How license plate recognition (LPR) technology and the Cloud will improve efficiency and provide better passenger services at airports
This week’s interview is with Grant Furlane, CEO of LocoMobi. Grant has over 35 years of experience as an entrepreneur in the technology sector, specializing in the parking, transportation, cloud computing and network security industries. He has been involved in over 600 million dollars of technology investments and was contracted to lead several initiatives for large public IT companies. He aggressively built three transportation technology companies that established the vanguard for tracking and monitoring vehicle movement, and developed and sold integrated control systems for major airports, hospitals and parking lot management companies.
Q: How did you get started and what got you going?
I’ve never really worked for anybody. I came right into being an entrepreneur from day one. But what got me into infrastructure – believe it or not, this is about 25-30 years ago now – is that I felt we were in trouble. At that time, I was really intrigued with the world of transportation, congestion, and how we were going to deal with the problems I’d already seen in places in Europe. I had co-founded the World Symposium of Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) in my late 20s, early 30s and there were three of us involved then. I think that forum has now grown to a membership of about 10,000 strong.
At that time, it was my feeling that to be more efficient in the transportation sector, we had to find ways to be more efficient in moving cars and people. And so, during the first 20-25 years of my career I developed companies that revolved around being more efficient in moving cars and parking cars, which is now leading me into an area that I have always had a passion for – how to manage the transportation infrastructure.
The problem was not that it couldn’t be done, but that the technology just did not exist to form the needed communications infrastructure. As it is still today, if you want to go from one building to another, you’ve got to go into a parking garage and take a ticket or use an ID card. If you want to go to yet another building, you will need yet another ID card because it could have a different building owner, and a different parking garage operator. If you go onto a toll highway, you need yet another pass. When you get on public transit, you need another pass….
Alternatively, if I could find a token as a unique identifier that you could pass around, then you wouldn’t need multiple passes. So, 20-25 years ago the only token available that could be moved around was a license plate. The problem was that the technology to get read rates high enough to make this plausible did not exist. So, for years and years I worked on different algorithms to improve performance – both in terms of speed and accuracy of license plate recognition (LPR.)
Then more recently, the cloud came about which allows a plate to be recognized anywhere, anytime, in real time. Both technologies had to work together for this to really work. And that is, scan a number plate – the unique identifier – and move it around via the cloud.
While I had been developing all the hardware, there was no enterprise hardware that could connect to the cloud directly. So, I designed and built it all – the payment terminals, the payment kiosks, etc., so that we could have an integrated solution. At the same time a fellow named Barney Pell, who is one of the most innovative people in the world, was working on a mobile way for people to pay for transportation and he started with parking as well. However, he was not getting any traction. He had heard about me and got in touch. I looked at his business plan, and said “the software is good but you will need to pivot to a different plan to hit the expected numbers” So, I helped him design some technology that would work with his software and we went out and patented the thing we called Card Kit and Gate Kit, which essentially allowed a cellular phone to find your location, and then when you pay, open the door or a gate.
We now started to see revenue, but it wasn’t very big. So, Barney then convinced me to merge and we formed what is now LocoMobi. A month later in May 2014 we went to the TiE50, which is Silicon Valley’s premier annual awards show for early stage technology startups, and we won. This followed with 2nd place in the “Smart Building” International Startup Competition in Nantong, China. This confirmed that we had leading edge technology as a startup, and so we went out to implement, not forgetting that my goal had always been to be in parking, transit and tolling – anything to do with managing people and transit, cars, trucks, toll highways, and parking. As we’ve become successful on the parking side, landing two huge contracts with Park ‘N Fly and WallyPark for airport parking, we were offered a tender that no one else could do, which was for the Chicago Skyway Toll Bridge – a 7.8-mile-long toll road built in 1958 that connects the Indiana Toll Road to the Dan Ryan Expressway on Chicago’s South Side. This launched us into tolling one year earlier than planned. And, we have now launched transit applications just a month ago.
Q: What got you interested in the airport scene?
