Interview: the inside story on how the startup Railnova is helping rail companies transform their fleet management and maintenance.

Story by Luke Upton, Editor at SmartRail World
Nov 21, 2017

This article is written by Luke Upton and was originally published on SmartRail World on Nov 21, 2017.

“We look for visionary, innovative clients to go on a ‘discovery journey’ with us…”

Since SmartRail World launched in 2013, the presence of companies labelled a startup has slowly but steadily increased in the rail industry. Since the late 1990s, other industries have become dominated by them, with a wave of startups like Google, eBay and Amazon, growing from zero to billion-dollar turnovers in what seemed like mere months. But growing a startup in rail is not as simple as growing one in a consumer-oriented sector. Creating products and services for rail and metro operators is far more complex due to the many regulations, the importance of safety and long held traditional practices in this sector. The subject of this month’s headliner interview, Christian Sprauer, Founder & CEO, Railnova, gave as a good description of what makes a startup in rail as I’ve ever heard. For Christian and his team of rail tech entrepreneurs, what makes a startup is clear: it’s all about solving a user problem, where the solution is not obvious and cannot be specified, through the use of innovative and scalable technology.

Today, our Editor Luke Upton sits down with Christian to learn about his own journey, what the company does differently, infusing the industry with a startup zeal, the importance of a personal touch and what ‘s next in the world of fleet predictive maintenance and telematics solutions for our industry.

Luke Upton (LU): Many thanks for the time today, so what was the path that led you to founding Railnova in 2010?

Christian Sprauer (CS): No problem Luke. It’s been a great journey so far! After gaining my Mechanical Engineering Degree (Msc) from Ecole Centrale de Lyon, I joined Alstom in 1999 where I spent four years working in various roles in positions in Project Management, Bid Management and Commercial management across a number of European countries. I learnt a lot about both rail and business in this time, with one of the highlights being part of the acquisition of a small German locomotive workshop and its integration into Alstom.

Then in 2003, with the rail industry in Europe undergoing a lot of liberalisation, I left Alstom to join Angel Trains, one of the UKs leading train leasing specialists, as an engineer — I left my suit in the office and got out on tracks! I spent seven years with Angel trains, International (now called Alpha Trains), and again learnt a lot, perhaps most importantly about strategies, contracts and finance. And the key challenge of what happens when a train comes back from leasing. How has it been maintained? When is the next maintenance due? I worked on learning and sharing this information and it fostered a belief that there were much better ways of doing this. Alongside working at Angel Trains I also received an MBA from the London Business School. In 2008 I returned to the Antwerp Alpha Trains office, as Operations and Engineering Director, where managing a team of 15, I was in charge of the entire contract administration & technical fleet management activities for a fleet of ca. 400 locomotives in 12 countries.

And then in September 2010, after 2 failed telematics PoCs (Proof of Concepts) with OEMs and the fact that telematics wasn’t prioritised at strategic level at that time, I saw an opportunity to build something entirely new. I resigned from my job and hired Charles-Henri Mousset, my ex-trainee who had built a working telematics prototype in 6 weeks, and off we went to build a universal connectivity solution for assets and components from different manufacturers.

LU: So you left a good, secure job to start something from scratch. What were those early months of the business like?

CS: Life or death every day! We were a bootstrap startup, launched with little capital, and using our own personal finances, and the revenues that our new company could invoice to clients. When it’s like this, it’s either terror or euphoria — sometimes in the same hour! In the first years, we doubled the turnover every year but then immediately reinvested it in the technology. We had to be careful of our finances and only build something that could be of value to our clients. Xavier Jaffré joined as Commercial Director in 2011, and together with Charles-Henri and I, we knew that our disruptive technology would transform the industry.

LU: Was there a breakthrough moment?

CS: Perhaps lots of little ones, but getting a contract with Europorte, the rail freight branch of Groupe Eurotunnel in 2011 (only 9 months after inception) to install a GPS, fuel consumption, engine hours and fault codes monitoring system on a mixed fleet of 50 units was certainly a breakthrough moment. It gave them a huge improvement in fuel management and availability of the locomotives. Our relationship with Europorte has continued and developed and grown since then.

Another partnership that was important in our development, is with Deutsche Bahn, when we installed our technology on 220 Bombardier Traxx Locomotives and 16 Vossloh diesel locomotives. Deutsche Bahn first did a prototype with Railnova in 2012, then went for a PoC of 10 locomotives running for a full year in 2013, and then ordered the first tranche of 220 units in 2015. At each stage of their discovery journey, they could validate the technology and the use case, and decide to invest further. We were really impressed by DB’s lean approach over the years.

