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Chris Meyer: Inside the Growing Ecosystem of the IoT

by Patents Integrated
May 5th 2021

We're living in the middle of the 4th Industrial Revolution, driven by the Internet of Things (IoT), connected devices, edge computing, robotics, and augmented reality. There are IP considerations ... More

Hello and welcome to the novel and non obvious podcast where we discuss the intellectual property topics impacting the startup world. My name is Yoriko mori to the host of this podcast and founder of patents integrated today. We welcome Chris Meyer. Director of partnerships for riot dot org and founder of hard share dot IO will be discussing I P issues related to hardware and IOT startups so welcome chris Thanks Yuriko. It's it's nice to be on. Can you tell us a little bit more about these organizations? Yeah, so I'm the director of partnerships at Bryant dot org like you had mentioned, which is primarily a an economic development group focused on what we're calling the data economy. So any organizations that can make use of IOT connected devices, Edge computing ai ml even large amounts of data in something like e commerce. So we're trying to bring folks together to create jobs, you know, I O T as a concept of internet of things has been around for a very long time.

What's the latest and the greatest about IOT these days. Well, we're finally getting to the point where the promise of connected devices and sensor networks is starting to become financially viable, you know, up until very recently to be able to do a large distribution of something like soil sensors or whatever carried a pretty heavy cost upfront. But with technologies like Laura Owen and these sub gigahertz spectrum is to be able to tweet small amounts of data, the cost of implementation infrastructure has gone way down as well as advancements in in things like edge computing to where we don't necessarily need to have high quality internet connection to be able to make use of all this data that's being generated. And so it's, it's a really exciting time just on the, on the connected devices side, but also all the techniques that machine learning in particular offers to, to derive insights. So you were starting to see widespread adoption in areas outside of, you know, advanced manufacturing or logistics, so it's been pretty neat to watch.

So how our startup companies involved in this area, I'm assuming there are really big players in this field. How does the startup economy support these? Either big players or how are they establishing their own niche? So what's really interesting about just data at the writ large is that you have to know what to do with it. And this is the fundamental opportunity for entrepreneurs and startups, is that if you have domain experience, you have to blend that with somebody that knows how to manipulate and make use of data. So the opportunities really come from the intersection between those that know what they're doing and what the data actually tells them with the people that can say, hey, I can create a dashboard or automated workflow or something like that. And so there are endless opportunities in in anything from traditionally blue collar jobs to even things like breweries, you know, putting in something like a C.

02 sensor in a brewing chamber actually tells you a lot more than you think, but you need a brewer to tell you, hey, when this happens, when I pitch the yeast, something changes with the flavor of the, of the result. So this is the type of collaboration that has to happen and where all the opportunity is. Okay, so then it's kind of like the people that know how to collect the data as well as to be able to analyze, it, need to collaborate with someone who can interpret the data and use that data in a correct way. And then the last pieces, how do I make money with this? Which is an entirely different skill set, shockingly. Okay, so then like what, where do these technologists find no ways to commercialize their technology. So this is where I'm going to make a short pitch for, for what I do with Riot. What we found is that bringing people together in the convening aspects between, you know, all these different stakeholders and something like this ends up creating those sparks of innovation.

So you have to get the people that understand electrical engineering in tandem with the people that have a business with the people that have a real problem to solve and then you can kind of figure out how to how to take those opportunities. Okay, and then how does riot dot org work to do that primarily through events convening? We operate a little bit as an industry consortium. So being a member or a partner in our organization, we can abstract a lot of the problems that a variety of industries have and then bring those threads together. So hey, the problem that you're solving over here with water management is actually very similar to the problem that agriculture is trying to solve regarding distribution of seeds, you know, like those types of little connections or even in manufacturing, you're trying to reduce the amount of time that the product goes through the cycle, which is oddly similar to how do we get a process done in training?

You know, there's a, there's an incredible amount of abstraction to be done across these different types of industries. Okay, how about hard share dot io how does that work? Yeah, so this is this is my uh my project with, with my partner, um my background is in robotics, with Spyro running the R and D group there and we spun out to form misty robotics and a lot of what we did there was with embedded systems, embedded hardware, you know, we were building stuff in china and testing it locally and then making sure that the software and firmware operated. And it occurred to me back in the beginning of the pandemic that had, that happened when we were in our early phases of our company, everything would have ground to a halt all of our development would like, it would have added six months to a year to our life cycle to get a product out. And so in the early stage of the pandemic, my partner scott Livingston and I had this idea Where if we could have those, you know, very small number of development boards that our team was using.

