Tag: Entrepreurship

The Beauty of Simplicity

Read Time: 3 minutes

And what it can mean for your business or organisation

Last week I wrote about the difference between the complicated and the complex, and its implications for your approach to introducing change, which requires leadership more than it does management skill. However, the implications are even more profound than this.

In an increasingly complex world punctuated by rapid and disruptive change, organizations must become more flexible, agile and nimble, and let go of centralized hierarchical command-and-control styles of management. Individual behaviors and decisions in reaction to the unpredictable are rather more important than executive strategies and organisational plans that rely on predictability to be effective. Individual leadership and self-organization suddenly become more important than management control. Encouraging conflict and change become necessary – even to the extent of testing the stability of the organisation – in order to cultivate a culture of creativity and innovation.

But there is a problem. If organisations in today’s world are to operate at the edge of chaos, how can they maintain a balance between flexibility and stability to avoid from failing? Without clear plans and directives, how can individuals in organizations make decisions in today’s information-saturated and rapidly-changing business environment? By determining what’s important and what’s not. By freeing yourself from complexity and committing to simplicity.

Simplicity – the art of reducing the complex to its simple essence – can give you the power to get stuff done, to be more effective, to be more efficient, and ultimately, to create more value. Many books have been written about this, in fields as diverse as theology and spirituality, to psychology, ecology and biology, design and architecture, communication and politics, as well as business theory and strategy. In business, it has been observed that those companies that are most successful, are not only market leaders, but have also embraced the principle of simplicity. However, achieving simplicity is not easy. As Steve Jobs once observed, “Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

As identified by Richard Koch in his book entitled Simplify and co-authored with Greg Lockwood, there are two ways simplification can be achieved – through price simplification or through proposition simplification. With price simplification, you are dramatically reducing the price of the product or service by making its delivery simpler, thereby reducing its cost. Think of Southwest Airlines or Ryanair – one class travel with no frills, a fleet comprised of one aircraft-type, service to secondary airports, and direct selling to customers. Think of Henry Ford and the Model T. Think of McDonald’s and fast food. Think of IKEA and functional inexpensive furniture. Think of Inditex of the Zara brand and fast fashion….

With proposition simplification, you are providing a product or service that is simple, easy to use and intuitive, and generally appealing, which can create an entirely new market and ecosystem. Think of Apple and its iMac, iPhone, iPod, iPad, and more recently the iWatch. Think of Amazon that pioneered on-line book sales for a more convenient consumer experience, which was enhanced by book reviews and suggestions and easy “1-click” payment. It has gone on to create a massive on-line marketplace that allows other sellers to participate and now offers a wide range of products for sale.

This is the power of simplicity in business – making the complex more simple, and creating value and new markets. By working smarter, not harder, by creating more flexible and adaptive organizations, and by creating more compelling experiences for consumers, companies can find new paths to growth and prosperity.

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” – Leonardo da Vinci

Lessons from the Demise of a Venerable Pâtisserie

Read Time: 2 minutes


Anyone who has been to Montreal will know it to be the gastronomic capital of Canada, if not North America. Of course, many other cities have their fine eateries, but Montreal boasts a great variety and diversity in establishments, from expensive Michelin-starred gourmet and nouvelle cuisine restaurants, to bistro-bars, coffee and pastry shops, bagel shops, and international cuisine the world over – Italian, Portuguese, Spanish tapas, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, not to mention the Irish and British pubs sprinkled throughout.

It is a fiercely competitive food scene, with celebrity chefs and restaurateurs vying for your palate, and there is therefore tremendous churn, with establishments folding and new ones popping up on a regular basis. Yet, there are those venerable establishments that have survived for decades. So, it came as a shock to many Montrealers when Pâtisserie de Cascogne closed its doors today after 60 years in the business.

Founded in 1957 by Francis Cabanes and his wife Lucie, who had emigrated from France, de Gascogne was Montreal’s preeminent pâtisserie whose reputation was well-known, especially during its heyday in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Renowned as a classic French pâtisserie, de Gascogne was the place to go to order a cake for that special occasion like a wedding or birthday, and during the Christmas season for a Bûche de Noël.

However, something was amiss the last decade or so. Certainly, les Montréalais have become more health conscious, opting for less fattening and sweet foods. Then came new competitors like Au Pain Doré and Première Moisson that specialised in bread, but also offered cakes and pastries at lower prices. And, countless other innovative pâtisseries and chocolateries sprang up in the city, offering their own specialities for which they became renowned. Comparatively, de Cascogne was expensive and had lost its edge. Most significantly, its sales staff had become rather snooty and aloof, a sure sign that it had rested on its laurels far too long. And herein lies some lessons for any business:

  1. Always remain on the cutting edge of innovation;
  2. Always remain close to your clients; and
  3. Always serve your clients well.

My Top Reads of 2017

Read Time: 7 minutes

As 2017 draws to a close, I reflected on some of the books I’ve read that offered new insights and perspectives on life and career. Here are the 10 must-reads I believe have the potential to transform your life and take your business to the next level.

  1. Principles: Life and Work, by Ray Dalio – September 19, 2017

In 1975, Ray Dalio founded an investment firm, Bridgewater Associates, out of his two-bedroom apartment in New York City. Forty years later, Bridgewater has made more money for its clients than any other hedge fund in history. Along the way, Dalio discovered a set of unique principles that have led to Bridgewater’s exceptionally effective culture, which he describes as “an idea meritocracy that strives to achieve meaningful work and meaningful relationships through radical transparency.” It is these principles – and not anything special about Dalio – that he believes are the reason behind his success. The book’s practical lessons, which are built around his cornerstones of “radical truth” and “radical transparency,” include the most effective ways for individuals and organizations to make decisions, approach challenges, and build strong teams. Principles offers a clear, straightforward approach to decision-making that Dalio believes anyone can apply, no matter what they’re seeking to achieve.

  1. Superconnect: Harnessing the Power of Networks and the Strength of Weak Links, by Richard Koch and Greg Lockwood – August 2, 2011

What’s so special about the rich and famous? Unusually successful people often think they’ve done well because of their talent or luck – or simple grit and hard work. But individual characteristics matter far less than the social connections we exploit. And counterintuitively, it’s our weak links — your neighbour’s landscaper or that ad agency guy you happened to meet at your sister’s birthday party last year — that matter most of all. Drawing on research from the fields of sociology, mathematics, and physics, internationally bestselling author and entrepreneur Richard Koch and his co-author Greg Lockwood show how networks impact our everyday lives. Rich with entertaining anecdotes and written in Richard Koch’s trademark conversational style, Superconnect reveals the hidden patterns behind everyday events. Most importantly, it shows how any of us can increase the chances of happy outcomes in our own lives, careers, or businesses.