LU: So tell us, what is the technology at the heart of Railnova ( @railnova ) ?

CS: We began in 2012, with the Railster telematics device — our revolutionary remote condition monitoring hardware platform, which safely connects to any kind of train bus (CAN, MVB, Profibus, RS232, RS485, J1708, Analog, Ethernet…) and lets operators access critical data on their entire fleet instead of manually downloading the fault codes of each component in the workshop.

Secondly, our software lets key users confirm diagnostics in real time with the help of machine learning alerts or traditional threshold triggers on our data processing platform. This is something the workshops technicians cannot achieve as they spend most of the time collecting the data instead of analysing it. For drivers, control center staff and teams on the ground it gives them the information they need to solve any issues they come across and it warns them when abnormalities or defective behaviour is detected. Our technology enables them to know exactly how and where their assets are used, and to prevent failures thanks to automated alerts and real-time asset data which is continuously collected and saved on a central, easy to-view platform.

LU: And since the launch of the Railster, you’ve broadened your offering haven’t you?

CS: Very much so. Operators can now design rules and alerts themselves on the Railfleet predictive maintenance platform (pictured right). Each time a new problem is detected, Operators can crystalise their know-how in a new alert or rule. Our team of data scientists are in constant contact with operators and are developing more and more predictive algorithms in the background, on which Operators can build to configure their alerts and dispatch rules. Railfleet offers them easy fleet status tracking, alert management and work order dispatching, open API to external systems and moves clients away from incomplete Excel files, endless e-mail threads, and other inflexible platforms.

On the hardware side we are moving to Edge computing (where the processing is performed directly on the edge device inside the train instead of on the server side), allowing operators to specify their own triggers and rules to catch new problems on for example the MVB and Profibus. The Railster Edge device with embedded rule engine (a flexible and advanced railway specific telematics and GPS platform) allows for abnormality detection on millisecond data which cannot be detected when data is sampled at a 10-second interval and transmitted to a server. Currently Operators retrieve the limited pre-programmed fault codes from the train control systems and very often, they find that train control system pre-programmed fault codes are 80% noise, and that costly OEM software upgrades are necessary to catch new problems on their locomotives. The Railster embedded rule engine solves this problem.

LU: We spoke at the beginning of our conversation about what the term start-up means to you, as you grow, you now have over 1000 active users, does this approach remain?

CS: 100% yes, we may now have 20 employees, but this mentality, the desire and ability to solve problems for our clients remains at our core. It’s in our DNA: we always start from the client problem, and not from what the technology can do. We’re on a quest for value and always take a lean approach: we ship product features early, sometimes imperfect, to obtain early feedback from the client users. We then take into account this feedback to iterate on a final solution that delivers value.

LU: I like your website, with the blog and the Instagram account, it gives some personality to an industry that is often very conservative. Is this a big part of how you engage with your clients?

CS: Thanks, it’s a part of the business that we all consider very important. And we pride ourselves on our client relationships, in fact they are more like partnerships. We look for visionary, innovative clients to go on a ‘discovery journey’ with us. And if the client isn’t ready, then we will wait. But if they are we’ll have in depth conversations to get a real sense of the problems they have and build and develop a product that answers their needs. And once we are fully engaged with the client, we offer them a personal direct support. The whole company is aware of what we’re delivering to the client, and as our staff are all experts, they are able to provide straightforward support for complex issues quickly. Plus, myself and Xavier Jaffré still work on projects every day, so we too are engaged regularly in a practical and not just managerial role with clients. We’ve never lost a customer, so think that is probably the best evidence I can give.

LU: Support is something we hear is a major disappointment for operators, so I can see why a personal touch is well received. So our time here is nearly up, as we come towards the end of 2017, what’s the focus for 2018?

CS: We’ve worked hard to be in a good position, and our subscription model, underpinned by the technology and the customer support ensures financial solidity and we’ve been profitable for a couple of years now. In terms of next year, as I mentioned, we’ll be launching our Railster Edge device with embedded rule engine to compute new rules on the MVB and Profibus. We also currently have 10 Proofs of Concept (POCs) operational with ten major clients and are looking to further expand our client base, seeing opportunities with high-speed and trams, as well as beyond Europe in Asia.

LU: Great, well thanks for the time, and we’ll be sure to keep our readers up to date with your latest news.

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