Author: Mike Kilroy

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OCTANe Fuels Local Tech Sector

June 7, 2019 | Blog | No Comments

Q&A with Bill Carpou of OCTANe

We recently checked in with Bill Carpou, CEO of OCTANe, to get his take on the local emerging tech scene.  Not surprisingly, Bill had a lot of interesting and informative things to say.

Founded in 2002 and headquartered in Aliso Viejo, OCTANe is dedicated to driving innovation and economic growth in Southern California by helping connect companies and people to resources and capital.  The organization offers entrepreneurs an award-winning accelerator called LaunchPad; Growth Services, a platform to help companies scale; regular educational and networking events; and capital access.  It focuses on technology and life science companies seeking Late Seed, Series A and Series B funding ($500K-$25M).

(The following Q&A has been edited for clarity.)

What is the current health of the OC tech startup ecosystem?

While there’s still an enormous amount of opportunity to make it a whole lot better, I think it’s improved significantly in the past four years. When I arrived, everyone was saying there wasn’t an ecosystem in Orange County.  But the more I started to peel it back, I found we had a marvelous ecosystem. It just wasn’t intuitive.  It was siloed and anything but collaborative – it was competitive.

One of the key things OCTANe does is help companies raise capital. As I spoke to people in New York or Boston and they asked where OCTANe is located and you say Orange County, their response was a blank stare. Their perception is, ‘I’ve driven through on my way from L.A. to San Diego. I’ve gone to Pelican Hill. I’ve stayed at the Montage and maybe been to Disneyland.’ And that’s about it.

We decided that it was important to change our thinking and elevate the entire Southern California ecosystem.  The reason is that if you look at just about any other ecosystem, it’s a metro area. The New York ecosystem – it’s not New York City alone. It includes North Jersey, Connecticut and Long Island. We were ignoring the SoCal ecosystem of L.A., Orange County and San Diego which set up barriers and competition that really didn’t need to exist.

So we created the Innovation Network of Southern California (InSoCal), a group of like-minded organizations that wanted to pull together the entire ecosystem. We are now much more engaged with San Diego and L.A.  And frankly, the thought was that if we focus on Southern California, it will be an easier lift and Orange County would likely be disproportionately elevated because of our location in the middle of the region.

Why is an integrated SoCal ecosystem beneficial to entrepreneurs and investors?

There’s enormous innovation that goes on here. When you look at Southern California in its totality and you pull in Caltech and USC, UCLA, and UCSD along with UCI, Chapman and others in OC, this is the best university ecosystem in the country. It graduates more engineers and computer scientists than any other ecosystem in the country — Southern California is No. 1, the Bay Area is No. 2.

There are roughly 66,000 undergraduate engineering students in Southern California.  There’s about 64,000 in Northern California.  The next largest ecosystems in Boston and New York graduate about 20,000. After that, the numbers drop to 7,000 and 4,000.

That’s what I think is explosive because it feeds the front end of innovation.

Who is the typical Southern California entrepreneur?

We have a different kind of entrepreneur here.  Everyone knows about the entrepreneur that comes out of college and succeeds but a very small percentage of innovation created inside a university ever makes it to commercialization.  What we often seen here are more middle-aged entrepreneurs who leave companies to start their own.

As compared to somebody that’s younger and never really had practical business experience, the more valuable entrepreneur is the one that leaves an Allergan or a Medtronic or a Broadcom who has had 20 years of practical business experience and leaves with a little bit of wealth to bootstrap a company for a year or so.  That’s an entrepreneur that’s really in our wheelhouse. If you look at our LaunchPad accelerator, I’d say probably 75% of the people that come through have spent several years working someplace first.

The older entrepreneur offers a much higher degree of credibility to investors. At the end of the day, you’re going to have confidence and trust in somebody that’s been out in the world than someone who just graduated from college. And the odds of the company’s long-term success are much higher.

What are the hottest technology sectors in the region?

The state of the technology in Southern California is in a very good place. Each area has its key competencies. There’s not a lot of crossover or competition. If you were looking to move your business to Southern California, and you are involved in deep machine learning, or biotech, you should go to San Diego. If you’re looking at ad tech media apps, you should go to L.A.  If you’re looking at medical devices, cybersecurity, FinTech, data analytics or gaming, you should be in Orange County.

Any specific industry in Orange County that OCTANe is focusing on?

At OCTANe, we’ve built a community around ophthalmology. Orange County is the epicenter of ophthalmology innovation in the world.

One reason is that a lot of the big pharma and device companies have their eyecare unit here such as Johnson & Johnson, ZEISS, Alcon, and Bausch + Lomb.  Then you have Allergan where founder Gavin Herbert created an industry for Southern California. There’s somewhere between 70 and 80 companies that have been created in the eyecare space by people who worked at Allergan. The company has been progressive in promoting this. Not that they want to lose talented individuals, but in their opinion, if somebody’s going to leave, let them start a company. Allergan can then consider investing in them for much less than it would cost doing their own R&D.  Small ‘r,’ big ‘D.’

