How start-ups are strengthening the innovation culture at NMBS

NMBS is not always regarded as progressive. But nothing could be further from the truth according to Nathan Willekens. He works in their internal innovation lab, supporting a strong innovation culture there. At the same time, they work with start-ups. For example, at the first The Big Score Session Logistics & Mobility, they came into contact with the Ghent start-up OTIV.

Willekens works for the Innovation Program within NMBS, where new ideas are tested. 'We mainly make proof-of-concepts,' Willekens explains. We investigate whether we can solve customer problems in an innovative way. Once we have a proven concept, we give a recommendation to the business, explaining whether a solution can serve our customers, and whether it can be industrialized.'

That work is quite diverse. Willekens tells how the Innovation Program carried out tests with a system for better guiding blind people through stations using QR codes, something they tested for example in Brussels-South. But they also looked into seamless ticketing, where a passenger no longer needs to buy a ticket. When they disembark from the train, the correct amount simply gets taken off from their account automatically.

'Usually the focus is on improving the customer experience,' says Willekens. 'Sometimes that's about small target groups, like travelers with visual impairments. And sometimes it may have an impact on very large groups of our customers, as was the case with seamless ticketing.'

And that includes start-ups. Willekens' work is partly based on input from NMBS itself, but very often they also work with start-ups. 'Start-ups are of great importance to us,' Willekens states. We like to work with external partners, and start-ups are flexible and accessible. They also think along with the customer. You can feel that there is a dynamic in them. Start-ups go along with our agile way of working. And that goes both ways. We often go looking for partners with an idea, but start-ups also regularly pitch ideas to us. It's a two-way street.'

Autonomous trains

One of those start-ups they made contacts with is OTIV. The start-up from Ghent automates streetcars and trains. 'We focus on rail vehicles in complex environments,' says Sam De Smet, co-founder of OTIV. 'That can involve complex urban environments, such as streetcars. But we also work in industrial locations, think of trains on marshalling yards or in ports.'

So they install a lot of sensors and cameras on a rail vehicle. Data from those sources is then analyzed via OTIV's smart software. For now, they are mainly providing support to a human driver in doing so, but in the future they want to make those vehicles completely autonomous.

'Everyone knows about the autonomous car, of course,' says De Smet. 'But rail vehicles are actually a perfect application of autonomy. You have the rails, so you know where the vehicle is going. This is the fastest way to roll out autonomous technology in an economically sustainable way. An autonomous car will not solve the mobility problem, it will still be stuck in traffic jams, and at the same time the technological maturity of autonomy is ideal for rail vehicles.'

That idea has already seen success. The start-up saw the light of day in early 2020, and it has already passed through a Belgian tech accelerator since then. Today they are testing out their technology with a major European rail company, and they are also preparing for a capital round.

Doing pilot projects

That's how they ended up in the waters of NMBS's Innovation Program at the first edition of the event The Big Score Sessions. 'We participated in The Big Score Sessions #1 Logistics & Mobility, to see what technology is emerging in the market,' says Willekens of NMBS. 'Often start-ups are ahead of the game, so it's important to be there so we can establish contacts and collaborations.'

'For us, it is now crucial to do pilot projects, and to find partners for them,' adds OTIV's De Smet. 'That way we validate the technology and the business case together with them. At The Big Score Sessions we certainly had some interesting conversations around this, including with the NMBS.'

For Willekens, all this already serves a greater purpose: to stimulate a culture of innovation. From the outside, NMBS does not always have an innovative reputation', Willekens admits. But there is an enormous amount of knowledge within our organization. There are people who are very eager to change things. We see that our innovation culture is growing strongly today, and that we are building an ecosystem around us.'

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