Photo: Catherine Carroll, COO of Sober Steering, with her father John Carroll, the company's CTO. Carroll wants her company’s sensor technology to be “as common as seat belts and airbags.” 

Nothing screams “safety” louder than a school bus, with its vivid yellow paint, flashing lights and pop-out Stop sign.

But what if the driver has been drinking?

Shocking as it seems, it’s not as unlikely a scenario as we’d all like to think.

Huron School Bus Driver Faces Impaired Charge, reads a headline dated April 15 of this year. Gatineau school van operator had four times legal blood-alcohol limit: police, reads another from the same day.

Sober Steering, a Florida-founded startup that has been based in Waterloo’s Accelerator Centre for the past four years, is aiming to erase headlines like those from our news feeds with its sensor technology.

Mounted inconspicuously to the horn pad of a school bus steering wheel, the alcohol-sniffing sensor prevents the vehicle from moving unless the driver holds a hand over it for 10 seconds and it detects no ethanol emanating from the skin.

The device is currently being tested in a fleet of Ontario school buses in the lead-up to a roll-out to the entire school bus market in the coming months. If successful, Sober Steering sees potential for its technology to be standard equipment in all production vehicles someday.

I became aware of the company through Ellyn Winters-Robinson, a PR pro who helps area startups raise their profiles, and I was struck by several things: Sober Steering is a hardware startup with real technology, it’s solving a major and meaningful problem, and it chose to locate here in Waterloo Region, despite its roots in West Palm Beach, Fla.

That was more than enough for me to seek a sit-down with Catherine Carroll, Sober Steering’s Chief Operating Officer, who told me all about the company in a chat at the AC last week. A few days earlier, she had stopped by the Communitech Hub with a school bus to demonstrate her company’s device.

Q – What is Sober Steering and how did it come to be?

A – Sober Steering is a transdermal alcohol interlock that prevents people from driving drunk.

It came to be out of the passion of the original founder. He was touched by drunk driving in his own life and was looking to put an end to it, and specifically looking for advanced technology to play that role.

Q – How did the company end up in Waterloo, and what has that done for it?

A – We were looking for a very specific skill set, and there are only a handful of universities globally that had the advanced technology in the areas that we needed, and the University of Waterloo was one of them.

When we looked at Waterloo’s IP policy, it was a bit of a no-brainer.

So, the combination of the University of Waterloo, plus the University of Windsor, both with favourable IP policies for entrepreneurs, was really what drew us to the region.

Once we got here and we started to understand the entrepreneurial community that existed around the university, it became clear that we would just pick up and move into this community.

We stepped right into the Accelerator Centre, and that was a perfect match for us.

Q – How big is the problem Sober Steering is trying to solve?

A – Big. We’re going after a big, global issue and we’re chipping away at it.

In Ontario alone, it costs the government about $500 million per year just to deal with drunk-driving issues, in addition to approximately 250 deaths annually.

That’s just in Ontario.

When you consider this globally, you can see that it affects almost everyone’s life. Almost everyone knows someone who’s been affected by drunk driving.

We can put an end to it; there’s no reason for drunk driving any more.

Q – Does that mean Sober Steering could someday be in every vehicle?

A – Right. Ideally, we’d like to be as common as seat belts and airbags in cars.

But that’s not going to happen overnight. There’s a lot of consumer mentality (to overcome), and then the car companies themselves have to be compelled to add additional safety features into the car.

Now, that is happening. In order for car companies to manufacture more efficient vehicles that use less gas per mile to meet CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) standards, they have to start taking the steel off the car.

When they take the steel off the car, the vehicle becomes inherently less safe, so they’re looking at technologies that can prevent, not just survive, accidents – cars that are not required to be steel boxes, but rather, are just required to have fewer accidents.

They’re looking at the advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), even simple things like self-parking cars, to make cars safer. And that’s where our technology comes into play at the OEM (original equipment manufacturer) level.

We will help OEMs prevent accidents and make cars safer through technology, not just steel, so that they can hit government CAFE requirements, as well as government safety requirements.

Q – But if we went to semi-autonomous cars, would impaired driving still be an issue?

