This is the fifteenth in a series of interviews I am doing with new and innovative companies in and around the Smart Lock, Security, and Access Control industry. It's time they have a voice and we meet them. If there are any companies you'd like to see highlighted in the future, let me know. I plan to do this regularly. I am open to your feedback and appreciate the heads up. Thank you!
Bitwards, founded in 2016 and based in Finland, is a company setting out to turn your phone into a key that can be used to access buildings, homes, lockers, cabinets, spaces, bikes, and EVERYTHING. The experience of their leadership team (CEO Eljas Saastamoinen) and their approach to the market impresses me. No doubt, what they are looking to do is hard, but of all the companies I have talked to (and worked at) that have approached this model, Bitwards stands out. Read more below why.
1. Tell us a little about your business?
Bitwards, founded in 2016, is a technology company based in Helsinki, Finland that focuses on mobile access solutions with a mission to digitalize doors and keys.
The company has developed a cloud-based access platform that combines locks and other smart devices from multiple manufacturers allowing customers to easily digitalize any kind of door and manage end-users access to desired spaces and assets. The access rights are shared with the user's mobile phones which they use to open doors, locks, or use other electronic devices.
The core technology behind the platform is the protocol that allows secure and time scheduled management of user access with any stand-alone lock or device. The platform combines locks from multiple manufacturers allowing customers to digitalize any type of door.
The technology is packaged into a tiny software library that integrates easily with any smart lock or device with Bluetooth LE or NFC technology. This library is free for all manufacturers and allows them to make their products available to all Bitwards Access Platform customers.
The unique feature in the technology is that the locks can operate in a complete stand-alone mode without any network connections or wiring to external controllers or systems. This offers a really cost-effective and fast solution for converting any door to a digitally managed system with mobile keys.
From the very beginning, Bitwards made the choice not to manufacture it’s own locks and decided to partner with any lock vendor globally. This way the company can serve customers around the globe with different needs and locking standards and offer them an easy way to digitalize their access.
We consider ourselves an “Access Operator” that shares keys to users with a mobile device for access to a desired asset just like a “Mobile Operator” connects users' mobile devices for communicating with each other.
The platform is distributed by resellers around the world and the revenues are based on subscriptions from the end-customers doors and locks. The resellers can choose the best locks or devices for any situation offered by the Bitwards partners list of products.
2. What got you into the smart lock/access control business?
The roots of the company go back to 2013 when the two Bitwards founders, Eljas Saastamoinen and Niklas Kaustinen joined a Finnish Access Control systems manufacturer Flexim Security. At the time, their main tasks as the CTO and Chief Software Architect was to develop a completely new web-based version of the legacy Flexim Access Control System. Flexim was owned by an investment company that was looking for an exit for their 7-year-old investment. The plan was to find an industrial buyer that would take over the business and technology.
Parallel to the legacy system development, Flexim created another plan for expanding the business globally in case an industrial buyer would not show up. The idea behind this plan was to create an access management system that would digitalize keys, fit any door type, and would allow to scale the Flexim business globally. The founders started a project for the development of a technology that would enable the execution of this parallel plan. Meanwhile, however, Flexim Security was acquired by the Assa Abloy group in 2016.
The founders saw the opportunity in the parallel strategic plan and decided to make an MBO of the IPR to develop their vision in a new company that would revolutionalize the access control and security markets. The founders left the Assa Abloy group to establish Bitwards in late 2016 and started their journey on the development of the Bitwards Access Platform.
3. What markets and verticals do you serve?
From early on, the founders had a plan to develop a versatile technology that would suit multiple business areas and not only door access. The underlying protocol is much more than just a channel for transferring encrypted keys between the user's mobile device and the lock. The technology allows any stand-alone devices to adapt separately for each end-user allowing it to be used in different use cases and business applications.
The platform is really designed for enabling services that have a need for sharing and managing access of multiple people to a certain asset - cost-effectively. The platform offers several services with complete management and administration features for any customer that wants to onboard quickly. Customers may also make use of the modern API’s to connect their own service or software system with the platform and combine the platform features with the customer's own business logic.
The company has customers across many segments from facility management, hospitality, residential, and real estate to corporate security and mobility services. Among these, there are several verticals with different services that are currently enjoying the benefits of the platform such as reception-less hotels, co-working spaces, office facilities, meeting room rentals, sports facilities, and educational sectors like schools and universities.
The partnership with several cabinet lock manufacturers has opened up new opportunities in the delivery business for food, packages, and other goods. These need for such services have popped-up now even higher due to the Covid-19 pandemic
We are now working with several integrators and service companies that are launching new services that completely automate the delivery process from order to delivery and for sharing the access to the end-customer.
4. What is one thing that you were surprised to find out about the security/lock/access control industry?
I entered the security industry in 2013 when I was appointed as the CTO for Flexim Security. With no previous experience from the industry, I was surprised to see how established the electronic access market was despite the fact that the systems and the market were hardly known and recognized from the outside. I also learned that the industry is really like a large “family” were a lot of people know each other and have switched companies inside the industry but have stayed in it for decades.
Having experienced and developed digitalization in the consumer electronics industry, I was also surprised to see how much legacy systems and hardware was still being sold and developed within the industry. The preconception and attitude towards new technologies was (and still is to some extent) very cautious. As an example, cloud services were considered unsafe although in reality, they are usually much safer than on-premise systems (of course this depends on the implementation). Also, mechanical keys are still considered safe although a well designed digital key is many times more secure.
I’m also glad to see how the security departments and experts are working more closely today with business units and IT-departments that are driving to development towards more versatile and cost-efficient systems and solutions. This is a welcome trend in the industry which I see has been lagging behind other industries that I’ve experienced.
5. Where do you see your business in 5 years?
Our aim is to make our technology recognized by all major devices and lock manufacturers globally and have them offer the technology in their products. We aim to have customers using the platform globally with a very strong market presence in Scandinavia and Europe. We will be one of the leading mobile access solutions in the market.