Read Time: 15 minutes
Welcome to Episode 40 of Students vs. Startups. This week, moderator John Gilroy talks with the Co-founder of Upskill, Jeff Jenkins. Upskill's platform enables workers to become more effective through the use of wearable technology. Think Tom Cruise in Minority Report... but in real life!
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John Gilroy: Welcome to Students vs. Startups showdown on the Potomac. My name is John Gilroy and I'll be your moderator today. Hey, round of applause for show number 40.
John Gilroy: Whoa, rounding the bend, 4-0. Yeah. Well, I haven't been dragged off to prison yet, so we must be doing something right. If you've listened to the podcast before, you know what this is all about. We're at the Eastern Foundry here in Rosslyn, Virginia. It's kind of like occupy Eastern Foundry, occupy, so they occupy a conference room. We have a long table, one side of the table three students, one side of this table a startup, ask questions for about 26 minutes and then we all go to a brewery. No. We all leave here fast friends, and hopefully everyone learns a little bit about maybe starting up companies and strategy, and everything else. What I normally do is introduce the students first. We have three students here. We have Toni Jackman, Mike Abel, and Arthur Deegan. Toni's one of my past students, a graduate, she has a master's degree in Technology Management from the School of Continuing Studies at Georgetown University. Toni, a little about your background please.
Toni Jackson: I did 24 years in the Army and retired as a lieutenant colonel. Then I went into academia and began teaching, was a program director, and decided that my first master's in information systems was outdated, so I went back and got another one, and now I teach at UMUC as an adjunct in their health informatics administration department.
John Gilroy: Do you happen to have a black belt in karate?
Toni Jackson: Yes, I do.
John Gilroy: Well, be polite to her. Yes, Miss Toni. Michael, you have to be real polite with Toni, tonight. No. Tell us about your background, please.
Mike Abel: Hi, everybody. My name is Mike Abel. I am a 2012 graduate of Georgetown University with the School of Continuing Studies, and I work as a service delivery manager for ActioNet.
John Gilroy: We have two people who have accomplished the master’s degree, we have one want to be, and the want to be is Art Deegan.
Arthur Deegan: I hate to break it to you, but I just finished up in August.
John Gilroy: Oh. No. I thought you were a want to be a month a go, then, huh?
Arthur Deegan: Yeah. I don't know how, but they gave me a degree.
John Gilroy: They did. Wow. It must have been some bribery involved, is what I think.
Arthur Deegan: I just started a new job at the School of Continuing Studies as a program director.
John Gilroy: Wow.
Arthur Deegan: Hopefully it had something to do with it.
John Gilroy: That's good. That's a good group, here. Our startup today is Jeff Jenkins, he works for an interesting little company, and it's called, Upskill. He's the cofounder and CTO. Jeff, a little background, please.
Jeff Jenkins: Yeah. My background, I actually spent most of my early career as a solution's consultant, so the type of person that would come in and architect, and then lead a team, or build a team to implement some form of technology solution for both the midmarket, and enterprise customers, whether it be any sort of custom, we called them like the three letter systems, your CRM's, ERP's, WMS, MES, the list kind of goes on and on. But, that was a lot of the interest for me in terms of when we started Upskill was sort of seeing the other side of the technology challenges that a lot of our customers have now, and getting to see what the backend of that looked like and use that to inform a lot of what we're doing, now, that's much closer to what we would call the edge of the workforce.
John Gilroy: Practical, too, isn't it? It seems very practical and down to earth a lot of stuff you do.
Jeff Jenkins: Absolutely. What we do at Upskill is we build a platform, or provide a platform that's called Skylight, and what Skylight allows our customers to do is enable their workforce with wearable technology. The idea here, the benefit for our customers is that when you have a workforce that's empowered, and enabled with digital technology actually at the point of hands on work, and has access to all of the data that's flowing through your backend systems, and all of the reference materials that you can actually dramatically increase efficiency, and the quality of the output, and also safety, too, for the workers.
John Gilroy: Let's say we're sitting in the Metro, I turn to you and go, "Hey, Jeff, what business problem does your company solve?"
Jeff Jenkins: Yeah. Well, it's a great question, and it's a really wide array of when we say, hands on work, I mean, think of the number of companies that have some sort of hands on component associated with them, and it's just huge. You know, some of the best examples that you can think of are ones that involve complex assembly, so anytime you're building something that's really big, or complicated think like an airplane the amount of detail that goes into that, and the complexity of those assembly tasks, that's a fantastic example of what we make more efficient. Also, use cases where you're moving things from place to place. Think of logistics. That's another area where we can increase efficiency. Also, service and maintenance, those as well.
John Gilroy: Yeah. Good. Tell me, it sounds like real cool stuff here, doesn't it?
Toni Jackson: Yes, it does.
