Oct 21, 2020 | 3 min read

Conversation with Thomas Uhlenbruck

Podcast #114: Thermal Edge

In this episode, we feature Thomas Uhlenbruck, Founder & CEO of Pulse Industrial, a company providing digital steam trap monitoring solutions. Pulse is also one of Momenta Ventures’ recent portfolio investments. In this conversation, Thomas takes us through his educational background in Environmental Engineering and what led him to develop an interest in digital technologies. He shares his current work leading Pulse Industrial and the energy problem they set out to solve through steam trap monitoring sensors. Thomas also discusses why LoRaWAN is the communication protocol of choice as well as exciting startups to look out for in the space. 

Thomas Uhlenbruck started working on Pulse to bring digital innovation to old, forgotten mechanical equipment in industrial plants. He is a fanatic for AI and electronics, and his educational background is in Environmental Engineering from the University of Waterloo. 

 

Recommendations: 

Enlightenment Now by Stephen Pinker 

Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins 

 

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Good day, and welcome to an episode of our Digital Industry Leadership Podcast, produced by, for, and about digital industry leaders.

Today I’m pleased to host Thomas Uhlenbruck, the Founder and CEO of Pulse Industrial, one of our most recent portfolio companies. Thomas started working on Pulse to bring digital innovation, to old forgotten mechanical equipment in industrial plants. He’s a fanatic for AI and electronics, and his educational background is Environmental Engineering from University of Waterloo.

Thomas, welcome to our Digital Industry Leadership podcast.  

Thanks for having me on Ken, and I must say this is actually the first podcast I’ve participated in, and I’m really excited to take part.

Excellent, well it’s good that we were able to be the first there then. So, let’s start with your professional journey, tell us a bit about your background and how it has informed your views of digital industry.

So, my background as Ken introduced in the beginning, is in environmental engineering. I’m actually only two years out of school, so really my journey so far has been very education-based, and all the work I did during my schooling. The University of Waterloo has a really great program, because by the time you graduate you have to go through six work term placements, so even now just two years out of school I think I’ve worked in 7-8 different professional engineering jobs, so that in itself really gets you exposed to a lot of different workplaces, both in a technical sense you get to see what are the different branches of environmental engineering, but even just in your typical work placement that the soft skills you learn of working with people, and project management, gives you a very broad scope of what are good ways to get things done, and definitely a good dose of what are the bad ways to get things done.

For my digital journey though, it wasn’t really until I got started in this project for Pulse. It began as a school project just in my last year of university, and in that I really got a chance to be exposed to digital technologies and AI. I was really-really interested in that, for me that was much more interesting than anything I actually did that was related to environmental engineering. So, thinking about both the tech, and all the old archaic ways people are doing things, and all the problems associated with that, I just wanted to have a chance to bring that together. What I quickly found is, when you introduce digital technology you find that there’s better ways to do things.

So, you truly started at the edge working as a field inspector in the environmental engineering space. I guess, what attracted you to the space first of all?

Well it’s kind of funny, I was initially attracted to environmental engineering to work on sustainable development, but I quickly found out that it’s not so much to do with saving the environment, but there is certainly part of that, but most of the environmental engineers who go through school and graduate, they end up doing some form of project management in some large construction project where they’re doing some environmental coordination. I just found that a little boring personally, just from an engineering perspective. Don’t get me wrong, those are very important jobs, and very smart people who go and work at those jobs. I just wanted to have a chance to apply more I guess, math and newer technology, when I bring myself to the workplace. So, personally I actually found the tech world way more interesting, and I wanted to get involved in that.

As I mentioned before, I started working on AI problems when I began Pulse, and I got really good at software, I learned the hardware, the electronics, and how all those systems integrate together. So naturally I just thought it made sense to blend tech with the more older traditional engineering, so learning that from my environmental engineering degree and then learning the AI in electronics through Pulse, it just seemed like a natural thing to bring together.

In the conversation before we did the podcast, you and I were talking about this idea of smart spaces, and the traditional as a theatre of operation, whether it’s a construction site, or esteemed distribution system meet digital, is still a little way away. So, I think it’s interesting, we often classify and it’s not always fair, but people as digital natives and what we’ll call digital explorers based on necessarily their age, you are a native in many different ways; a digital native. What were some of your observations of the state of the art in environmental engineering at the time, and to what degree did that inspire you to create Pulse Industrial?

Well yeah, and definitely looking at the state of the art is something that inspires me and like in Pulse it was always an objective to keep the state of the art in mind whenever we’re doing our designs. Now more in environmental engineering, there’s a lot of different branches you could look for when you’re trying to look at the state of the art; some of these have to do with AI and electronics, so this is that whole IoT space where you’re automating workflow, collecting data in remote locations, and compiling that data in ways to make new discoveries of things that just weren’t possible 20-years ago.