  1. Trust Factor: The Science of Creating High-Performance Companies, by Paul Zak – January 27, 2017

For decades, alarms have sounded about declining employee engagement. Yet companies continue to struggle with toxic cultures, and the low productivity and unhappiness that go with them. Why is ‘culture’ so difficult to change and improve? What makes so many good employees check out? Neuroscientist Paul Zak shows that innate brain functions hold the answers, and it all boils down to trust. When someone shows you trust, a feel-good jolt of oxytocin surges through your brain and triggers you to reciprocate. This simple mechanism creates a perpetual trust-building cycle, which is-the key to changing stubborn workplace patterns. Drawing on his original research, Zak teases out science-backed insights for building high-trust organizations. Whereas employee engagement programs and monetary rewards are merely Band-Aid solutions, Trust Factor opens a window on how brain chemicals affect behavior, why trust gets squashed, and ways to consciously stimulate it by celebrating effort, sharing information, promoting ownership, and more.

  1. Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t, by Simon Sinek – May 23, 2017

Imagine a world where almost everyone wakes up inspired to go to work, feels trusted and valued during the day, then returns home feeling fulfilled. This is not a crazy, idealized notion. Today, in many successful organizations, great leaders create environments in which people naturally work together to do remarkable things. In his work with organizations around the world, Simon Sinek noticed that some teams trust each other so deeply that they would literally put their lives on the line for each other. Other teams, no matter what incentives are offered, are doomed to infighting, fragmentation and failure. Why? The answer became clear during a conversation with a Marine Corps general. “Officers eat last,” he said. Great leaders sacrifice their own comfort – even their own survival – for the good of those in their care. From the author and motivational speaker who brought us the bestseller “Start With Why”, Sinek illustrates his ideas with fascinating true stories that range from the military to big business, from government to investment banking.

  1. Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of NIKE, by Phil Knight – April 26, 2016

In this candid and riveting memoir, Phil Knight – the man behind the swoosh – shares the inside story of his company’s early days as an intrepid start-up and its evolution into one of the world’s most iconic, game-changing, and profitable brands. In 1962, fresh out of business school and determined to start his own business, Phil Knight borrowed $50 from his father and created a company with a simple mission: import high-quality, low-cost athletic shoes from Japan. Selling the shoes from the trunk of his car, Knight grossed $8,000 his first year. Today, Nike’s annual sales top $30 billion. In his book, Knight details the many risks and daunting setbacks that stood between him and his dream, and recalls the formative relationships with his first partners and employees, a ragtag group of misfits and seekers who harnessed the power of a shared mission and a deep belief in the spirit of sport. In an age of start-ups, Nike is the ne plus ultra of all start-ups, and the swoosh has become a revolutionary, globe-spanning icon, one of the most ubiquitous and recognizable symbols in the world today. It also brought back memories of my own years as a high school track athlete and cross-country runner.

  1. Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, by Adam Grant – February 7, 2017

In Originals, Adam Grant addresses the challenge of improving the world, from the perspective of becoming original: choosing to champion novel ideas and values that go against the grain, battle conformity, and buck outdated traditions. Using surprising studies and stories spanning business, politics, sports, and entertainment, Grant explores how to recognize a good idea, speak up without getting silenced, build a coalition of allies, choose the right time to act, and manage fear and doubt; how parents and teachers can nurture originality in children; and how leaders can build cultures that welcome dissent. The take-away is a set of ground-breaking insights about rejecting conformity and improving the status quo.

  1. The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers, by Ben Horowitz – March 4, 2014

Ben Horowitz, cofounder of Andreessen Horowitz and one of Silicon Valley’s most respected and experienced entrepreneurs, offers essential advice on building and running a start-up — some practical wisdom for managing the toughest problems business schools do not cover. While many people talk about how great it is to start a business, very few are honest about how difficult it is to run one. Ben Horowitz analyzes the problems that confront leaders every day, sharing the insights he’s gained developing, managing, selling, buying, investing in, and supervising technology companies. This book is invaluable for veteran entrepreneurs as well as those aspiring to their own new ventures.

  1. The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell – January 7, 2002

The initial inspiration for Gladwell’s first book came from the sudden drop of crime in New York City, in which he sought to explain similar phenomena through the lens of epidemiology. While a reporter for The Washington Post, Gladwell covered the AIDS epidemic and took notice that epidemiologists had a “strikingly different way of looking at the world”. The term “tipping point” comes from the moment in an epidemic when the virus reaches critical mass and begins to spread at a much higher rate. Just as a single sick person can start an epidemic of the flu, so too can a small but precisely targeted push cause a fashion trend, the popularity of a new product, or a drop in the crime rate. The tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold – or tips – and spreads like wildfire, and it has changed the way people think about selling products and disseminating ideas.

  1. Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future, by Peter Senge, C. Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski, and Betty Sue Flowers – January 15, 2008

Presence is an intimate look at the nature of transformational change – how it arises, and the fresh possibilities it offers a world dangerously out of balance. The book introduces the idea of “presence” – a concept borrowed from the natural world that the whole is entirely present in any of its parts – to the worlds of business, education, government, and leadership. Too often, the authors found, we remain stuck in old patterns of seeing and acting. By encouraging deeper levels of learning, we can create an awareness of the larger whole, leading to actions that can help to shape its evolution and our future. The book goes on to define the capabilities that underlie our ability to see, sense, and realize new possibilities – in ourselves, in our institutions and organizations, and in society itself. Presence is both revolutionary in its exploration and hopeful in its message.

  1. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari – October 31, 2017

From the author of the international bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind comes an extraordinary new book that explores the future of the human species. Over the past century humankind has managed to do the impossible and rein in famine, plague, and war. This may seem hard to accept, but famine, plague and war have been transformed from incomprehensible and uncontrollable forces of nature into manageable challenges. For the first time ever, more people die from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals put together. What then will replace famine, plague, and war at the top of the human agenda? As the self-made gods of planet earth, what destinies will we set for ourselves, and which quests will we undertake? The book explores the projects, dreams and nightmares that will shape the twenty-first century – from overcoming death to creating artificial life. And, it asks the fundamental questions: Where do we go from here? And how will we protect this fragile world from our own destructive powers? This is the next stage of evolution. This is Homo Deus (the human God.)

The Building Blocks for Smart Airports

Read Time: 10 minutes

Grant Furlane, CEO of LocoMobi

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.

