The Future of IoT: A Q&A with Everactive CEO, Bob Nunn
Bob, thank you for being here. To start, can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your current position, and a brief history of your career and experience?
I’m Bob, and I’m the CEO at Everactive, and I’ve been with the company a little over four years now. My career spans 30 years, and mostly has been with startup companies. So the kind of segment that I’ve really ended up enjoying is building companies from great ideas all the way through delivering breakthrough products with customers. I’ve been with a few startups as an executive for long periods of time, and then been a consultant and advisor to about a dozen or so startups over the last 30 years. I’ve also worked as a venture capitalist a couple of times in my career, most recently at Intel Capital, after Intel had acquired one of my startup companies.
Great, excellent, great experience. Can you give us an explanation of what IoT is and how it has evolved over the last decade or so?
Yeah, IoT stands for the internet of things. I think of it as just connecting the physical world, to the digital world, or simply connecting the physical things around us to the internet. We have this great capability of being able to look up anything on the internet, if you want to know how old somebody is, or how tall something is, or any sort of information about drugs or medicine, it’s all there. But if you want to know what’s going on with the temperature in the second bedroom upstairs, that’s not available to us yet. And the Internet of Things is going to provide that connection to the physical world in a dramatic way. We haven’t gotten there yet. But that’s part of the goal so that we’re as connected to the physical world as we now are connected to information.
Great, and you have been on this for a while, or at least looking into it. What is your perspective on what are the big things that have changed in the last, let’s say 10 years for IoT?
So IoT has been a disappointment for the last 10 years. I remember 10 years ago, people were talking about the IoT as kind of a new thing, and the potential of putting electronics and connecting the physical world. And I think almost exactly 12 years ago, the projection was that there will be a trillion connected things by 2017. And that didn’t develop. The IoT has developed much more slowly and there’s a number of reasons for that and I hope to talk about some of those with you. But one of the biggest reasons was the reason Everactive got started. And that is, you’re just not going to put a trillion batteries into IoT devices. We don’t want to make a trillion batteries, we don’t want to replace a trillion batteries, and we don’t want to dispose of a trillion batteries. So that, along with a few other things, is holding up the adoption of IoT everywhere. And the mission for Everactive when it got started was let’s get rid of the battery!
Great. So, what is your overall assessment of the current state of IoT? Is it a growing trend, a slowing trend, an exciting opportunity, a terrifying threat?
Yeah, it’s one of those obvious things that is going to happen. So there’s no question that we will be connecting the physical world to the digital world. How quickly it happens is the question. The other unquestionable truth is that it is still largely untapped. We are just at the very tip of what is the IoT revolution. So it’s 10 years old, we’ve been talking about it for a while, there are a lot of companies and big successful companies that have come out of IoT, but we still are in its infancy. And I think of it like it was back on the early days of computing, where you had some very successful computer companies making mainframes and some specialty computers, but it wasn’t in everyone’s home, and it wasn’t in everyone’s pocket the way it is today.
That revolution is still in front of us for the IoT. Such a huge opportunity. Huge. The numbers are staggering. You know, having spent 30 years building startups, I’ve never been involved in a startup that had such a big opportunity in front of it. And really, it’s just working and knocking down the obstacles that have come up over the last 10 years that we will succeed. One of those obstacles is batteries. We also have obstacles on how easy things are to maintain and use, as well as the software layer, and how you access that information. And right now it’s fragmented. As tech companies often do, we all have our own thing. And that needs to get standardized down into a much easier way to consume.
That’s really exciting. So from your perspective, what is driving that potential? What is driving the need for IoT solutions in general?