So I think we had five boards for 30 people. If we could have one of those boards available remotely, then our entire team could access it and dis ambiguity hardware problems from software problems a lot easier. And so we created hard share to do just that. So the core concept is is hardware as a service that's where you can connect devices to a secure and session double platform that anybody could then access, deploy, test and get diagnostics off of hardware. So essentially you are connecting a piece of hardware in a way that is accessible by several people at the same time. Is that right? Not? So, I mean you could do that. Um, so the use cases that we have right now are if you want to teach a class on how to configure and develop for a bluetooth radio to do that today, you'd either have to have everybody in your class have the same hardware and therefore have to get them set up with a variety of machines or what you could do and what we have, you know, customers using it is that you can use hard share to build an array of devices to where everybody can have an individual session on those on those devices.

And then be able to disambiguate like I said the the toolchain environment and then be able to flash program and then see the real results as if you were connected directly to device yourself. It seems to me that that would have a lot of implications, not just in R and D but in things like education or training. And that's then that's a that's a big opportunity here is if you're a field technician for somebody like S T S T micro, you know, a big component maker if your your audiences I'm sure is familiar to get somebody on boarded with something like an F P G A. You either have them by the hardware or you ship them a short term loan with hard share. What you can do is give them access to it remotely have the toolchain set up, have the sample code up and running but then they can reconnect anytime but have a sandbox environment to play in. So you don't have to risk breaking the board or anything like that that is is common in in this scenario and it's and I want to I want to just re articulate that this isn't virtualization of hardware.

It actually takes whatever code you want to deploy and puts it on a physical device. So that's why I say hardware as a service. The same way that people think of software as a service, which is making use of servers and virtualization technology. This is making use of similar techniques but putting it physically on the hardware. Okay, so that's a new business model. How are you going to prevent other people from copying you? There's actually a lot of low level code that you need to write to be able to facilitate what we're doing. So it's it's nontrivial for a competitor to be able to just spin up kind of what we've done. My partner spent a lot of time in his other business, which is called re robots to make, you know, things like robotic arms or you know, autonomous vehicles available for the similar testing principles. And so we've got a lot of very low level control. That is what facilitates this type of connection and, and sand boxing I guess is the other the other part.

So maybe I can flip the question around. So then if if somebody were interested in working with you say SD micro devices comes to you and says, hey, I want to work with you. It seems like you've got a neat system. Then how do you onboard a company like that? So there's two different ways that we do it. We can either host an array of devices on their behalf and then they would have control over who has access for how long or however they want to administer it alternatively. And this is the kind of the real magic of hard share is that one of their team members can set up the array themselves and then be in control of it directly. So all our system needs is a host machine to be able to connect to. You know, let's say they had 10 devices they wanted to make available. All they need is a USB hub and a host machine in a webcam. But you know we can we can go without that depending on what their use cases. But then if they wanted to add sensors or administer, you know, different environments for what they want to showcase or even they wanted to have a customer send them their own board for debugging.

Then they could jointly debug with one person being in control of it but the other person would have sandbox access. Okay. So basically it's a it's a SAS model that we have where we have a setup fee to get the array up and running and then give them administrator access and then it's just a monthly recurring fee for the service. Okay. So then your I. P. Is actually on the code then that makes this happen. Okay. And how are you looking to protect that? So it's a tricky scenario. Um We made a conscious decision not to pursue private equity or venture capital, you know I I I have done that before, you know, and through y Combinator back in the day you know we we raised a few rounds from you know foundry group in bedrock with misty and for this particular product and service, we didn't want to be bound to that VC level return. And this is all just a mechanism for when it comes to I. P. We have to be very careful about how we spend our money and we we don't talk too much about the things that we know that we want to protect with I.

P. But we also realize that because our budgets are limited we need to make sure that we can confirm product market fit. And so unfortunately I. P. Tends to take a little bit of a back burner but we are aware of the things that we're doing that are protect a ble and maybe not being as open about those things. Okay. Yeah. And as I think as long as you are not giving other people access to what you consider are your core I. P. You know really you know it comes it comes back to you know you recognizing that certain code or certain pieces of your business is core I. P. And recognizing that and then making sure that other people don't get access to it. I think then you're doing the right thing, especially in a business where the core I. P. Is going to be software yep into that front we've made our host client open source with the with the intention of if it's if it's open source and being in the public domain, therefore our competitors wouldn't be able to use the client application, you know, as a vector to supplant us.