What is your best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?

At OCTANe, we’ve built a vibrant innovation community. However, people still don’t quite understand all the things that are available to them. People ask us which incubator or accelerator they should work with.  Our answer is – use everyone. Because most of these platforms are available on a pro bono basis, at least initially. So, if you have the opportunity to use three different entities, why not use them whether it’s us, or Eureka or UCI Applied Innovation? Draw whatever you can from each.  Chances are you’re going to find something a little bit helpful.

At the Launchpad accelerator we are staffed to work with about 40 companies a year. We start by interviewing between 350 and 400 companies. We review them very thoroughly via a predictive analytics model.  Out of those 40 startups, 86% of them end up getting funded within 15 months. We ensure a very high-quality deal for investors.

This past week The Cove at UCI Beall Applied Innovation held one of the best tech startup funding events that I’ve encountered in Orange County.

Called “Face to Face with Investors,” the event featured panels and roundtable discussions led by more than 40 venture capitalists and successful entrepreneurs from Tech Coast Angels, OCTANe, Mucker Capital, K5 Ventures, Cove Fund, Koa Accel and others providing advice and insights to tech startup founders and aspiring entrepreneurs.

It was standing room only in The Cove’s main venue with over 100 entrepreneurs, most seeking initial seed money for their ideas with a few ready for Series A investment.  There was lots of energy in the room, panel moderators kept things moving along with great questions, and the audience was fully engaged.

Here’s my takeaway of the top 10 tips for tech entrepreneurs seeking funding:

  • CONVICTION – This word was mentioned several times by investors and company CEOs as the key to success. My take:  if it’s clear that you believe in your idea, others are more likely to as well.  How you tell your story – with a passion and confidence reflected in your eyes, voice and body language – can be as important as what your story is.

 

  • TELL A GOOD STORY – While many tech entrepreneurs are engineers, they must get out of the mind-set of focusing on the technology alone and learn to communicate the emotional part of their company’s story. In other words, describe how it will help people, whether it will save lives or simply keep a customer from pulling their hair out. One investor said he’s seen the impact of good storytelling lead to funding without so much as a product prototype.

 

  • EXPLAIN THE PROBLEM – Again, most tech entrepreneurs want to jump into the details of their solution. However, the solution is secondary to communicating the problem. Investors want to understand up front if the problem is compelling enough that people would be willing to pay for a product or service that solves it.

 

  • THE ELEVATOR PITCH IS IMPORTANT – Yes, it’s true – don’t underestimate the power of a simple, brief pitch about your startup. Panelists recommended practicing your elevator pitch in front of a mirror, your friends, the cat – whatever it takes to tell an effective story in a couple minutes or less.  One entrepreneur said her elevator pitch to an investor at an event led to an introduction to decision-makers at Pinterest.  Have your elevator pitch down cold.

 

  • GET OUT OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE – Investors will take cold calls and read unsolicited emails, but nothing works better than a ‘warm introduction,’ i.e., you came up and spoke to them in person. For many tech entrepreneurs, this means getting out of your comfort zone and introducing yourself to everyone you can.  Starting conversations with strangers is an indispensable part of the funding process.

 

  • INTELLIGENT FOLLOW-UP IS ESSENTIAL – Investors say that providing updates on your progress once a month or whenever it makes sense is necessary for success. Even if it’s an investor you met only once, or someone who has turned you down, indifference can turn into interest, and “no’s” can become “maybe’s” by hitting milestones and showing traction.

 

  • KNOW YOUR INVESTORS – Seems like a no-brainer but investors said many entrepreneurs don’t start with the basic research on who would be the optimum VC for their idea. In addition to finding people who previously have invested in your space, also talk to funded entrepreneurs and get their insights on personalities, general funding practices, processes, etc.  Never go in blind to an investor pitch without thoroughly understanding your audience.

 

  • FIND SMART ADVISORS – You don’t know everything – find people who can fill the gaps. Often this assistance will come from the investor. “Smart money” can be better for the long-term prospects of your startup than big money. Also, if you are still in early stages, join an incubator where expert counseling in accounting, law, HR and more is available.

 

  • NEVER LIE – To a person, investors said this is a deal-killer. If they can’t trust you, investors won’t invest.  It’s understood if you’re projecting future growth that those are your best estimates, but don’t misrepresent even the most innocuous facts about yourself or your firm.  Pitch deck misspellings or messy capitalization tables can be overcome by a good idea and a compelling founder presence, but a lie won’t.

