Ken: This is Ken Forster. Welcome to our Digital Thread podcast produced by, for, and about digital industry leaders. In this series of conversations, we capture insights from the best and brightest minds in the digital industry- their executives, entrepreneurs, advisors, and other thought leaders. What they have in common is like our team at Momenta; they are deep industry operators. We hope you find these podcasts informative, and as always, we welcome your comments and suggestions. Good day, and welcome to episode 166 of our Momenta Digital Thread podcast series. Today, I'm pleased to welcome back Babur Ozden, founder and CEO of Maana, and now Vice President at SparkCognition, building the world's leading AI platforms at driver liability, efficiency, security, and automation for industrial and global enterprises. Babur co-founded Maana and served as its CEO for eight years through its acquisition by SparkCognition. Prior to Maana, Babur held CMO, COO and CEO at several tech start-ups. Recognized by the World Economic Forum as a Technology Pioneer, Babur holds an Executive MBA degree from Rice University and a BA degree in Computer Science from the University of Texas at Austin. Babur, welcome back to our Digital Thread podcast.
Babur: Thank you, Ken. It's great to be back.
Ken: It is. It is. We're sitting at podcast no. 166, and way back at podcast no. 56- so May 1st of 2019 for those paying attention. You gave us a good overview of the idea of a 'digital twin' for business processes. I'm looking forward to fast-forwarding the conversation both with the acquisition by SparkCognition and to seeing how you've scaled up on that initial promise. I always like to start by asking a bit about one's own 'digital thread.' In other words, the one or more thematic threads that define their digital industry journey. What would you consider to be your digital thread?
Babur: I think mine was attempting to do things that had very little or no precedence. It is always to educate from the ground up and top-down of your intended audiences. And it's not doing something that exists, but doing it better, faster, or cheaper, but doing something that did not exist before. So throughout my career, I always found myself- I guess by design and by preference, always in companies and start-ups attempting to do that. At Maana, we attempted to do the same thing; it's to bring components of AI capabilities into the mix of critical industrial operations. And in SparkCognition, now we scale that on a global scale, on multiple different industries.
Ken: I noted in your bio that you describe yourself as passionate about industrial digital transformation. Tell us, what does the phrase mean to you?
Babur: The phrase to me is that, of course, we as the software vendors- and I'll call it as a vendor, we can only achieve things in these early paradigm changes if we have trailblazers as our target customers. It's not just us, but I work with people at organizations who eventually become my customer or remain prospective customers. It's just to see those trailblazers- to work with them, to exchange ideas with them, to go into trenches with them. We're there with our tools and with our technology to help them succeed. My passion is to be among people like those early trailblazers trying to bring to their giant corporations and, through them to their industries, the first taste of adopting AI. My passion is working with a group of trailblazers to be in the early waves of adoption.
Ken: It sounds like a way to describe your early professional journey. You've had a strong track record of leadership successes, even before founding Maana. I went back to the beginning of your profile and noted that you were the CEO of the most valuable internet company in Turkey. That's a very interesting starting point in trailblazing, so tell me overall of that time. What were some of the early leadership observations that ultimately led you to found Maana and the Industrial IoT space?
Babur: In the mid-1990s, my team and our investors, our board were trying to put together an internet company that would attempt to do what America Online did throughout the late 80s and early 90s on propriety environment and do the entire same thing on the worldwide web. That was our ambition. But in 1994, 1995, even hiring a person to our company called Super Online, there is no precedence of internet, I can't even show people what it looks like. Or when I pitch to a customer and convince them that they need to have a web presence, there's not much to show. It's all about whether it's your employees, your investors, your management, your board, your customers, partners- it is convincing them in this near future that something is coming. It's so big that it will be equal to the discovery of electricity, fire or wheel, or alphabet. That is what I think was my luck, attempting to do my first entrepreneurial foray into an environment. Well, I tried to tell Turkey, but about the same time to the world, this big internet thing is coming, and it will change our lives as consumers and businesses. That's the beginning of my digital thread; it's right amid the birth of the world wide web.