But even taking the electronics and digital side aside, there’s actually plenty of really interesting technologies that are coming into the environmental engineering space. So, for instance, before I did Pulse, I actually was an accelerated masters for water treatment, and one of the big research areas in water treatment is for membrane technologies. So, membranes for listeners who don’t know, it’s basically just this physical barrier where you put a lot of pressure on a fluid, you push that fluid through the barrier, and it’s going to filter out larger particles, and let the smaller ones, usually water – for filtering water, go through. They even have this technology to a point where they can filter out ions; so, they’ll take water with sodium in it, which could be seawater, and they’ll filter out the salt, so you’re left with just water on the other side. That’s what they do to treat ocean water. So, these are all kinds of really-really cool technologies in that space.

Another one I’ve found really interesting, I actually got this experience from one of my co-ops, where I was working in Environment & Climate Change Canada. So, what I did in that job, we were making contaminant transport models for the Great Lakes in Canada, we wanted to see if there was some kind of rainfall, or some contaminant was spilled in the mainland, what’s the effect of that contaminant that gets transported onto the Great Lakes.

For this we actually built these predictive models, and I thought that was really cool as well. These models were so complicated they would take two days to run, so my boss would set-up the model on his laptop, he’d run it for two days and then he’d just go home to Montreal, or go to Mexico whilst the model was running. Another cool place we could go with the state of the art is just by virtue of computing getting better, we can do a lot more things with these models.

Let’s talk about Pulse Industrial, we’ve talked a little bit about your background, and especially the different digital areas that you were involved in; what was the problem that you set out to solve with Pulse Industrial?

Well, Pulse Industrial in a nutshell; we’re providing digital innovation to old equipment and steam systems. I think its first good to explain how steam works, and how condensate and steam interact in these systems. So, when you have a steam plant you’ll have one central boiler, it takes water makes it really hot, turns it into steam and then they can shoot that steam down piping which can go off and do various activities; it can heat things, it can sterilize things, it can move things like in a turbine. There’s a lot of importance to that in chemical production. So, when the steam is moving around in these pipes, or in the process, its naturally going to cool, it’s going to leak out through the installation, and what’s going to fill-in and replace the steam is water is going to accumulate.

So, what a stream does is it takes that water that accumulates, and then filters it out of the steam system. These are very essential components, and you’ll find them everywhere in a plant, a plant can have anywhere from 100 to a few thousand steam traps. Now the problem with steam traps is that they’re continuously going through wear and tear, so it will continuously open and close to release the water that builds up, and also steam can be both erosive and corrosive. So, naturally with these mechanical components, it’s inevitable that the failure will happen. These steam traps are everywhere, so it’s really-really tough for operators to keep track of these failures, and what we do is we just automate that whole process of inspecting them, we place a monitor beside the steam trap, and when a failure goes off we let the operators know right away so they can go out and fix it.

In our work with companies in the thermal energy space, so beyond investing in great companies like yourself, on the Advisory side we’re doing quite a bit of work with some of the leaders in thermal energy. We’ve seen that somewhere between 37 and 45 percent of fuel usage in North America is focused on production of steam. So, this is no small problem that you’re talking about.

Given that steam traps themselves are the largest source of energy loss, and some might say create the highest risk in these systems as well, it seems like an obvious business case. So, has the industry been dealing with this prior to your solution?

Yeah, and it is truly mind-boggling how much steam is actually still being used, and I share these statistics a lot, and it really catches people who don’t really know much about chemical manufacturing off-guard. So, prior to Pulse and similar technologies in this space, it was very manual. So, I mentioned there could be hundreds to thousands of steam traps in a facility, this would require someone to physically go around with special equipment and training, actually inspect one individually, so they might do this every year, every few months. One way or another it’s a ton of labor costs, but more so than the labor cost, if you do an inspection that you could have steam traps that are failing the day after you inspected it, and you’re not going to find it until the next inspection. So, there’s just a ton of losses associated with that.

What we liked about your solution in particular is, it is very easy literally to just to mount it right on top of the steam trap, so it doesn’t require taking the steam trap apart to install it. You could literally mount it right on with a strap, and then you use wireless communications to bring that information back, particularly using a LoRaWAN communication, which we think is pretty interesting, because we see it as a leading communications protocol for industrial spaces, as it has been for outside, like smart cities and such.  What drove this particular choice of LoRaWAN, how has that worked out in practice?

Going to LoRaWAN was a very obvious choice in my opinion. For one, the biggest is that it has long range, LoRa I think actually stands for long range. Going into these manufacturing settings, something like Wi-Fi or Bluetooth just wouldn’t cut it, we’re going around these thick concrete walls, sometimes these facilities can be kilometers long, and you need very-very good coverage. Beyond that, LoRaWAN is also low power, so that’s really good for these IoT things where you want to place all these sensors everywhere, and not worry about replacing the battery all the time. It’s also a new technology, so that’s something that should always be looked at, is why is this new, why are people using it? So that’s always a good question to ask. And it’s starting to become very common, so that just makes the integration of it much easier.