 

  • GRAB THE BRASS RING – This tip is mine. My impression is that these investors are hungry for solid ideas and trustworthy founders.  I was surprised to learn that most of the VCs take everyone seriously and will get back to you on your pitch within a few weeks.  Don’t count yourself out.  They will provide funding for good ideas that will make their investors money.  So, if you believe in yourself and your idea, go for it.

Is Social Journalism Worth the Effort?

May 17, 2019 | Blog | No Comments

In PR, we work constantly to earn the media’s attention through compelling, fact-based storytelling and interest a reporter in featuring your company in their piece.  The results can be game-changing for companies in search of visibility and credibility.

In recent years, the goal of earning media attention has been broadened to earning audience attention.  Today’s marketers, including HKA, have embraced new methods to reach audiences directly as well.  Digital marketing efforts involving a variety of tools, from email campaigns to Google ad buys, have risen in prominence.  Organic audience growth via social media content also continues apace.

An emerging area of the new marketing paradigm – social journalism – requires earning both media and audience attention.

An offshoot of ‘citizen journalism’ where amateurs go it alone online, social journalism involves platforms that feature articles from both non-professional writers and professional journalists.

Medium is the most successful example and can be a great place for emerging tech companies to expand their audience.

Developed by Twitter co-founder Evan Williams and launched in August 2012, Medium has grown to become one of the most highly trafficked sites in the world with roughly 90 million unique monthly visitors.

Medium’s goal is to be a democratic platform of good writing.  Anyone can write an article on any topic without even having to join Medium as a subscriber.  However, a team of editorial curators then decides if your article has met the site’s standards.  If it does, the article will then be displayed on the relevant topic pages assigned by the curators.  Your story will also be recommended to readers on the Medium home page, in emails to Medium users, and through the mobile apps.

If the editors feel the article has special merit (and will draw an audience), your article may be posted on relevant ‘publications’ managed by both Medium editors and outside journalists as well as independent users.  Companies that post their stories and feature the stories of others on Medium publications include Hubspot, Google and Airbnb.

Articles that aren’t promoted by the editors can be promoted via Medium’s algorithm that measures audience engagement in several areas to eliminate ‘clickbait.’  The goal is to reward content for its quality not the author’s celebrity or the company brand, or the salaciousness of the headline.  This can also raise the level of visibility of a quality article on relevant topic pages to attract more audience.

The result is that, through curation or audience support, anyone can have a story listed on the top of a topic page, or the top of the Medium home page for that matter, enabling your article (including bio and company name) to be potentially viewed and shared by millions of readers.

In my view, it’s a wonderful model that leverages the best of both worlds – articulate subject matter experts with something to say and the fact-checking, objective and non-commercial eye of journalists – to deliver what everyone wants – thoughtful, well-written and useful information.

For emerging tech companies, there are dozens of relevant categories to choose from, including data science, AI, cybersecurity, robotics and much more.  Outside links in the article to your website are allowed if they provide additional context and relevant data.

Of course, the best way to succeed on a platform that requires earning both media and audience attention is by leveraging trained journalists to develop content.  Securing favor from Medium curators, publishers and readers is not easy.  Your chances will increase immensely through the recommendations of highly trained communicators that will allow you to expand your audience, inspire shares and increase followers.

On Medium, with a commitment to quality editorial and heeding the advice of communications experts, any person or company can be on equal footing with any top journalist.

Contact HKA, comprised of former journalists, and we will help you make it happen.

Space, the Final Frontier for Women in Tech

May 10, 2019 | Blog | No Comments

We picked an opportune time to write about the burgeoning commercial space industry:  Jeff Bezos of Amazon just announced yesterday that his Blue Origin space company hopes to be shuttling astronauts to the moon and back by 2024.

Bezos is part of an exclusive club of business titans involved in the space industry that includes Elon Musk of SpaceX and Richard Branson leading Virgin Galactic.

But space is no longer the exclusive domain of government or the well-capitalized.  Cost efficiencies in rocketry and communications enabled by emerging technology is making it possible for an ecosystem of startups to arise, much of it based in the Los Angeles area where the aerospace industry has long thrived.

Companies such as Relativity and Rocket Lab are currently leading the way while the recent formation of two space industry incubator funds – the Techstars Starburst Space Accelerator and Space Ventures Coalition (SVC), a partner of the Alliance for SoCal Innovation – ensure continuing growth.

With all the exciting possibilities of the space industry, I was looking forward to attending the Women in Space Tech event in Manhattan Beach this week.  Three pioneering women from local companies joined a panel to share their experiences.

While the panelists offered inspiring personal histories and fascinating details about their everyday jobs, it was a bit disheartening to hear about their struggles with gaining respect in the still male-dominated field of aerospace engineering. Fortunately, none of the women were defeated by it and continue to persevere and succeed.

Below are brief highlights from each panelist’s discussion.

