Antoine got interviewed on French business TV channel BFM Business a couple of weeks back. For those of you that speak French, we’re sharing the clip here. For everybody else we are providing an English translation below.
Sebastien Couasnon: What’s up New York? Let’s go back to you Sabrina. Tonight we are welcoming the founder of Ulula, a mobile solution. Sabrina, can you tell us more about it?
Sabrina Quagliozzi: Well, it comes at the right time as the United Nations is having its general assembly this week in the United States. We are talking about environmental and social risk management. You and your employees are helping companies to assess and manage risk. Could you explain it to us?
Antoine Heuty: Well, let’s imagine that you are grocery shopping in a supermarket like Casino or Leclerc and that you are looking for some tuna. Our goal is to help you understanding what is happening in this product’s supply chain. Recently a report came out about this tuna and it suggested that there were some social issues involved and that the workers of this industry were working too much and were not always being paid for their overtime. Our job consists in bringing transparency to what is really happening along the supply chain, and to figure out if it involves some important problematic social issues. It helps the companies to both avoid social conflicts and to prepare themselves for the regulatory risk they are confronted with, and it also helps improving the living conditions of the people who are involved.
SQ: How does it work exactly? Is it a digital platform? Could you tell us more about it?
AH: Well, it is a two-fold solution. The first aspect of our solution is very simple for the users as we are assessing supply chains that can be located everywhere, like in Peru or in Democratic Republic of Congo. We are working with very simple phones, text messages, and interactive voice recording solutions. After that it becomes a little bit more technology-driven, as we are doing some machine learning to try to understand the data that are not always well structured. Then, we provide dashboards to our customers showing them the risks and the feedback of their staff or of the communities in which there are operating, so that they can anticipate the risks and avoid being confronted to inextricable and very costly solutions
SQ: What specific industries are you targeting? I believe that the mining and the energy industry are some of your main target markets?
AH: Yes, we do work with the mining industry in Latin America and soon in West Africa. We are also working with the textile industry and with the palm oil industry. Recently, Ségolène Royal’s “Nutella-gate” made the headlines, and these are the topics that we are tackling in terms of environmental and social impact and we are trying to provide information where it’s lacking today.
SQ: So when people approach you because they are interested in your solution are you providing them with a software solution? I believe that they need a smartphone or do you provide smartphones as well? In concrete terms how does it work in the field?
AH: Today, there are more phone connections than people in the world, so we do not usually provide phones because people already have them. We are providing and setting up the networks with mobile network operators. And it can sometimes be pretty complex. We have a partnership with 800 mobile network operators all over the world, and we can currently set up very fast in more 100 countries. Then we get in touch with relevant companies and people in order to understand their goals and how to develop this information system as we are often dealing with touchy topics. We define together the targets and the metrics that our customers want to track, and then we provide them with this info 24/7 to allow them to take better decisions.
SC: Just to clarify Antoine, these are customers that can potentially be at risk or are they already facing some kind of crisis. Currently we are hearing many things about the automotive industry and about Volkswagen in particular. Is it something that you could be interested in?
AH: Usually when a crisis has already occurred it’s already too late, and the mobile phone solution less useful. We are facing similar situations in other countries in which we are working. On the other hand, our solution can prevent this type of risk from happening, and it can help verify information companies are sharing. As far as Volkswagen’s diesel-gate is concerned, we could leverage the crowdsourcing technology to try checking if the information made available in corporate reports is truly reliable, and there can be whistleblowers that could tell people and prove that the information that they are reading in some reports is totally wrong and false. But actually we rather work upstream to detect risks in order to prevent companies like Volkswagen from losing market value. We have cases in Peru in which the amounts of money at stakes are significant. Two mines risk losing over 1 billion USD because locals have blocked their sites, so they have an interest in acting more proactively in order to avoid such situations in future.
SC: We all remember these very long strikes that happened in South Africa a couple of years ago if I remember correctly, and I’m sure you were following these cases very closely. From what you are saying, I looks like you are working with the SRI/ESG market, dealing with socially responsible investing that considers environmental, social and corporate governance criteria to operate, aren’t you?
AH: Indeed, this is a growing concern nowadays. [In France], the National Assembly just passed a law that the Senate has now put on its agenda, which would require French companies to conduct human rights, environmental and social due diligence. We are trying to provide enough information about these topics so that companies can fulfill the demand of the legislator and to fulfill a social need that is expressed louder and louder by people every day.
SQ: You started your company not long ago, right?
AH: It has been almost 2 years since we started. We begun with the mining and oil and gas industries and now we are catering for a wider demand including the electronics, the textile and the palm oil industries and we will expand to new industries as the demand grows
SQ: And you will soon be raising funds if I’m not mistaken?
AH: Yes, we are starting the negotiation round with social investors and traditional venture capitalists. We are going to raise about 1,2 million USD to fund this expansion towards new industries and to offer our customers more advanced solutions.
SC: There is more competition for liquidity in the US market compared to France, so it may also be more difficult to pitch and to compete against other startups, isn’t it Antoine?
AH: Yes, there is more competition but I believe that the US is offering a pretty good ecosystem. We are among the pioneers in what we are trying to achieve today, so there are only a few competitors and this is a burgeoning but fast growing market so it’s interesting for us to be in touch with investors and to be present on a market like the one of New York in which the ESG information is one of the things loosely taken into consideration by the markets because it is still very poor and scarce since it only consists in what we can find in corporate reports. Today, people are starting to look at it closely and some of these information providers are interested in our data in order to improve what they are providing the market with so that these aspects will one day be taken more seriously.
SQ: Is this your first startup?
AH: Yes it is.
SQ: Ok, and your background is very diverse – you were working for the United Nations before, correct?
AH: Yes, I started my career by working for almost six years at the United Nations as a public finance economist, and then I moved on to the NGO industry to work on governance issues in the oil, gas, and mining industries. That’s what gave me the idea to look for a way to solve very real business issues, as a mine that needs to close down for a day looses 2 million USD on average, and also to take care of the concerns of the people at risk because when a mine is opening next to your house it has a tremendous impact on your life.
SQ: Yes, clearly.
SC: There you go. Economy leads to many things. Many thanks to both of you, and good luck to Ulula. This was Sabrina for What’s up New York, every evening from 8.30pm to 10.30pm on BFM TV. See you tomorrow