Innovation

The “Moonshot”, and the Conversation. Words to think about from Commander Hadfield

CAH-Spacesuit-Credit-NASA-1050x700debt of gratitude is owed to the BC Innovation Council (particularly Director of Communications Lindsay Chan). In preparing for the feature story about the recentTechnology Forum, I thought it a “moonshot” asking for the opportunity to interview their keynote speaker, Commander Chris Hadfield. They delivered.

Of course, I’m also grateful to Commander Hadfield and his team for making the time for us to have the conversation. Articulate, eloquent, and informed, talking with Chris Hadfield is a personal highlight. Lob him a good question, and he’s off. As the keynote speaker at an event focused on innovation, that was the theme of our conversation, which spanned the gamut from the Commander’s personal life to the role innovation can play in solving today’s global complexities. There are some lessons below that I hope everyone takes to heart.

Creativity and innovation are interrelated. This process often about being able to connect more than one disparate idea, concept and/or discipline. It can also be about how we relate the past, to the present, and with a vision of the future. How should people approach the process to be more innovative in their thinking?

The simplest clearest example is a field stone house. A lot of houses are built where every brick is the same shape. Makes it easy for the bricklayer, makes it a very predictable structure. All you really vary is colour and texture, but the shape is the same. But so many walls are built (everything from what the Inca’s did through to right now) where you use available stone, available materials, where the shapes are not regular and the density is not necessarily regular. So what you do is that you recognize that you have to work with what have, but you need a certain amount of skills, and sometimes you be able to build what you’re trying to build until you find the right piece. I think that way of thinking is how I’ve approached the problem [of creativity and innovation] my entire life.

Cmdr. Hadfield with Albert and Jack.

You don’t even know what you need until the problem is already upon you, and if you have not built the skills in advance, if you haven’t thought about it, if you haven’t put yourself in a position to recognize that is actually what you need, then how are you going to progress?

I think you have to have a perpetual restless dissatisfaction with your own set of skills. You should always be trying to better understand how things work around you, and try to fill in the holes of your own knowledge, so that you can build your particular wall higher and more soundly.

You can just make a simple decision or you can really dig into it and try to look at your particular wall you’re trying to build and figure out the pieces that make sense to you and then make the right call. It’s a real combination between building the baseline of competence and experience so that then your innovation can be enabled and you creativity can be enabled sort of back and forth. They bounce off each other. But if you don’t have that fundamental basis, then all your really have is belief, and belief can collapse like a house of cards or a poorly built wall any time. So for me, real creativity and innovation are hand and glove, but they have to be based on a sound understanding of the principles that support them.

How do you fill these knowledge gaps? What does the role of mentors mean to you?

For me, there are very few things more satisfying than talking to an expert. I love it when I am given time with someone who really understands something in a field that I don’t. You can learn so much in a hurry and get them to explain it to you.

“I’ve kind of chosen a life that is rife with mentors and mentorship.”

The other revelation I had a few years ago was that every single person you ever meet is expert in something that you aren’t. A three-year-old knows stuff that you don’t know. He or she has done and experienced things that you just haven’t yet. Life is varied. So for me, the real key is to find the mentor in everybody.

I’ve been lucky in my life that I’ve kind of chosen a life that is rife with mentors and mentorship. As a university student at three different universities, and then as a pilot learning, and then as a fighter pilot learning, and then as a test pilot (the most rigorous academic year of my life), and then as an astronaut, all you really do is learn your entire career. You’re surrounded by people who have more expertise than you in some finite area, and you become the great integrator of your particular exposure and knowledge.

I think that’s a great way to view yourself. I am the integrator of all the mentorship of all of the raw and available knowledge that I’ve been exposed to in my life. And it’s really up to me to decide how much of this am I going to absorb, understand, and then use in order to be more creative and innovative, and fun loving and may be fruitful in the future.

Commander Chris Hadfield

I was almost seven, but have my own memories of Neil Armstrong’s momentous declaration, “this is one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” So I wanted to ask you about your decision to become an astronaut. Was it a series of ah-ha moments, leading to one ah-ha moment?

Both. Sometimes the environment creeps up on you, you don’t really notice. Sometimes you don’t notice the mound of history has built up underneath you. You slowly accumulate a great swathe of ideas and influence and opinion, but then maybe something seminal happens like when two people walk on the moon.

Oh yeah, I knew that we were having rockets, and Sputnik happened, and Gagarin, and Alexei Leonov, but wow we just walked on the moon. For me it was that. I read science fiction. I was reading Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, and watched Star Trek and even Lost in Space. I’d watched 2001 A Space Odyssey, and listens to Bowie’s Space Oddity, and all of that was this sort of building wave of awareness of something that was happening that was interesting to me. I had a big picture on my on wall that came from National Geographic of what we knew about the moon. Then on July 20th, 1969, it’s like when you spin the dial on a microscope and you can sort of see everything, but suddenly, wow it comes into this sharp focus and you suddenly recognize what’s in front of you.

“Sometimes you don’t notice the mound of history has built up underneath you. But then maybe something seminal happens.”

So very much based on the past it all came clear to me at this is what I want to do. When I went outside afterwards and looked up at the moon. That’s really when it rang home for me. This what I want to do. There are people walking on the moon and that they’re not walking there because it was bound to happen, they’re not walking there because they had to, they are there because they just barely could.

It was immensely invitational at the time, but the key of course was what do you do with life’s invitations? I decided that day to start turning myself into an astronaut, which is a whole different process than wishing. I said okay, how do I do this? What changes do I make? And I just used this as a guideline for the rest of my life. When I try to make the small daily decisions, I use that as kind of the end game. If everything goes great, that’s where I want to be, so what do I do today? What do I do tonight? What do I do this weekend?

