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Eye tracking in cars from next year as EU SME scheme accelerates

A Swedish SME is making eye-tracking systems that can see if a driver is paying attention behind the wheel. Image courtesy of Smart Eye

Eye-tracking systems will be available in cars from next year thanks to an EU initiative to back loans to Europe’s high-tech small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

It means increasing autonomy for modern cars that are allowing drivers to take their hands off the wheel for longer and longer.

In June 2014, the European Commission, along with the European Investment Bank, announced the launch of InnovFin - EU Finance for innovators, a series of financial products that are projected to release up to EUR 48 billion of investment in innovative European firms by 2020.

One of those is the SME InnovFin Guarantee, which means that the EU will cover a proportion of losses if loans to high-tech firms go bad, encouraging banks to lend more to innovative companies.

One such company was Sweden’s Smart Eye, an eye-tracking software maker that had ambitions to sell its products to car manufacturers.

‘It was thanks to this guarantee loan from the European Union that it was possible for us to secure and start delivering on the first automotive contract last year,’ said the company’s founder Martin Krantz.

Krantz got the original idea for the technology following a morning phone call from his father back in 1999. His father had dreamt that there was a way for his wife, who had a painful shoulder, to move the computer cursor just by looking, and he asked his son if it was possible.

Smart Eye is working with carmakers to put their eye-tracking technology in cars from next year. Image courtesy of Smart Eye

‘A few weeks afterwards I had made some calculations and thought about it and I said, “I think it is possible actually”.’ They went on to set the company up together later that year.

They started out making eye-tracking technology for research labs, but the SEK 8 million loan enabled Krantz to recruit engineers to work on embedding it into automotive systems.

It worked out so well that the company has grown by 50 % since the beginning of last year to 45 people, after securing two deals with European carmakers to supply them with eye-tracking technology.

Smart Eye grew 50 % in one year with the help of an EU-backed loan to now have 45 employees. Image courtesy of Smart Eye

‘Our software makes it possible to say if the driver is tired, if the driver is paying attention,’ he said, adding that the technology would be available in new cars in 2017.

Selected banks

The InnovFin SME Guarantee works through a series of selected lenders, mostly banks, around Europe, who give the loans out.

‘Thanks to the EU guarantee we have been able to increase the total budget dedicated to this programme and reach a total volume of EUR 100 million,’ explained Lola Merveille, from the European affairs department of Bpifrance, the bank that provides loans in France.

Germany-based ProCredit group hopes to offer EUR 250 million to innovative small companies in eastern and south-eastern Europe as a result of the EU facility. ProCredit has signed up to the InnovFin SME Guarantee for its bank operations in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, Moldova, Romania and Serbia.

The geographically spread group believes it is able to respond to the particular difficulties faced by companies in this part of Europe, such as problems enforcing contracts and unreliable supply chains.

‘Now that ProCredit is a full-fledged partner to the InnovFin programme, we can provide our clients with debt financing on more favourable terms, taking into account many of the impediments we jointly face,’ said Borislav Kostadinov, a member of the management board of ProCredit Holding. 

Financing innovation

Under its Horizon 2020 funding programme, the EU has set up an initiative called InnovFin – EU Finance for Innovators, which consists of a range of financing options and advisory services for innovative companies.

InnovFin is run by the European Investment Bank Group, which includes the European Investment Fund, and covers all stages of research and innovation and sizes of company. It is available in EU Member States and also to countries associated to Horizon 2020.

By 2020, the InnovFin initiative is expected to make more than EUR 24 billion of financing available. It is projected that this will be joined by private funding, so that the final total available to innovative companies over that period will be EUR 48 billion.

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