Jacqueline Ryan
Payload Uplink/Downlink Specialist for Mars Science Laboratory
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)

Ryan introduced herself as someone who “wakes to an alarm, goes to work and explores another planet every day.”  She is part of the team that processes images from the Mars Curiosity Rover and said the awe she feels as the first human to view the latest images of the Mars landscape “never really goes away.”

She says the Curiosity is seven-years old and tens of millions of miles away, so issues come up regularly that she and the team must figure out.  Often, Ryan said, they will model potential solutions digitally first before sending instructions to the Curiosity robotic rover.

Ryan was attracted to liberal arts most of her life but decided she might have a more rewarding career in engineering.  She focused on electrical engineering and said she was often the only woman in her classes at New York University Polytechnic.  By chance, her grandmother had visited JPL and told her that she should apply for an internship.  While only halfway through her first programming course, she was accepted.

Ryan said JPL seeks a general set of skills that can help engineers anticipate and solve a variety of unforeseen challenges.  She also said her emotional intelligence as a woman has played a key role in narrowing the focus of discussions among male engineers to expedite solutions.

Khali Cannad
Aerospace Systems Engineer
Northrop Grumman Corporation

With more than 20 years of experience in the aerospace industry, Cannad is involved in satellite operations, orbit determination, software development and verification and validation of ground systems.

Growing up, she was inspired by Space Shuttle missions and by astronaut Mae Jamison in particular, the first black woman in space. Cannad decided she wasn’t cut out to be an astronaut but wanted to be the person who has the “big picture view” and help ensure their safety at mission control.

Cannad said her ability to work well with others has been key to her success in the industry.  While initially shy in her career as the rare woman among male engineers, she learned how to gather the resources and people required to complete a project.  “Being quiet in this industry doesn’t get you anywhere,” she said.

She said as more women graduate from engineering schools, the newer crop of male engineers are generally more accepting of women in the aerospace industry.

Jacqueline Sotradis
Propulsion Design & Analysis Engineer
Virgin Orbit

Sotraidis focuses on structural design and analysis for Virgin Orbit, the satellite counterpart to Virgin Galactic’s human-based space travel plans.  She is part of the team developing LauncherOne, a service that will launch commercial and government satellites from the wings of a dedicated 747-400 carrier aircraft (Yes, you read that right). The first launch is expected sometime this year.

Sotraidis said she is still amazed when her designs are selected to go into space, often leveraging a ‘generative design’ technique that perfects a structure through many iterations via 3D printing.

Sotraidis agreed that good communications skills are critical in her field.  She said her ‘fabulous’ experience as a camp counselor has helped her effectively control and direct some of the more raucous meetings with male engineers.

While at times she has felt ‘imposter syndrome’ in her career, Sotraidis has come to realize that is a common feeling among women entering a male-dominated field.

*****

All three panelists said they like to serve as role models to younger women wanting to enter the engineering field, participating in STEM events whenever possible.

The comment from a high school junior in the audience may serve as an example of the attitude of the next generation of women in the space industry.  She told the panel she wants to be a space pilot and described her career path involving the Air Force, engineering school and commercial aviation experience.

All the panelists agreed there will be a need for commercial space pilots in the coming years and her path – and confidence – was right on target.

 

 

A Quantum Leap in Computing Is Coming

May 3, 2019 | Blog | No Comments

Trying to write a brief introduction to the field of quantum computing feels like something a quantum computer should probably tackle.  Instead, we only have my brain power to access, so my apologies in advance.

I have long been fascinated by quantum mechanics, an area of physics describing the behaviors of atoms and subatomic particles such as electrons and photons.  This is the strange, subterranean realm of nature where the laws of Newtonian physics break down.

What I hadn’t understood until I met recently with Doug Finke, editor and publisher of the Quantum Computing Report, is that we built our digital world on what’s known as ‘classical computing.’  Our entire computing infrastructure is founded upon the basic principles of physics and math discovered in the 19th century, such as electromagnetism and Boolean logic, from the lowliest bargain-priced desktop PC, to the snazziest new smartphone, to a supercomputer.

To learn more about this amazing field, I encourage you to join Doug at the next Southern California Quantum Computing Meetup in Pasadena this Oct. 15 from 6-8 p.m.  For more information, visit:  http://bit.ly/2lWdj9o

Quantum computing, on the other hand, leverages the insights of quantum physicists from the 1920s and ‘30s, including Einstein, Erwin SchrödingerWerner HeisenbergMax Born and others, to create an entirely new kind of computing.

Why go to all that trouble? The simplistic answer is to number-crunch at mind-numbing scale and speed.

Doug gave me this analogy:  Imagine you’re a traveling salesperson and you need to drive the shortest route between four cities.  Seems easy enough.  But let’s say your boss says you need to add a dozen more cities.  Then it gets more complicated and you may need to access a classical computing device to get your answer.