There’s a famous VC saying that says, software is eating the world. And that quote was made at a time when some of the newer companies like Facebook and Google, and more recently, Airbnb, Uber and Lyft have really disrupted old industries using software. So software has been eating the world. The truth, though, is that the software needs data to run effectively. So Software is eating the world, but it’s hungry for more data. The biggest driver is that there’s so much more new innovation to come, which needs more fiscal data available to run effectively. We see it in terms of our focus on industrial applications. So we see it in terms of the need for improvement in industrial efficiency, in the need for reduction in energy consumption, and reduction of greenhouse gasses and things like that. There’s real strong benefits in terms of using IoT devices.
Awesome. So we’re gonna get into the challenges here, but first, let me ask you, what do you think is working well and creating value when it comes to IoT solutions as you have experienced it?
I think that’s a great question, because we’ve seen a number of instances where companies have found specific problems and been very successful addressing those problems. You know, one is in the transportation industry, where the ability to track your fleet and to keep track of how long drivers are driving and things like that has been a big success for IoT. The ability to collect that information and centralize it and keep track of it is of great benefit. We’ve seen companies like Fitbit and Tile achieve some degree of success, and some of the other devices that are starting to come out for the home, like my thermostat which is connected to the internet. There have been a number of big successes and a number of places where companies have been real successful, but it’s still the tip of the iceberg. And the problem has been it’s too cumbersome in many cases to use the technology, or there hasn’t been the ability to install it easily. I know I bought some IoT devices here for my home, and the battery goes out and I don’t change the battery and the IoT device becomes just a paperweight and it doesn’t become an effective part of my life. And that’s I think one of the biggest things that we deal with. Even our smoke detectors are a nuisance because we have to change batteries. So the idea of putting in 100 batteries into the home is not going to happen.
And I think you have been teeing this up, probably a favorite question. What do you think are the challenges that you have observed when it comes to the adoption of IoT solutions?
Well, it’s funny that we are considered the batteryless company, but I think the biggest challenge is scale, and achieving what we think of as hyperscale data acquisition, the ability to put devices everywhere, maintain them over a long period of time, and then be able to effectively collect and use that information. So removing the battery is an integral part of that, for the reasons I was just talking about the maintenance associated with taking care of batteries. No one’s willing to trade off one of the benefits of an IoT device for the cost of having to go around changing batteries all the time. The idea is that it has to be easy to use and easy to maintain. And batteries are a big piece of that but it’s not the only piece. There are a lot of difficulties in terms of the technology required to get rid of the battery. But that’s only the first step along the way. Once you have devices everywhere in your environment, being able to monitor them and take action when problems come up is going to be a critical part to resolve in the future as well.
I think you make an interesting point about scaling the IoT. While the batteries are an obstacle to scaling the IoT, I will imagine that the need to deploy a variety of applications might also be an obstacle to scaling the IoT. Is it a challenge to scale when you have to develop different applications, different methods and different sensors?
I think it builds on itself, I think it’s a flywheel that once you start using IoT technology and get the benefits from it, you recognize there are other places that you would like to get data, and the interaction of that data would be very beneficial to you. We see this with our industrial customers. So I think the more experience you have with IoT devices, the more desire you have for more information. So it’s a virtuous cycle that I think we’re starting to see people benefit from and push you more quickly towards additional connections.
Great. And who is most receptive to support the implementation of IOT solutions in your experience, either people or sectors or industries, etc?
I think people want to. So in our individual lives we would like to have more physical connections, but we’re probably the least tolerant right now. So things that don’t work exactly right, or that provide some degree of friction to use, are not adopted. Even an Apple Watch. I know many folks that live by them, and many folks also try them for a while and then say, Yeah, I got to recharge it, and it’s just a replica of my phone and they threw it in the drawer. So I think that’s a very interesting market, but a very difficult market. More of a fad of technology than long term, at least we haven’t figured out the long term trends there yet.
I do think industrial is the place where folks have been using instrumentation for a long time, you know, decades now. Most of it was wired instrumentation to take care of their top equipment. But the concept of using data to manage the operation is not new to them. And so the ability to add more data and the benefits that come from that data is a pretty quick read for them, especially where it does have material for either economic benefits or environmental benefits or safety benefits.