It occurred to me later that your life is not the big grandiose decisions. Your life is the answer to the question of what do I do next? Your life is the accumulation of that answer. Your choice, what you choose to do next defines who you’re going to be, defines what skills you have. And it really does define your life. Fortunately I choose something that really suited me, opportunity arose, I was lucky, I worked hard at it, and I’ve had some magnificent experiences as a result.

Earning your seat in space gives you a unique, special perspective. How has your rare view of our planet shaped your thinking about innovating to making a world of 11 billion people (projected by 2100) a more humane and sustainable one?

We’ve been riding the crest of an accelerating wave driven by enabling technology for a couple of hundred years. It has had incredibly good consequences. The world have never fed as many people as it does today; we have never had this standard of living on average for as many people we do today; literacy over that past 50 years is a good measure of that, with over 80% of the world having an incredible opening of opportunity. But we’ve built it in an accelerating phase and not a sustained phase and anything that’s done under acceleration is temporary. So how do we turn this into something sustainable?

Commander Chris Hadfield

“I decided that day to start turning myself into an astronaut, which is a whole different process than wishing.”

We didn’t get to where we are by being lackadaisical or unimaginative or hesitant. We got here by being driven and restless and hungry about ideas, and we tried to build structures that allowed the brightest among us to solve problems in new ways. Go to Silicon Valley, or go to The Perimeter Institute, or go to UBC and TRIUMF, or walk over to General Fusion – we’ve set up a structure that allows people to take thought and invention to a level that’s never been seen before.

Not everyone is scrambling for their next meal, not everyone is a hunter-gatherer or a farmer. And so we’ve built an amazing structure but it’s unsustainable. And it’s built largely in the past 150 years on the back of burning fossil fuels. We need a better solution.

So every advanced society reins in their population growth, and the accelerated rate of the integration of technology into both India and into China is phenomenal. It’s unprecedented. This isn’t a slow historic change from agrarian to technological with not many outside influences, with people slowly moving into the cities. This is very different. This is fast. You can draw models based on statistics that will predict anything. I’d be very surprised if we went to 11 billion.

I’m not even sure we will, because of the self-imposed limits of the climate. The way we’re changing the way we feed people, the way we house them and clothe them is so energy wasteful and so polluting that I don’t think the planet is going to allow us to grow at that rate. I think it’s the less developed economies and the more fragile environmental parts of the world that are really going to be the canaries in the coal mine that are going to drive that decision-making.

I think it’s a slowly self-balancing system but we have to find alternate energy sources to fossil fuels. We need to continue to educate people to make informed decisions and more than anything we need to raise the standard of living for as many people as possible and make it sustainable.

You know, the best basketball player in the world has probably never held a basketball in their hands; the brightest mind in the world could be out somewhere digging for potatoes, because that’s the only opportunity they’ve ever been given.

If we truly want our species to thrive, we have to free up the natural talents that exist amongst our species to push themselves to the limit of capability. We’ve done that in part of our society but not throughout. To me, that’s got to be the objective: to raise the standard of living for as many people as possible, but make it sustainable. We need this particular wave to crash as gently as possible to get to some sort of steady sea that allows that to happen.

Originally published in BetaKit

Related: Commander Chris Hadfield at the B.C. Tech Forum

Musician, Entrepreneur, Author: Riffing with David Usher on Creativity

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I was going to make a book in the digital world, I wanted there a reason for it to exist. I wanted it to feel like an artifact , and still deliver a meaningful message.”
David Usher:  Let the Elephants Run: Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything

Sure he’s sold more than 1.4 million albums and won 4 Junos, but that didn’t really grab my attention. When I connected David Usher with being a technology entrepreneur, and that his company CloudID has worked innovative projects for clients like Cirque du Soleil, Deloitte and TIFF, reading an advance copy David Usher’s new book “Let the Elephants Run: Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything,” was an easy choice.

The overall design of the book made it easy to pick up. There’s a playfulness to it, highlighted by the wide variety of font styles, the creative use of whitespace, and different paper colours, making for a great visual experience. Even the choice of paper stock made for it being a very tactile experience. It screams, pick me up, open me, bend my pages, and scribble in the margins. It the first book that I’ve picked up in a long time that says, “deface me.”

Talking with Usher, I agreed that the book is a good fit with a couple types of reader. He shared that, “after the talks I was giving about creativity, people were coming up to me wanting to engage with the idea of the creative process; how to get back and re-discover that long forgotten sense of childhood wonder and imagination.”

For someone already doing something creative, but looking to explore the process, this book could give them a different lens on what they are doing. For both the young or the inexperienced entrepreneur, Usher offers some valuable insights. Here are a few nuggets off the pages worth keeping in mind –

  • “When you start to see creative thinking as independent of genre or discipline, suddenly you can work on almost anything.”
  • “Unpredictability opens the door the the possible”.
  • “Talent matters, but work is what delivers you.”
  • “Artist or entrepreneur, in my mind we are all hustlers and thieves…”
  • “There maybe a few rare geniuses that can pull incredible brilliance out of the air without any prior knowledge or contextual influence. We build off the work of others.”
  • “Today, value is measured by attention.”
  • “Protecting your idea becomes far less important than your ability to execute them.”
  • “When you learn the language of creativity it alters the lens through which you see the world.”

The book is full of some great non-Usher quotes, and this one in particular every startup entrepreneur should keep in mind: “As a startup CEO, I slept like a baby. I woke up every two hours and cried.” – Ben Horowitz

David Usher Let the Elephants Run

Usher’s affinity for lean startup methodology weaves its way throughout the book. “It’s a synthesis of those ideas, I think how artists take in their creativity and the process of the lean startup is very similar. It runs in parallel. A lot can be learned by looking back and forth between the two,” he said.

Asking about what sparked his interest in technology startups, it was having a front row seat to “watching the music business implode from the inside out.” Usher added, “I watched EMI, who had been doing the same thing the same way for 100 years, and watched their whole infrastructure, everything that was of value to that company dissipate over a few years. That gives you a choice as an individual; hold onto the old or really go down the rabbit hole for the new.”