A – I think it would. The semi-autonomous driving is going to be a difficult transition in mentality, particularly in the United States.

Vehicles are expressions of personality, and driving is viewed as an experience. It’s something you as an individual go and enjoy.

It’s going to be very hard to change that mentality, which the automotive industry has encouraged for 100 years. People will resist turning over control of their own cars because, all of a sudden, “driving is a commodity.”

But there are scenarios where our technology would be the technological bridge between that mentality and semi-autonomous driving.

For instance, imagine you’re an average driver and you like driving your fancy car to work and back; you go out Friday night expecting to only have one drink, but you end up having 17.

The choices are: pay the $90 for a ride back to your suburb from the city and leave your fancy car in the city. Or, pay some equally expensive group to pick up your car and tow it. Or, hang out by yourself and wait to sober up in some sketchy place late at night.

Or, there’s a scenario where you say, ‘All right, my car won’t let me drive,’ and this is a scenario where semi-autonomous driving makes sense. Then you say, ‘All right, I’ll let my car take me home.’

Q – I would assume that means the person who owns the car would still have to be responsible in some way, whether the car is semi-autonomous or not. I can’t see the law saying, ‘OK, you can be drunk now, because your car can drive itself home.’

A – But here’s the difference. Until cars become entirely autonomous, people will have the choice to drive. So, unless you have a device in there that says, ‘You are too drunk to drive,’ they can choose to drive their semi-autonomous vehicle home after 17 drinks.

As a result, even this year, 2014, there are calls in the U.S. government to push for alcohol interlocks in all vehicles. While it’s $500 million in Ontario, you’re looking at billions in the United States, in real dollars, just to clean up drunk driving accidents.

Q – I’m guessing the insurance industry would be pretty eager to see a solution to this.

A – Exactly. Traditional breathalyzers have been around for 40 years, and you’ve never seen the insurance industry give a discount for those breathalyzers. Why? Because they’re difficult to use; they’re a distraction on the road.

People argue that they are more of a distraction to use while you’re driving than the actual alcohol itself.

One more point on the insurance – what we’re seeing today is the rise of this user-based insurance. It’s just recently come to Canada, but it has taken hold in the United States and has a pretty solid footing.

Insurance companies are looking at a particular driver’s behaviour and giving them an insurance plan based on that behaviour. So, because they now have the technology and the ability to monitor, it’s more likely that they’ll offer some sort of discount for advanced safety technologies like ours, and its inclusion in vehicles, particularly for teenage drivers.

Q – Can you tell me how Sober Steering works?

A – In our fleet application – school buses - there is a sensor installed on the horn pad.

Typically, when you get into the vehicle, in order to move , you have to put your foot on the brake and then move it out of Park. This is the brake interlock.

Our system is in line with the brake interlock, so in our school buses, you have to put your foot on the brake, you have to put your hand on the alcohol sensor for approximately 10 seconds to prove that there’s no alcohol in your system, and then you can move the vehicle into Drive.

Q – So the sensor picks up ethanol coming off your body?

A – It does. We are, effectively, a fancy chemical sniffer sensor.

It’s sniffing the chemicals that are exuded from the hand to see if there are ethanol molecules in that group of chemicals.

Q – Are there any issues with false positives due to things such as hand sanitizer?

A – Sure. Purell is technically drinkable ethanol, so it’s just like pouring tequila on your hands.

Purell is the biggest issue that we have; however, what we do know is that it evaporates very, very quickly, so that works in our favour.

Q – Like many technologies, Sober Steering seems like a no-brainer that any customer or investor would happily line up to support. But, taking a product to market is never quite that simple. Tell me about some of the challenges you’ve encountered in bringing Sober Steering to the driving public.

A – We have a couple.

A lot of people assume that because we’re an anti-drunk-driving company, that we’re anti-alcohol, which is not the case. I mean, we’d once considered our tagline to be, ‘Party all you want; your car will let you know when you’re too drunk to drive.

We want to be the technology bridge between alcohol and prevention of drunk driving.

So, that’s one challenge: people saying, ‘Why can’t I have one drink and then drive home?’ and believing that we want to stop them from have a couple of drinks and enjoying themselves.

