HypeLabs Takes Leading Role in Fight Against COVID-19 With Contact Tracing

At the Innovation Hub, one of our core beliefs is that ‘success is a meandering path’. It’s been a feature of our own journey and agility and continuous innovation is something we always look for in our portfolio.

One of our portfolio companies, HypeLabs, is doing exactly that. When we first invested in HypeLabs at the end of 2019 we could see the exciting potential for its ground-breaking technology, which enables new levels of connectivity between devices by creating mesh networks using Bluetooth, WiFi, LoRa and other technologies. But, never, could we have imagined the coronavirus pandemic we are now living through, and the critical role this technology is playing in curbing the spread of the disease.

HypeLabs has quickly focused its efforts on one of the key battlegrounds in the fight against the virus – contact tracing.

We caught up with Carlos Lei, CEO of HypeLabs to learn more.

Could you briefly explain what HypeLabs does and how the mesh technology works?

Carlos Lei

HypeLabs has created ‘Hype SDK’ [Software Development Kit], a technological engine that allows devices to connect directly with each other on a mesh network, even without accessing the Internet. Connected devices form an ad hoc network allows messages to hop from device to device—known as mesh networking—further enhancing range and deliverability. The Hype SDK is the first publicly available technology solution to allow such a wide variety of devices—ranging from smartphones and laptops to low-end IoT—to flawlessly communicate and bring connectivity to billions of previously disconnected devices. The solution is designed to comply with existing network technologies and software platforms, rather than superseding them, thus avoiding additional fragmentation in standards and practices.

How have you pivoted to focus on contact tracing for COVID-19?

Our core value proposition is direct connectivity between devices, even offline, by creating local mesh networks. A mesh network happens when a device (A) uses its antennas (Bluetooth, WiFi, Lora, LTE or others) to connect directly to another device (B), and then device B to C, C to D and so on, until local private networks are formed where there was no network before.

With the outbreak of the global pandemic, we wanted to help the best way we could, which was through using our technology to trace contacts of infected individuals.

We looked at our core technology and realised that in order to build mesh networks, we must allow devices to connect directly and privately between one another, even those with different operating systems or communication protocols, even when the phone is locked, with apps running in the background.

Basic connectivity between different operating systems, even when a phone is locked is a major technical challenge that every contact tracing system in the world faces today (and the main reason why Google and Apple announced an unprecedented partnership), but it’s something we solved years ago, so we knew were well positioned to help.

When did you first spot the potential for your tech to help in the fight in the battle against COVID-19 and how long has the new system been in development?

Our regular core business gives us an entry point into governments. We were in the process of providing connectivity solutions nationwide when the pandemic struck. At that point, a few of our contacts were asking if they could use our technology for contact tracing.

We knew our technology could help with private and anonymous tracing, but a few questions remained. What would the system look like? What data is required for it to work? How could we make the entire system – the tech and testing side of things – 100% private? How could we prove mathematically the advantages of such a system?

A study from the Big Data Institute at Oxford University provided many of the answers and we used this as a basis for our initial system design with our technology as the “engine” powering it.

Following this, conversations with multiple organisations and research groups continued, and we kept on improving the system. Since then, we’ve been helping governments and organisations in two ways:

  1. By helping them integrate the SDK into their current COVID-focused apps, as the SDK already allows for immediate contact tracing and is the only solution in the world today that can do it effortlessly between Android and iOS, even in the background (meaning people don’t need to have the app open on the screen for it to work, as every other solution today)
  2. By giving them an entire contact tracing system (www.covidapp.org), using the HypeSDK at its core. The system is divided into:
    • An application that alerts users through COVID|App if they have been in contact with a person who has tested positive. This is done anonymously.
    • Government news portal – To broadcast to people using the app. This offers a unified & reliable source of information to fight the virus.
    • Health Portal – Healthcare personnel can use the portal to report patients who have tested positive using the patients’ unique DeviceID.

How is it being rolled out and how is it being used so far?

We are in discussions with several countries that are either looking to integrate the SDK into their existing COVID apps, or utilise the entire system, with added features that provide more details of tracing and its trends.

We’ve also seen interest from a wide range of large enterprises worldwide interested in implementing such a system within their HR teams, in order to ensure the safety of its employees once economies are re-open. We’re in the process of helping some of these corporations integrate this system internally as well.

Are there any proof points as to the effect the app has had on the spread/containment of the virus?

Currently (as of April 2020) no solution has been deployed for more than a month or so, meaning there isn’t adequate data to analyse, but mathematical models prove its effectiveness in slowing the spread of the virus. We have also started observing two trends with current governments either deploying or already using the solution:

  1. Using the solution for “selective-testing”. We’re observing this in countries with low capability for performing COVID tests on their citizens, so theyaremoving to using a contact tracing system in order to identify those whomight be at risk, and asking such individuals to get tested.
  2. Using the solution as a tool for re-opening economies and moving into a “selective-quarantine”. People in low risk groups come out of the current quarantines, but the system keeps track of encounters between someone who turns out to be infected and people nearby. Those who were nearby and could now be at risk are asked to go back into quarantine, slowing the potential spread of the virus.

 

There has been some debate around privacy when it comes to contact tracing. How does your technology protect users’ privacy?

SDK allows an anonymous contact tracing system that detects physical proximity between devices by using a Bluetooth signal strength and timestamps. No personal information is ever exchanged or required.

Its uniqueness is based on the fact that it only uses Random Unique IDs for each device, allowing the tracing to occur without any further information from users. At the time of sending alerts, no one knows who the person infected was. They would only know that they came in contact with someone who tested positive.

Before the devices discover each other, they are authenticated by one another by sending an authentication challenge, automatically in the background.

The entire system is decentralised, the information is protected, private and lives inside the phone of the user. Governments never have access to any type of data from the user themselves.

We understand that you developed this system as a purely humanitarian exercise, to help governments and health authorities in the fight against the virus, what else have you been working on and how do you expect the business to develop in two years?

Contact tracing is a small part of the technology being deployed and yet we see today how it can have a huge impact on countries and the control of a pandemic. Focusing on tracing and generating facts about each recorded encounter is straightforward to implement.

In the near future the hospitality industry and public transport providers, for example, can also benefit from this technology to help facilitate a new “normal” when people are ready to move from a selective-quarantine model but still need a technology that facilitates real time information for mobility.

In the future – which for us is the near present – we will be turning our attention to applications such as: peer direct transactions and payment; POS solutions to offline issues; smart sensors able to read and transfer data without relying on heavy load to traditional network infrastructures; smart cities products that allow people to communicate rapidly and effectively in overly crowded environments or places where internet may not be reliable; rural areas where traditional infrastructure deployments cannot reach and even content distribution to people unable to connect to the internet.

The speed and agility with which Carlos and his team were able to develop the COVID-19 contact tracing system speaks both to the advancement of the technology and the ability of the management team more broadly. Since we first discovered HypeLabs we have been big believers in the transformative potential of the technology and are excited to see it deployed in the fight against COVID-19.