Startup founders at new 5G Open Innovation Lab explain how they’ve adjusted to the COVID-19 crisis

It’s certainly been a unique inaugural cohort for the 5G Open Innovation Lab (5G OI Lab), a new startup program funded by T-Mobile, Intel, and NASA. But participating entrepreneurs are making the most of their time, particularly as the demand for some 5G-enabled technologies accelerates amid the COVID-19 crisis.

The Bellevue, Wash.-based lab debuted in early May and will wrapped up its first program — held virtually due to the pandemic — this week.

The 14 companies are working in tandem with a variety of partners from the public and private spheres, with the goal of growing their business in the midst of an economic and health crisis.

We caught up with six of the startups to learn more about how they’ve adjusted over the past several months and how they are using 5G to their advantage. They also provided advice to other entrepreneurs. The lab is accepting applications for its fall and spring 2021 cohorts.

Taqtile

Taqtile founders Dirck Schou, CEO, and John Tomizuka, CTO.

Founders: Dirck Schou, CEO, and John Tomizuka, CTO.

Headquarters: Seattle, Wash.

What does your company do? Taqtile builds enterprise AR software that makes everyone an expert by arming frontline workers with an intuitive tool to easily capture knowledge, perform complex tasks, and collaborate with remote experts in previously impossible ways.

What makes you different from the competition? What’s your secret sauce? Usability. Our Manifest platform is the most complete, end-to-end AR work-instruction platform for enterprises on the market. It’s designed to be effortless for experts to capture and author their knowledge, and for frontline users to accurately, efficiently, and safely put that knowledge to use in the field.

How has your business been affected by COVID-19 and how are you adapting? While COVID-19 has delayed several companies from deploying enterprise solutions, we’ve seen significant new interest in Manifest by demonstrating how feasible and beneficial remote work processes and distance-enabling technologies can be.

How are you using 5G technology? How does it make a difference for your company? Our Manifest AR platform works amazingly well on today’s commonly used networks, and it will be even more powerful on 5G. Most noticeably, the edge-computing design of 5G is going to dramatically improve throughput, resolve latency issues, and increase security for enterprise customers.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give other entrepreneurs who are just starting out? Prepare for a marathon, not a sprint. Establish your cheering section of believers and cultivate your connectors because you never know where you’ll encounter that one connection that is going to change your business’ trajectory. And refine your ability to write and articulate what makes you unique. Your customers, employees, and investors buy the story, not the technology.

Numurus

Numurus founders Jason Seawall, CEO, and Ian McKissick, COO.

Founders: Jason Seawall, CEO, and Ian McKissick, COO.

Headquarters: Seattle, Wash.

What does your company do? Numurus offers B2B connectivity solutions between edge devices and cloud services focused on industrial and defense applications. Numurus’ flagship product NEPI is a smart IoT subscription platform that combines a secure IoT backbone, edge-device management, and cloud-portal management, with integrated AI services. With NEPI, product developers can rapidly transform their sensors and robotic technologies into smart IoT enabled solutions making them both more capable and more valuable to the end customer.

What makes you different from the competition? What’s your secret sauce? NEPI provides device manufacturers with a turnkey, affordable solution to meet the growing demands for Industry 4.0 capabilities. Instead of expensive and time-consuming in-house development, NEPI delivers the smart link that can bring an IoT application to the market in a competitive time frame. For a sensor or robot company, NEPI is the secret sauce that gets its commercial application to market and more profitable!

How has your business been affected by COVID-19 and how are you adapting? Today’s current situation related to COVID-19 has further motivated many asset operators to increase the adoption of smart device deployments that can reduce on-site personnel and ensure operational continuity. NEPI is working with companies to develop smart IoT applications that can support remote device management, remote facility maintenance, and inspection.

How are you using 5G technology? How does it make a difference for your company? Numurus’ NEPI platform provides integrated communications gateways for our IoT customers. Adding the 5G support, with its high bandwidth and low-latency characteristics, opens up new NEPI use-cases related to augmented reality, robotic teleoperations, and distributed artificial intelligence.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give other entrepreneurs who are just starting out? First, clearly define what your company does, not the underlying technology, and use that statement consistently, both internally for road-mapping and externally with potential customers. Second, build an MVP product and start bringing in revenue as fast as possible. Third, don’t give up!

Evolute

Kristopher Francisco, CEO.

Founders: Kristopher Francisco, CEO.

Headquarters: San Francisco, Calif.

What does your company do? Evolute enables Fortune 500 IT Managers to run software at the edge without a human operator. Unlike VMware, we can transform software to its most modular form, scale it up and down as a service, and manage without human intervention.

