Homespun Tech Talents
Call us biased, but we’re not surprised at all to see our alumni at the helm of some visionary technology companies. We chatted with three big thinkers about how they’re leveraging technology to fuel startups, tackle talent shortages, reinvent legacy industries — and move American business forward.
King of Making Connections
Roll back the clock just a few years, and the resurgence of downtown Detroit as a business hub doesn't feel like the inevitability it does today. Back then, the whole corridor was missing many of the good-for-business necessities, like renovated office spaces and a trendy restaurant scene for wooing clients. Believe it or not, even reliable high-speed internet wasn’t something you could take for granted.
“For example, we had a friend who was trying to start a coworking space,” said Rocket Fiber co-founder Randy Foster ('10 B.S.). “And when she found a space and tried to order internet, the incumbent provider told her it was going to be six to eight months and cost $20,000. They were a small start-up — they didn't have that. The idea that, in a fairly major city, you didn't have easy access to high-speed internet — that just seems crazy. But that’s the way things were after decades of disinvestment.”
So Foster and his two business partners leaped into that void with a crazy ambitious plan to lay down a gigabit speed fiber optic network in — and in many cases, underneath — the city's downtown core. A few years of digging and trenching later and Rocket Fiber is not only being perpetually held up as one of Detroit’s sexier startup successes. It’s also helped set up everyone from big corporations relocating back from the suburbs to small entrepreneurs working from apartment home offices.
“I’m amazed too at the small shops we’re working with,” Foster said. “In our space, you immediately think of the big corporate customers and residential service. But there’s an in-between. Like a lawyer, who only employs five people, but needs enough speed to upload a ton of legal documents; or a restaurant that needs Wi-Fi for its customers. That’s a niche that was completely missed for a while, but it’s an area with a ton of growth.”
Foster is watching two additional emerging markets as Rocket Fiber expands its network. First, the connected and driverless vehicle revolution will in many ways be driven by bandwidth. Already in the testing and development phase, AI-powered vehicles are generating huge data sets, which then have to be passed around among automakers and tech firms. And once driverless vehicles hit roads en masse, there will be almost unimaginable amounts of information flying around both wired and wireless networks as the cars talk to traffic infrastructure and each other.
"The idea that, in a fairly major city, you didn't have easy access to high-speed internet — that just seems crazy. But that’s the way things were after decades of disinvestment."
Perhaps the even taller mountain to climb will be bringing that high-quality, high-speed internet to Detroit’s neighborhoods. In some ways, Foster says, as a spread out, depopulated city, Detroit suffers from an urban version of the “last mile” problem— the term used to describe the cost challenge of building internet infrastructure in sparsely populated areas. So far, they haven’t been able to make the numbers work on a plan to blanket Detroit with fiber. But Foster says, with 5G networks coming online in the not-so-far-off future, a combination of wired and wireless systems could create the “magic mix” that brings super high-speed service to much more of Detroit’s 139 square miles.
Driver of Data
Buying a car may feel like one of the few old-school experiences that still hasn’t been totally transformed by technology. Sure, you may start your shopping or research online, but chances are, you’ll eventually end up at a dealership, shaking hands with an eager salesperson and taking a test drive or two.
The cars on the lot have been carefully selected, right down to the trim level, using algorithms that determine the potential best sellers in your area based on your neighbors’ online searches.
But once you get there, many parts of your experience will have already been designed, reshaped or even orchestrated by technology, according to Chris Boumansour (’90 B.S.), global vice president at Urban Science, a consulting firm specializing in big data analysis for the retail side of the auto industry. The cars on the lot — those have been carefully selected, right down to the trim level, using algorithms that determine the potential best sellers in your area based on your neighbors’ online searches. And even the Amazon.com gift card offer you got in your email (the incentive that helped get you in for a test drive) — that was based on the trail of breadcrumbs you left while browsing online.
Boumansour says you’re even on her radar if you’re not in the market for a new car. “It’s actually pretty easy for us to tell if someone isn’t an ‘intender,’” she said, referring to car shoppers who are perpetual browsers-not-buyers. Then, instead of getting a $25 gift card incentive for a test drive, the “tickler” might be for a ridesharing service. And once you opt-in, the data starts flowing. In fact, she says in some instances, your rideshare booking preferences may even reveal your tastes for a certain kind of car.
Of course, then, a call from your local dealer can’t be far behind.
Master of Algorithms
Wherever the leading edge of internet technology was during the past 22 years, that’s where you could find Eric Hardy (’96 B.E.S.Mech). In the mid-’90s, when he and a classmate founded their IT consulting firm W3R (while still in college no less), they helped get local businesses online when just having a website was a pretty novel thing. Fast forward a few years, and you’d spot them pushing into wilder frontiers — like building connected data centers and backend platforms for “highly available, distributable data sets.” Today, we know that simply as the cloud.
There are a lot of people with Detroit roots who want to come back. And we think we can build technological pipelines that target them for those opportunities — and give them a big reason to come home.
These days, it’s big data that drives a lot of what W3R does, and the algorithms they build and implement save their diverse slate of business customers hundreds of millions of dollars. Still, Hardy is a realist when it comes to the hype surrounding the big data revolution. “The thing to remember is the value isn’t exclusively in the data. It’s in what we can do with it," he said. " And we believe it’s when big data meets artificial intelligence, automation, ‘roboting’ — whatever you want to call it — that’s when you really start to see a big difference for businesses.”
Hardy says the full convergence of those two technologies is still a few years off. But once we’re there, look for data-powered machine learning to re-invent everything from call centers to job recruitment. In the latter space, where W3R does an increasing amount of work, expect a world where job opportunities start to find you on the internet — à la how advertisements follow you around based on your buying and browsing habits. In fact, Hardy hopes that kind of recruitment technology could help reverse the talent out-migration from southeast Michigan. “There are a lot of people with Detroit roots who want to come back. And we think we can build technological pipelines that target them for those opportunities — and give them a big reason to come home.”