Aviation – An Industry Ripe for Disruption

Read Time: 11 minutes

How a technology company is revolutionizing aviation efficiency through better data management

This week’s Vantage Point interview is with Ian Painter of Snowflake Software, an award-winning provider of cloud and on-premise software solutions for the aviation industry, which he co-founded with Eddie Curtis in 2001. Its Laminar Data Platform is the world’s first commercial software platform dedicated to fusing, cleaning and organizing the world’s aviation data and making it available in real time. Ian and Eddie had been working for Ordnance Survey of the UK for several years before they decided to go off on your own to start Snowflake Software.

Q:  What got you started and what was the problem you were trying to solve?

So, it’s quite an interesting story really. My whole career’s been involved in data management, and at Ordnance Survey – the UK’s national mapping agency, which is the equivalent of the US Geological Survey – Eddie and I led a flagship program called OS MasterMap, which provides highly-detailed geographic data of anything bigger than 20 centimeters on the ground. So that’s a database with nearly a billion features in it. At the time, we built the largest spatial database in the world.

When the program was delivered in 2001 we resigned from our jobs to set up Snowflake, but the interesting part of the story is we actually resigned on September 11, 2001 which was quite a monumental day to start your own business. I mean, in the morning everybody was gossiping in the office that Eddie and I had resigned, and then in the afternoon the actual realization of what had happened in the Twin Towers brought everything down to a big bump. My boss at the time instantly said, “Well, the industry is going to collapse,” and it did. The IT industry in the UK pretty much collapsed within about three or four days. The consulting day rates and everything just tumbled.

But we decided to push on. We were very niche, focused on managing map data in big spatial databases. It was really the first time people were considering maps as data that could be analyzed and queried to get business insight from. This was a substantial change from when digital maps were just and efficient way to print paper maps. This is very similar to aviation, where you have a huge amount of aeronautical data, the sole purpose of which is to print a paper AIP (Aeronautical Information Publication), or a paper chart. Aviation hadn’t yet taken that journey, moving from products or paper publications to actual data sets – and aviation is still in the midst of that transition.

When we started we were very focused on local government in the UK – nothing to do with aviation. It was all about managing spatial data and databases and we created our first software product on the back of the work we’d done at Ordnance Survey. The idea was that anybody who knew something about databases could use our software product to manage spatial data and anybody who knew something about spatial data could use databases to manage it.

So, it was like trying to glue those two fields together that previously had been very separate. We were trying to bring spatial information closer to mainstream IT standards, rather than spatial information needing its own types of databases and its own type of software, which at the time they called “GIS,” geographical information systems. We were just saying, “You’ve got all these things like an object-relational database management system as developed by Oracle, and they have started introducing location-based data types, so why would you need something special? People don’t think that a string or a number type is special, so why should spatial data be special?” We were trying to produce a product that would simplify and commoditize spatial data and make it easy for people to manage.

And, we had a reasonable go at that. I mean, Snowflake started in 2001 and for the first 11 years we were 15 people doing around 1.5 million in turnover. It was doing okay for a business, but it wasn’t really growing; we were adding about one or two people a year.

Then we got to the stage where FAA and Eurocontrol were looking to introduce more standardization, the whole idea being how we could bring more mainstream technologies and non-industry players into the industry to try and expand the supply base and create more efficiencies. When you come from the outside and look at the air traffic management (ATM) industry, it’s incredibly proprietary. And it’s got a very, very narrow supply base.

So we applied and worked in some research programs where FAA and Eurocontrol were actively looking for players who weren’t currently in the aviation space, to work with a whole load of new standards they were planning. And we were able to – at the time – take our technology from the UK local government space, and within four or five days adapt it to work with some of the new aeronautical standards.

Once we did that and found how easy it was – mainly because FAA and Eurocontrol were taking the step to try and make things simpler and more mainstream – we started to think, “The aviation industry is incredibly proprietary. It’s very monopolistic. It’s very ripe to be disrupted. It has a huge amount of inefficiencies, and it’s very behind the technology curve.” And so, we were looking at that, thinking “It’s a global market, and growing. And, it’s much better funded than UK local government, which is getting budget cuts year on year.” There was much more of an opportunity to make a big difference, both from a financial perspective, but also from a societal need to drive efficiency and drive down environmental impact – all these things, by applying what is basically mainstream IT best practice. And so, we saw that opportunity and then jumped into it. And that’s how we got into the aviation space.

Q:  What was the early success story in terms of getting your “foot in the door” in the aviation industry?

We started doing bits of research for Eurocontrol, building prototypes for the new standards. And, then the SESAR Joint Undertaking created a competition called “SWIM Masterclass.” So, we approached NATS saying that we would like to work with them on this. At the time, they had an idea for extended arrivals management, which was an idea of creating an open interface on top of the Heathrow AMAN System and then sharing that data in a standard way to adjacent ATC centers (dubbed the XMAN project.)

To get a foot in the door, we offered to do that work for free. I think it cost us about 60,000 pounds to build the prototype, and NATS provided some subject-matter experts to help us. We built it and ended up winning the SWIM Masterclass for the first year. We had been up against some big players, we came out of left field and nobody really knew us at that time, so to win the prestigious award was amazing. We were very grateful to NATS for providing the idea, but they were also amazed at the speed with which we turned that around. We built in about five to six weeks.

The difference was that we did it in an Agile way, employing Agile SCRUM methodology to software development. NATS had never worked like that before. The idea was that we would be dropping what we call ‘thin slices’ of the system to them every two weeks, in a very transparent manner. We did three sprints, and were dropping the live system to them pretty much on a daily basis. This idea of continuous deployment and continuous integration is considered mainstream among software developers like Facebook and Google and all them use all the time.

In this scenario of developing the prototype, for which we won the award, we then went straight into a production pilot with a major UK Airline involved. We managed to get that pilot running pretty quickly, within a couple of months, and almost within another couple of months of it running, the airlines that were involved said, “Look, we’re making really good fuel savings here. You’re making a big difference to us. We want this to go to production.”

So, NATS went through an internal business case and gave us the go-ahead for the production system to build. And, about six months later we deployed that into their CTC (Corporate and Technical Center), which is their production environment. So, we’d gone from research idea to production deployment in a span of nine months. From an industry perspective, this was just unheard of.

And then, the XMAN project won a whole lot of awards and got media attention, because anybody’s who’s flown into London just hates going round and round in circles in the traffic stacks. I think we saved five million pounds of fuel for the airlines in the first year, which are a huge fuel savings.