Another challenge is getting people to understand that this isn’t Star Trek technology. This is real, solid, proven technology that should be taken as such.

And then, finally, when people look at our technology, they assume we’re going directly into the OEMs – and that we won’t actually have a product in the market for years, which is not the case. We’re starting with a retrofit product in fleet markets, with school buses as the first focus, and working within that market to get the consuming public comfortable with the technology before we roll it into the OEMs. There is significant interest at the OEM level, but that will take several years before we’ll see alcohol interlocks as a safety feature rolling off factory floors.

Q – What stage are you at right now?

A – We have our first product, for school buses, which we are going to be rolling out within the next several months. We’ve made significant progress – ‘changes to the scientific state of the art’ kind of progress – in a short time with limited funds. I’m tremendously proud of our entire R&D team.

Two years ago, I went out and talked to a lot of school bus directors of transportation here in Ontario and in the U.S., and said, ‘If we were to build a product, what would you want it to look like?’, and then we built the product.

And so now, two years later, we’re starting to go back to them and say, ‘This is the product; this is how it works in the fleet vehicles; this is how it will be integrated.’ So it’s a nice turn of events right now.

Q – So it’s in use right now?

A – It is. We’re field trialing here in Ontario, in several school buses.

That means our technology is used on school buses that are running around every day with kids onboard, and they have been for over six months now. So, we’ve been through a nice, cold Canadian winter.

Q – Your career background is in investment banking. What convinced you to make the jump into the uncertain world of tech startups?

A – I always knew I wanted to work at a small company or be an entrepreneur.

I went into investment banking specifically to build the financial and operations skill set that would help me be useful at one of these companies.

After investment banking, when I went into consulting, I was working with a bunch of successful, experienced entrepreneurs and I learned from them – I got an understanding how they worked successfully in their own companies.

And one of my clients was Sober Steering, so at that point, I decided to make the big switch over to entrepreneurship.

I think it was always in the stars; it was always something I wanted to do, it was just a matter of feeling like I had enough meaningful expertise to contribute to a startup, because I’m not on the technical side.

Q – How many employees do you have?

A – We just hired another one today, so I can add that into the mix. We have six employees in the company, and we have anywhere between 15 and 20 researchers and consultants that we bring on on a part-time basis.

Q – How is the company funded?

A – Part of the reason we were drawn to Ontario was because of the funding policies here.

We were lucky enough to get both provincial and federal funding to the tune of about $1.5 million, and in addition to that, we benefit from all of the NSERC-related money that goes directly to our program here at the University of Waterloo.

In addition to that, we’ve received Auto 21 funding, which supports a lot of the R&D work that we do.

Without this kind of funding, there’s no way that we could be doing the work that we’re doing at the cost that we’re doing it.

By working with universities, we have access to millions of dollars worth of equipment that we need, and that as a startup, we couldn’t possibly buy without huge amounts of investment.

In addition to the government funding we have a very strong board of directors and a group of angel investors who have supported us, almost right from the start. We’ve gotten a significant amount of funding from them. They’re mostly U.S.-based, but not for lack of trying (here).

Q – Anything you’d like to add?

A – 2014 is a transition year for Sober Steering, and I feel like we’re growing with Waterloo. What I’d like to do is transition from the startup phase to the early-stage company phase, and we’re doing that in a whole number of ways.

We’re taking this venture to the next step, having survived that early-stage startup round, and moving specifically into product applications.

And not just through the technology itself, as we move into product, but in how we hire, who we’re hiring, our marketing materials – everything is taking this meaningful transition in 2014.

Also, I love to hear the discussion about “the industrial Internet of Things”  (IIoT) here in Waterloo these days. This is becoming increasingly important, and we see ourselves as a part of that. We were hardware in Waterloo before hardware was sexy, let me tell you. So, I’m excited that hardware and IIoT is becoming a hot topic in the region.

There is a lot of lasting substance in hardware and IIoT applications – it’s good for Sober Steering, and I think it will be good for Waterloo, too.

Anthony Reinhart is Communitech’s Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer. View from the ‘Loo is a weekly look at the issues, people and events that shape Waterloo Region’s technology sector.