John Gilroy: Do you have a question for Jeff, please
Toni Jackson: Yes, I do. Why and how did you start your company?
Jeff Jenkins: Okay. If we're thinking back, we actually, I met my cofounders, and we were involved, well, I met some of my cofounders very early on in life, the other cofounder I actually met in the process of delivering solutions to the government, specifically to the military, and if you think of one of the areas, the first areas, you're probably going to see technologies, or you would have seen, rather, technologies like augmented reality, and this type of stuff. It's exactly in that space. We were involved in projects that were delivering real time intelligence to operators through heads up displays, and took a step back and said to ourselves well you know, what's the larger market look like for this? Obviously there's a lot of use for this technology in that space, but where else could you use it?
As we started to do that analysis we found just a huge number of businesses out there that also could be made more efficient, maybe not as much more in the military it was very much a safety concern to keep our soldiers safe, whether it was a checkpoint, or something like that, and doing identification of people as they come through, whether it was one of those scenarios, they wanted to have their hands on weapon, for safety reasons. If they were in the field, and it was a medical scenario the more time they can spend on the patient in that golden time period the higher the chances of survival and of successful treatment are, so we said, "Okay. If they want to keep their hands either on weapon, or on the patient, well, what other things are there where you want to keep your hands on your work, and still have access to information about what it is you're doing, and how can that make you better?" That led us to that expiration of the larger enterprise space, and we kind of took a step back and took a deep breath and said, "Wow. There's a lot of application throughout so many different industries," and that's when we decided to take our business from just the government sector and open it up to the wider enterprise, and go from there.
John Gilroy: You know, Michael I used to be a “shade tree” mechanic, I'd work on cars, I'd go to my Chilton manual, come back, Chilton manual would have smudge on there and then use some four letter words, and go back. I mean, it's so practical, isn't it? As it sounds, doesn't it?
Mike Abel: It really is and I really enjoyed going to your website and doing a little research on this. There was a use case on there, which was really interesting it involved a drilling crew-
Jeff Jenkins: Yep.
John Gilroy: Yeah.
Arthur Deegan: And, a big piece of machinery that look like it had broken down, and they sent a tech out, and the tech was able to put on his glasses and interface back to the guy sitting in front of the manuals and say, "Yep. This is what I got to do and get squared away pretty quickly," I thought that was real interesting. It seems rather ambitious though, and aggressive to put together that type of product especially at an enterprise level, it must have taken a lot of man power initially to get that scored away.
Jeff Jenkins: Yeah, it did. I think some of the biggest challenges from the technology standpoint are an ever evolving set of devices. If you're familiar with the devices that are on the market, and that you see obviously you know Google Glass made a huge amount of media, ripples, I guess would be the best way to say it with their announcements, and you're dealing with new hardware that's sort of constantly evolving, and has been, it's been this very rapid process of evolving to a point where it can be used on the work floor, whether that be inside of a warehouse, or on a manufacturing line, or what have you.
The hardware is now at that point for us, which is fantastic, but I think a lot of the early challenges and manpower was about figuring out for us these are brand new kinds of devices, how do we make them, what does the user experience feel like? How does that work for a user? We're very used to cell phones and tablet, or I should say smart phones, and tablets, and laptops, and those usage paradigms, but it changes drastically when you put the device on your head, and you're looking through it instead of at and how you interact with it, and that kind of a thing. That was a lot of our early effort was figuring out those pieces, and then applying all the knowledge that we had about how enterprise systems work, and how to build something that was enterprise grade, and then apply that to that technology set.
John Gilroy: You know, Arthur, I remember Google Glass didn't get a very strong reception in many areas, a few years back, I remember, don't you? A question for Jeff, please.
Arthur Deegan: Yeah. Well, I guess Google Glass is one good example, but are you using, then I guess third party like a werewolves, are you doing like Fitbits? Are you just tracking people's movements and kind of energy expelled? At what level do you make your own kind of software or hardware?
Jeff Jenkins: Sure.
Mike Abel: Or, are you kind of leaching off others?
Jeff Jenkins: We do not create hardware, ourselves, so we rely on OEM partners to actually build the hardware, and Google is certainly one of those, they're a great partner. There are other device manufacturers in this space, as well, that create glasses based devices, Vuzix is a great example. There's also companies like, even Microsoft, for example, if you've seen HoloLens, that they're starting to enter the market. Recon is also really another interesting example of a company that was acquired, that was actually originally targeting cyclists, and athletes for having heads-up displays.
A lot of our focus is in the heads-up display realm, simple because of the ability over those displays to A, act in a hands free manner, and B, provide a sort of constant feedback to the user, so we focus on those a lot, and there is a wide, and even widening array of those devices coming to market. I think to your point with Google it was very interesting early on, because they had launched that product as a consumer product and we're a very different company, consumers aren't really our focus.