The whole experience showed that you could do things very quickly, just by the simple means of taking an old legacy system and wrapping it in a modern interface, enabling other airspace users to get insight into the data that previously only NATS had. By getting that insight, the adjacent ATC centers could now make simple decisions to slow down a flight, knowing that – if it were to carry on at its current speed – it will be put into a holding stack when it would enter UK airspace. So, if you slow it down earlier, it burns less fuel and it’s much better from a safety perspective. Also, from a passenger experience, it’s a much smoother flight and a lot less frustrating. And then from an airline’s perspective, they save a load of money on fuel.

From there we started really growing as a business, building smaller production systems for other ANSPs. We have been trying to move up the value chain, so to speak, each system at a time, but that was the first one.

Q:  The ATM industry is beholden to proprietary systems. Do you see that changing, now that people see the realm of opportunity?

I can definitely see that changing from when we got into the industry some four years ago. You now see several forward-thinking ANSPs such as the UAE’s GCAA, NATS, US FAA, Skyguide, DFS of Germany, Airservices Australia, and Airways New Zealand trying to open the industry up, particularly around initiatives such as SWIM (System Wide Information Management), which is mainly where we focus our business. That’s all about trying to standardize the way that data is moved from system to system and organization to organization.

As soon as you start having those open interfaces, it provides an opportunity for someone like ourselves or any new player to come into the industry. Whereas previously, because the industry was based on things like AMHS (Aeronautical Message Handling System) or AFTN (Aeronautical Fixed Telecommunication Network) for the exchange of digital data, which is a completely proprietary network technology, you had to have a physical metal box to get access to the data, which costs several thousands of pounds.

So, there’s been a natural barrier in the aviation – in the ATM space – that stops smaller or newer players from coming into the industry. For ourselves, we came in and focused on the newer parts of the industry that was much closer mainstream IT technology. So, this was standards, web services, XML, open interfaces, and the NextGen view of the world. That enabled us to start building prototypes, get quick results, and impress customers. It enabled us to build a business around a “new world view” if you’d like, the new more-open ATM space.

I think what is surprising is that we expected the industry to move towards that new world a lot faster, because you can see the savings that are possible by just buying off the shelf software used in other industries. Suddenly, for the first time you can buy something from a non-aviation provider and get a lot of economies of scale. This transition is definitely accelerating at quite a pace now, but I think we were expecting it to open up a lot quicker.

Q:  What are some of the changes that need to happen, in your opinion, in terms of the current supply base? How do you see the market evolve?

What surprises me is how narrow the supply base is. I mean the supply base is tiny. But, I think that’s definitely changing. Certainly, from our perspective, coming in with new ideas and not having any legacy is in some ways to our advantage because we can just jump straight into the new. I think that has enabled us to grow significantly in the last three years.

Q:  What does that mean for procurement practices, which can be quite cumbersome? Do you see changes there?

That’s a really good discussion point. There are two things I think: there’s the practices of procurement; and then there’s the practices of implementation – the systems engineering process that exists over the life-cycle of the safety critical or semi-safety critical systems.

When you talk about the procurement side, because the industry has been incredibly proprietary, it favors these big, monolithic boxes, whereas in most modern industries there’s a much more collaborative relationship with the supplier. It’s less arm’s length and a lot of more Agile.  Currently most RFPs in the industry are fixed-price and Waterfall contracts that define thousands of requirements upfront and only deliver the business benefit at the end when all those requirements are complete.  Given the complexity of the problems in the industry, no customer truly understands the problem in enough detail to make this successful, so more often than not the supplier has to absorb the risk of the requirements being wrong and potentially make a loss on the project. This traditional type of procurement results in a very narrow supplier base who build a different “black box” for every customer with millions of pounds of services work.

Changing the procurement practices of the industry requires a change in mindset. It’s a case of “we’ve always done it this way, so we’ll continue that way,” which actually causes a major problem for the industry, as it just permeates more black boxes that cost millions to build, tens of thousands of pounds to change and more than six months to deploy that change. So, I think we’ll see a lot of change from a technology perspective but unless the procurement and system engineering processes change around it, it’s going to hold the industry back from realizing the benefits.

Q:  What advice would you have for future entrepreneurs entering into the aviation industry?

We’ve found that it’s best to start up a business with a domain expert. Domain expertise is huge. We’re four years in and now we’re very different because we have a pilot, and an ex-air traffic controller on staff. We’ve now hired domain people, but it took us a long time to learn the domain. Technology-wise, you know there are some really interesting problems here and they’re actually really complicated. But lots of people can solve problems. Not knowing the domain it was hard, because when you come across customers they talk like everybody knows what it’s like to be an air traffic controller or a tower operator. They talk in almost a cryptic language. And if you don’t talk in that language and understand the operational domain itself, you are going to struggle. I think it took us three years to get really, really, really into the detail of understanding the operational domain. So, that certainly held us back in the beginning.

I think you also must be realistic that the larger players are going to continue to dominate the industry. There are some larger players out there that are changing and are trying to bring in change, and you must be able to work with them and respect what they bring to the table. So, certainly getting some good relationships with the big system integrators is key as well.

We are relentless at trying to change things. So now there’s getting quite a few vocal ANSPs out there trying to change the industry, and trying to commoditize it, so it’s important I think to just keep pushing on. There are different ways of doing it; you don’t have to keep doing it the same way. You know, you can do things differently and still achieve the same safety output, the same data quality that’s needed, you can still do that and trying to bring more mainstream practices or more modern practices into the industry will be a good thing for everybody. So I think that’s a key thing. You’ve got to be relentless at, for us that’s our edge, is that we’re trying to be different in the way that we deliver operational systems.

Q:  What are your future plans; what’s the next step in your journey?

We won a flagship system with the GCAA in the UAE called SWIM Gateway, which will be a key piece of regional infrastructure for the Middle East. It’ll bring together the three main carriers of the Middle East with six airports and several other key stakeholders to create an information exchange hub.

That’s keeping us busy right now. From there we’re starting to get more involved in linking airports and airlines and ANSPs together. Previously, we had been focused on ANSPs only, and we’re starting to get good traction in that market right now. But it’s very important, we think, to start bringing in A-CDM by linking airports to ANSPs and airlines to airports. So, we’re expanding our core business out by trying to link those three together.

From a research perspective, we’re very interested in the data analytics side of things. There are a lot of people doing that, but it’s interesting because we’re working a lot on harmonizing multiple sources of data from lots of different organizations into one source. Because the industry has been very siloed, once you have the harmonization standards you can start bringing data together and running analytics on the data. That’s never been done before. And, it can start solving some problems in a reasonably straightforward manner, using analytics tools. So, we’ve been doing quite a bit of research into that side of things.