Ken: What a good starting point to be at and in many cases, interesting, as we've seen early entrepreneurs- they didn't have the infrastructure entrepreneurs have today, just even simply in the digital infrastructure and tools and technologies. But also in the organizational infrastructure, remote working and collaboration tools and things that make it so much easier today. So when you rolled your own company back then, you had to do pretty much everything. Get in the office, enrolling your own communications protocols, hardware software, the whole stack, and it has gotten progressively easier because we've been able to build solutions on that. But I think that the physical muscle you developed having too early on, develop all those pieces make you a better entrepreneur down the line, right?
Babur: That's correct. I think one thing one learns instinctively is that once you're on a mission, and you're locked into bringing something new or solving some chronic problem, anything between now and that future looks to you as solvable, irrelevant of the depth of the problem. And sometimes they're not solvable, but it is that belief and faith that you and the team that you could put together, and collectively, you and your customers and partners, you can go over those humps. I think that's what I always look at myself and the other entrepreneurs that I admire and follow- it's that singular mission to get somewhere, but don't accept any problem or failure or no’s as a reason to quit on the way there.
Ken: Yeah. Well said, and certainly an attribute we've seen a lot of early trailblazers and some of the best start-up leaders as well. That served you well in terms of founding Maana; developers have a platform that, as you guys described, enabled organizations to encode their subject matter expertise and data into computational knowledge graphs to solve complex business problems. So tell me, what inspired you to create Maana? And what were some of your key use cases and wins?
Babur: Yeah. Donald and I- Donald is the other co-founder of Maana. When we started embarking on this journey- the 2011 to 2013 timeframe- the formation of the idea and company and our first product and technology direction, the world was going through something.- The United States was going through this Big Data paradigm, or Big Data hype, if you may remember, almost ten years back. And it was all about the almost religious belief that if you can bring data from all of your silos and put them in one place, you can attempt to solve problems that previously were not easy to solve or not cost-effective to solve. So when we looked at that, and we saw that all of these data stores would eventually be in a data platform somewhere on the cloud, all the data silos of an enterprise will find a way to pump their data into this central environment. And then we said to ourselves, but the most important data is neglected. Everybody's talking about the data stored in a disk environment- if I may use that old term. But the most important data in AI sits in people's heads. It's not in the disk; it's not the 'data' data. It's the know-how. It's the experience. How do we make that experience mesh with the data? Because data alone does nothing. Data science alone does nothing. Software developers alone do nothing.
We thought the driver of Maana's beginning was if we could bring the know-how of an organization and its experience of its subject matter expertise and digitize them. This silo, as the other data is being attempted to the silo, and bringing them into one framework. I describe that framework as a computational knowledge graph and building a product and tool; we thought that we would be at a place we could bridge- across the chasm of the subject matter experience and truckloads of data. And then they can then attempt to tackle big business problems. That was the foundation of Maana, saying that a lot of companies do a lot of work bringing the data in, curating it, shaping it. But we saw that nobody was doing anything to bring the other most important data that sits between two ears of people in a large organization. You've got 10s of 1000s of people with subject matter expertise in large organizations that we said, let us focus on bringing that data into the mix.
Ken: You had a lot of believers because, as I count, you had eight strategic investors in Maana. Intel, Capital, Chevron Technology Ventures, Saudi Aramco Energy Ventures, Shell Technology Ventures, Accenture Ventures, China International Capital Corporation, Sino Capital, and finally, GE Ventures, which we love because we have Mike Dobeck. But that is a pretty amazing list of companies, not only to the potential clients and customers of Maana, but also to believe so much in it that they invested. Let me ask, what was your goal in taking on so many strategic investors? And in practice, how did that work out for you?
Babur: At the beginning, the path that we went at Maana mainly with strategic investors, again, is one of those serendipitous things that happen at a company. And when we were attempting to raise money in the traditional, most well-known traditional venture capital path, I couldn't attract traditional venture capital. I guess pursuing Heavy Industries, trying to build enterprise software for heavy industrial consumption, sales cycles naturally in those industries, and several factors made us outside the investment norms of the traditional venture capital. But, the opposite reaction that we were getting from the corporate venture world in 2013, 2014, and 2015 timeframe. And mind you, at about the same timeframe, there was an almost tenfold increase in the corporate venture funds that operated out of the United States, if you remember. They were also making significant forays into expanding their rich investment doctrines into the start-up scene. So we started. We saw an interest; we had audiences that could understand what we were trying to say and how we were trying to go about it in the corporate venture capital world. These people mainly came from the operating arms of their mother company and knew the problems, understood the problems, understood the challenges. They were in a far better position to judge a company like Maana whether it can work or not, etc.