John Gilroy: Yes.
Jeff Jenkins: I think the market has come around to that direction, but it wasn't initially that way.
John Gilroy: Yeah. Toni, back on healthcare, a lot of application here.
Toni Jackson: Yeah. You were saying earlier, because I heard you say, the golden hour, I went, yes, I understand that completely, but what type of applications do you have that actually, I would say, or do you have anything that would actually allow a provider to either train in a virtual space, or actually use while they can actually do some sort of patient treatment?
Jeff Jenkins: Sure. For us, as a startup, we had to be very “choosy” and kind of pick and choose where we attacked first, because we got limited resources, and we need to make sure sort of we got maximum bang for every buck. With healthcare there is a huge amount of potential use case in healthcare, there is also a lot of extra regulation, and navigating the business of healthcare is a challenge in and of itself, and one that myself and my other cofounders didn't really have a lot of background in. We had background with enterprise systems. We had background with the military, and the intelligence community, but we didn't really have background with the healthcare space, so we've shied away from that, for now.
There are certainly massive amounts of opportunity for those types of use cases, whether it be access to patient information while you're giving care, or whether it's, we talked briefly about the see what I see capabilities that these devices provide, in terms of saying, maybe I have a specialist physician that is halfway across the hospital, halfway across the country, or halfway across the world, and letting them dial in and see through your eyes. But, all of that is absolutely possible, but as you well know in the medical space, getting new devices, and getting new technology into that space has a very high bar to cross that was a little bit disconcerting for us, kind of right out of the gate. But, I think we'll probably circle around there in the long run.
John Gilroy: Michael, any application here in the information technology? I don't know?
Mike Abel: I can see plenty of uses for it. I mean, anytime that you can take a smart guy and have him sit at home and be able to interface with the people out in the field who are actually doing the work, that saves him a trip. It makes a lot of sense. With that in mind, knowing that this is so cutting edge, what is your company strategy with regards to R and D, and taking this further? What do you see over the course of the next couple years, in terms of advancements in this area?
Jeff Jenkins: That's one of the things that's really cool about starting a company like this, and I think for working for a company like this for our engineers is that to some extent every day is a little bit of R and D for our engineers, specifically for our software engineers. But, we do have a specific function that we invest fairly heavily in, because as I mentioned before the devices are evolving so rapidly, if you look at the evolution of the smart phone over the past 10 years, you know, Apple is dropping the iPhone X, now, it wasn't that long ago that we were just going into stores trying to figure out what the iPhone was in the first place. That kind of acceleration, that same pace, and velocity is carrying through to the smart glasses and wearables market, so these devices are enhancing themselves, or I shouldn't say enhancing themselves, the companies that are making them are enhancing them at a rate that's equally as fast as traditional smart phones, maybe faster.
In that case, we have to actually have a dedicated group of engineers that's focused on evaluating new devices that come out, and we evaluate those not only on technical merit, but also on production merit, can they deliver at the scale that our customers, or folks like GE, or Boeing need to be able to buy many, many numbers of these units, are they able to produce them at that scale, and do they meet the technical requirements to be able to actually perform the functions that we want to? We have even a small startup, we have a dedicated number of engineers that does nothing but sort of R and D efforts.
John Gilroy: Arthur, it sounds like Star Wars, here, doesn't it?
Arthur Deegan: Yeah. I mean, I guess, you got to battle the Empire and stuff, but to me I see these wearables, I see these great applications, we talked about healthcare, and then right now, you have customers like GE, and Boeing, I mean, certainly when you're putting in the capability of broadcasting what someone sees to someone else, there's a big risk of someone that isn't supposed to see something getting to see it, so are GE, Boeing and other companies asking about what type of security measures you're implementing? If so, what do you answer with?
Jeff Jenkins: They absolutely are. That's chief among their concerns. I mean, these devices are A, they're smaller and they're actually easier to walk off with in some case than a smart phone or a tablet, so there's that to begin with, and then there's that concept of the camera is always on, or is the camera always on? We provide our customers a lot of options in terms of what they do and don't enable, and when you are or are not consuming certain data from the devices, so that's one level.
And, our software platform is actually built with all of the tricks, and secrets, and all the things that we learned both doing work for the military, and doing work in our past lives for Fortune 500's and Global 3,000 kind of companies to make sure that data at risk is encrypted, and data in flight is encrypted, and making sure that we're using FIPS compliant algorithms, so that we can go in and we can say, "The code that we're using has a stamp of certification," to make sure that when it comes to, whether it's the PII of the individuals using the system, or effected by the system, but also for a lot of these guys this is like the Coke recipe for some of them. You know? You have a very specific way of doing things in your business, and that's your secret sauce. Especially for big logistics companies, and folks who are making big products, so they want to make sure they protect that information just as well as people's personal information.