We’re also considering a different kind of business model where we embed our technology into a partner’s, rather than solely doing direct business. So that’s something we’re experimenting with as well. There’s lots of change and lots of growth to deal with, and we’re now actively seeking investment. That’s a big change in view of the fact that we’ve grown organically, with Eddie and me still being the major shareholders. So, that’s going to change for us, but to carry on growing we need external funding to keep pushing on.

From Entrepreneur to Technology Innovator

Read Time: 12 minutes

Alex Sauriol, Co-Founder & CTO and Moodie Cheikh, Co-Founder & CEO – Searidge Technologies

Raising the level of performance in air traffic management

In this installment, I interview Alex Sauriol, Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer at Searidge Technologies. Searidge is a leading technology innovator providing remote tower and surface optimization services and solutions to airports and air navigation service providers (ANSPs) worldwide.

Q: What drove you and Moodie to do what you started with Searidge, and what was your vision at the time?

When we started the company – around 2004 – Moodie and I were neighbors and we were both working in technology. I was doing software development, and Moodie was in consulting services in the IT space. We were just coming off the tech boom, and we both wanted to start a company that we could build into a successful business. For me, there were a few things that were driving this. One, I’ve always been entrepreneurial. It’s always been about seeing a problem and fixing it. But, I think in this case I do remember us saying that if we make the jump from a stable income to a very unstable income – even a negative income in some cases – is it worth doing? Obviously, there’s the potential payoff if the company is successful, but also is the problem interesting? Is it worth solving? Because if the possibility exists that you’re going to fail, at least fail doing something that’s really interesting and has the potential to have a huge impact on an industry.

Around that time, we had about three or four different ideas, and they weren’t all related to aviation. We were heavily into peer-to-peer networking at that point. There were some different technologies that I was personally interested in, and I did see some interesting work being done around computer vision, what was then sort of a precursor to artificial intelligence (AI).

Because of the contacts we had with NAV CANADA and some of the work we were doing, aviation seemed to me like a field of opportunity…. In air traffic control specifically, there wasn’t a system that I could see that couldn’t be upgraded, in some cases significantly, with newer technology or newer methods or newer practices of development. I just thought there was a massive opportunity there – globally. The global nature of the opportunity really intrigued Moodie, as he personally was interested in creating an international company that had the potential for widespread impact.

With just the right amount of innocence and naivety that we both had, we didn’t know that you couldn’t do that or you needed wealth to do that…. We just set about bringing in some really smart and interesting former air traffic controllers from NAV CANADA and we created an advisory board, and just did pure R&D brainstorming from their point of view as in, “what are some of the challenges that you feel technology can help with?” A few opportunities were identified in that early meeting. Eventually, we narrowed in on one particular one, which was around the airport surface, and that’s what we did, and that’s what we’ve spent the next 12 plus years now doing.

Q: It sounds from what you are saying that the real challenge was in getting people to look at a situation in a different way. It’s a culture change that is required, isn’t it?

Absolutely. A lot of people talk about safety being paramount and that new concepts take a long time to introduce because of safety. I don’t think that’s true at all. When you look at banking, the sort of risk management that people involved in banking technology have to deal with is very similar. In aviation, the technology advances that are happening in aircraft today are a lot more advanced than what’s happening on the ground in air traffic control. There definitely is a challenge in fielding new technology, but I believe it has much more to do with the challenges in running a 24/7/365 operation. Banks close for weekends, aircraft get pulled for maintenance, but ATC never really goes offline and that makes introducing new technology challenging. For example, if you’re going to put something new in front of a controller, you’ve got a fairly limited amount of time, from the time that you train them on a new method or technology, to the time that they have to start using it operationally. Training time has an expiration date on it, that says if they don’t use it operationally you’ve got to train them again. So, you end up in a situation where everybody’s got to be trained very, very quickly or where the change that you make to what they are doing is so incremental that it can cap with a very minor change to their procedure.

There are interesting challenges like that, and that’s not just from the controller perspective, but also from the maintenance folks and technologists, and in some cases the management. It’s a peculiar challenge, and a lot of people who look at air traffic control from the outside will say, “that’s old and there’s a way better way of doing that today.” Well, yes, but we still haven’t solved how do we get the whole world to jump at the same time. The challenge with ADS-B[1] implementation…. We’re in year 20 of that now? It’s not because we don’t have smart people, and it’s not because we don’t know that there’s a better way of doing things. It’s just that we’ve all got to jump at the same time. You’ve got to get aircraft to equip. You’ve got to get people on the ground to receive. And, what’s the impact on procedures. So, there are always going to be challenges there.

Q: Aviation is an extremely complex system of systems, with a lot of elements to it, a lot of stakeholders, and it sounds like this risk averse culture has been your biggest obstacle. Have there been other obstacles?

Lots of industries are risk averse. Medical is risk averse, but there’s a really well-defined path to how to certify a medical device for use in a hospital. I think there’s an insularity that exists within certain areas of aviation where people become experts just because they’ve been around for a while…. a certain culture develops and it’s very hard for new ideas to get accepted. There can be a tendency toward hubris where “I know everything there is to know, and because I’ve been told I’m an expert, I’m not going to let any new ideas in.”

The other big thing is interoperability. Standards in air traffic control are not where I think they need to be. Take an example, when you talk about a complex system of systems, that’s the internet. Yet, somehow, we have this incredible innovation, and here you and I are talking. I’m using a Google phone; I have no idea what you’re using, and it just doesn’t matter to me. We’re able to communicate, and it’s because of interoperability and open standards.

In air traffic control, when you look at almost any ground-based system, you’ll typically come across some big barriers in trying to communicate with that system or interact with it or get data from it or push data to it. You’re unlikely to find a standard, globally-accepted way of doing it. If you do, it may not adhere to an international standard. And, there may be confidentiality issues, which is silly. If I am a radar manufacturer and I have an interface control document and I write “confidential” on it, that somehow the format of the radar data is a trade secret worth protecting… in 2017.