With the recent success of Moist’s new album “Glory Under Dangerous Skies”, Usher is preparing to head out on the road for the Summer festival circuit. And with the added focus on this book he admitted that tech isn’t top of mind right now. He indicated that “I have the bug to do something that is some kind of integration with tech for sure. But I’m really looking for something very specific. I think that what you learn from those things that don’t go as expected, is that you get a clearer understanding of what you’re looking for.”

“I watched EMI, who had been doing the same thing the same way for 100 years, dissipate over a few years.”

We circled our conversation back to the book itself. In particular I was curious about his choice of title. Usher talked about how in his own brainstorming sessions, “whether it’s music, interdisciplinary theatre, or tech, we use this technique that’s about letting the ideas (the Elephant) be large. We try to keep at bay the idea of reality. We try to eliminate the word NO. If you put no on all of the ideas outside the realm of reality, by the time you actually get through the grind of the creative process, the idea you have is probably pretty average and already been done.”

Entrepreneurship, innovation, and creativity are unquestionably connected, and it’s important to see creativity as something more than an artistic endeavour. Usher wants to make it clear that, “beyond a tiny bit of inspiration, the creative process is wrapped up in a whole lot of structure and grind. As well, it’s not just about building some big project. Creativity exists in the small moments.”

Furthermore he challenges everyone to see that “it’s in conversations, it’s in negotiations. These are all opportunities use creative thinking. Look at the patterns you’re imposing on a situation, and then try to impose a mutation on that pattern to see if you get different results.”

Beyond ideas, and beyond products, the startup business is a human endeavour. “Just like there are waves to building or launching anything, there are also emotional waves within that whole process,” Usher has learned. He knows that “the more complex your structure, the more people involved the more complex those emotions can be.”

In spite of his successes to date, I asked him about managing emotions. “I’m better at the roller coaster now, but even with this book there’s nerves before it comes out. How will people respond to it? What the hell am I doing? But like anything, I’m learning as I go. When this is over I’ll do what I always do; I’ll do a post-mortem and an analysis on my process.”

Title: Let the Elephants Run: Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything
Publisher: House of Anansi Press
Price: $29.95  CDN

The books are available in the chain bookstores like Indigo/Chapters/Coles as well as your local independent bookstore. Also available to purchase online via amazon.ca / chapters.indigo.ca etc.

This was originally published in BetaKit

photo credit Sabrina Reeves

A Big Nerd Talking Data. Meet DataHero’s Chris Neumann

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There’s no escaping the fact that data is a hot topic and big business. However, so much of the buzz about data is usually prefaced with the word “Big” these days. Somehow, the conversation has moved from the fact there’s this huge proliferation of data and the fact there’s potential gold attached to mining it, to the size matters story.

There’s also no escaping it: Chris Neumann, founder of Vancouver’s DataHero is a really big nerd. With almost a ten year lens on the business, Neumann can talk about data in the sense of size really not mattering.

His data lineage goes back to being employee number one with AsterData (acquired by Teradata in 2011 for $263 million)  and saying “I’d argue that Aster Data had the single strongest overall teamever in the data world.  To-date, Aster Data alum have raised over $300 million for companies they subsequently founded, including Nutanix, Instart Logic, ThoughtSpot, and ClearStory Data. That network has remained extremely tight, with many of us helping each other out over the years in a wide variety of ways as we navigated our post-Aster Data endeavours.”

dashboardLooking back on his experience he said, “in 2005, we knew that volumes of data were growing and were on the verge of exploding.  The problem was, databases couldn’t handle such large volumes of data, and the larger data warehouse software that existed was designed for relatively basic workloads (figuring out simple metrics, aggregates, etc.).  Companies large and small were starting to hit up against the limits of existing products and were forced to choose between complex analytics on insufficient amounts of data or insufficient analytics on larger volumes of data.”

It isn’t only big companies generating large volumes of data. Even small internet companies are generating significant amounts of data. The business challenge is making sense of it. So much of today’s focus is on “Big Data,” and figuring out how to keep pace with the increasing amounts of centralized data being generated by a relatively small number of companies.

“What almost no one is talking about is the fact that at the same time centralized data is increasing in volume, enterprise data overall is becoming decentralized as services move to the cloud,” said Neumann. “This has the potential to be an even more significant shift in how enterprise data is managed.”

“My experiences at Aster Data had a significant impact on how DataHero has evolved from its earliest days,” he added. Seeing firsthand the increasing demand for answers to data questions from people outside of the traditional data organizations, and how those departments were quickly becoming a major bottleneck to enterprise efficiency has led him to get past the size conversation. “Those experiences helped me to appreciate how important access to data is to business users and how much need there is for tools to empower users of all technical levels to be able to work with data.”

Entirely new groups of people are working with data. Until now, you had to be a data analyst, a statistician, or a data scientist to be able to get insights from data. Neumann’s all about the democratization of data, and that anyone who has access to data and wants to ask questions of that data should be able to without having to rely on someone else for help.

He shared that “the biggest challenge in building a product designed to empower everyone in an organization is walking the tightrope of having all of the features people need to answer their data questions, while keeping it easy to use and accessible to the largest possible group of users. Data products have historically been designed for technical users, so we’re really focused on the capabilities we’re trying to bring to business users.”

DataHero meetup

This democratizing access to data is about pulling, processing, and analyzing it from SaaS services, cloud storage drives, online spreadsheets, or even files on a laptop.  Neumann said DataHero has expanded its partnerships to include:

  • Pardot
  • Highrise
  • Zendesk
  • Zuora
  • Recurly
  • Mixpanel
  • Keen IO

For marketing, sales, customer service, and software development professionals, there’s less and less friction to working with data today than ever before. It’s about redefining our relationship to the speed of business. Having data in context it’s now more possible for insightful and impactful decisions to be made. and proving ultimately that the size really doesn’t matter.