But what if the number of cities is a 100 or more?  Well, the variables are so great that even our best supercomputers can’t figure out the optimal solution, at least not in any amount of time that would be useful.  That’s where quantum computing comes in.

The goal of quantum computing is to leverage phenomena found at the subatomic particle level to deliver mathematical answers millions of times faster than today’s highest-performing computing systems.

One example of quantum phenomena being leveraged is known as ‘superposition.’  Classical binary computing relies upon manipulating ‘bits’ that exist in one of two states: a 0 or a 1, essentially like a switch that’s either off or on. (For example, the binary code to instruct a computer to create this single letter to appear – A – is 01000001.) In quantum computing on the other hand, information is encoded as quantum bits, or ‘qubits.’ In superposition, qubits can exist simultaneously in both states of 0 and 1 or in gradations of the two states, enabling computational “instructions” to be processed exponentially faster than binary code.

Other quantum phenomena used includes ‘entanglement’ where a pair or larger group of subatomic particles will simultaneously mimic what happens to a single entangled particle, no matter how far they are separated by distance.  Imagine two entangled photons with one located in Los Angeles and the other in New York.  In entanglement, if you measure the state of the photon in L.A., the photon in New York will instantaneously follow suit and enter the same state. (Einstein called this phenomenon “spooky action at a distance.”)  Massive numbers of entangled qubits can enable computations to be completed more rapidly.

In some ways, the quantum computing industry looks a lot like the early days of the computer industry in the 1950s. Doug said researchers are trying different ways to extract incredibly fast and accurate calculations through designs using photons, trapped ions, superconductors and other methods.  IBM is one of the furthest along with its IBM Q System One which can be accessed publicly in the cloud.  Their most advanced current system is a 20-qubit 9-cubic foot quantum computer that must be housed at a smidgen above absolute zero, or just around minus-460 degrees Fahrenheit.

Doug told me that the first quantum computer that surpasses our fastest supercomputers for certain applications (they call this reaching the “quantum advantage”) is expected within the next few years.  In addition to IBM, Google, Intel, Microsoft and a variety of other tech companies, top academic and government labs, and startups are all pursuing the quantum dream in one form or another.

Industries performing early research into quantum computing include the chemical and pharmaceutical industries where advanced computational chemistry enabled by quantum computing algorithms can help discover new materials or drugs. Other early interest includes the finance industry where quantum computing can provide new approaches to portfolio management and other functions, while the automotive industry is working on a few different use cases, including calculating the best traffic routes and finding better battery chemistry for electric vehicles.

An Orange County resident, Doug started his publication to serve as the leading source of information and analysis on the quantum computing industry for venture capitalists, startups and established companies in their efforts toward commercialization of the technology.  Doug has a long history of being at the ground floor of developing and marketing game-changing, complex technology innovations with positions at IBM and Intel during their glory days as well as with several successful startups.

While the bulk of quantum computing startups are located in several different clusters in the Bay Area, Canada, Europe and Australia, there are a few firms located here in Southern California as well, including Qulab in Los Angeles and Qubitekk near San Diego.

5G… 5G… Anyone Seen 5G?

April 26, 2019 | Blog | No Comments

5G… 5G… Anyone Seen 5G?

If I had a dollar for every time a company claimed that the advanced telecommunications network known as 5G is coming soon, my financial advisor would be doing back flips.

5G has become one of those ‘evergreen’ stories in tech where everybody wants it to be here but it never seems to arrive. Companies have over-promised on timelines for years. The fact is implementing 5G is not an easy thing.

First, what is 5G and why should you care?

5G stands for the ‘fifth generation’ upgrade to cellular networks based upon new industry standards and specifications.  5G takes advantage of previously unused radio millimeter bands in the 30 GHz to 300 GHz range. Current 4G networks operate on frequencies below 6GHz which are getting more crowded every day.  The higher frequencies of 5G have shorter wavelengths and can move more information more quickly, and there is currently very little data traffic in these new telecommunications lanes.

Designed to enhance current 4G networks rather than replace them, 5G promises to accelerate cellular data transfer speeds from 100 Mbps (megabits per second) to 20 Gbps (gigabits per second) or more.  This massive increase in bandwidth will make 5G faster than even the fastest fiber-optic cable technology, providing serious competition to cable- and telephone-based Internet service providers.

With those kinds of data speeds available, the possibilities for innovation are endless. Autonomous and connected vehicles, smart cities, smart energy grids, smart factories, robotic drones, streaming virtual and augmented reality experiences, and remote health monitoring are just a few of the areas that could be transformed by 5G.

It all sounds like a technological nirvana.  But the problem is 5G is unlike previous cellular network upgrades.  First, it’s not a widespread “coverage spectrum,” meaning 5G’s millimeter waves don’t travel far from the cell site or penetrate materials very well.  Because of these limitations, telecom companies have admitted 5G will likely never scale beyond dense urban environments.