Ken: It's interesting when you fast forward, if you think now, a company with the profile of Maana and the traction of it between Spax and private equity firms coming down to later-stage rounds, and some more traditional VCs now waking up that something is interesting in the industrial space, you certainly would be in a different world if you were to cast the company today. But in some sense, you're right. The corporate venture capitalist at the time filled a gap in the market, and I'd offer they still do. And in many cases, we find companies do better taking on that investment in the sense that they get customers, partners, advisors, and value chain partners. I mean, on and on and on, versus just money. Right?
Babur: Totally. You listed corporate ventures that put their money, time and effort, and passion into Maana were priceless. The doors that they opened in their own mother companies- it was very qualified, very intimate. And there was no other way to break into those organizations if we could not go through their venture arm. And these were not just introductions, but these were truly almost like people on our payroll, but happen to work for those venture capital firms. It's just doing our sales and marketing within those massive organizations and getting us in front of the right audiences, allowing us to pitch our product or our company, getting us trials, pilots, and getting us contracts, eventually. So it was extremely valuable, money can't buy that.
Ken: You must have done something right because, as most of us know, you exited the company to SparkCognition in June of this year. I see you now describe the integrated platform as 'organizing domain know-how, human expertise, machine intelligence, and data into digital knowledge to assist subject matter experts at critical business decisions. So I can certainly see the part that you brought to that and could guess at what SparkCognition has done as well. But let me ask, how has the integration helped you scale up your initial value proposition?
Babur: I mean, tremendously. If I could step back, and SparkCognition has a really beautiful vision. A very strong way to pursue that vision is seeing that about over $100 trillion worth of existing economic infrastructure on our planet in several industries have to eventually transition themselves to be driven or to be managed by intelligent software. But you can't change all of this hardware overnight. This change needs to come through software, through AI, specifically understanding this installed base of this massive infrastructure. And when I say infrastructure, I talk about infrastructure as machinery and infrastructure as global- say, operations, for example. Shipping, logistics, or things on that scale. So very methodically, how do you innovate in the AI space? And how do you come up with novel approaches to AI so that the infrastructure, the existing infrastructure, can benefit from AI, and you don't need to wait another ten years for the state-of-the-art infrastructure to get there? So this has been the birth mission of Amir, our CEO, and founder. And then tackle that environment by providing a unique AI environments company.
We have over 120 patents in the AI space, adding three to four new patents every quarter. So very specific novel research is done in the space of AI serving this world. And then, we have products to provide this AI-driven cyber defense to this infrastructure. AI-driven anomalies detection, AI-driven maintenance environment, AI-driven optimization environment, and AI-driven mobility environment, but all coming from the same base, the core AI base. With the Maana acquisition, we brought to that base a knowledge representation so that the people, the SME's point of view, also become part of that managing AI, deploying AI into that infrastructure. These are the people who manage and operate that infrastructure. It's been a very nice compliment. And I will also salute SparkCognition leadership, they have made the acquisition process, pre-acquisition, during acquisition, and post-acquisition- they went out of their way to welcome the incoming team. Those who have been acquired or acquired a few times know that that period is extremely sensitive. They've done a great job in that respect.
Ken: It certainly sounds like it. And having been part of several acquisitions, whether the companies we've invested in that have been acquired or companies we've been a part of, you're right that integration, those first couple months are critical to realizing the full value, the synergy in that regard. Let me ask a question relative to the platform's synergies then, and that is how do you know when an organization is ready to adopt your solution? And what best practices have you seen in realizing that potential value?
Babur: The question, how do you know someone's ready is probably the holy grail. If anyone answers that question for prospect customers, it's probably keeping it to themselves. How do they know that? But-
Ken: You said trailblazer earlier; I heard you. See, you've already let up.