Top photo by BusinessNewsDaily

Story originally featured in BetaKit

British Columbia Will Have the Planet’s Smartest Coastline

 

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Ocean Networks Canada (ONC) has announced a collaboration with IBM to create the “smartest coast on the planet”. A three-year, multi-million dollar project will equip British Columbia with a monitoring and prediction system to respond to offshore accidents, tsunamis and other natural disasters.

The “Smart Oceans BC” program will use marine sensors and data analysis to enhance environmental stewardship and public and marine safety along Canada’s West coast. It will monitor vessel traffic, waves, currents and water quality in major shipping arteries and will include a system to predict the impact of offshore earthquakes, tsunamis, storm surge, and underwater landslides.

ONC is the University of Victoria’s largest research project. It is already operating the world’s most advanced cabled ocean observatories off BC’s coast. IBM is investing $12 million in cloud computing infrastructure, analytics software, services and skills training in support of expanding this vital system. This also furthers Canada’s position as a global leader in ocean technology.

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Michelle Rempel, Canada’s Minister of State (Western Economic Diversification), announced that Western Economic Diversification is also contributing $9.1 million in funding that will bring online a number of additional underwater observatories and high frequency coastal radars.

Scott McLean, director, ONC Innovation Centre said “the concept for the project was created by the ONC Executive team in several brainstorming sessions last fall. We were discussing how we could apply the ONC Observatory technology (developed for a research facility) to more directly support public and marine safety.”

“ONC has a world-leading marine sensor network and associated expertise,” said IBM president Dan Fortin. “IBM is making significant investments in technology and skills-training to ensure ONC has the capacity to analyze data from the new sensors coming online. This will allow modelling systems to better support disaster planning and drive Canada’s economic future through the development of big data skills and associated digital expertise.”

ONC will be running earthquake and tsunami simulations with a goal of predicting their behaviour and potential impact on coastal areas, using on-premise cloud computing technology. This information will benefit a wide range of stakeholders from public safety agencies to public transportation, tourism, and other industries operating in the area.

With new visual analytics, data streams processing, machine learning and data exploration software, researchers will be developing, testing and running decision-support systems. This also presents an avenue of commercial viability that could aid industrial and governmental agencies in sea state, pollution monitoring, spill response and other aspects of ocean management.

“Through IBM’s contribution, we’re able to draw insights and conduct analysis of a massive amount of new data that will be critical in the implementation of a world-class marine safety system,” said ONC president Dr. Kate Moran.

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She also said, “Smart Oceans BC will help to develop best practices in three focus areas: marine shipping, environmental monitoring, and public safety. For example, for marine shipping, we will be developing baselines of the sound in the sea. Should sound increase from shipping, this information would be used to suggest best shipping practices to mitigate and reduce noise, such as altering routes to minimize impact on marine mammals, and identifying areas where ships should alter their speed to reduce noise.

ONC estimates the global market for smart oceans systems technology will grow from $4 billion to at least $6 billion by 2020. Part of IBM’s commitment will be supporting internships for over a dozen students from BC universities to build subject matter expertise and practical experience in this emerging industry. The students represent the importance of having a cross-disciplinary approach, and will include MBAs, researchers, programmers and biologists.

McLean puts this project in a global context saying, “ONC is an international research facility with over 10,000 users from around the globe and has a program founded on international partnerships. We have already had an international workshop in March for tsunami modelling and will be establishing partnerships around Smart Oceans BC that will serve as a testbed for new technologies.”

A smart coastline is good, but arguably for many British Columbians a safe coastline is better. I also asked Moran if this project will have any impact on making future potential oil tanker travel any safer for BC’s coast?  She foresees that “Smart Oceans BC will reduce risk by providing real time information on sea conditions to ships traveling along the coast.  Knowing sea conditions in real time provides valuable information to make decisions about when and what route to travel.”

This story was first published in BetaKit

A River of Data Flows Through Vancouver’s Aquatic Informatics

River

Having the “up to my neck” in it feeling is common place for many CEOs. For Aquatic Informatics‘ CEO Ed Quilty, his story starts with water being up to his hips (literally).

Originally a river ecologist as he put it, “not a software guy, not a business guy, but a guy wearing rubber boots, working in rivers, scrapping slime off rocks and collecting bugs and water samples.” Since then he’s led Aquatic Informatics for the past 11 years, growing it to the point where thousands of scientists and over 400 agencies in 28 countries are using the software.

The software is addressing critical water data management and analysis challenges for the environmental monitoring industry. They work with a variety of customers including federal, state/provincial or local government departments, hydropower operators, mining companies, academic groups and consulting organizations, who collect, manage and process large volumes of water quality or quantity data. Located in Vancouver, they’ve also been recently named as a BC company that’s “Ready to Rocket.”

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Quilty traces the genesis of the company back to the early 90’s while on a UVic co-op work term for the BC Ministry of the Environment. “They had this cutting edge sensor for continuous water quality measurement. This was a big leap forward from putting samples in a bottle, and shipping them off to a lab for analysis. The lab could tell you the amount of nutrients, organics, or heavy metals. This was only a small snapshot, and the odds of missing some major event were always significant. With this sensor technology we were getting information every minute or fifteen minutes. It was a big change in the industry. We went from never having enough data to being overwhelmed with data ”

With a Forest Renewal BC project, he saw the value of sensing technology and data collection, that focused on water quality inventory. He was seeing the impact of the forestry industry on water.

With an overwhelming volume of the data, Quilty realized that using spreadsheets wasn’t cutting it. “That’s when we starting working on scripts to automate the data processing. It was trying to figure out how we’d manage all this data that really got things started. I was a biologist used to dealing with 30 or 40 samples a year, not per hour.”

They built a very lightweight version of the initial application, one good enough to sell into his professional network in BC. The real break came when they caught the attention of the US Geological Survey.