Another issue little understood by the public is that to attain the seamless data world of 5G requires a lot of real-world infrastructure. 5G requires thousands of small antennas deployed onto cell towers, utility poles, lampposts, buildings and other public and private hardscape.  Already Los Angeles and other cities are balking at the prices the federal government has mandated they accept from the telecom industry, while some residents are protesting the intrusion of the antennas in their neighborhoods.

These challenges have slowed an already delayed rollout of 5G services across the country.  Verizon initially announced 5G capabilities in Chicago and Minneapolis (though the media had a difficult time finding the 5G data stream) and promises to expand to 20 additional cities this year.  (San Diego and Los Angeles are included but somehow Orange County has been squeezed out thus far.)

On the mobile phone front, Samsung and Verizon have partnered to market 5G-enabled smartphones in the first half of 2019.  Interestingly, Apple is moving more cautiously and says it won’t roll out its 5G phone until 2020.

Even with all these issues, the Southern California emerging tech community is moving forward to take advantage of the opportunities that will be afforded by the 5G network.  EvoNexus, a startup incubator based in Irvine, has announced a partnership with Qualcomm seeking new companies looking to deliver services via the 5G network.  Newport Beach-based startup Mondavi recently announced a system to extend the range of the 5G coverage area, while Irvine-based CellOnyx is offering a software solution that expands the cellular capacity of 5G networks.

I will avoid joining the long list of failed prognosticators regarding when 5G will finally arrive in our daily lives.  For all its potential benefits, however, I do count myself among its well-wishers.

The fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris this week was a heartbreaking tragedy for the entire world.  Our hopes and best wishes go to the people of France (and around the world) that somehow this beloved, historic landmark can be successfully restored.

While the cause of the fire is still under investigation, my thoughts have been on prevention. How could a fire take down such a major historic site today and not in the 800 years since Notre Dame was built?  Where was the modern technology to ensure this didn’t happen?

The answers to these questions likely won’t be clear for some time.  However, they do bring up a prescient point about our own homes and technology.  We’re now on an unstoppable growth path for smart homes because consumers have seen real value in the security, safety and convenience enabled by home automation technology.

In the early days of the industry, from the late 1970s to the early 2000s, smart home technology was mostly relegated to dedicated early adopters and do-it-yourselfers who were willing to put up with kludgy gadgets and an unreliable network technology called X10. The joy was in the challenge of connecting and remotely controlling lights, locks, cameras and more around the home.  These brave souls created a solid consumer base for a company called Smarthome in Irvine, California.  Smarthome started the first e-commerce site dedicated to home automation products in 1995.

One of the first smart home products to capture the imagination of consumers was the Roomba, the vacuum cleaning robot, first released in 2002.  But home automation was still mostly for hobbyists for the next 10 years until the advent of the Nest.  Introduced to the market by two former Apple engineers, the Nest Learning Thermostat was a sleek, programmable, Wi-Fi-enabled thermostat that leveraged ubiquitous smart phones to control and optimize the heating and cooling of homes.

While the Nest helped educate the public on the efficiencies to be gained from home automation, there was controversy in its early days regarding claims that it reduced energy costs.  These doubts weren’t helped by recalls of the company’s next product, the Nest Protect smoke and carbon monoxide detector, when it was found the alarm feature could be easily disabled.  (Don’t worry, Nest Labs recovered and was purchased by Google for $3.2 billion in 2014.)

After the advent of the Nest products, most smart home industry observers believed the “killer app” needed for mass adoption still hadn’t arrived.  A consensus has now formed that the Ring video doorbell deserves that recognition.

There had been ‘smart’ doorbells offered by home automation providers before, but Ring creator Jamie Siminoff benefited from a convergence of several trends for his success: 1) the price of compact HD cameras had become affordable, 2) viewing HD video on smartphones had become commonplace and, 3) consumers had become concerned over the growing number of Amazon deliveries being stolen from doorsteps.

It also didn’t hurt that Ring could serve as a deterrent to burglars from trying to enter homes, while parents enjoyed receiving a video confirmation their children had returned home from school safely.

The Ring video doorbell has now become the gateway for homeowner interest in smart home products.  Many have integrated a smart thermostat like the one first marketed by Nest, as well as installed connected smoke and carbon monoxide detectors for the protection of their homes and families.  The popularity of Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home’s AI voice assistants has also led to consumers considering new ways to automate devices in the home through voice commands.

The appliance, home improvement and medical device industries are all looking to take advantage of this long sought-after consumer interest in home automation.

In some ways, Ring was the right product at the right time.  But it was the ability of a smart home product to deliver critical, real-world value of safety and security that made the difference.  All future home automation product makers should take heed.

 

 

 

How to Be a Tech Hero and Not the Villain

April 12, 2019 | Blog | No Comments

For me, the best movie villains make you hate that character for the rest of your life.