Babur: Interesting thing. So, of course, in the last ten years, the large industrial companies in some different spaces are attempting to digitize or pursue a digital transformation journey. They went through trials, organizational changes, creating Chief Digital Officer roles, conflicts with CTOs and CIOs, and many internal politics these organizations have to go through. Where do you accommodate the Chief Digital Officer, etc.? We all know those, and that was an important thing. We've seen in some organizations three versions of it- some of them two, that is settled now. So now, there is a best practice where an organization will own the digital initiatives, meaning scope-wise, budget-wise, and management and leadership-wise; this is settling.
The second is that naturally, to attempt to do things digitally, you need data. And that data 10 years ago was set in places that did not lend itself to this type of scrutiny. We've now seen several versions, from data lakes to all the data's current cloud representation. That world has matured as well. So that's the second thread. And the third is still in process, this third leg. Still in the process, these companies were bringing their data in one place, and then as they were trying to figure out who owns the digital transformation initiatives. The third leg was doing lots of proof of concept trials, POCs, and left behind a graveyard of POCs. But the people learned how to do a trial or skip a trial, going directly to the real thing. So there's a lot of learnings on the third leg of doing. How to do or how not to do a POC in a certain space. And the fourth is talent. Ten years ago, it was rather hard to find talent in any aspect of managing, say, a digital transformation project, if I may use that term, whether it's technical, whether it's data science, whether it's project management. But that's settling. These four legs, the ownership- were in an organization where these digital roadmaps are owned and executed and budgeted, how to do trials, and the talent. Now all four legs are far more firm than they were ten years ago. So today, I would answer this question 10 years ago differently. But today, we look at what level of maturity a prospect is in these four legs, and then naturally look at whether they want to- the things they talk to us about- are they budgeted? Or are they just a curiosity or an R&D experiment? Those are the kinds of tools me and my colleagues use to look at opportunities to see whether they are real, and if they are real, how close they may be that we can work together with the prospective client and then help them get to their targets.
Ken: You no doubt have heard in my other podcasts, it's a pretty standard question I ask, and it's largely driven by the fact that many of us are technology-driven. And ultimately, the real product-market fit test is always how well you qualify your end-users and what patterns you are seeing in terms of how they adapt. You came up with what has been so far the most disciplined answer I've ever heard from anybody. So kudos to you on that one. I like the four-leg answer that you came up with, and I imagine you guys must have a great qualification process in terms of sales for that.
Babur: You also noticed on the 57th podcast that I had hair. Now I don't.
Ken: There you go. Yeah, the industry scars per se at that point. So you've been doing this- I would say industrial IoT analytics area for about ten years if I'm doing my math correctly, and I know probably longer given some of the work you did before. But put in your prognosticator hat on for a minute. If you were to kind of now look forward to the next five years, what would you predict relative to industrial IoT and probably, more importantly, the analytics around that?
Babur: I think it is becoming mainstream now in many of the companies. I was talking- 10 years ago. Today, it is like a mainstream part of their technological or Information Technology toolset and Information Technology talent set. It's no longer a trial; it's no longer "let's give it a try, if it works, we go." This is now a very serious budgetary item, a very serious- C-leadership, and a board-level leadership to pursue. And companies, at least the ones that I know I've been in touch with over the last half a decade, have made significant advances in these four legs that I just talked about a few minutes ago. The beauty of it is that digital itself, which we are seeing, is changing the definition of IT divisions.
If an IT organization does not adopt a paradigm and the tools and the methodologies to use those tools, that paradigm never becomes mainstream in that company. IT is the key. We know that it moves slowly, we know that they are conservative, but there are reasons for that. But if you get into IT, if the digital and that IT becomes digital and digital becomes IT, that means the driving context of that IT organization is digital transformation. And of course, a single big courageous leg is cloudification, moving these massive organizations from an on-prem way of running their IT to a cloud, either private or a public cloud, that itself is a massive mental, operational and budgetary transformation. And then once you do that, the other steps become easier to adopt and swallow- to move your data in one place, because that's why you're going to the cloud, not just to save money. And once you move your data in one place, that means you also tackle all the legal challenges in a company. These are not just technical. One division is operating out of Australia, let's say the other division operating out of Canada, but they're all the same company; they need to bring their data together. There are legal challenges to doing that because of different countries, different data rules. So with the cloud, you pass that major technical challenge of de-siloing. And then, once the data starts coming in, you're passing that legal challenge. So your IT organization learns, your legal department learns, and then your business department, business ownership, says, it's no longer my data. It's all of our data. If I put my data, other people put their data; we all benefit from our experiences. This learning truly goes up along that stage as you build these four legs. And then, the change becomes a day-to-day operation. When I look back today, this is no longer convincing someone to do it, but it's the pace at which they're doing it.