I’ve always felt that the airport environment was a distinct and different market all on its own, because it has so many moving pieces. Airports are becoming smart cities themselves. Although I could tackle the airport environment for parking, I felt this was too limiting. An airport is very big in retail, it’s very big in customer service, it very big in parking, and it’s very big in so many other things like media and advertising. I’ve been holding back because I want to offer an integrated solution that makes sense for an airport to want to invest. And so, we’ve set out to build upon what we already have as infrastructure, so that we can manage not just parking, but ground-side and air-side transportation.
And there is security, which also can be managed with the same infrastructure. We’ve come from reading license plates to smart plates, for which we use artificial intelligence – machine learning – so, why can’t we go further? And so, we started a new company called Quest Intelligent Technologies that is one of the first companies out with machine vision technology – or artificial vision or vision intelligence – that provides automatic imaging-based inspection and analysis. This involves using cameras and giving them intelligence to see more than we can see with our eyes. By seeing the constant flow of people and/or cars we are able to see differences or anomalies that allows it to be predictable.
The technology is now at a level that we can see so intensively into something that it can actually layer itself into hard matter. For example, the vision intelligence cameras that we’re testing now can get about seven layers into your clothing. So, let’s pretend a guy walked into the airport in today’s world and had a gun. We would catch that as soon as he walked into the airport. Forget the security screening areas. You can’t afford to do that with all the people milling around. You need to catch the suspect right upon entry. So, this is using CCTV and vision intelligence. It allows us to see things and predict things. In addition to that, I can cover the entire ground side. Why is that car circling over and over? Why is that FedEx truck there for three hours when it’s supposed to be there only three minutes? With all this different information, you can manage the ground side traffic movements.
And, of course the parking is obvious – it’s what we do now. For example, what happens to my car when I drop it off at the valet service? Does it actually get to the garage? We make sure it does. As soon as we take a picture of the plate, we are watching for that car to enter the garage. We can make sure no one’s switching cars and doing things they shouldn’t be doing. Again, all this data is hosted and shared in the cloud.
Likewise, on the airside we can track assets. Why are there three planes in this area on the tarmac? Why is this delivery truck where it shouldn’t be? We can do this since from quite a distance we can read serial numbers, and we can even visualize differences associated with the asset. Like, why are there three people on that cart when there should only be one? With vision intelligence and machine learning, the possibilities are endless in creating what we can call a smart airport, just like the smart city concept. With the smart city, data are collected from citizens and devices using sensors integrated with real-time monitoring systems, that are then processed and analyzed. The information and knowledge gathered are then used to tackle inefficiency, and enhance safety and security. Technology and digitalization has allowed this to become a reality. It’s a great story.
Q: What are some of the bigger challenges that you’re facing in implementing this vision?
For a person like me who’s always working on the edge, the biggest challenge I have is in introducing change. People are very, very nervous about making changes. And airports have probably been the hardest. Most feel secure when everything is hardwired throughout the airport. Cloud computing as an IT paradigm is still not readily accepted, while for most businesses if you don’t go to the cloud, you’re probably not going to be in business for long. There’s been a real challenge at the middle management level and in the IT departments to accept where everything’s going. By going to the cloud, in many cases, you can eliminate half the IT department. Making such a move can make the operation twice as efficient. The return’s immediate as far as the investment is concerned. And the results for the operation are even better. Now you’re getting real time information and the ability to predict stuff. However, because it can be such a complicated presentation, we really need to get to the right people to show them what the technology can do for them. Then again, five years ago I couldn’t convince people to use LPR for parking management. Now it’s the standard in every single request for proposal (RFP.) People thought I was crazy at the time!
Q: The RFP process – it’s one of those things you come up against when you’re dealing with government organizations, which airports are for the most part. What’s been your experience with this procurement culture?
It’s primitive. Let me tell you why. You have people who have all this infrastructure already built in the airport, and they’re afraid to move away from it. So, when it comes to procurement, they end up asking leading edge technology companies to move backwards! They will ask vendors for a certain technology because that’s what they have. And they have relationships with the people who put that in. But here’s the biggest problem. And we all see this all the time. Typically, in order to bid on an RFP, you must reference up to five installations that have been running for five years, etc. Well, this means that you will have legacy technology. It’s like saying, “If you have anything new and innovative, you can’t bid it.” I come across this time and time again. The innovative companies that can provide most value in terms of new concepts and technologies are simply not given the opportunity to enter the market, because of this old-style procurement practice of very prescriptive RFPs.