The top film villain on my list would have to be Hans Gruber from the original “Die Hard.”  For the rest of his career, I couldn’t watch Alan Rickman in anything else without connecting the actor to Hans in my mind.

A close second in movie villainhood for me is Caledon Hockley, the forever smug, privileged, murderous rich kid from “Titanic” played by actor Billy Zane.

Having appeared in his share of successful movies, Zane obviously knows how to tell a story.  That’s why I looked forward to attending his keynote titled “The Art and Science of Storytelling” at EurekaFEST in Irvine on April 6.  Afterall, he’s only villainous in character, not in person.

Zane currently runs The Convergence Lab, a technology research incubator and fund operated in partnership with Caltech’s office of Tech Transfer. The mission of his company is to build a bridge between the best scientific minds and Hollywood storytellers to help secure R&D funding and IP licensing for innovations in the fields of AI/machine learning, AR/VR, autonomous systems and more.

The actor provided a lot of sound advice to the crowd of tech entrepreneurs on navigating their way through the startup minefield.  However, the advice that resonated most for me as a professional communicator was:  In the age of the tech backlash or ‘techlash,’ it’s best to communicate the human side of your company’s story as early as possible to as many audiences as possible.

As Zane said, there is a growing apprehension in the general public regarding the tech industry these days.  People are much more wary of tech giants such as Facebook and Google in having their best interests, much less the broader interests of society, at heart.  Politicians have taken notice, and many are calling for legislation to restrict their power and influence.

Zane explained that he keeps his kids away from most current technology and content, instead having them focus on entertainment that validates common human values and bolsters the social contract.  He pointed to older Hollywood movies such as “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang” that championed kindness, generosity and silliness as examples.

“The goal of our age shouldn’t be to simply build better technology,” Zane said.  “The goal should be to build better people and a better world.”

As Group Director for Technology at HKA, I couldn’t agree more.

Having represented tech companies large and small for more than two decades, I’ve seen too many tech firms, enabled by their all-too-accommodating PR agencies, get far into the weeds of their “solutions” without ever providing the all-important why.  Too often, marketers focus on telling their stories to themselves, or to a very limited number of potential early adopters, rather than the larger business community, media and society-at-large.

The key, as Zane correctly pointed out, is to “anthropomorphize” your company by being clear from the start about your motivations and aspirations.  Build a wellspring of early supporters who are cheering for your success, have them understand the people behind the technology, and show them how you will change the future for the better.

Zane said that building this goodwill early will also help your company through any “single point of failure,” and investors, partners and customers will stay with you through to the end.

To do this, you need storytellers who understand the broader human aspects of your company’s journey and how to tell a story simply.  That’s where HKA can help.  While we know tech, HKA is a generalist agency that also works with nonprofits, professional services firms and other people-focused industries.  With each client, we dig deep to find the compelling human side of their stories, and we build a narrative over time among influential audiences that leads to impactful results.

The moral of this story?  HKA can show you how to be a tech hero.

And in that vein, we should mention that Zane’s company is conducting pro bono work for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and its Innovation Studio at the Gamifying Pediatrics Hackathon today through April 14.  The goal is to “transform pediatric healthcare through mobile games, virtual reality, augmented reality and immersive digital experiences.”

As many companies have discovered, digital transformation (DX) isn’t easy.

In remaking their organizations to compete in the digital age, many executives have noted the challenges of implementing DX, such as changing corporate culture attitudes and preconceptions; ideating effective new business models, services and customer experiences; dealing with complex IT overhauls; meeting cybersecurity and privacy requirements, and more.

But a critical component to DX success that hasn’t been addressed is devising a strategic communications program to support these dramatic business changes.  That is a major oversight if companies want to take full advantage of the opportunities available to them in the age of DX.

It’s common PR wisdom with major company transitions such as mergers and acquisitions, corporate restructuring or IPOs that educating your organization’s stakeholders is key to success, ensuring audiences understand the why, the how, the when and the expected results of your efforts.  To do this correctly, you must communicate early and often.

The communications strategy to support your DX plans will be different depending on where your company dwells in the ecosystem.  The audiences identified below will need to receive your messaging wherever they get their news and information on their favorite media and mediums via a consistent PR and marketing program.

DX Enablers

We define this category as companies leveraging advanced technologies to make DX easier for traditional enterprises in solving key issues, enhancing core processes or enabling new services.

Examples of this DX category in Orange County include Veritone, Inc. which helps companies leverage the power of AI to enhance operational efficiencies and effectiveness, and NextVR, enabling media companies to broadcast live sports and entertainment in virtual reality.