A lot of companies have made a lot of money over a long period of time by having these proprietary interfaces. That means that if you bought something from me and you want to connect my system to that other system to gain some sort of integration benefit, you have to call me up and get my secret code to figure out how to do that. If it’s only money, that would be one thing, but it’s all that additional pain of getting the vendors to work together… Take an example of runway lights at airports. Runway lights are typically purchased and installed by the airport. Obviously, they’re connected to air traffic control and operated by air traffic control, but they’re maintained by the airport. There are plenty of standards dealing with the lights themselves, but not in how they should connect to other systems. So, if we want to provide some relatively simple automation function – say, automatically adjust light intensity based on weather – we will need to somehow connect the weather system and lighting system together. In an “internet of things”/Web 2.0 world, this kind of ‘integration’ will take a developer a few days. The airport version of this story could take years depending on the lighting and weather systems involved, who owns them, who the manufacturers are and how cooperative everyone is willing to be.

The reason I bring this up is that for ATM to evolve, whether that’s through Aireon and space-based ADS-B, AI, automated lighting, dynamic airport maps for pilots, connected ATC … we must talk more about interoperability and open standards. If ever there was an industry that could really benefit from open standards, I think air traffic control is it. In fact, it’s going to become even more important because of concerns over hacking and related cyber security measures.

It feels a bit like the pre-internet era when we went from analog to digital in telecommunications. The plumbing is built. The systems are there. Now the digital foundation is laid out within ATC. We still have some structural issues to deal with around cyber security, how we should approach standards, how we should approach the life-cycle management of systems, and things like that. However, all future value that we’ll derive is going to come from the combination of data and systems. It’s not going to be from one system that’s going to come in and displace everything. It’s incredibly difficult to displace a system that’s being used. Even if it’s 20+ years old, everybody knows how to use it, everybody knows its foibles, and it’s really the least or lowest risk thing to keep that humming.

Q: With the ATM industry being as complex as it is, would you say that it is a candidate for further automation?

Absolutely. When you look at an automation example, say the “brake to vacate” concept where you can feed weather and runway condition from the ANSP or airport to the aircraft on which high speed turn-off is optimal, the aircraft lands and the correct amount of braking will be applied to achieve the most efficient outcome. That’s a great example of automation that can improve performance, and I don’t know where those trials are at, but that’s the thinking. All that automation relies on interconnectivity of systems. As this interconnectivity improves, I think we will enter a golden era of innovation and automation.

Q: What are your biggest lessons learned, and how has this influenced the vision for the future?

I think with lessons learned…. It’s a funny thing to say, but I don’t look backwards that often. I remember once describing entrepreneurship as running as fast as you can through a dark forest being chased from imaginary wolves…. So, from that perspective it’s a pretty simple lesson – keep running. However, in terms of conscious shifts I’ve made over the last 20 years – I now value unity and cohesion over anything else. It’s like, we’re on this little boat, and we started with two or three men. You can afford to get the direction wrong because you can alter the course but at the end of the day, if you’re not all rowing in the same direction things will fall apart in a way that can’t be put together again.

In practical terms this means that when I’m sitting in a meeting and there’s a divergence of opinion, do I want to be right or do I want to be united? Sometimes that’s the choice. More than once, I think that striving for unity as a general principle has been the best way to go. There is a lot of hard graft in the early years. You are leaning into the wind. You’ve got a lot of people calling you outright crazy. So, if you’re not united, it quickly can fall apart.

The other thing is, if you have persistence … if you have staying power, and a commitment to what you set out to do … I think eventually you’ll get there. The lesson I have out of that is, make sure you commit to the right thing. If you’re prepared to be successful no matter what you do, then make sure you do what you want to be successful in.

I feel lucky that I kind of fell into this field and still to this day Moodie and I care a lot about the industry we are in, the people, the dramas, the opportunities and it’s all very interesting. Aviation affects a lot of people. To the extent that we are successful, it’s very rewarding.

Today, Searidge is owned 50% by NAV CANADA and the other 50% by NATS. This is something that’s completely new for the industry where you’ve got two ANSPs that have converged on a small technology company. What’s the model for that and where’s the book that says this is how you should set up the governance and this is how you should position yourself in the marketplace. So, that’s interesting and challenging, in a positive way, where we all get to think about what is the business model for that, because I don’t know of an obvious example. If you look at the ANSPs in question, you’ve got NAV CANADA and NATS that are in fairly interesting positions themselves as privatized entities and fairly unique in terms of what they bring to the table and how they can complement each other. There’s all kinds of ways the relationship can go that we’re excited about.

And, on the technology side, with interoperability being key, I think this is where we’re entering a really interesting era. There’s the element of automation, but I think also of integration and the controller experience. If you think about AI, I think a lot of the early benefit is going to be in improving the user experience, and in our case a user might be the technologist or an air traffic controller or a supervisor.

For us, it’s about raising the overall level of performance. What tends to happen in air traffic control – in service situations – is you try to have a level of service that is within a range of your best performer and the newest controller who just joined the team. And, to maintain a level of performance you should stay within that range. Where I think AI is going to have an early impact is in raising that performance so that everybody is at the same level as the best performer.

It’s like in the last 10 years, most of us became really good at spelling. It’s not because we do spelling bees and exercises on the weekend. it’s because we have technology now that makes it difficult to send an email with misspelt words. Where we see a lot of opportunity is in performance management, specifically around safety. One of the areas we’re actively exploring, is whether there is a completely new way of imagining safety automation technology.

We have an ability now to look at big data and we’ve got access to a whole bunch of different ways of analyzing that data, in some cases in real time. So, could you – for example, based on the last two years of movement data at an airport – determine the likelihood of there being a runway incursion when a certain set of variables are in play? This happening in real time gives a supervisor the opportunity to say “wait, the conditions are ripe for a loss of separation” or an incident over in that sector, and can I do something about it before it happens? That could be a dramatic improvement to how things are done today, and that’s incredibly exciting.

Improving the basic safety performance is the goal, and when we look at a technology release, it doesn’t matter what we’re doing, it always must have a net improvement to safety and then, whatever else you may be trying to do. I think AI is a huge open field for that and we’re really excited about that. Of course, with the access to the operations staff we now have, we’re incredibly enthusiastic about that.

Q: Do you see technology firms like Searidge having a stronger role to play in the future of ATM, where there’s a power shift in the value chain, if you will, from the ANSP that has the plumbing, but doesn’t necessarily have the innovative drive to try new technologies and come up with some new solutions?

It’s an interesting way of framing it. ANSPs are not technology companies; there aren’t a lot of CTOs in our business and there aren’t many CEOs who have a technology background. I think it does highlight an interesting idea that innovation is going to come from the outside and not necessarily from the inside out. It’s an interesting problem too because even if an ANSP hires the best CTO it can find, and that person doesn’t really understand the business, it’s going to be a real challenge for him or her to move the ball forward in technology.