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At that time it wouldn’t scale to meet the needs of the largest water monitoring agency in the world, but they were invited to respond to a RFP calling to model the water flow of water in rivers. Quilty said “we bid, not thinking we’d win it, but to get the exposure and learning experience. Much to our surprise we won the $500,000 contract. We had six months to build it, and were only going to get paid at the end if we successfully delivered. Our chief scientist knocked it out of the park.”

In 2006 all of the USGS hydrologists and flow specialists across the US were introduced to Aquarius.

The AI application allows for the conversion of water level to water flow. This information is important in terms of water allocations for irrigation, dam operations, for drinking water, industry, and for fisheries. “You have all of these competing interests, farmers, fisherman, environmentalists, cities, fighting over water particularly in places like the Colorado River, other arid regions, and then you have issues around flooding,” Quilty told BetaKit. “It’s kind of like Goldilocks trying to right just the right balance.”

Think about the considerations of dam operators, where an inch of water can mean millions of dollars. “They’re constantly trying to do optimization of their reservoirs,” Quilty said. “They want to keep them as high as they can, but they have legal obligations to release water to people below, like fishermen and farmers. At the same time they’re trying to balance Mother Nature, throwing different scenarios at them like flood or drought conditions.”

Without data, without good science and quality information, good policy decisions can’t be made. For AI, it’s about breaking down the information silos. They’re focused on facilitating better communication and creating more efficient networks. Quilty said that “often you see organizations collecting information from the same watersheds and not knowing it. You end up with dense networks in some areas, and very sparse in others.

The value of sharing this data easily is at the core of good environmental management. And without the data there’s no chance of managing our resources well. The opportunity to have a positive global impact is massive: imagine helping prevent resource abuses, like giant lakes and aquifers being drained, as highlighted in this New York Times article about Iran’s Lake Urmia.

Quilty isn’t reserved in sharing the company big hairy audacious goal, “it’s about hosting and managing all of the planets environmental data. We’ll be bringing discrete water quality and groundwater information into the system, and moving into atmospheric, ocean, and soil data too.  It’s critical to be getting the right data from the right places, at the right time. I think about all of these sensors like EKG’s measuring the heartbeat of the whole planet, and we want to be part of optimizing it.”

This story originally appeared in BetaKit

Kiip’s Brian Wong is Always Looking on the Bright Side of Life

250px-Brian_WongVancouver’s tech “child prodigy” and Kiip (Founder & CEO) Brian Wong swung through town on his way to SXSW, when Startup Grind Vancouver hosted him for a fireside chat.

Wong isn’t one needing much of an introduction. He has the distinction of graduating from high school at 14, and then graduating from UBC’s Sauder School of Business at 18.

Since founding Kiip in 2010, he and the company have received no shortage of attention. It goes with securing over $15 million in venture funding and making numerous lists like Forbes 30 under 30. He also lent commentary to Frontlines recent documentary “Generation Like”.

Even without free beer and snacks he would have packed the house. True to form, Wong was high energy, entertaining, brutally honest and shared some great startup up stories and lessons. Actually, he shared more than just business insights. There’s the unique and very little known fact behind his onetime childhood visit to Albuquerque, NM, as he shared that “I was in a boys choir. Before my voice changed, I sounded like an angel.”

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Talking about his days as the “lowliest business development associate possible” at Digg, he highlighted living an example of the org chart from hell. “The reporting structure was most bizarre. I

eported to a dude, who reported to a dude, who reported to a dude, and the dude at the top with those three people below him each had only one person reporting to them.” Don’t do this kids.

The Digg experience lasted five months. The layoff meant losing his H1B Visa, and having to fly back to Vancouver.  “It was in May, and I told my Mom what happened. She told me it was the worst Mothers Day present she’d ever got. Every Mother’s Day since I try making it up to her with some kind of nice surprise.”

It proved to be a minor setback, as he grabbed a business tourist visa figuring he’d easily hook up with a new company in that six month window. Wong turned conversations about working for others, into validation for starting Kiip. He said, “after telling Scott Kveton the founder of Urban Airship in Portland my idea, his job offer turned into an introduction to True Ventures.

The genesis for Kiip came from Wong observing people’s mobile game play and “trying to recognize when people are happy, and reward them. But reward them serendipitously.” He credit’s reading the book “Predictably Rational” with building his business around the idea that there’s value in “surprising and delighting people.”

In terms of winning those first customers, Wong noted how important it is to pick your initial investors wisely. “They can help you with a lot of nepotism, and finding relationships where they can just help seed the business. Having investors who were part of the Popchips, and Vitamin Water teams helped with them becoming our first customers. It also helped with bringing other big brands on board.”

He’s also a big believer in always telling people what you’re doing all the time. “It’s awesome, and not about having a big ego, over-sharing, or boasting. It’s about sharing your stream of activity and consciousness so that people will know how to help you. You need to figure out how to generate serendipity in your life. You never know who will help you. You’ll never get any help if you’re not constantly communicating what you’re doing.”

In terms of succeeding as a startup outside of “The Valley” Wong was adamant saying, “the world’s a different place today. There’s Kickstarter, Indiegogo, Angel List, and so many organizations like Startup Grind, and the likes of Y Combinator and TechStars there to help you. You can start something anywhere. There’s a thing called a plane. If you really want to find your customers you’ll find them. Using location as an excuse is lame”

There’s no shortage of evidence that points to Wong knowing the value of PR. “Those people who shit-talk PR don’t understand it’s a tactical tool. It’s great for validation, customer acquisition, for information. Why send someone a slide-deck, when you can send them an article that tells them your story?”

I asked Wong what’s nobody talking about today, that they’ll be talking about in a year from now.

