RJ Mahadev, Aiota
Ken: This is Ken Forster, Executive Director at Momenta. 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 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 156 of our Momenta Digital Thread Podcast Series. Today, I'm pleased to welcome RJ Mahadev, President of Aiota, helping reshape the construction industry using cloud-based AIoT and Digital Twin Technologies. Mr. Mahadev has 20 plus years of experience as an executive and tech investor focused on optimizing the technology use case for smart cities, industrial organizations, and startups. He most recently led the definition and implementation of the IoT and Digital Twin platforms at NEOM, a $650 billion cognitive city of the future being built on the border of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt. Prior, he helped grow Cisco's IoT business to a #1 market position to develop full-stack solutions addressing smart city and industrial use cases. Before, that he launched one of the world's first broadband wireless providers founding euro broadband to support the 2004 Athens Olympics. RJ holds an MBA from the University of Denver. Besides his active corporate life, RJ also volunteers as an executive board member of AUM, a nonprofit dedicated to helping marginalized communities heal through therapeutic work and artistic performances. RJ Welcome to our Digital Thread Podcast.
RJ: Thanks very much for having me, Ken. Man – Podcast 156! I enjoyed your podcast Ken, and the conversations we've had, and I'm honored. Thank you for sharing my thoughts with your community.
Ken: Thank you so much for recognizing that, and we love to feature people who have a deep industry leadership journey, and you do, based on your background that I just summarized. Let's ask the question I always like to lead with:
What would you consider to be your Digital Thread? In other words, the one or more thematic threads that defined your digital industry journey.
RJ: Ken's Digital Thread question... You know, when I first heard the term, it threw me, but it makes so much sense, Ken; Digital Thread in the aspect of what's brought me here? A lot of what I am about today is defining technology use case fit for infrastructure, industrial customers. This doesn't somehow sound like the kind of thing you grew up dreaming about. I guess, in my case, growing up in India, very stem-focused, as you can imagine, argumentative. Getting to debate and asking tough questions was okay, which prepared me for this in many ways.
My coach recently described my essence. This is the idea of people having an essence - you have to live being true to your essence. She described my essence as curious, intrepid, and brilliant. I think she meant that in the sense of wanting to shine. I think that's true; I've always have been drawn to sort of a hero's journey, like Lord of the Rings type quests, and this idea of going after these great big use cases that are right for digital transformation and defining tech stacks sort of speak to me. Some of the other things have influenced me to be a marketing guy in the engineering world. It makes it easier to go after some big ideas like launching cell phone service in Nigeria, or broadband wireless in Greece, or digital transformation. I think that's the digital thread that led to my digital twin that I am right now. Thanks again, Ken.
Ken: Yes, thank you. It's interesting, this idea of what's a curious, introvert brilliance. You and I have joked in past conversations around Myers Briggs type, so I can probably guess your Myers Briggs type. But either way, we'll say it's probably pretty close to digital industry leadership in general. Since we're going to start to talk construction tech today, because I know that's really where you're focused on with your newest company. Let's start with a broad context-setting question that you mentioned Digital Twin a moment ago. What does Digital Twin mean to you?
RJ: I did much work in IoT, and I think, unfortunately, some of these terms like IoT and Digital Twin can mean so many different things to so many different people. It's good to have a context and a common understanding.
One of the cool things that I've started to work with is this exciting company called Sustain Living Innovations back in the US. They manufacture buildings, and they focus on sustainability both in the construction process and in the building, trying to figure out this idea of driving the city of tomorrow with manufactured mid-rise buildings. The way we talk about Digital Twin, probably the most straightforward definition would be the right combination of physics and statistics-based models that allow for simulation at every stage of the process. From architecture and design, through manufacturing the key components, construction, and operations, I think in many ways that for me is starting to define Digital Twin.
Ken: We'll take down into that topic in a few minutes, relative to NEOM, which is just a fantastic project. Let's maybe rewind a little bit. You know, I noted if I look at the kind of origin story of a lot of our digital industry leaders come from the conductivity space, Telco particularly. That's why I particularly like your early entrepreneurial work with Euro broadband. What inspired you to create this company at the time?