It took Moodie and I the better part of the last 12 years to understand the business, and we’ve just gone through almost a full technology cycle when you think about it. During the early days, we had documentation saying that there shall never be video in a control tower, whereas the situation today it’s almost a given that every ANSP at some point will be shifting to using some form of video and sensor to provide surface location information independently. That took 10 years, and we’ve learned a lot in that cycle in terms of what works and what doesn’t work. My hope is that the next cycle is going to be a lot shorter.

Q: How do you stay in front of it all in terms of changes that may come? How do you stay ahead of the curve?

I’m lucky that we have a really diverse team. We embrace diversity, and I don’t mean that in any kind of political sense. I mean this in the sense that Searidge has about 50 people who speak 23 different languages, come from a multitude of geographies and educational backgrounds, and have a variety of age ranges. So, we have this incredible diversity of thought within the company. For the longest time, I did not have an office; I kind of refused to move into an office. We have an open office concept – just to listen and hear the diversity of opinion and experiences. It’s how you can pick up on new trends and ideas.

It’s easy for us sometimes to rule out a technology and say that’s interesting, but it’s not going to have an impact…. However, some of the trends are impossible to miss. I don’t think I’m a visionary by saying AI’s going to have a huge impact. I think that one is easy to see. Same with drones, for example. That’s another easy one to recognize and there’s huge value there, and it’s another wave that really is impossible to miss. Interoperability and the impact of cyber security might be a little more subtle, but it will underpin much of the next big innovation cycle and in that respect, it’s a very exciting time to be working in this industry.

It will indeed be interesting to see what the next 5 years will bring…. Watch this space!

Entrepreneurs: Don’t fall in love with your technology

Read Time: 10 minutes

Eric Bergeron, Founder – Optosecurity and Founder & CEO – FlyScan

Fall in love with your customers to solve a need. The rest will come naturally

Ever been stuck in a long line-up at airport security and wondered how it could be sped up? Eric Bergeron did, and so founded Optosecurity in 2003, which provides the world’s first and most deployed remote screening and centralized image processing solution that helps airports reduce costs, increase throughput, and enhance security. Optosecurity has recently been acquired by Vanderlande Industries, the global market leader in logistics process automation for airports, express delivery and warehousing.  Twelve years later, Eric was at it again with FlyScan, which provides automated, airborne leak detection services for the oil and gas pipeline industry. In recent years this sector has been at the forefront of political, environmental and economic debates due to highly publicized pipeline spills, which have made future pipeline project proposals contentious. Monitoring pipelines and detecting leaks quickly (even underground) can prevent these from becoming major environmental disasters.

Q:   What drives you? What’s your vision?

I’m one of those rare breeds. I’m an engineer, but I’m not an engineer in the typical sense that most engineers are; conservative people, who look at data only. I’m more entrepreneurial, driven by gut feeling; an engineer by training, but first and foremost, I’m a business guy. When I did my engineering studies in the 90’s, I already knew I was going to be a businessman, not a researcher or an engineer in a big company. I preferred to learn engineering at school, and then learn financial mathematics after, rather than the other way around where you do a business degree and then people try to explain to you quantum physics and you’re clueless. I preferred to do the hard part first, and then the easier part… when you’ve done nuclear physics, financial math is a joke after that.

I love technology. There needs to be a high content of technology in the business. That’s what excites me. That being said, I’m a very versatile person. The first 12 years of my life I was in telecommunications, the second 12 years of my life I was in airport security with Optosecurity, and now I’m entering the pipeline integrity phase of my career with FlyScan. So, this is the third phase of my career, right now.

Q:   Is there a common thread between those different phases?

A common thread is solving a need. Solving a problem in the industry, and doing it with a high-tech solution that nobody else has done before. I like to be a pioneer. I like to be a first mover, even though it typically means receiving all the arrows and daggers in the back. But still, I like to be at the front. I like to be at the leading edge of technology and business model. I like new technology, and I like new business models.

Q:   How do you find out what are some of the pain points or problems that need solving – that’s the essence of entrepreneurship, isn’t it?

Yes, the first time I did it was with Opto, which was more like a gut feeling – “let’s try that”. I think there was something, because it was like a year or two after 9/11, so security screening was a problem. I spoke to some people at the airport here in Quebec City and I saw that at the checkpoint they had no software to help detect a threat. So, my gut feeling was that, “hey, there’s something to be done here”. That was after I was introduced to the research center at INO in Quebec City, the National Optics Institute. I said, “Okay, you have a solution to recognize objects at high speed. They don’t have this at the airport security checkpoint, so I’m sure there’s something to do here.” It is very much like that for most entrepreneurs; like many, I’m sure I have ADHD, an impulsive personality, and gut feeling driven, so I said, “Okay, let’s do this.”

The second time around, I was much more disciplined. Maybe because of all the pain and the difficulty we had at Opto, which ended up successful, but it was rough. It was a rough ride at times. So the second time around, I met again with INO and they offered me a series of technologies, and I said, “This time around I will document first, if there’s a real need….. Not be an engineer who falls in love with technology, and that there must be something to do with it.”

This time I did it the other way around. So, when INO showed me a list of technologies the second time around they had just finished a project for an airborne sensor to detect oil pipeline leaks. So, before I really started FlyScan, I hired a consultant to do some research because I had money. I also went down to Houston, and met with CEO’s and VP’s of pipeline operators to document whether there was a real need. “Is this something that you would like to buy? Is this something that you need? And if you need it, do you already have it? Or, if you don’t have it, will you buy it?” The last question I asked them was, “do you care? Or, do you think it’s irrelevant? And finally, if you think you would never buy it, let me know right now, and I will move on to something else.”

So, the second time around I had a gut feeling, but I took the time and spent the money to validate if there was a real business need and I talked to the business decision-makers,…. for whom technology doesn’t matter; what matters is the end result. I asked them, “Do you have that? And if you don’t have that, will you buy it?” So that’s what I did the second time around.

Q:   This is the second startup for you – what are some of the key challenges to running a startup?

The first one, of course, is to find your purpose. So, what is your purpose? When you start a company, you start a company for a reason, not just because it’s cool. So, you must find a need that you wish to fulfill, the solution that you need to bring, for which there is no solution out there. Then you need to validate that, and once it’s validated, then you need to execute on building it, and selling it. What I found out is that technology is always cool. The hard thing is never the technology. The hard thing is raising the money, and then selling it. Sales is always the most difficult thing to do. The technology, if you mix talent and money together, it will work eventually. The hardest thing is to convince a customer that it’s worth taking money out of their pocket. When you start, you need to validate the market, talk to customers, and then put in place a financial plan to execute. So, where we are right now; we validated the market, we validated the technology, then I found the money, and now we are in the building phase, and we start the first test flights early next year.