What makes you different from the competition? What’s your secret sauce? Evolute has Infrastructure AI, which allows us to seamlessly understand and transform software into its most modular and transportable form. With this deep level of insight, unlike other competitors, we can manage and operate the software at the edge without a human operator.

For companies in the energy industry, the cost of IT interruption or data loss to drilling can be up to $25K/hour. With an average of 70 deployments, for flagship edge teams, we’re saving over $1.75M/hour in no downtime computing. This ability to remove the human operator increases the value of the IT function and translates to $100M of business impact, for IoT and energy providers, for example, at the edge.

How has your business been affected by COVID-19 and how are you adapting? As a stealth mode startup, we anticipated that our customer base could dissipate. It turns out that digital transformation is on the rise during COVID-19. With the limited ability to access physical systems and data centers, companies need more remote operations technologies, such as our Edge Data Management Interface and the ability to achieve more in their enterprise clouds using our software.

We, like others, are seeing an approximately 75% uptick in customer demand. As one of our partners stated, “We used to take three years to do two weeks of digital transformation activity. Now we see three years of digital transformation happen in 3 weeks.” Companies must accelerate to more scalable, hands-off, new technologies quickly during this time.

How are you using 5G technology? How does it make a difference for your company? We are leveraging 5G in multiple ways. Evolute’s Edge Platform has two core components, our Intelligent Infrastructure software, and our Edge Data Management Interface. For our Intelligent Infrastructure Platform, we can use 5G network connectivity, down to a small x86 cluster, akin to the computer equipment used for telecommunication provider’s radio towers. Whether these small footprint, high-performance systems are being used on an oil rig or a shipping vessel, at all areas where power and space are a commodity we can bring an autonomous system to handle the critical software and computing infrastructure needed at the edge.

For Evolute’s Edge Data Management Interface (EDMI), we can use all devices (phones, laptops, servers, network devices) to provide increased performance and reliability. Through EDMI, we can deliver software and data 20X faster to the edge. 5G is a critical component that gives us the speed and the increase in communications reliability to achieve that.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give other entrepreneurs who are just starting out?  I have a formula for innovation that I have presented as the “net present value” of software code.

First, I recommend new entrepreneurs to pick a dream bigger than what seems possible. I challenge you to create a technology that stands out from the crowd, taking vision and execution.

Second, work backward on the set of capabilities which would have to come together to make it a reality. Prototype and validate functionality, preferably with a potential customer. The only thing that matters first is the software’s validation.

From there, your goal is only to get five (B2B) or 500 people (B2C) saying they are game. Everything is just pushing numbers and business models after that (i.e., scaling it).

Here’s your rubric: If it takes you three months to build, you should be able to return 10X value in 12 months. If it requires 12 months to build it out, you had better return 10X the value within three years. Again, everything is just numbers and business models after that.

iUNU

Adam Greenberg, CEO of IUNU.

Founders: Adam Greenberg, CEO.

Headquarters: Seattle, Wash.

What does your company do?  iUNU provides an AI & machine vision platform called LUNA to help growers make data- driven decisions, optimize their yield, and perfect shipment dates.

What makes you different from the competition? What’s your secret sauce? Our system gives growers the tools for comprehensive remote management by allowing them to see exactly what’s going on in their greenhouses at all times of the day and night, via a laptop or our phone app. No one else can offer comprehensive coverage of an entire farm, monitoring and optimizing every plant remotely. As a core team value, we are pushing to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity for local, sustainable, and nutritious produce.

How has your business been affected by COVID-19 and how are you adapting? While we miss the culture that comes from working next to each other, we’re doing the same as our customers are doing — doing more with less. We’re working remotely and our business has increased as greenhouses realize the value iUNU offers during a time when even one employee testing positive can shut down an entire production line.

How are you using 5G technology? How does it make a difference for your company? The ability to move voluminous amounts of data across multiple platforms means our customers can access more information over a shorter period of time. This frees them up to spend more of their day solving their problems instead of analyzing their problems. With 5G technology, we’re now able to build out several new features that provide multiple benefits to our customers without the overhead of installing a WiFi network.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give other entrepreneurs who are just starting out? Keep in mind that in order to succeed you have to fail, no one gets it right the first time. We celebrate failure at every team meeting so we can all learn from individual mistakes. Always treat your employees like your most valuable resource, because without them, you can’t scale.

Mutable

Mutable co-founders Vache Asatryan, co-Founder & CPO; Antonio “Pelle” Pellegrino, co-Founder & CEO; Nathalie Zadoks (Edef), co-Founder & CTO.

Founders: Vache Asatryan, co-founder & CPO; Antonio “Pelle” Pellegrino, co-founder & CEO; Nathalie Zadoks (Edef), co-founder & CTO.