I do think there’s a lot of interest around the management of buildings, the idea of smart cities, and we’re seeing a lot in terms of using data and construction more effectively. I was talking to someone recently about monitoring the concrete trucks so that they can get better efficiency and in terms of how they mix and how long the concrete sits inside the truck.
So I do think the applications are unlimited. But there are some markets that are more oriented towards adopting these technologies, you know, as we talked about trucking being a place that adopted the technology fairly quickly, part of that due to government regulations. So, that’s the other thing I think we’re seeing more of, as the technology becomes more available and more prevalent, we’ll see more regulations around the fact that we want to keep track of greenhouse gasses. So you need to have specific measurement capability in place to do that.
That’s great. And on the other side of the coin, who seems to be more skeptical, or let’s say in opposition to adopting IoT solutions?
Yeah. I’d say, folks like my wife, so I bought her a nest thermostat that uses information from the environment to help set the tone or set the temperatures and things and it was unacceptable, it was foreign to what she was used to. So now we have something that’s connected to the phone, but we still control ourselves. So I think as humans, something different than what we’ve done in the past is probably the biggest challenge to adoption. It is people being skeptical, and it varies by people. In terms of industries, I think it’s happening across all industries at one pace or another.
So all this has been a great overview of the status of IoT. What role is Everactive playing in IoT from your perspective?
Yes. So we really are defining a new category. People look at us and say “Oh, those are the guys that are using energy from the environment instead of batteries” But we really think of ourselves as having this ability to scale the IoT. So we eliminated batteries as part of it. We also made it easy to use, install and use the data of the IoT devices, but also a critical part being the ability to network 1,000s, if not 10s of 1,000s of IoT devices together with a minimal amount of the infrastructure for the user. And then ultimately, the management of 1,000s of devices is a hard problem and it’s not something everyone’s gonna want to do. So providing the capability to do that for people so that you actually create a service industry around deploying and then managing these devices is what the hyperscale IoT is.
So Everactive focuses on all of those problems. Batteryless is a start. And it’s a tough problem, because the amount of energy that we get from indoor renewable energy sources is very small and the sensors and electronics take a lot of power to run. So what has really been the innovation and the breakthrough for Everactive was figuring out how to lower the power of electronics so that we could put all that together. And then we built on top of that with networking technologies and software stacks that really optimize the data that comes from those devices.
Another key point I should make is the amount of data matters. And for the battery, one of the obstacles is to manage battery life. The most effective way to do that is to limit the amount of data that you’re collecting, and that you’re sending off into the cloud. And that’s one of the places where the Everactive technologies excel. Because we’re continually harvesting energy from the environment, we have a renewable energy source, it’s a micro renewable energy source, but it is constantly refilling the tank so to speak. And as a result, we can take more data, and we can communicate more data on a consistent basis than any of our battery powered counterparts. And so that richness of data, both in terms of how many places we put the devices, and then how much data we take over time is an important part of making the IoT more valuable to the end user.
Bob. I’m reflecting on what you were saying and Everactive is really enabling this idea of connect and forget instead of plug and play for many IoT devices.
That is exactly right. The ultimate goal for all of us is we would like to be able to just stick up a device and then not worry about it again. Just take the benefit from the data and the insights generated from it.
Yeah, because the IoT cannot depend on batteries. So what trends have you been observing regarding IoT solutions as we move into the future?
I do think the idea of scale is an important one. And we’re seeing that more and more with our customers and like you said, they play between; I’ve got one series of data streams, and now I want to add another data stream, and then I want to get the benefit of the interaction of all those data streams. So it’s just more and more. The ability to scale is going to be a key trend for the next 10 years.
On top of that, another key trend is around the computing elements, and where you actually do the computing. Today, a lot of the computing is done on the cloud. But we’re building more and more capability of doing that at the edge where you’re taking the data. And the benefit there is that you can take a lot more data and if you can effectively compute the data at the IoT device, then you don’t have to communicate as much information up into the cloud.