The targets for this category’s communications efforts are B2B customers, which in DX can be across industries. For example, large enterprises of any stripe could benefit from a company leveraging AI, IoT and cloud technologies to reduce their energy costs by 15-20%, whether it’s a manufacturer, retailer, restaurant franchise or healthcare provider.  These disparate enterprises likely won’t have the in-house expertise to implement such a valuable solution.

Messaging in this category must be carefully tailored to communicate the benefits of a DX solution to specific buyers and their influencers. The best move is to identify the top 3-5 most promising industries and focus your communications efforts on companies in those sectors initially.

Other stakeholders require communications include potential investors, whether venture capitalists or retail and institutional traders, as well as potential channel, marketing and technology channel partners that can speed growth and enhance services.

DX Disruptors

A growing number of startups are offering new types of services directly to the market.  These services are disrupting business models before the wider industry can catch up.

Examples in this category include Uber and Lyft for the taxi and shuttle industry; Air BnB in the hospitality industry; and more recent arrivals like Turo in the rental car industry.

The audiences in this category may include investors throughout the disruptor’s funding journey, early adopters who will accept and tout pilot programs, government agencies when revised regulations are required, and a broad base of potential customers when the company is ready to scale.   Industry analysts are also important, as building credibility through third-party endorsements will be key to growth.

DX Ventures

Larger companies across industries are keenly aware of the dangers DX presents to their business if they don’t stay alert and flexible.  That’s why so many are not only integrating better internal processes enabled by the array of DX technologies but are also looking to offer new types of services and radically enhanced customer experiences to the market.

Many of these firms are forming ‘intrapreneurial’ business units – akin to having an independent startup inside the company – to create pilot programs like Amazon’s cashier-less stores and FedEx’s drone deliveries.  Others, like McDonalds recently, are acquiring the most promising DX startups to help them remain competitive.

The stakes are high for established brands implementing DX because of the market interest and focus.  Failed projects or confusing signals must be avoided.  A detailed communications plan and timeline is required that addresses all stakeholders.  This includes internal audiences who need to stay informed and motivated as DX implementation is underway, as well as external audiences as companies introduce new services such as drone deliveries to their doorstep or offer VR replicas of their favorite brick & mortar store.

A DX implementation presents a massively difficult challenge to any enterprise, requiring careful analysis and foresight to achieve optimum results.  A strategic communications plan and PR program targeting all audiences must be considered as well for a smooth rollout and transition.

 

Like the wildflowers springing up everywhere, the emerging tech community is blooming here in Orange County.

Companies are moving to the OC, like Cognize, an AI startup which recently relocated to Irvine from the Bay Area.  Startup funding continues, like NotifAi, an Internet of Things (IoT) firm based in Aliso Viejo which recently closed a Series A round of $1.2 million, as well as a recent $4.7 million funding round for Costa Mesa-based LoanSnap and its AI-infused mortgage app.

More established OC emerging tech firms continue introducing industry-changing products, like Syntiant’s AI-enabled processors for voice applications. While still others are seeing wildly successful exits, such as Parcel Pending and its smart locker systems being acquired for more than $100 million – with the added benefit that the company’s operations are staying in Irvine!

But like our local wildflowers, emerging tech startups don’t just bloom automatically. They need the right conditions to germinate, grow and display their magnificent colors to the world.

The good news is the OC emerging tech community has worked long and hard to create the conditions favorable to this emerging tech spring.  Check out a few of these below:

  • The Center for Digital Transformation at the Paul Merage School of Business at UCI was formed several years ago to help businesses leverage the changes being wrought by AI, the IoT, the cloud and other disruptive technologies. Its recent Road to Reinvention conference was a sold out event with executives flying  in from all over the country to attend.

 

  • The Cove, home to UCI Applied Innovation’s incubator program and gathering place, will be moving to new offices that will double the size of the facility to meet its growing popularity.

 

  • Journalist Deirdre Newman had the foresight to start OC Startups Now a year ago, focusing on news, opinions, Q&As and features entirely about the OC startup ecosystem.

 

  • The organizations that have supported the local tech scene for many years are gearing up for digital transformation as well. OCTANe’s annual Technology Innovation Forum is set for May 13-14 and will feature Lori Torres, CEO of the aforementioned Parcel Pending. The event will focus on the impacts of data and technology on the future of work, retail, Smart Cities, sports, fintech, transportation and health.  And nominations for the organization’s annual High Tech Awards are closing April 5.

 

 

  • Watch for Eureka FEST 2019 starting this Tuesday at the Eureka Building in Irvine. The event celebrates entrepreneurship with a week of programs leading up to a day-long festival filled with a lineup of successful and influential entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and industry experts.

 

We would be remiss in not also mentioning Startup Grind OC, sponsored by Google for Startups; EvoNexus, a technology incubator in Irvine, and PeopleSpace, a tech hub and startup incubator based in Irvine as well.

With all these flowers blooming, there should be plenty to keep the OC emerging tech scene buzzing for some time to come.