RJ: It's funny because for a long time, probably till about 2009, connectivity was the insurmountable technical challenge, and a lot of us used to go around in Telcos - and I don't know Telcos right now if I talk to my Zoomer kid about Telcos, she goes; 'Man! that has got to be the most boring industry around'. Unfortunately, I think too many people still think that way. But back in the day, with Bell Labs, there was so much innovation happening in Telecom. It's amazing how with 4G and smartphones, it almost marginalizes the Telco and is really broad applications and IoT and AI to the forefront.
So, I guess, yes, we'll have to make the journey back to 2003. No 4G, we were in a 3G world, and we were all wondering how we could start using mobile phones and get more wireless broadband. Back then, YMAX was the magic bullet, and of course, Greece being the showcase for the Olympics. They wanted to showcase the latest and greatest in technology.
I remember 2002. I was coming off deploying 3G in Nigeria and was looking for my next daring adventure. I met this gentleman, I'm still good friends with Darwin, and he was doing Wi-Fi-based broadband networks in Truckee in California, saying, 'Oh, yes, we could do a Wi-Fi network for Athens for the Olympics.' And of course, being a Telco guy, I cannot poo-pooed Wi-Fi and said, 'No, we have to do YMAX; this fantastic technology.
And it was a pretty easy leap to get from there too. Before I knew it, I was working for a consortium of Italian, Greek, and German bankers, building this company with a team of Ex-Olympic athletes and one of the five families in Greece. They were running things there to figure out how we could deploy this in Athens.
So, Ken, in many ways, I think that was the epitome of technology use case fit. We had a great market opportunity. We had the right set of partners and a chance to be the first to market with new technology. I enjoyed my time there before I moved on to Cisco to lead the digital transformation work over there.
Ken: That's a great lead-in because you played a leading role at Cisco for 13 years driving emerging market transformation and IoT, or at least what they were calling at the time, the Internet of Everything, which I still think it's and brilliant ad campaign. Unfortunately, the Optic was so far ahead of the ability to capitalize on it, but man! I give them a lot of credit for setting the tone. So, in the end, you were running the remote and mobile assets business for them focused on industrial companies and smart cities.
What were some of the key use cases and wins you saw during that time?
RJ: Oh, yes. I think you had Joseph Bradley on—I believe it was podcast #115
Ken: You're right. 150. Wow! I am impressed.
RJ: Yes, I love the guests you have and how interesting you keep it, and so Joseph was the architect in many ways of the Internet of Everything story while he was back at Cisco. Back then, I guess I can admit it now. It was kind of a market texture story, and we had this great vision, but it was still coming together. So, lots of mistakes, some successes, yet it's been a great ride.
As I look back, the impact we've had on utilities and the spot grid has been amazing.
In 2012, we partnered with Itron, and we did the first deployment of 3 million smart meters at BC Hydro, which was a new way for the utility industry to think about the smart grid and adopting standards-based and IP-based technologies for supporting the grid. This was huge, a big evolution back in the day. We also did a lot of work in the automotive industry, which was a fantastic experience—working with companies like Ford that invented industrialization. These companies that have this huge legacy and this vast history and how you industrialize the production and manufacturing process, in that context, hearing the Ford CEO talk about how digitization would be the most significant technology journey for the last 100 years and is a company that started this whole industrial journey. That was just an amazing experience.
And then, of course, a lot of work in the Middle East, evolving there connected real estate to smart cities, really sort of being part of Dubai becoming what it was. I mean, back in 2010, Dubai was essentially a lot of these soaks, and kind of an old city and a new city existed. If you go there today, it's kind of like Las Vegas on steroids with all of these iconic buildings, and just watching all that happen, and the technology that's gone into it, it's really a different world that I was lucky to be a part of, because of my time at Cisco.
Ken: Speaking of Digital Threads, then ONE, we have Joseph moving from Cisco in the role you just mentioned to President at NEOM. As you said,, we featured him in a podcast. TWO, we have you in some sense, following in his footsteps, leading the IoT and digital twin platform for NEOM, which I believe you were calling NEOSS or the NEOM OS.
Can you provide our audience with a sense of the challenge you were attempting to solve and the digital solutions you were developing to address these?