Q: How have you been able to get around that? Would partnerships or joint ventures with established companies be a way forward for you?
Absolutely. Our approach has been to go out and talk to innovative owners; people who have money in the game. When you are a startup or inventor, you need partners not just customers who are prepared to work the good and the bad with you. Because there are tough times when you’re developing technology. Whether it be Bill Gates of Microsoft, or Steve Job of Apple, or Henry Ford, it doesn’t matter. You are going to fail and gain, fail and gain. But when you have partners who believe you can get to the goal line, it makes all the difference. So, we said, “Okay, let’s go after innovative clients – clients who would listen.” And, we also decided to pick up a couple of big ones.
So, the first one I went after was Park ‘N Fly in Canada. Why? Well, I knew who they were, they knew me, and they were bought by CKI, one of the biggest infrastructure funds in the world. As a result, it didn’t take much more than three weeks to convince them to go with LPR, automated payment, mobile transactions, everything, and all cloud-based. So, we probably concluded one of the biggest parking contracts ever, in short time, covering every major city in the country.
Now that we had a reference from seven city airports, we went south and did the same thing with a company called Wally Park that is actually bigger than Park ‘N Fly and we got 21 locations in the US. Technology acceptance is usually the biggest challenge, but suddenly we were gaining traction and the reaction I was getting was, “We get it, Grant. We’re prepared to take the risk.” What got us there quicker than most startups is that we got validation. We won the TiE50 for having one of the best technologies in the world. Then a week later, we won the Smart City competition in China. So, that was the route we took. Further, we created probably the most incredible board there is of any small company, and we brought in people from the industry. That gets you business and that’s what you have to do as a startup. Today – only two and a half years later and now with 40 employees – when I’m bidding for a contract, I have prime, platinum references.
We are still called a startup, but we don’t operate like one. We grew much quicker. We hit profitability near the end of our second year. It’s a much different company today. And all my other companies operate the exact same models – they all have one thing in common. They all can manage on my infrastructure.
Q: What would be your top three bits of advice you would have for any future entrepreneur?
The biggest one – and I’m going to write a book on it – is the word ‘Entrepreneur’. Don’t use it lightly. Entrepreneur doesn’t mean raising a bunch of money and spending it. You have to live it. You have to sacrifice. You really need to feel it, and have the passion, and that’s what a lot of people lack.
An entrepreneur is not a guy who goes and buys a Mac’s Milk or a 7-11. That’s a small business owner. An entrepreneur is a guy who has an idea, and literally will do what he has to do to make it a reality. When I met my wife, I was living in a campground, by choice. I had no money and I wanted to develop my first idea. I wasn’t trying to raise money so I could buy a $3 million-dollar house. That’s not an entrepreneur.
The second thing I’d tell everybody – and this very important – failure is not an option, because there’s no such thing. People will ridicule you and say, “He’s crazy.” You don’t fail. You experience. Everything you do, you build upon. And if you keep the focus, if you truly do it, I mean really keep the focus, you’ll get there. But then it goes back to what is a real entrepreneur? It’s a guy who won’t give up. He’ll be the last guy standing in the plant. He’ll be the guy at home working because he had to lay everyone off. If you don’t give up, there’s no such thing as failure. Most people don’t realize that 99 percent of the companies that fail didn’t realize how close they were to success. They just gave up. Unbelievably, they were almost there. But, that last one percent is the killer for all of us. I’ve never felt I had to give up, ever. There’s always a way.
And the last point is the most important. Be prepared to pivot. I don’t care how good you think your idea is. Don’t stick to it just because you think it’s great, and it has to happen. Don’t be afraid to pivot. Some of the greatest companies in the world started out with one thing, but found another opportunity through it and pivoted, and subsequently were very successful.