At Opto, it was more like a technology push. My gut feeling was that the market would buy it if we built it. We built it, and the first solution was weapon detection – so gun detection in luggage – and we found out that it was more a nice to have, than a must have. Then we did liquid detection, and we found out that this was driven more by regulations, so airports didn’t really want to buy it. They would buy it if the regulator told them to buy it. We found out the hard way, and that this was a hard way to earn a living. Then we developed a remote screening product to save money for the airport, to increase the throughput, reduce the operating expenses, reduce the capital expenses, and we found out that this was what they wanted to buy, because it saved them money.

So, at my first company, it was a hard lesson learned – start with the business case, start with the money part, and then technology was secondary. The most important thing was solving the business need of the customer. More than, “Hey, I’m engineer, this is cool. Let’s build it and somebody will buy it.” And…. it always takes more time than you expect to sell anything. So, for the sales cycle, you must have a good padding, financially wise, to survive the long sales cycle. Especially in the airport market.

The second lesson learned is that it’s all about people, so hiring is extremely important. You must be sure to hire the right people. The biggest mistakes I’ve made have been in hiring either too many people too fast, and then hiring the wrong people. I also hired great people, and they are still with Opto. Over the years now, the most valuable lessons I learned were mostly related to human resources. It’s never been the technology so much…. hiring is extremely important. Firing is also extremely important. You must fire people quickly if you have any doubts.

I’m a big fan of this now – psychological testing and profiling – and it’s mandatory for hiring at FlyScan, because you want to have, as a team, people who are complimentary. You absolutely don’t want to hire people who are like you because then you will crash and burn. I’m the intuitive, impulsive type, and the last thing I need is a CFO who is intuitive and impulsive. I need somebody who is methodical, logical, like a Vulcan in Star Trek. That’s what I need to compliment me. If I’m a sales-driven guy – an outside-looking guy – I meet with customers and I meet with partners. Then, I need somebody who’s going to run the show in-house, and will manage the timelines, the projects.

So, as far as the steps, step zero there’s always the technical skill. But step one is the psychological complementarity of the team, in terms of style. You need a complimentary team, and then you need people with whom you will have fun. If you hire somebody who’s very aggressive and negative, it’s going to fail. If you hire somebody who’s controlling and he wants to take your job, it’s going to fail. You need to hire people who are complimentary to you in terms of skillset, in terms of style, and in terms of personality.

Q:   What do you see as being some of the biggest challenges in the aviation sector, when it comes to introduction and adoption of new technology?

Well, there are many factors. First of all, it’s a great industry. I love that industry and I’m still happy to be at Opto as a board member, because I like to follow what’s going on there, and there are great people in that industry. But there’s a big difference between North America and Europe. What works in Europe, will not necessarily work in North America. It’s changing now. You see today that airlines are aligned with airports, and airports and airlines are aligned with TSA, so I think we’re getting there. In the 90’s through to the late 2000’s there was a disconnect between the business drivers of the various stakeholders, as compared to Europe where these were much more aligned.

In Europe, the airports are privatized and business-, or profit-driven. They’re responsible for security and therefore they want to control the cost of security. So, if you come to them with a solution that saves them opex and capex, increases the throughput, increases retail revenue, they will love that. Because there’s an alignment of interests from the airport financial need, with the passenger need, with the airline need, and the security cost. In North America, in the recent past, there was a disconnect in business model between the security of the airport, and the needs of the airline, and the airport. For agencies in charge of checkpoint security, their goal was to find the bad guys, not to facilitate commerce at the airport. The airports did not control anything with regards to security technology at the checkpoint, not did the airlines – it was a nationalized approach. Today, I think the situation in North America is changing for the better.

Q:   Turning to FlyScan, drone technology is developing very fast and rapidly. Do you see that as the next step in terms of evolution of the product offering?

I think that drones are only a means to an end. They are not an end in themselves. What matters to the customer, once again, is that they don’t care about the technology, they care about the end result. They care if you can solve their business needs, so in the case of a pipeline, they want to find out if there’s a leak. They will not care if the leak detection is provided with a drone or a helicopter, or a satellite, or a guy walking on the line. It’s outcome based. They want to find the leak, and they want it to be fast and cheap. Then it becomes a question of, well how do you implement the delivery to make it fast and cheap? Drones, I think, are getting there, but I think that drones are cool for a short range punctual inspection. But, because of current regulations they are not there yet for long range, autonomous inspection. What would make sense at FlyScan is to install our device under a drone, you enter the GPS coordinates of the pipeline, tell it to go for three hours, and fly back, or go for four hours and land, and tomorrow do the rest of the segment.

It would make sense, but today regulations in Canada and the US will not authorize us to fly long distance at low altitude at high speed. Because our sensors are in the hundreds of kilograms, flying something at 100 meters altitude at over 100 km per hour, just think about the amount of kinetic energy in that flying object. No regulator will authorize a flight with no humans on board. So, I think the technology is not there yet to have the collision avoidance, and the regulation especially, is not there yet, even if there was collision avoidance software. The regulations would take years to authorize what makes sense business wise.

It’s very much an evolving thing, so that’s why we’re starting with helicopters, and then we move to fixed wing aircraft, and one day we’ll move to drones. But, it’s one step at a time. What matters is the sensor picking up leaks and whether it’s on a helicopter or a drone, this is secondary. Customers will care about the price, but they will not care about the delivery method.

Q:   What advice would you have for future entrepreneurs? You spoke to some of this already, but if you had the same opportunities, would you do it again?

Well, if I knew, I would do it again – yes! But, right from the start I would start with a remote screening solution to save money for the airport. That would have saved ten years and $30 million of venture capital. My advice would be; don’t fall in love with your technology. Of course, you must be excited about your technology; how good it is, how you will beat everybody else with it, but don’t fall in love with it. Fall in love with your customers and fall in love with your business model, and then the rest will come naturally. That’s the first advice. My second advice is; take your time to hire, and when you hire somebody, you must be bullet proof certain that this is a great person, and the minute you have any doubt; fire them! So, ask yourself, would I trust this guy with my life? And, if the answer is no, don’t hire them.

As a concluding point of the interview, I could not help but reflect that I had heard this time and again from entrepreneurs who’ve done startups. For a startup, having the right team is extremely important, even more so than financing, since individual team members play a crucial role in turning vision into reality. Make sure you have a group of competent and complementary team players.