He’s most excited about  “looking at data from connected devices. It’s not creating a brand version of something for FitBit. That’s useless. I think one of the biggest opportunities will be looking at moments that come from those devices. We create a currency that’s universally applicable beyond just apps. I envision an internet connected scale saying you’ve lost five pounds, and then having Special K reward you for that moment.”

The youthful exuberance combined with serious business experience left some of the audience needing to catch their breath. It’s evident that no matter what’s thrown at him, Wong’s someone who’s always looking on the bright side of life. Entrepreneurship isn’t easy so it’s worth keeping the life of Brian in mind.

Can Technology Save Us From Ourselves?

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Reality is not universal. Mix one man’s factual with another’s fictional, and somewhere in that ether is another person’s reality of the moment.

When Marc Andreessen penned “Why Software Is Eating The World” in 2011, he didn’t share a vision of machines or devices. Contrast Andreessen’s reality with the dystopian world envisioned by James Cameron in 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, where a lot of stuff blew up. Here, man’s conflict with machine also serves as a cautionary tale.

For some people, the reality of this moment is found interacting with connected devices, or machines talking to machines. The internet is more than navigating web pages now: it’s a world of connected things. Bing’s Sr. Product Manager Duane Forrester sees this as a world of “using knowledge to empower objects – THAT is the internet of things.”

Forrester was one of many great speakers at the recent Wavefront Wireless Summit held in Vancouver. The event was three days of talk and thoughts about what is, and what could be. With over 500 attendees, a line-up of international thought leaders, and global business partners the event was true to it’s theme of “driving business transformation with wireless and mobility solutions.”

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With two discussion tracks and so much content delivered it’s impossible to review every topic, conversation, and speaker. It’s also tough picking favourites. But on the heels of this year’s CES event that highlighted wearable technology, the connected home and vehicle, there was no shortage of “cool” consumer enabling technology discussion.

However, there was also serious conversations about significant issues relating to health care, transportation, energy, and agriculture. The entrepreneurs casting a lens beyond our first world problems, by taking a global perspective have enormous opportunities in front of them. There’s a huge part of the world that will never communicate through a strand of copper.

From Kenya, a Skype conversation with Jesse Moore, Managing Director at M-Kopa, illustrated this world of opportunity. Moore shared how machine-to-machine technology (M2M), mPayments and “old school” feature phones have lit up Kenya. While most of us take bank accounts and electricity for granted, that’s just not the case in much of the developing world.
Meanwhile, Gary Atkinson’s presentation challenged everyone to ponder the question, “Can Technology Save us from Ourselves?” Atkinson, the director of emerging technologies at Cambridge, UK’s ARM, offered that if technology is cheap enough, low-power enough and small enough, we need to better deploy it to solve big challenges. Atkinson is looking at how “little data” from sensors can help us make better decisions to improve crop yields, to detecting leaky water infrastructure, to better protecting people with chronic diseases.

We talked about how the use of technology can help better feed our world. He pointed out “we can barely feed and water ourselves today, and there will be two billion more people on the planet by 2050. We need to be able to scale up and increase the yields. Increasing the yields requires us to make better decisions, and be more intelligent about how we grow food on a hectare of land. To be more intelligent we need more measurement. We need a more granular understanding of one plot of land, not a general overview of 10,000 hectares. A couple of areas where technology will help, and precision agriculture and drip irrigation.”

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In spite of having the technological potential, we still haven’t gotten to the point where end devices, that can sense, monitor, and communicate are cheap enough or are durable enough to last ten plus years. For many of the world’s farming operation, this technology is not yet economically worthwhile.

Silicon isn’t the constraint, being able to cheaply communicate data is. Atkinson said “we’re trying to use technology that was developed for humans to talk with humans. But, machines don’t need to be concerned about the whole availability of a network. This is where the design goals for Weightless SIG is about taking out everything that humans need (such as latency dependence, immediately available, relatively high bandwidth, clarity and cell-to-cell roaming). It’s about reducing base station and operational costs, as sensor technology for this type of application doesn’t need to be run on current cellular technology.”

It’s an interesting case of removing human-centred design considerations from the machine, and it will actually facilitate better human related outcomes. By creating a “dumber” network, and decreasing sensor costs by increasing the scale of adoption, the potential to better feed ourselves is an opportunity right in front us.

This article originally appeared in BetaKit

You Might as Well Be Drunk!

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Imagine the most important pitch you’ve ever given. Now imagine doing it drunk.

If you’ve just put in five, six or seven consecutive sleep deprived days of work, that’s what you’re basically doing. Working insane hours and claiming you’re a hard-charging, successful entrepreneur is folly. At some point poor sleep habits lead to fatigue, which in turn significantly diminishes your performance. You might as well be drunk.

There’s solid science behind debunking the entrepreneur that never rests will be successful myth. Vancouver’s Fatigue Science recently shared some insightful data worth keeping in mind. CEO Sean Kerklaan looks at sleep this way saying , “I don’t care about how many hours I’ve slept. It’s not about giving me metadata around how I’ve been performing. It’s no different than inputting how many steps taken or calories consumed, and then doing nothing with the data that’s life improving. It’s about understanding how I can do better for tomorrow. It’s understanding how my 4, 6, or 8 hours of sleep yesterday is going to affect me today on the job, and tomorrow on the job.”

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Kerklaan shared the results from having charted the schedules of two CEO’s. They show that both CEO’s are working about 255 hours over the course of a 21 day schedule. CEO1 isn’t getting much sleep and is spending 37 percent of the time in a fatigue-impaired state (below the 70 percent effectiveness threshold). CEO2 is getting more sleep, and spending 0 percent of his work time fatigue impaired.

Fatigue Science is founded using US military technology. Kerklaan’s team has acquired a fatigue model developed in 1996. It was programmed into an actigraph known as the Sleep, Activity, Fatigue, and Task Effectiveness (SAFTE) Model. This has been applied it in the creation of a Fatigue Avoidance Scheduling Tool. Originally this software focused on optimizing the operational management of aviation ground and flight crews. This journal article “Fatigue Models for Applied Research in Warfighting” details the science behind the technology.