RJ: Sure. Maybe it helps set the context for NEOM and for folks unfamiliar with NEOM, N-E-O-M.com. Essentially, it's a cognitive startup city, but it's being done in Saudi style. The budget is 650 billion, that's with a B, just a crazy budget, and it's this very large area, that's 2,500 square miles, I think if I do my math, right, it's the northwest corner of Saudi Arabia, on the border of Egypt and Jordan, and they've taken this large chunk of land, and they're building an international community there, and the vision is just incredible. Imagine Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. I don't know, maybe meeting Woody Allen sleepers. It's just kind of all of these cool, iconic things that you can't even imagine... They've got some of the top architects in the world, Norman Foster, who built the Gherkin in London, they have Zaha Hadid, who has built the Museum of Modern Art in Barcelona. They are building these iconic buildings, you have the city, that's a floating city, so it's literally floating on the bay. They are covering a side of a mountain to turn it into a ski slope, and this is in Saudi Arabia. It's going to be like fully buttoned down to zero degrees centigrade, so they can ski and turn it into another mini-Switzerland, I imagine. Ken, you probably would feel comfortable there.
You have these 1,000 assets being built-in like an asset could be the airport, this bridge to Egypt, it's three times the complexity of the Channel Tunnel, and much less the time. In seven years, they want to build all of these cells and acids. As you can imagine, it's kind of just a great construction challenge, and I had the great opportunity to going in there as part of, as you said, the NEOSS team/ OS team. Talking about the platform that's going to be used for supporting the construction technologies, and this is really got me involved in some of the newer ways of thinking around building information modeling, digital twin, and really sort of how you deal with some of these challenges are getting inputs from 1,000s of project management and design consultants, how you try to automate the validation of the construction process – so - the machine can identify what's called clashes, and do automated clash detection. Howyou build a digital thread between some of the upstream processes like the design piece and the downstream processes like construction or operations, how you think through all of the data schema required to support simulations at every stage of the construction process. That was a big challenge, just thinking about all the data issues, the ETL pipeline. How to extract, transform, and load the data, how to develop the data schemas, how to keep the data manageable. There is this thing called, level of detail in architecture. It goes from 100, which is a very high-level kind of a box on, let's say, in a 3D drawing to what's called 500 Elodie, which is your as-built deep detail of what's being constructed, and some of these files, they can reach multiple gigabytes in size. Trying to do analytics and simulation and manipulating these files was a challenge.
Getting into all of that helped me understand the complexity of digital construction and some of the opportunities in this space.
Ken: All of this culminates with founding an IoT company helping reshape the construction industry using cloud-based AI IoT and Digital Twin technologies? What's the market opportunity here? And how do you help companies in this space?
RJ: I guess it might help to talk a bit of a few of the metrics. Many people notice; construction is one of the largest sectors around. It's about 12 trillion in revenue. It's about 15% of the global GDP, and I know we think of construction as mainly sticks and bricks in the US.
Projects essentially are going over budget, they take twice as long as they need to, and it's not considered of leading-edge in digitization and technology. But in other parts of the world, especially China, some of the ways they're bringing digital technologies into construction and some of the things they're doing with a Digital Twin is just amazing. Especially in the US, as we think about the Biden 2 trillion infrastructure bill, we think about how construction needs to change. How much has changed since the last time we did big construction projects in the US back in the 50s. How much do we have to learn from the Middle East and China? It's amazing.
When you think about IT budgets, most construction companies' IT budgets are probably in the realm of 1%. Suppose you look at manufacturing, which is advanced when you compare it to construction. In that case, it's around 4%, or 25%, for software, so sort of adoption of digital technologies to drive the future. At this point, I think that a lot of construction companies are starting to realize that construction is digital. You're starting to see large investments even in the VC community.
SoftBank, they've made some really large investments. Unfortunately, a few of those companies haven't probably done as well as they could like Katerra. But I think in 2018, there was $3 billion in the US that was spent on construction tech, and of course, new technology is Legit, and there is Elan Musk tweet about it. We have had Elon Musk's sightings. His new home that he built at his space station was a prefab for a home that was unfolded on site. So hopefully, we're going to see some tweets that drag the value of construction tech up.
With all of these great opportunities in construction, some of the specific things that we see from an AIoT perspective that I think is hugely attractive is aligning BIM models with the data schemas required to optimize the downstream process. So, think of it as a process manufacturing problem, which we can talk about more in a bit.