John Gilroy: You know, Jeff, I think of Boeing and aerospace, I think of Seattle, I think of Toulouse, France, I think of Wichita for smaller planes. Why Washington, DC for a product like this, it just doesn't make sense to me?
Jeff Jenkins: Yeah. It's a function of where we started, in a lot of sense is we started out doing work in the intelligence community in the government space, so we opened our headquarters, here, and that made sense. The venture capital firm that is backing us NEA is one of the firms that backs us, they are both, well they're all over the world, but they certainly have offices here in DC, as well as out in the bay area, and through a recent acquisition we acquired a company called, Pristine, that's located in Austin, and their capabilities have been brought into our product to make our video sharing and our “ see what I see” video even better, and have best of breed capabilities there.
John Gilroy: SpaceX, Austin, yeah, that's why, that's the technology I'm thinking.
Jeff Jenkins: And, Austin is a perfect hub for this kind of technology, too. For the most part, our workforce is very flexible, in terms of where they're located, and Austin, DC make great hubs, and we also have some people stationed out in the bay area, too, because that makes sense, as well.
John Gilroy: Any questions, Toni?
Toni Jackson: Do you find that you have in this very specific field, do you have a lot of competitors?
Jeff Jenkins: The interesting thing about that question is that actually there are some folks who are attacking this field sort of along with us. In the past they've been very focused on point solutions. On I'm going to write an application that runs on Google Glass that does maybe it's pick and pack, or maybe it's a one specific kind of procedure. Our advantage from day one has been that we developed a platform that can adapt to a multitude of use cases, and doesn't have to be rebuilt for every single one. There are certainly folks attacking this, but I'd actually venture to say that our biggest competitor is the status quo. When we go into a lot of these customers there isn't a line item, yet, on their budget that says, wearable technology, and there isn't an incumbent competitor that we're trying to beat out. We're not AWS trying to oust Oracle, you know, in a data storage play. It doesn't work like that. For us, traditional sort of traditional processes tend to be our competitor, more often than we see competition direct from other companies, although, it's certainly out there.
John Gilroy: Michael?
Mike Abel: You've had a chance, now, to reflect after starting a new company, what were some of the challenges that you ran into, initially, and what advice would you give yourself and your cofounders, back in the day?
John Gilroy: Back in the future, back in time.
Mike Abel: That you would have found particularly helpful.
Jeff Jenkins: I'll save the cofounder advice for when I'm not being recorded. But, for ourself, I think, looking back at our time, so far, I think my biggest advice to myself, and to us back then, and to any startup, really, is the power of focus. I think it's really easy, especially if you have a technology that's applicable to such a wide array of applications, it's really important to get a foothold, to focus on one area, and notice what the common denominators are between the various different types of things that you can do, and emphasis that.
Very early on, for us, it was focusing on build, fix, and move, those were the things that we were sort of focused on, and realized we could do that across a whole bunch of different industries, and then started to focus on what verticals you actually can tackle there. I think the biggest lesson learned overall, and I think we've done a good job of this so far, but if I could go back in time and tell us to start focusing a little more, a little earlier I probably would have done that.
John Gilroy: Arthur?
Arthur Deegan: Yeah. You mentioned getting a foothold, and working on your verticals, so how do you kind of bring in new customers? Are you just relying solely off of contacts you made in your previous positions, or what's your marketing strategy?
Jeff Jenkins: We have a really great, and growing marketing, and sales team that goes out and does that function for us. But, interestingly enough there's a lot of land and expand that sort of happens with, especially the size of the companies that are our customers, it's our goal to really explore inside of a given company all the use cases that we can as sort of as quickly as we can, because these companies when you get to this size do so many different things, and there are so many different applications, so I would say it's a balance of making sure that your going as deep as you possibly can within a given customer, and also having a team that's going out there, and hunting, and bringing down new clients, and usually those clients will also be in a similar vertical space that creates a nice starting point, and then from there starting to kind of branch out. But, again, that idea of focus for us has been very helpful.
John Gilroy: Great job, students, and great job, Jeff. Now, if someone is listening and wants more information on your company, what website should they visit?
Jeff Jenkins: Go to www.upskill, that's U-P-S-K-I-L-L, dot, IO.
John Gilroy: Dot IO, that's very distinctive. That's interesting. Well we are running out of time, here. If you would like to have show notes, or links, or transcript, you can visit the oakmontgroupllc.com.
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We are hosted by Eastern Foundry, it's a community of government contractors who are bringing innovative solutions to the government marketplace. For more information go to eastern-foundry.com.
If you would like to participate as a student, or a startup contact me, John Gilroy at the oakmontgroupllc.com. Thanks for listening to Students vs Startups, Showdown on the Potomac