So, all those things considered I think it was a very obvious choice for us, and a very good one.

Can you tell us about some of your key installations to-date, and the results your customers have seen deploying your solution?

I’ll talk about our first customer. We actually did our first installation, first paid installation back in January. It was a little nerve-wracking at first because we’ve been talking about this return on investment, we had good theory to back that up. But what was actually going to happen when we go in and install our devices, would everything we say we would promise actually come true?

What actually happened was, when we first installed, we caught a few failures just in that install, and we paid back the pilot that they’re paying for 10 times over, so it was actually a very rewarding experience. By now, I’m following that initial installation, we’ve actually caught a few more failures in that plant, over the last few months. By now we’ve saved them about $30,000 in energy to-date, they’re quite happy and we’re quite happy that it worked out well. Generally speaking, we will catch a first failures when we first go and do the install, just because they maybe haven’t been checking, or they recently checked and then the person who was doing the manual inspection didn’t find it. Then throughout the year we’ll do what our product is supposed to do and catch more failures.

So, Pulse Industrial is the latest of our investments in Canadian companies, and I think it was three or four podcasts ago we did Chris Chong of SST who we just invested in. I asked him to put on his Canadian economic development hat, I’m going to ask you to do the same; what makes Canada a great place for start-ups?

I think first is the financial incentives, the Canadian government is very supportive to getting your feet off the ground, and even as you begin to scale there’s more and more financial incentives for you to become commercialized. That’s very important, especially for startups that are very capital intensive like ourselves. But another big thing is the community, especially here being in the Waterloo region there’s a big start-up community, you hear about these success stories all the time, and that can be very inspiring; you see that and you think like, ‘Oh, this guy created this $100 million business, maybe I can do that too’.

Last point, I think Canadians are secretly super-competitive, we act all nice and humble, but [laughs] Canadians deep down we’re really ambitious people.

[Laughs] I love that. Well, that actually might explain a lot, because we always invest behind the founders, we like deep industry, DNA, and that story of starting at the edge and everything else. Certainly, there’s been a lot of passion now when I think all of our Canadian founders in that regard, so thanks for sharing that.

As digital industry investors we always like to know what other start-ups do you see as the ones to watch, and please promote Canadian ones if you will.

I’ll name a few here. I want to actually give a shout-out to my friends in Portugal, SmartEx. These are friends I met in China, their start-up does some kind of textile monitoring, looking for defects in textiles. I think actually Momenta invested in them.

We did, so I’m smiling actually, because this wasn’t a paid promotion for anybody listening! But I believe both of you guys are part of the HAX ecosystem, I believe that’s probably a good connection there.

Yes, for sure, and I relate to them because I think both of us, we’re bringing a digital technology to a very old process that’s not the sexiest application, so I can see a lot of similarities in our journey, and them in particular. I know seeing them in China they work like a bunch of horses, so that work ethic really gets manifested into the results.

Another startup, this is sort of outside the digital engineering space, or digital innovation, but I have two friends, they’re former Tesla engineers, and they’re looking to make flying cars. So, they’re quite early-on, but I just see those two and the pace they work at, they make these brilliant mechanical designs, so I’ve no doubt that once they get funded, they’ll be able to compete with the bigger companies. Yes, so their company name is Watfly, so if you’re interested in transportation, definitely check them out.

Excellent. SmartEx we know well, so I’d agree with you it’s a great new one, and Watfly, we will have to pay attention to that one as well.

So, in closing, can you provide recommendations of books, and/or resources that inspire you?

I’ve two book here I read recently that I’ll share. One here is called, ‘Enlightenment Now,’ it’s by Stephen Pinker. Stephen brilliantly outlines how life has almost improved so substantially in almost every possible way over the last 30-years, and I think it’s easy to forget how much things have improved. So, I think especially now being in the pandemic, I think we can really thank that we’re in the pandemic during 2020.

Another one here is a book called, ‘Can’t Hurt Me’, it’s a story by a former Navy Seal named David Goggins. David Goggins has slowly become a little bit of an internet celebrity of being the hardest man alive. I just find his story very inspirational, it’s a great story about failure and determination. So, if you’re looking to become inspired and maybe go on an ultra-marathon, that’s a good book.

Excellent. Two very diverse, if you will, but I’m sure they all hit together in terms of the idea of tenacity, progress, and moving together. So, we will share links of both of those books on the podcast when we publish it but thank you so much. So, Thomas thank you for taking the time to join us for this insightful interview.

Ken, it’s been a pleasure, thanks for having me on.

Oh, it’s been my pleasure as well. So, this has been Thomas Uhlenbruck, Founder and CEO of Pulse Industrial. Thank you for listening, and please join us next week for the next episode of our Digital Industry Leadership podcast series, produced by, for, and about digital industry leaders.

 

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