Ken: Speaking of trends, Maana was proudly a Silicon Valley company. I know you spent a lot of time in Palo Alto there. I noted that you've joined the great- as it's called 'Texodus' and that you are now in Houston with SparkCognition, of course, being in Austin. How has this worked out for you personally and professionally?
Babur: First of all, I must say the food in Houston is outstanding. I have to tell you. And, of course, Houston is no stranger to me. 14, 15 years ago, I've lived here before my wife, and I moved to the Palo Alto area. And so I know the city, I love the city. But the real reason for me coming back to Houston- it's about a year and a half, maybe two years ago. The reality is due to our industrial focus at Maana. Among that focus, energy and oil and gas companies play a significant portion of that. I needed to be very close to my customers and potential customers and the cottage industry around those customers. Houston provided that opportunity in one very large city. You are 10 minutes to one-hour drive distance from any possible oil and gas company on the planet. I served as a CEO at Maana, but I also carry the chief salesman head, and I love doing that. I find energy when I am in front of customers and potential customers in their offices, not through a Zoom call. And so Houston was a no-brainer. I just needed to be amidst the customers and potential customers to grow our business.
Ken: You had me at the food. But I love the idea of the chief sales officer in that regard. And certainly the energy you get from being in front of customers. In closing, I always like to ask the question, where do you find your inspiration? And clearly, we know it's in the sales process, but are there books or podcasts or people you would recommend that we get to know?
Babur: Well, my work takes so much of my time. And in that time, so much of my attention and creativity, if I may say. And when I read nowadays, I listen to my books, listen to podcasts. I listen to interviews, like the ones you guys are running very successfully, of people of achievements from business, to science, politics, military, etc. I find I cherish people's journeys, and hearing from them is very valuable. And I'm a sci-fi fan, a space fan, astronomy fan. So I listen to podcasts and books about cosmology, planetary discoveries, the commercial exploitation of orbit in space, things in that nature.
Ken: Very fitting for the start of our conversation to start with trailblazer. Space as the final frontier. So Babur, thank you for sharing this time and these insights with us today.
Babur: Thank you, Ken. It's great talking to you.
Ken: As well. I appreciate you coming back after doing the earlier podcast with us as well, and it's been nice to touch base with you post the acquisition. This has been Babur Ozden, founder and CEO of Maana and now Vice President at SparkCognition, a man leading industrial digital transformation. Shall we say a trailblazer? Thank you for listening, and please join us next week for the next episode of our digital thread podcast series. Thank you, and have a great day. You've been listening to the Momenta Digital Thread podcast series. We hope you've enjoyed the discussion. And as always, we welcome your comments and suggestions. Please check our website at momenta.one for archived versions of podcasts, as well as resources to help with your digital industry journey. Thank you for listening.
Connect With Babur Ozden via LinkedIn
Babur’s Inspiration Comes From..
Listening to audiobooks and podcasts that feature conversations with accomplished people in a variety of fields, including business, science, politics, and the military. The commercial exploitation of orbit and the space scene in such matters.
SparkCognition’s award-winning AI solutions allow organizations to predict future outcomes, optimize processes, and prevent cyberattacks. They partner with the world’s industry leaders to analyze, optimize, and learn from data, augment human intelligence, drive profitable growth, and achieve operational excellence. Their patented AI, machine learning, and natural language technologies lead the industry in innovation and accelerate digital transformation. The solutions allow organizations to solve critical challenges – prevent unexpected downtime, maximize asset performance, optimize prices, and ensure worker safety while avoiding zero-day cyberattacks on essential IT and OT infrastructure. To learn more about how SparkCognition’s AI solutions can unlock the power in your data, visit www.sparkcognition.com.