So what we call edge computing is a big trend. Artificial Intelligence is another big trend for the IoT, and particularly artificial intelligence at the edge. So an example is a sensor that can take a picture, and then locally determine if that picture matches another image that was already sent to it.
Then another ongoing trend for the IoT is cybersecurity. We all hear about the horror stories, I just saw a TV show about someone that was talking to a young child through their nanny cam. So the ability to keep a secure network as you start putting these connections everywhere is an important trend. And that’s obviously a high priority for Everactive and it should be a high priority for any IoT solution provider.
Great, that’s great insight. With all those trends, how do you see the future of IoT evolving?
I think another trend that I forgot to mention is around the software layer that humans interface with. So how do we consume the data? And I think that’s one of the important trends. Everactive’s participation there is really to make the data available and to be flexible as to how people want to consume it. I think that’s is important, as we create this massive scale of data acquisition, to be flexible to fit the data into the environment that are developing around the consumption and the archival aspects of what you do with all that data, the manipulation of the data once it is in the cloud, and then how you see the data. Our customers call it “a single pane of glass”. They would like to have one tool that has all their data. And I think that’s been developing over the last five years and will continue to develop over the next five plus years. But that’s a very important aspect of making it easy for people to use and consume the data that’s being created.
Great, we have touched tangentially on this, but how do you see the role of governments and regulators in terms of the adoption of IoT solutions?
I think it’s a positive, because the regulations that do come down require more data to say they’re being fulfilled. So greenhouse gasses, the carbon carbonization problems and climate change are on everyone’s mind, or they should be. And we’re already seeing this in some geographies, like in Europe, where we’re starting to put in restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions, and the only way to really track that is to either start measuring it directly or indirectly through processes that generate greenhouse gasses.
We will see more and more of that over time. As the benefit of this information becomes clear it will be easy to say “Okay, now that we can measure it, let’s put a restriction on how much those things can be generated”. I do think that’s going to be a major trend over the next decade. We’ll see more and more regulation based on data, like we’ve seen in the car industry. As they started getting more data on mileage, we started seeing more restrictions or more guidance towards trying to increase the number of miles per gallon and things like that.
And even more recently as video cameras became more and more widespread, now there’s even legislation to require backup cameras in cars.
Yeah, that is a great example as technology becomes available and understanding the applications for safety, or for improving the environment become important. And one of the sources of trying to enforce those is through government regulation.
You also see other instances where your insurance company is using devices to track how hard or soft you drive and that is being taken into consideration on your insurance bill. So that’s even evolving into the service industry as well.
Absolutely. We’re seeing the same thing in the industrial segment where insurance companies are providing discounts for people that are now collecting data. And, you know, one of our applications is around steam distribution systems, which can be dangerous. If the steam backs up, you get an effect called water hammer, which can lead to pipe explosions. And so for insurance companies, they’re now providing incentives for people to use IoT devices, so that they will avoid big catastrophic problems.
Bob, last question, in your opinion, how is Everactive propelling the future of IoT?
It’s really around hyperscale, and hyper scale data acquisition. So we have breakthrough technologies around how you can generate data streams, without batteries that enable continuous, and robust, collection of tons of data. And our first step was to apply that to some applications that we had identified ourselves. The next step for our company is really allowing other people to use that technology, those stack of technologies that we’ve developed, to create their own applications to really innovate on top of the innovations from Everactive. And that includes the networking technology and the hyperscale and sensor management capability that we built in. We’re making that available to others to build on top of, so that they can then go solve new problems. And this will be a multiplier effect of how the Everactive technology can help really change the world and achieve that future state where we have our physical world connected to the digital world.
Wow, that’s amazing, Bob, this was a great conversation. Thank you for your time.
No, thank you for having me. That was a great interview. I think we covered the highlights of the IoT, and a lot of the trends that we see important moving forward.