How do you optimize downstream processes? The digital systems used, let's say; 'Design can be used for running simulations during construction and operations.' So, you're thinking about this as an end-to-end process, and you're really using this to reduce delays, rework, waste, and a lot of the things that were plaguing the construction industry, even at NEOM and at some of the projects that I've done, for instance, where we've done some real modeling work, you always have this problem of architects' design these great 3D models of what needs to happen. But then a lot of times, that gets sort of sent over the fence to the civil engineers. Civil engineers, although they are engineers, they aren't as tech-friendly as mechanical engineers, or obviously computer science, they're more reticent to get their hands on keyboards and really get into the use of computer technologies. So, that is part of what we're doing at Aiota. How do we take AIoT and a data science-centric approach to how we think through these workflows and optimizing it and kind of move companies from being unconsciously unaware of what technology can do to them? Having unknows to having known unknowns to then really being consciously aware of what they use and how they scale their IoT platforms?
A lot of difficult conversations, I think, with construction folks, establishing the technology use case fit, talking about the appropriate tech stack, how we can leverage cloud, how we can evolve the ecosystem, and really sort of the vision of Aiota is solution led iPads. Solution-led integration platform as a service. Not spending a lot on consulting but getting it as a service and having something that is shared among construction companies, so they can all really benefit from what technology offers to them.
Ken, I know that was a mouthful. I hope I haven't put you to sleep!
Ken: Not far from it. But there are so many questions I would like to ask. I love pattern matching, and this idea of looking or treating construction as process manufacturing is a very interesting concept in that regard, and I think you gave us a sense of that, let me kind of ask a step-up question on that. One of our four key focus sectors is at Momenta, which we call smart spaces, which covers smart buildings and smart cities, farms, and of course, construction.
Do you see similar opportunities in these areas in terms of treating them as processed manufacturing versus the way they're treated now?
RJ: Oh, yes, Ken, I think we are on exactly the same page, and it's probably because both you and I have spent so much time in manufacturing. I'm sure you remember, back 20 years ago, when manufacturing was all about machine-to-machine, there was no really standards-based AI, Digital Twin, any of that going on, and construction in many ways is the same-- In many ways, people view it as a project management problem.
20% of the budget gets assigned for a project management office that then looks at it as essentially coming up with these Gantt charts and all of these project management ways. When you step back, and you look at it from a process problem, it's really process manufacturing. You've got upstream processes like design, and you've got downstream processes like construction and operation. You need to really align them because the upstream processes have a huge effect on the downstream ones. When you look at it as a process manufacturing problem, then you start quickly identifying 'Yes, well, it makes sense to have a supply chain, it makes sense to have product management sort of design this thing end-to-end, it makes sense to have shared contractual responsibilities.'
So that the construction team and the design team are all working towards the same metrics in their contracts, and they're not necessarily working across purposes. Which, unfortunately, is sometimes the case, and you can really start addressing how you can keep projects on time on a budget, and sort of have the right machine-readable and enforceable regulations and by the way, I think building code also falls into this, and really, you can have all of them part of an end-to-end system. , You can use a lot of the advances in optimization we have in process manufacturing, and really across all smart spaces, and the ecologically sound building is something that's been manufactured and designed with that in mind from the get-go.
I recently read an article that talks about how there's this opportunity to move away from all of these labels even in farming. We're putting on products like organic and sustainable to smart farming, right? Is this Bart engraved into every step of the process? And are you using technology to optimize the process? I think that's true of everything that you think about in smart spaces and buildings and cities, and agriculture and construction.
And then, especially from a Digital Thread and a Digital Twin perspective, you have a common digital thread. You're collecting data during early stages that are used in the latest stages.
This way, you can use data science effectively, because as you know, the longer you wait to collect the data, the more expensive it gets. The more difficult it is to monetize this, and so it's really important not to get lost in the trees and to view sort of this construction forest as one thing and optimize it end to end.
Ken: What I love about doing these podcasts, and of course, all the other activities we have at Momenta; you hear inspiration, sometimes on the same day, and you begin to see how these patterns apply.
Ken: I just finished recording a podcast with Roberto Siagri, the former CEO of EuroTech. He has been very active in the EU Commission's industry, 5G initiative now, and it's fascinating because it's all of the 4G, which was technology LED. Still, moving toward concepts like circular economy and how to move to servitization as an example, it's a lot more transformation. But one of the points he made in there, which I thought was brilliant, is 'Industrial is about breaking down the barriers we have between value chain members and thinking holistically and horizontally.' So, you're thinking about sustainability, if you're a technology provider, providing to an OEM who's going to sell that as a product or service to a consumer, and in some sense, that's kind of what you just said, around construction, really looking at this thing, long term, and from earliest decisions to end of life decision. So, it's interesting to see how all of this comes together in that regard.