I guess they could to some degree, but on the on the infrastructure piece. Yeah, that's that's closed. Okay, that makes sense. So do you have competitors that you've identified? How would they come after you? Yeah. So the closest competitor that we would have is actually a Ws the paradigm is similar. However, we feel that it's not a direct competition just because the leg work that it takes to bring certain embedded systems on board. It's complex. And so to spin up a business unit that focuses on that would be prohibitively expensive for a large organization to duplicate hardware as a service, as a, as a concept has been around, but it's always been from what I've seen limited to extremely expensive pieces of hardware. There there is one where you can basically buy GPU time. Right? So for something like crypto mining and that type of thing, But that is a more 1-1 relationship.

Whereas hard share is a little bit more on the session double. And the and the distributed use of embedded systems writ large. Right. That answer your question, I was a little round about yes, amazon web services as a competitor is formidable for sure. But they certainly, you know, I I don't I'm not aware of them other than renting out server time and essentially becoming that rental, you know, processing power and storage and they control all that hardware, they just give users access to it. So it's it's different from what you're talking about, which is essentially shared. I don't know how to how to describe it. Is it shared, R and D axis of, I don't know. Yeah. So the real value proposition of hard share, as I describe it is twofold one for education, it's Access to embedded systems and the secondary one is for product development teams that are making use of hardware.

It is the creation of of a Ci cd pipeline for their hardware, which does not exist today. Okay, so then you mentioned a little bit earlier, one of the things that you are concerned about now, the two adjectives that you use to describe what you're doing is secure and session double. Session double. We've talked about a bunch, how do you ensure the security portion of it? And that's that's kind of the secret sauce of of the the infrastructure that we've built up. Okay, So we we do it in such a way that we are very confident that somebody wouldn't be able to hack access to these devices that are available on our platform that it's it's very tightly controlled. The administrators of the system can change the U. R. L. S that people use to access. We do reporting on session times, even what's been deployed as needed. And so we have a very robust system in place to to control that even to the degree where at the very lowest levels we can block certain activities that's hardware dependent.

So for the robotics piece we can limit movement of a robotic arm, not to go through a wall. And the same thing for you know, radios or something like that. Like you can't send more than 1000 messages a second or what, you know, whatever limiter that we want like we have we have full control over that. So then you're not raising money, you're looking for customers. So what sort of companies would be an ideal customer for you? Any company that sells hardware that wants to broaden access? I think that's that's the top one. So think one of our top metrics is we had two boards to SD micro laurel and discovery boards up on our platform Over a 90 day period. We had over 300 unique sessions on those two boards. So I think In three months 300 times somebody uniquely came to create and flash firmware onto these devices.

For a product organization that deals in hardware, the only way to do that is to sell 300 boards or to give away 300 of them. And you know, you talk about extending your reach. One of the pitches that we have is there's what 23 million software developers on the planet and a much smaller percentage of them or have any experience with hardware. And so this is a way for any product organization that sells hardware in particular to be able to evangelize their platform to be able to show the versatility of it. And then they could, you know, use that for training for education, for testing for, you know, any number of things. So that that would be number one. And then, you know, secondary is education. If you wanted to teach electrical engineers the ins and outs of a pH sensor in an agricultural setting, how would you do that? You'd have to get them to hey, stick this in your backyard and tell me what it reads. Whereas what we can do is we can create a lab environments where we have different soil ph levels.

And then you could remote a session into those devices and then be able to ensure that your software, your solution takes into account these different edge cases. And so it just radically shortens any sort of educational uh, overhead as well as products timelines. So then it seems like there is especially in these crazy times when several of my clients that our hardware companies had to shut down their labs or they all have to work remotely all of a sudden and like you mentioned at the beginning, that's really hard for a hardware company. But your technology would allow R and D and the development to continue even from a remote setting, as long as they have the hardware set up within your system, is that right? Yeah. So one of one of the value propositions that that I've presented is that if you have one prototype device, then your entire team can now write firmware to it.

So you can have your single electrical engineer makes make that device available on hard share and then you can have a global distributed team building to that device, which today you would have to hey steve, can you flash this build on the device and tell me if it breaks or you know, even with diagnostic equipment, if if in a distributed workplace for hardware you have maybe one or two of your team that has the oscilloscopes, the power management tools that, you know, spectrum analyzer, whatever it is. But if you can enable that device to be on hard chair, you can deploy new builds and then see the results from the diagnostic equipment. Like our entire system is api driven so you can you can pipe back whatever data from whatever system you have. So one other thing that, as you're talking here, is this something that would enable remote diagnostics of hardware from anywhere, is it, is that say like a customer, I don't know like a spectra logic or something like that that has complex software that's deployed in the field.