This science is all about optimizing performance. They are working with clients including professional sports teams like the Vancouver Canucks, the Dallas Mavericks (NBA), Seattle Sounders (MLS), and a soon to be announced NFL team. The correlation between performance and the bottom line is obvious for both the franchise and the athletes. Entrepreneurs need to be giving themselves the star sleep treatment too.

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Getting a consistent eight hours of sleep in isn’t always going to happen. Kerklaan is living the startup life, and shares “look at the 24 hours in a day. No one is suggesting as a CEO that you don’t have to work a crazy amount of hours, because you do. There’s always that pervasive sense of having way too much to do and you’ll never get it all done. If you start by prioritizing the need for at least seven to eight hours of sleep a night it still leaves you 16 hours a day to be on your phone, dealing with people, designing your product, wading through email, or prepping for the next pitch. You’ve got 112 hours to work each week. That’s a lot of work time. By prioritizing sleep, you’ll be more effective on the job.”

Work hard, play hard, and incorporate good sleep hygiene into your daily schedule. Here’s a few valuable things to consider:

  • Have a consistent bedtime and an awakening time. Your body will be conditioned to falling asleep at a certain time, but only if this is relatively fixed.

  • Avoid alcohol four to six hours before bedtime.

  • Avoid caffeine four to six hours before bedtime

  • Avoid heavy, spicy, or sugary foods four to six hours before bedtime. These can affect your ability to stay asleep.

  • Use comfortable bedding. Uncomfortable bedding can prevent good sleep.

  • Find a comfortable temperature setting for sleeping and keep the room well ventilated. If your bedroom is too cold or too hot, it can keep you awake. A cool (not cold) bedroom is often the most conducive to sleep.

  • Block out all distracting noise, and eliminate as much light as possible.

  • Don’t have a television in your bedroom.

  • Reserve the bed for sleep and sex. Don’t use the bed as an office, workroom or recreation room.

  • Let your body “know” that the bed is associated with sleeping.

(Source: Sleep Hygiene | University of Maryland Medical Centerhttp://umm.edu/programs/sleep/patients/sleep-hygiene#ixzz2qglEh7R0)

Looking ahead, Kerklaan’s vision for Fatigue Science isn’t as a consumer-based wearable device. Optimizing people’s performance for the boardroom to the locker room is good for business. But at the heart of this company is the core value of knowing how critical worker and workplace safety is in key sectors like the resource industry, transportation and manufacturing. For him  “It’s moving beyond our watch, it’s about embedding the algorithm and creating a ubiquitous platform that’s device agnostic. It works with scheduling software, smartphones, other wearable devices and even connectable fabrics one day. It’s starting with asking the question how does sleep affect your safety, and your overall performance, and how we help you get better.”

Here is some bonus reading about the “business” of sleep: From the Harvard Business Review “Sleep Deficit: The Performance Killer.”

From the New Yorker, “Up All Night: The Science of Sleepiness.”

This story originally appeared in BetaKit

Is Canada Even In the Cleantech Race?

The report of my death was an exaggeration.” James Tansey the Executive Director of ISIS, at the Sauder School of Business didn’t invoke Mark Twain when opening their first Clean Capital Conference in Vancouver. While clean energy investment has been in decline the past few years, it still saw $254 Billion flow into the sector in 2013. A decline in investment does not signal the death knell for the industry. These numbers don’t reflect the $6.8 Billion invested in Cleantech  for 2013. The space is rebounding, reloading and reinvigorating itself.

The sold out conference brought together entrepreneurs, investors,and business leaders from the clean energy and clean technology industries. Public sector policy makers who are charged with growing Canada’s clean economy were also in attendance.

This was a full day of dialogue about creating partnerships for Canada’s clean economy. For Tansey, “it’s great seeing lot’s of people in the room who are meeting for the first time even though they are all in the cleantech sector. Part of our goal was about bringing people together who don’t normally meet, and introducing them to some great content.”

In terms of content, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson started the series of keynote presentations and panel conversations. Robertson highlights the role that Cities need to play in leading clean and green initiatives. He says “rather than boosting fossil fuels, governments should be working with industry to reduce them and the emissions they create.” Robertson’s green credentials and vision have also earned him an invite to participate at the C40 conference in Johannesburg South Africa. He’s Canada’s only mayor with that distinction.

Fresh off the recent $3.2 billion acquisition by Google, everyone appreciated the opportunity to learn more of the Nest story from their Director of Business Development Andy Baynes.

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Having started with the thermostat and CO2 detector, according to Baynes, “they plan on reinventing all of the homes unloved devices.” As well, he offers that in the past two years Nest has saved an estimated 1.5 billion kilowatts hours of energy. That’s equal to taking four medium sized gas fired power plants off the grid.

The four panel discussions covered topics including, how cities can use their infrastructure and expertise to partner with the private sector to overcome the challenges in meeting their sustainability goals. Cleantech is key to environmentally responsible resource development, which is also part of Canada’s Economic Action Plan, was a conversation. With the US pledging approximately $80 billion, and the U.K $3,8 billion (GBP) to sustainable energy projects, it was fair asking where Canada fits on the global stage. Near and dear to every entrepreneurs heart was a good talk about financing the growth of the clean economy.

For cleantech and clean energy entrepreneurs knowing the Canadian playing field, and understanding how to effectively partner and collaborate is as important to success, as is having strong IP and accompanying value proposition. Ultimately, all of our social and economic issues and challenges surrounding climate change are Global concerns. Our entrepreneurs need global vision, as Merran Smith (director) of Clean Energy Canada notes “having participants on the panel I moderated had people from the UK, US, and China bringing us some of their stories of what they are doing,  I think Canada has a lot to learn. We are not even in the race to the clean energy future.”