Headquarters: New York City, NY, but engineering and product development is done primarily in Amsterdam, The Netherlands and Yerevan, Armenia.

What does your company do? Mutable is an edge computing startup building a “Public Edge Cloud” that delivers faster, cheaper, greener, and more secure internet experiences. While traditional cloud computing requires data to be sent to massive data centers hundreds of KMs away for processing, deploying a cloud “on the edge” (in other words: as geographically close to the end-user as possible) makes it possible to process data much faster and more securely. This opens up possibilities for telemedicine, autonomous vehicles, and better-networked devices.

Mutable’s “Public Edge Cloud” closely resembles the Airbnb model: enabling telecommunications companies (and other firms who own their own data centers) to make extra money by “renting” their unused server space to the public. These third party developers can use the extra computing power to develop cybersecurity, high bandwidth, and latency-focused applications for the Internet.

What makes you different from the competition? What’s your secret sauce? While large data center operators like AWS, Microsoft’s Azure, and Google Cloud are just now understanding the potential of deploying on the Edge, by building our software infrastructure from scratch, we have the unique ability to build scalable and infinitely adaptable solutions for each one of our clients’ needs rather than a “one size fits all” solution like bigger players offer.

Unlike private cloud service providers like Openstack and Redhat, we create new sources of revenue for server owners by opening up their compute to third party developers. Since Mutable’s OS runs on top of any servers, we make ubiquitous compute more easily available for developers, while also empowering telcos and cable operators to improve their customer experiences.

How has your business been affected by COVID-19 and how are you adapting? At the same time as upending “business as usual,” COVID-19 also served to highlight the importance of reliable network infrastructure supporting mobile applications in our increasingly touch-less societies. While we were definitely moving in this direction before, we expect that being exposed by the pandemic will accelerate the adoption of edge solutions across sectors.

On a more personal note, the COVID pandemic has also changed the way we interact as a team with many now dealing with physical isolation as we shelter in place. This has led us to be much more empathetic towards each other in our weekly calls. The same has even transcended to our relations with partner companies as well — we’re keeping the conversation going until things open up again and we can get some of our projects rolling with them.

How are you using 5G technology? How does it make a difference for your company? Mutable’s public edge cloud is designed to facilitate developer app deployments through 5G. When crucial actions are being completed by these types of smart apps, latency needs to be as low as possible to make sure machine error is minimized. Mutable will leverage 5G networking capabilities to provide a ten-fold decrease in latency for app deployment over 4G.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give other entrepreneurs who are just starting out? This might sound corny, but it’s just so true and needs to be said: don’t bother starting out on any entrepreneurial journey unless you know you’re doing something you’re passionate about, because you’re going to be married to that concept for a long time. You’re going to go through a lot — and that sort of perseverance requires a true appreciation for your craft.

Transparent Path

Transparent Path CEO Eric Weaver.

Founders: Eric Weaver, CEO.

Headquarters: Seattle, Wash.

What does your company do? We combine IoT sensors, blockchain security, and artificial intelligence to create a more agile, efficient, and certain supply chain for American food companies.

What makes you different from the competition? What’s your secret sauce? Unlike others creating point solutions that create value within silos, Transparent Path is unifying data across all partners within food supply chains: producers, processors, logistics, warehouse/DC, and retailers. By capturing and sharing data across the chain, we are creating a collaborative supply chain model that provides information more quickly to all parties.

How has your business been affected by COVID-19 and how are you adapting? If anything, COVID-19 revealed that our previously efficient supply chain for food is just as vulnerable to pandemic-related labor shortages as other sectors. We’ve all seen the news reports of outbreaks at food processing centers, impacting production, along with stories of farmers discarding unsellable product while food banks have been drained due to high demand. Logistics was hit when drivers were unable to find open restaurants, rest areas, truck stop showers, or parking spots in state parks.

What became obvious was the need for increased agility across the entire supply chain that would allow food companies to react more quickly to counter uncertainty and unforeseen disruption. That COVID disruption gave us the push to shift our focus from an efficiency play to one that creates efficiency, agility, and resilience

How are you using 5G technology? How does it make a difference for your company? Our utilization of 5G will come into play over the next 12-to-18 months. While most benefit messaging around 5G relates to speed, we are eager to utilize its much broader bandwidth.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give other entrepreneurs who are just starting out? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “doesn’t sound like a viable idea.” “You’re not really CEO caliber.” “Someone already dominates that market.” Honestly, it’s like people WANT you to quit.

Take in advice, listen when good points are made, but also consider the source and the motive when the advice is negative. Lots of unhappy people out there right now. Don’t let their lack of imagination and enthusiasm drag you down.

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