Jerôme Wertz, who was one of the winners of the 2015 Innovator Under 35 (Belgium) awards conferred by the MIT Technology Review – in which Belgium took part this year for the first time – is working to help improve safety for drivers who suffer from drowsiness at the wheel, through software designed to quantify how vigilant a person is.
An innovator? Initially Jérôme Wertz did not appear destined to work in the world of research science. ‟I started off studying industrial engineering at the Gramme Institute in Liège,” he reveals. The programme at this Belgian engineering school steers students towards specialising in applied technology and management. However, while he was writing his dissertation, he met Jacques Verly, a Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Liège. Wertz, who is by nature highly curious, joined the Professor’s team in 2009: ‟I started on a one-year assignment as a researcher and progressed to become project leader.”
For five years, Jerôme Wertz’s team worked on developing technology to quantify the alertness/drowsiness level of people performing critical tasks. This led to the creation of the startup Phasya, as the team ‟didn’t want to leave the research in a drawer at the University” and, moving from theory to practice, decided to ‟set up a company to bring the technology to market.”
During this period, Wertz followed courses in management in order to build up his knowledge of how to run a business. Thus it was that the Liege research team embarked on an entrepreneurial venture, with the primary goal of improving people’s lives.
The innovation? The technology developed by the Phasya team enables assessment of how alert or drowsy a person is ‟based on an analysis of ocular parameters”. It works using a high-speed camera, ‟which takes pictures of the eye, which are then analysed by the software to determine the person’s level of alertness,” he explains. The app then assigns a risk quotient to the drowsiness level: ‟The software also incorporates a scale which assesses the gravity of the situation and/or just how dangerous the person under observation could be.”
Going forward, Wertz points out that this technology could be used on a variety of different devices. He explains: ‟We could incorporate this high-speed camera into a pair of glasses or directly into the interior of your car.” In addition, the Phasya system could be used ‟in manufacturing industries other than the automobile sector, and inside nuclear power plants, for instance, where people need to be highly alert to do their job properly.”
What impact will this innovation have? The impact of the technology will be mainly in the prevention or reduction in the number of road accidents caused by drowsiness at the wheel. This is especially close to Jerôme Wertz’s heart, as a member of his family fell victim to this scourge. He stresses: ‟Our ultimate goal is of course to help save lives.” This would seem to be a feasible aim since the technology developed by Phasya can be incorporated into many things that already exist – glasses, car dashboards and so on – thus avoiding the need for a long development period to create a complete solution. The technology can be made available fast to those who really need it.
And what does the future hold? For the moment the Phasya team is keeping its feet on the ground. ‟Our initial goal is to position ourselves on the world market and win some contracts before we look at raising more capital,” reveals Wertz. ‟And we’re not just looking at Europe.” Meanwhile, ‟the team is working in collaboration with the University of Liège to try to extend the technology to a more general analysis of facial expressions and brain activity,” he tells us. However, the Phasya team has not yet firmed up any precise targets. ‟It’s difficult to set a precise numerical target as the outlook is constantly changing.” However, Wertz has set himself one particular goal: ‟Our mission isn’t restricted to developing technology. We want to make fundamental improvements in people’s safety”.