Is this something that may be hard share? An engineer could diagnose problems remotely. So the platform does require a host device. So you know we support Ubuntu and Windows. So it would need one of those environments to be able to connect to the hardware. But the short answer is yes it it would it would depend on what the environment is if you're out in you know an agricultural setting and you wanted to have remote debug access to this node that might be a little harder because you would need to power your host machine to be able to facilitate that connection. Right. But in the event hey this note is is having problems. Let's bring it back to the lab and then I can have you know my team kind of take a look at it and see if it's hardware problem or a software problem. And that's the real value of hardware is that you can immediately dis ambiguity hardware from software because that's what it does.

So then as you're as you're going out and looking for customers looking for you know it sounds like a pilot will be really beneficial for you as you're talking with potential customers. Um Do they ask about I. P. Do they care about I. P. At all? Absolutely. Um And primarily because firmware as intellectual property is extremely proprietary you know it in my previous organizations that was kind of what we are control systems and firmware was something that we we loaded personally onto our products and so that level of control is extremely important which is why we don't store any of that to to facilitate that connection? It's really just the host machine that loads it and then it's gone because of that sessional moment. And so for our customers, that's a that's definitely a question. It's what are you, what are you storing? How do you like if it's not a model where it's, I own any code that you pushed through our platform.

So that becomes a big value proposition for uh for our customers. For sure. Yeah, absolutely. I've seen I've seen product trial contracts where, for example, a telecom company which shall remain nameless. They were trying to get a small startup company to test their equipment. But in the the test and trial contract, it had clauses in it that said any software or hardware that you connect to our test device is going to be owned by us and any improvements that you make to your devices or ours is gonna belong to us. So I've seen some crazy contract terms like that, but it sounds like you are preserving essentially the proprietary of your customers data as well as your own so that you don't get into that situation. Exactly are our business is about enabling access to embedded systems, not about taking whatever application people are riding on those systems and then trying to be predatory about it.

But yeah, that element of trust is a big part of who we are to wrap up, you know, is there anything about either of your organization's so either riot dot org or hard share dot iO is there anything else you'd like our audience to know about your company's? Yeah, Well, and, and I have a question for you, Yuriko. Maybe I'll ask my, I'll say my piece and ask you a question just because I think it's extremely, I've been asked this many times. So for riot and as it relates to intellectual property and equity were set up as a five oh one C three and we were specifically set up to where even though that we run an accelerator program and host a number of events where we're discussing innovation and everything else. We as an organization are not allowed to hold intellectual property or equity in the companies that go through our program. So this works out nicely from an economic development perspective because we have no vested interests in in the organizations that we work with the success of one over another.

So I think that's something that's been pretty unique. Whereas the traditional accelerator model is you give me equity, I'll give you resources and then I'm gonna push really hard for other people to invest in you or, you know, get these contracts or whatever. And so we don't take that model that our metric is job growth. If you can hire one more person that's a win for us. And so discombobulating that financial incentive from like our our incentive is, it has been a big cause for our success. That's interesting about the whole 51 C three A structure because I've seen in a table labs is one where there are and D arm is a nonprofit, So that part is a 501C3, but the accelerator that they run, they have a separate for profit investment arm that runs the accelerator, so that that kind of flips your model around. So then that way the accelerator can take a take equity in the companies that go through the accelerator and that sort of thing.

So it sounds like your, your metrics for riot dot org is just, it's different. It's job growth. Like you said, it's an economic development organization, which I think is really interesting. Is there like a geography involved or are you just essentially trying to promote the IOT industry? We want to operate as a consortium for sure. And given the complexity of the space and how many different players are involved? Our theory is that if we don't have those other hooks, then that element of trust becomes what is valuable for our community. So we can, we can connect people even though they might be competitors without fear of hey, why did you do that? We need, we're invested in this one and not this one. So that that element of trust as a consortium is what we think is a differentiator and the fact that when we can show growth in geography ease then that incentivizes other geography is to work with us? So right now we've got two accelerator programs operating in north Carolina, one operating in Virginia.

I'm personally working on bringing another accelerator here to colorado. And you know, for any any company that wants to learn more about how to engage with that, please reach out. But yeah, so it's it's a it's a very different perspective and I think it works primarily because this is so multidisciplinary. We're well past the realms where one person can have all the knowledge or capabilities to be successful. So as you're talking, you know, I'm thinking about another aspect that I p comes into play, especially for riot dot org. Here is brand Equity. There's a lot of brand equity and trust, especially when you say you're building trust, that's brand equity that you're building, and that's definitely part of your it can be considered trade secrets that can be considered essentially Brand Equity, that you are trying to protect their. So how how does an organization protect brand equity? There are a variety of ways. So the trade secret portion of it is very important.

