funding round saw contributions from PCH International, YSK Partners, as well as Silicon Valley angel investor Eric Reis, author of the influential The Lean Startup.

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