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Innovation and Bureaucracy

This is the second of a series of interviews I will be conducting with members of the Machine Commons supplier Collective. Subscribe to the site to be alerted about future posts.

Steven Boylan is a co-founder of trt:labs, a Berlin based startup focusing on Innovation through Virtual / Augmented Reality and AI.

Trt:labs is also part of what they call an ‘innovation cluster’, offering their clients the experience of a large consultancy with the flexibility and cost-effectiveness of a startup.

How’s business in the pandemic era - have you felt much impact?

“Well, VR took a backseat, because, well, obviously passing glasses from one person to another has been, umm, cancelled!”

“2020 started really strong but everything is now on pause. Clients keep pausing projects. It’s just difficult times.”

“For one of the big innovation departments we’re talking to, we had a demo date setup - every month the secretary sends me a ‘postponed’ email.”

“That’s the story. Every month people are interested but they keep postponing.”

“There’s just a red line: VR was not corona safe.”

Tell me about what you do.

“We do innovation as a service. We basically do what we can do for the price of an AI Engineer. We can do a full analysis to see where tech can play a role in innovating their services and then help them create an MVP and bring it to market.”

“We take these really ethereal concepts and outline pragmatic ways forward for clients.”

"Just because you have an AI programmer doesn’t mean you have someone who knows how to bring an AI solution to market.”

I have heard that one before.

Cool! So. What do you do?

“I have two business partners and we each have differing skillsets. One partner also operates an innovation consultancy based in the Spanish market. The idea is to eventually keep spinning off innovative products through trt:labs – for this, we came up with the idea of the ‘innovation cluster’.”

“There are multiple SMEs and consultants in the cluster, so for any one project we can bring in other partners on a project basis.”

“Cutting edge stuff, but with a market focus. (…robotics, EdTech, 3D Design, FinTech, InsureTech, training programs, Smart Buildings, process automation…)”

Awesome! So, wait... What do you do??

He laughs, “Well, we have been trying to define this more clearly ourselves over the past few months!”

Steven returns, armed with a slideshow.

Alongside their process of ‘Enable’, ‘Drive’ and ‘Deliver’, the presentation contains a list of currently running innovation projects:

- One involves the automation of software integration, testing, deployment and operation.

- Another involves AI enabled simulations to create smarter predictive maintenance using simulations (digital twins).

- They also have an industrial-grade verification and validation project for evolving systems (investigating ways to validate and verify neural-network code).

--This is just a personal observation; I've noticed many technical minds in this industry struggle to articulate exactly what it is they do without getting into detail.--

Sounds like clever stuff. Some of their other prior experience includes:

- Visual tracking and analysis of factory floor components.

- Intelligent VR for industrial training, resulting in an ‘intelligent adaptive careers engine’.

- Improving HVAC systems by using 5G slicing to automate smart building controls.

“Each project is different and it depends entirely on the client to what level we get involved, but we can easily deliver an MVP every 6 to 8 months if required.”

Are you focusing on AI?

“Let’s be honest, machine learning will power just about everything in the future. It’s behind almost all of the major advances in AI now and AI will soon be powering everything.”

Tell me more about the innovation landscape in the EU.

“In Europe there are centralised government funded areas for innovation.”

“You can answer a given call or you can propose a project. For example, let’s say you have a problem packaging suitcases (i.e. for Lufthansa). For every one packed wrongly you can maybe pack two more suitcases. It’s small, but you think about the number of aircraft, multiply by the number of places… you’re losing huge amounts of cargo space.”

“So, you propose a solution: an AI scanner to scan all luggage, calculating optimal packing.”

What happens next?

“It’s a transnational industry driven R&D and innovation program, funneled through the public sector.”

“The EU has dozens of these funding vehicles, but we concentrate on those specifically for Innovation.”

They help clients create a proposal, find EU based partners and manage the submission process. This leads to project management and final delivery.

“This can involve finding initial partners as potential customers for them to develop the project with, co-developing parts of the software with our cluster partners or even helping them to spin the research off into a product or startup at the end of the process.”

Is your progress or focus as a firm as a result of these projects?

“Yes, at the minute.”

Why only for now?

“There’s a lot of documentation. A lot of bureaucratic tape to cross. Lots of waiting. It can be months before the ok, then years for the delivery of the project.”

“…70 page documentation...” (I may have groaned).

“It’s a highly political and complicated game in Europe."

"What we would prefer to do is to create outsourced innovation for private companies to avoid this red tape and produce, test and get solutions to the market much more quickly and efficiently.”

Where would funding come from?

“The companies – SMEs, Startups and Corporates. Our idea is that instead of paying for a range of individual staff (project managers, innovation managers, engineers, etc.), instead, hire our cluster of experts for the price of one or two experts.”

“The EU funding is fine at the minute, as it’s paying the bills. But the time involved in coordinating all the documentation is exhausting.”

“Every company really needs an innovation department to keep up, but most don’t have the structure to manage it. We’d help them and link up with the public sector for funding if necessary (though they would need to dedicate a certain amount of HR to each project!).”

“We’re an alternative to big companies that need huge research budgets. We can develop a PoC to show how technologies like AI can be adopted/used quickly and affordably.”

What are the challenges? How do you get clients to allocate internal R&D budgets to you?

“Still very early in the process. We have references – they help, but it’s mainly contacts in our network that open the right doors.”

What are you most excited for in the future?

“Technology is evolving SO fast!”

“Take GPT-2 (language prediction technology). It was released near the end of 2018. based on 1.5 billion parameters.”

“Now it’s late 2020 and GPT-3 uses 175 billion parameters.

The advancement of this technology is brutal.

"We’re talking about AI that can write computer code and has interacted with Redditers for weeks without them realising they were talking to a bot! And before 2020 is up, there is talk of

“Transformers” outperforming GPT-3!! I’m really excited about what where this is going and we can do with this tech!!!”

“This stuff can so easily escape you if you’re only focused on business. It takes a lot of time and effort to get really deep into technology this advanced and truly understand “how can this technology add real value to my business?’. With each topic, there’s 50 different subtopics so if you are not really techy, it is so easy to get lost and end up drowning in a sea of acronyms!”

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