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Everybody knows Wi-Fi. But have You met Li-Fi?

Most of us are used to having wireless internet at home. It has become a basic part of everyday life. In much the same way as when we switch on the light, we don’t think about the chain connection which takes electricity into the lightbulb inside a lamp which then lights up the room, when we use a Wi-Fi connection, we do not even think about it.

The Estonian-Indian startup Velmenni is developing technology which in the near future may turn your understanding of your home internet connection and the LED bulb on the ceiling upside down. The technology is called Li-Fi (Light Fidelity) and it is based on transferring data with the help of visible light. ‘Whereas Wi-Fi sends information through air via radio waves, Li-Fi will get analogous information from light,’ explains Anders Martoja, an engineer at Velmenni. In essence it means blinking the LED bulb at a very high speed and at a certain rhythm. This blinking is so fast that it is not visible to the human eye.

‘This rhythm is what differentiates normal LED light from data. Via light we transfer a series of ones and zeroes, which the equipment can take and turn into understandable information,’ explains Martoja. Li-Fi technology was invented five years ago by Harald Haas at the University of Edinburgh. But Velmenni is the first to take the technology from lab tests to testing it under normal conditions. Li-Fi can offer up to 100 times more speed than the Wi-Fi technology currently in use.

The Velmenni team stunned audiences for the first time in the autumn of last year at the Slush startup conference in Helsinki, where they made it to the final shortlist. Before Velmenni’s participation in Slush, nobody had heard of Li-Fi tests outside of the lab.

The product, which the company hopes to take onto the market soon, looks from the outside like a normal LED bulb.

‘I wouldn’t say it’s a new kind of LED bulb; It is more of a smart-bulb. Just as phones became smart-phones, we have given the LED bulb a “brain” – it is able to do a little bit more now,’ explains Martoja.

According to Martoja, Li-Fi could offer amazingly fast data connection in interiors and exterior conditions, in overcrowded mass events, but also data connection security. For example to download one 50-60 GB Blu-ray film, which takes 20 minutes right now with even the fastest Wi-Fi, would take Li-Fi only two to three seconds. With such speed there is of course the question whether your home internet service provider (ISP) can offer a high connectivity from their end.

In lab conditions, the highest theoretical Li-Fi speed reached has been 224 GBps, Velmenni’s tests in normal conditions provide the speed of 1 GBps. ‘Tests outside the lab have gone well. We have made many discoveries, our technology has positively surprised us and we have also identified a few flaws in our technology which we are now working to eliminate,’ says Martoja. For example, whereas the team initially thought they would be able to transfer data to a distance of 20 metres, the results have shown that the initial prototype can send data to 30+ metres successfully. ‘Furthermore our theoretical speed of 10Mbps has been tested in real life and it works,’ Martoja goes on.

Amongst other reasons, Li-Fi technology is specialized because there is a need for a so-called eye connection between two appliances such as the LED-bulb and the user’s telephone. There must be no obstacles on the way of the light spreading. ‘This is also something we are working on, to make data transfer possible also when the light is only touching the wall and our appliance might read the necessary information from the reflection,’ says Martoja.

On the one hand the need for eye-connection could be seen as a drawback, for example it cannot pass through walls and hence the connectivity area is limited. On the other hand, this still gives an advantage over Wi-Fi. This is that the need for eye-connection means that Li-Fi is in fact hacker-proof. ‘VLC data transfers cannot be “bugged”, because this can only happen when the user lets a third appliance be installed in between the VLC lamp and their appliance,’ according to Martoja.

But who should start to use Li-Fi and where? ‘Li-Fi seems to have a bright future with a broad use,’ believes Martoja, alluding to the fact that even Apple has announced that it will try to implement it in its appliances. ‘Li-Fi offers good opportunities in industrial settings and mass events. I wouldn’t say that it is only suited to one field. Li-Fi can ideally be used in home environments. At the moment it seems that when it does come on to the market, it will complement Wi-Fi, but I would like to say that it could also replace it in the future,’ he goes on.

The leader of the Velmenni team is Deepak Solanki from India. Deepak is one of only several Indians on the team, for example the CTO Saurabh Garg. Shivam Setia has also joined the hardware team and Pariskshit Dutt the software team. Martoja, who is soon to graduate in IT from the University of Tartu, is in fact the only Estonian on the team. ‘We are all engineers in spirit and this is what at the moment sets us apart from everyone else,’ he believes.

Solanki and his colleagues came to Estonia thanks to the hardware accelerator Buildit, located in the university town of Tartu. The company has also been registered in Estonia. In addition to Solanki and Garg, the circle of company owners includes the Buildit accelerator. ‘We are in negotiations with other investors and now we have to finish these,’ says Martoja.

In spring the entire team is set to move from Tartu to Hamburg, where they have a place at the Airbus Bizlab accelerator. The main goal of the participation in BizLab for Velmenni is linked to bringing a working product onto the market. The accelerator has given Velmenni five months to demonstrate their results. In addition to Bizlab, Velmenni is involved in a pilot project with Airbus, in order to offer Li-Fi on their airplanes in the future. ‘We also got the opportunity to participate in the Hyperloop project, which is Elon Musk’s vision about fifth type transport,’ says Martoja.

Extremely intelligent young engineers

a comment by Aleksander Tõnnisson /
co-founder and CEO of BuildIt hardware accelerator

Buildit Hardware Accelerator is an early-stage investment fund looking for startup teams building hardware and having global focus. We have negotiated with startups from more than 50 countries and have invested into teams from 15+ different countries. Two of those investments have gone to Indian-staffed teams, including Velmenni.

Velmenni founders struck us as extremely intelligent and ambitious young talented engineers. Throughout the accelerator program, they showed good progress, launched their first pilot project and were selected to the top-4 SLUSH startups out of 1500+ contestants. Their last video had more than 12 million views in just a week.

Bringing visible light communication to the consumer level is extremely ambitious though. And there are still lot of mountains to climb before this technology becomes viable. Currently Velmenni is working together with AirBus on a solution to cast high quality video wirelessly in commercial airplanes. I definitely have very high hopes for their success.

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