RJ: Yes, I think to add to that a little bit, I feel as individuals, our exposure to construction is a project, and so that's the way we think about it as individuals, but when you're in the industry, it is a process because you're moving equipment and people from one project to the next. Thinking about them as projects, you sub-optimized so many parts of it. You're absolutely right around that.
Ken: Let's take an orthogonal move in the conversation here. I noted your work with AUM, a nonprofit dedicated to helping marginalized communities heal through therapeutic workshops and artistic performances. Tell us a bit of this and your involvement in it. It's fascinating.
RJ: Thanks, Ken, for bringing up AUM. You know, AUM in so many ways, it's kind of my respite from the crazy Silicon Valley world that we all live in.
AUM is Arts Unity Movement, a verifiable, C-3 nonprofit dedicated to helping the Bay Area heal and connect, especially in marginalized communities, through inspirational performances and therapeutic workshops.
The reason I came into it is that I spent so much time in the tech world. Then you start thinking, that's how the whole world works, and so being able to work with these wonderful ladies that are artists, and that is making a meaningful difference in the Bay Area with homelessness, with some of the BLM issues, with some of the issues we have with mental challenges, and how we sort of relating to that, as a community and how we sort of interact with each other. You know, I think that's just a huge problem we have in the Bay Area, and probably in much of the world.
In AUM, the ladies have come up with this really cool process called 'Arts', which stands for awakening the mind. So, using inspirational performances to awaken the mind to this other way of being, then lots of meditation, visual arts responses, and art therapy to reflect. That's the art reflection, where you then reflect this different way of being. The tea is a transformation, where we do lots of interactive art movement workshops, to kind of really start to get out of your thinking mind into more oof you're doing and getting in touch with your body and then sharing this with people.
You're connecting and building communities. It's been incredible, especially as we emerge from COVID, and we have so many communities that have been marginalized with all of this community trauma; COVID, Black Lives Matter, people feeling that they're not being heard and appreciated homelessness, mental illness. Being able to do something with that has been just this tremendous gift, and I appreciate the time you may be able to spend with that.
Ken: Yes, and I must say, I appreciate your passion and dedication to this as well. We always like to ask our ending question, and perhaps you've already given us an early answer to that.
Where do you find your inspiration?
RJ: Yes, I guess my Myers Briggs, one of the things we've been he an extrovert. I get my strength and my power from my community and people. I surround myself with my amazing wife. She's doing this great work applying foresight and mindset principle to leadership at the Hum collective. I listened to her calls, and I just thought about mine. This is so smart and cool. Some of the stuff that she's doing, talking to you and the conversations you have with this other friend, Mark, it's a unique barrier thing. He's Psychonauts; he's into the use of psychedelics to get even smarter and having conversations with him around that--
Talking to my daughter, Bo, who is doing data science out of Hong Kong. I read a lot. I just finished the new Michael Lewis book about; 'How the US screwed up the pandemic response,' I loved that and can recommend it. It is a great airplane read - now that we're all back on a plane. I also like to listen to lots of podcasts. I love your podcast Ken, and then a few others are like; Shane Parrish, like Adam Grant, Adam Robinson, just so many brilliant people willing to share how they think, and probably the last thing, and this is something I've taken up recently. Still, it's changed things in many ways is meditation. This is not about finding inspiration BUT getting out of my thinking mind, turning my inspiration machine off, being present, and spending more time listening. I'm just learning how to do that more, which has been a huge benefit to me.
Ken: Gosh! If one word comes to mind, I'd say it's holistic because we've explored right and left brain, we've explored everything up, I think up and down Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, and it's been a great conversation in that regard.
If people want to learn more about Aiota, how should they reach out to you?
RJ: Our website will be up soon – in the interim, people can contact me directly at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. So that's A-I-O-T-A, and by the way, the word Aiota also means 'Intention and finish.' So, it's kind of a cool little to connect there. Or via my LinkedIn, RJ Mahadev. I would love to talk to folks and just keep this conversation going. So thanks again very much, Ken, for sharing your audience with me.
Ken: Oh, yes, and thank you for sharing your insights with us as well. So this has been RJ Mahadev, President of Aiota and thought leader on Construction Tech. Maybe I put parentheses holistic there.
Thank you for listening, and please join us next week for our next Momenta Digital Thread Podcast.
Thank you, and have a great day.