Ben Sparrow (co-founder) of Saltworks took a few minutes, and kindly shares two great bits of advice for any up and coming cleantech entrepreneurs, “keep your head down and work hard. You’re not going to build your business by going to coffee meetings, presentations, or attending conferences. You’ll build your business by building a reliable product and getting a prototype that works. Secondly, you don’t have all of the answers, be open to advice, Learn to listen. Listen to your customers.”

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As well, Jonathan Rhone (President & CEO) of Axine Water Technologies, strongly suggests to “be careful about betting your business future against the demise of hydrocarbon industry.”

Wrapping up the day, Michael Delage, (VP of Strategy and Corporate Development) of General Fusion presents an interesting energy perspective. He relates how a resource based paradigm is about exploiting resources, whereas a knowledge based resource paradigm is about exploiting innovation. It’s also worth pondering his question, “what will assets (oil, coal, gas) really be worth in a carbon constrained world?”

We’re in a global race of figuring out how to better use carbon. The only race that really needs winning solutions, is the human race. It’s entrepreneurs who are creating business models and business practices that are no longer about the extraction of value, but firmly committed to the creation of value is where we’ll all win.

(Images courtesy of Tiffany Cooper Photography)

This article originally appeared in BetaKit

Accelerator Learnings and Lessons

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They come in different flavors, and they’ve been around for a while too. Accelerators and incubators are nothing really new or novel, but, like most good businesses, the ones with great leadership, vision, mentorship, and connections can make a big difference in the lives of many entrepreneurs.

When Vancouver’s GrowLab put out the call for its first cohort in the Summer of 2011, over 350 teams answered. As important it was for those first five startups to join, it also marked a moment when the Vancouver startup ecosystem started to take on a new life.

In March 2012 Mike Edwards assumed the role of executive director. On November 1, 2013 he officially passed the title (and leadership torch) to Jonathan Bixby.

Under Edward’s watch a lot has changed at GrowLab. While not the only “game in town”, it’s fair calling it a key startup hub in Vancouver. We recently had a conversation with Edwards and Bixby about entrepreneurship and the startup life.

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One can’t label Edwards as a member of the Vancouver “tech establishment”, but the trajectory he’s been on might leave a few people breathless. “Three years ago I rolled back into Vancouver and set myself up in a coffee shop, saying to my wife that it would be hard to break in,” Edwards told BetaKit. “Did that for three month, spending two days a week working out of the coffee shop trying to navigate the scene, and figure out how best to break in. Yet two and a half years later we have 12,500 square feet of office space, with 175 people working here, over $20 million raised, and have created more than a 100 new jobs. Being able to add value to the Vancouver, BC, and Canada is incredibly exciting.”

Acknowledging his time is “sliced pretty slim”, Edwards is pleased about bringing Jonathan Bixby on board as the new Executive Director. Bixby has two successful exits under his belt, including most recently co-founding and leading Strangeloop Networks to exit, while maintaining the title of “Best Employer in British Columbia” for five consecutive years. Edwards said the fact that “Jonathan has the benefit of having built companies, built teams, having an established international network, and is already mentoring a number successful Canadian companies in Canada, means he’s coming at this from a much higher and stable place than from what I was coming from.”

They both see the entrepreneurial landscape shifting in a more positive direction, citing the value of some key assets we have in Canada. For instance, the federal government has put $400 million towards the Federal Venture Capital Action Program, then further investing in the whole cycle by allocating $100 million towards early stage tech (GrowLab is a beneficiary). Additionally there’s the important partnership role played by the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), and the federal government also committing another $60 million to the IRAP-CAIP funding program, which could help the likes of Launch Academy, BCTIA, BCIC or WaveFront. Bixby and Edwards said “there’s a community that wants to support growth and talent.”

To that Edwards answered, what can we do better? By suggesting “everyday we can dream bigger. We don’t need to ask anything of anyone else, we need to ask ourselves, how we can do this better, how can we do this faster, how can we leverage these great assets availed to us, because there’s more than enough”

From Bixby’s personal perspective, “once you have a safe place to start something, it’s not as difficult to reach to the next level. This location (GrowLab & Launch Academy) is an example of such a place. Vancouver’s starting way further ahead now than when I launched my first startup. You can look back at a couple of big successes like CREO or MDA, but there was a huge gap after that. Now we’re seeing the gap filled by companies like Hootsuite, Vision Critical, Build Direct. There’s the potential for going public or raising bigger rounds of financing, and it’s setting an example to younger entrepreneurs that this can be done in Vancouver. Seeing success at the top of the market will help pull everyone up.”

“We’re trying to foster the attitude and belief that “hey, it’s okay to be an entrepreneur,” said Bixby. He adds “it’s fulfilling, it can sometimes be lucrative, and you only live once… so we’re trying to create a sense that it’s something to aspire to instead of being fearful of.” The theme of the conversation played back to the importance of creating an environment where it feels safe to try, to test, to fail, and possibly even rinse and repeat a few times.

Given the investments being made, it’s fair asking if someone’s a born entrepreneur or whether entrepreneurship can be taught. Edwards was unequivocal. “Absolutely we can teach it,” he said. “At the core it’s about execution. It’s about putting a team together, executing against bigger and bigger goals, it’s an iterative process, that can be taught, can be analyzed, can be studied, can be ripped apart, and has a metric analysis to it. If you can execute everyday (ascribe to Kaizen) constant improvement you will build a successful company.”

We agreed that it’s also time to reconfigure our view of the entrepreneur life. It’s time to quit reading the headlines, and to quit buying into the myth of glory, overnight success and riches. While encouraging the pursuit, Bixby also has the scars to prove that entrepreneurship “is hard, bloody work; it’s sacrifice.”

GrowLab will grow. More importantly, the current and future cohorts will keep benefiting from a healthy dose of realism too.

This story first appeared in BetaKit