The trade secret aspect that would fall into things like how you put the different stakeholders together or whether you have, for example, a like a goodwill contract or like a trust contract? How do you ensure that your various stakeholders behave properly. Are there things that you do or are there ground rules that you put in? And some of those things are perfectible? As well as things like maybe maybe even the process of how you vet specific organizations to allow them to join you. I'm assuming that if somebody behaves poorly then they're not going to be allowed in or they have a bad reputation of ripping people off. I'm assuming that those people would get screened out. Mhm. So even processes like that? Internal processes are definitely protect Herbal, although, you know, as a five oh one C three, you're kind of in an in an interesting situation because certain things related to your business, you do have to publish, although you can use executive sessions and that kind of thing is to protect conversations about your specific customers or something like that to you can do that and also, you know, make sure that you do prevent others from using your name or your brand and those can be either done by contracts or trademark filings, those sorts of things to make sure that you are protecting your name and your brand essentially, yeah, that would be an interesting kind of soap box to get on is how to protect brand equity.

Part of setting up a brand equity protection strategy is to essentially make sure that you do have mechanisms two go after people that maybe misuse your name, for example, part of the reason why I bring up trademarks is say if you are able to get a registered trademark on, say riot dot org or your logo or anything else that you might use as marketing collateral. If you are able to protect that, then you would be able to go after other people that try to abuse that or misuse your name. So making sure that you do have that sort of protection mechanism around what you're trying to do and even things like copyrights on. I'm assuming you have you have literature that you've created to describe what you're doing, your websites and all of those, making sure that other people can't just copy you. So copyright notices on on everything, yep, we definitely do.

It's just it's an interesting thing because there's there's always avenues of intellectual property that you don't really think of initially. And even even with hard share, there's a lot of different things that we do. But the strategy behind it has been with intellectual property protection. You have to have money to defend it. And then that and that was my follow up question maybe for you, it's like how have you advised bootstrapped businesses to think about intellectual property? The first thing is to think about it because a lot of people just don't. So the fact that you are thinking about it and you are conscious of the need to have some kind of an I. P strategy. Now, that's great. I think you are already putting some protections in place. It sounds like by making what you consider core I. P. Specifically your software and some of the things the infrastructure that you put around your business model. The fact that you are keeping those essentially you know very close to the vest.

I think that's that's already great. Making sure that you do have you are able to articulate those productions when you are talking with third parties. I think you've already gotten a lot of those things in place as far as specifically for cash strapped bootstrapped companies do what you can for free and don't spend money just because a patent attorney or a patent agent or an I. P. Person tells you oh patents are the way to go because unless you have patents you're not gonna be able to enforce it. Well if you are in an industry where the if you think of your product offering as a black box and you can show other people the black box and show what that black box does. So you can say here's the input and then this is the output that comes out of my black box.

You don't need to get into the details of what goes on inside the black box. But here's the magic that happens. You put in this input and the outcomes this output. This result. And if you're if you can get your customers just at that level by describing your products and your services at that level. Great. There's no reason why you need to spend any more money protecting what's inside the black box. I think the only time that you may consider maybe digging deeper is if your investors or your customers, I want to know more about what's in the black box and you feel that you need to describe more about your what goes on inside your black box in order to win that sale. So if you are able to talk about your product without having to get into that level of detail, then I think you're fine. And I think it's all but the enterprise ones for us that they would want that level of detail and we do have an an enterprise offering where if they wanted to self host the entire infrastructure we can do it.

It's just going to be very expensive, expensive and make sure that you have really good contracts. Yes. Yes. Yeah, that is 100%. You know, if I have any advice for people read your contracts thoroughly with somebody that knows what to look for. Yes. And I know you've got lots of stories around that but you know, we won't get into that in this episode but I really appreciate you joining us chris that was really fun. Cool. So we hope you enjoyed this episode of novel and non obvious podcast and feel free to send us comments or suggestions for startup and I p related topics you'd like us to discuss on this podcast. At info at patents integrated dot com. Our producer is Joel Davis of analog digital. Our marketing specialist is tim Sprinkle of Layup content. Our theme music used with permission is the Workday Takato from A Life In a Day, composed by Sherry slider and performed by Michelle Stanley and flute, Jeff Quattro on guitar and your Australian child. Here's our obligatory disclaimer. The content of this podcast is informational only and not intended to be legal advice.

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Chris Meyer: Inside the Growing Ecosystem of the IoT
Chris Meyer: Inside the Growing Ecosystem of the IoT
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