Conversation with Gadi Lenz
Good day, and welcome to edition 138 of our Digital Industry Leadership Series. Today it’s truly a pleasure to welcome Dr. Gadi Lenz, Chief Scientist of Urban Software Institute, a producer of smart city software platforms and smart mobility solutions.
Dr. Lenz has been at the forefront of smart city and mobility innovation for almost two decades. After receiving his Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from MIT he worked at Bell Labs conducting research in optics. He later co-founded Kodeos Communications, a startup focused on high-speed optical communications which he sold to Finisar. In 2005 he was part of the 4D Security Solutions founding team, a homeland security systems integration company where he led major products, including advanced physical security for the major New York and New Jersey Airports. He later served as CTO and Chief Scientist at AGT International, where he was also technology leader for major projects, including Border Security, critical asset security, safe city, and smart city. He went on to become CTO Intelligent Power Platform of IoTecha, a startup providing hardware and software for enabling vehicle grid integration. He has published close to 100 scientific peer review papers, as well as numerous articles and trade journals, and holds 17 granted patents.
Gadi, welcome to our Digital Industry Leadership Podcast.
Thanks, Ken. It’s a real pleasure and I’m looking forward to our conversation.
As well. As is the case with a lot of our other speakers, it has been too long since we were looking to do this, and I’m so glad we finally were able to connect up. And #2, particularly for you, given that long entry there, there are so many angles that we could take this in terms of the conversation, but we love smart cities and you have truly been at the forefront of smart cities and smart mobility, so with that in mind maybe we start it off a little bit in terms of what I’ll call the red thread of your leadership journey. What would you consider to be that red thread?
I would say over the last 15 years or so, it’s been really the notion of interdisciplinary large and complex systems. So, when I was doing research, it was optics – optical communication which is a fairly widefield but still somewhat focused. When I started into homeland and security systems, I discovered an entirely new world which is like so many other areas, highly interdisciplinary, has a lot of moving parts, hardware, software, networks. I found that to be really really challenging and giving me the opportunity of learning so much new stuff. And of course, smart cities are exactly that, they’re highly large and complex social and economic systems, but now in smart cities, we’re producing technologies that support these complex ecosystems.
It is interesting to think of the IoT, or industrial IoT, or smart cities as a use case as complex and interdisciplinary. It’s an interesting way to look at it, otherwise, we usually say it's big and full-stack!
Yeah! And you know, it’s really interesting times because I feel like… well now, but starting maybe 10 years ago, we’re sort of in a perfect storm because hardware, data, and analytics have all sort of gotten a huge boost in the last decade, sort of together. And so suddenly things that were truly unthinkable just a decade ago are now possible because of this conjunction of central parts of technology.
You know, when we get to the AGT discussion a little bit later, we ought to raise the top IOTA, because there’s one that you called well ahead of the curve, and you deserve some notoriety for that.
It was interesting, you came off of what I’ll consider being a storybook beginning; Ph.D. at MIT, five years at Bell Labs, you could literally pretty much do anything you want at that point, right, if that’s the beginning of your story – at the end of the story you’re certainly multi-faceted, but I love the fact you quickly jumped into entrepreneurial, your first startup Kodeos Communications. What inspired you to make this move, and what were some of your wins at the time?
It was interesting times, and just as an aside, I had a master plan – it’s ridiculous, I was 30 years old and I thought I had a master plan for the rest of my life, I was going to go back to academia, blah-blah-blah. But life takes you on unexpected side routes, and what happened was at Bell Labs towards the end of the 90s I was in optical communications, telecom exploded, and literally, I was getting cold calls twice a week and on the weekends with ridiculous offers. A lot of my friends and colleagues sort of made the jump, and so it was a combination of seeing new opportunities and the chance of new experiences that I did not consider in the past. it took me out of my comfort zone for sure, but it was a wild ride, and in terms of some of the wins I always tell this story because as a researcher at Bell Labs, if you’re an experimentalist which I was, you do an experiment, you publish a paper and you’re done, and then the rest is engineering detail, a very arrogant approach.
Doing Kodeos taught me humility in many ways because the base concept is usually easy and making it work once in a very controlled setting in the lab is also, I found out, really easy. When you have to design a piece of hardware which we did, that went into the core of the network at 10 gigabytes per second which was state of the art then, and it has to have a certain size and certain power dissipation, enhanced to withstand shake and bake which a lot of people know, to make sure that it doesn’t break. And, oh, by the way, you’ve got to sell it for less than 2,000 bucks, your first thought is that’s not possible. But we assembled just a fantastic team of engineers and other professionals.
One of my proud moments was really taking something, the proverbial napkin of my co-founder Jason Stark, and Mati Kochavi who comes up later in the story, taking that napkin, turning it into a product, selling it to some of the largest players and having it deployed in the network, for me was great. I considered it a win and especially since, unfortunately, there were as you know a lot of people who during that same time period had to close their doors, lose money, lay off people, and we managed to make the whole thing work. So, I consider those things win for sure.
Yeah, clearly. And it clearly hooked you as well because it looked like you took another blank napkin over to 4D Security Systems, to co-found that company there as well. So, what’s the origin story for 4D Security Systems?
4D Security Systems started relatively a short while after 9/11, so around 2003/2004, my friend and again Mati Kochavi you have to give him credit there, he realized that there was such a thing as a homeland security market… by the way, there was no homeland security office or thought yet. It was coming together…now I’m talking commercially of course, and at the time what happened was that as people were realizing, ‘Okay, we need some technology solutions for homeland security, by and large, it was usually large defense contractors who did it – I wouldn’t say as an afterthought but certainly it wasn’t in their focus. People like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin make planes, missiles, and stuff, and so this wasn’t really the main bread and butter for them.
The realization that Mati had was that you need a homeland security solution that does just that and nothing else. It was an interesting journey because it took us a year or two to figure out, what is this market? What ought we be developing, and what ought we be selling? Some of it was shaped by – you mentioned earlier in the intro – we did with Raytheon did a huge project for the physical security of major New York-New Jersey airports. They and many others, and many other related homeland security projects sort of started defining what it was that a homeland security company, a technology company, ought to be building and selling.
So, coming in during those early days and having collaborations with large defense contractors, both in the US and in Israel was fascinating. And again, huge inter-disciplinary projects when you think of how to protect an airport with the best technology that you have, with ground surveillance and thermal imagers and whatnot, and how does this whole thing then play together. Huge interest and challenge for me at the time.
Yeah, I can imagine, and you’ve mentioned Mati Kochavi before, Mati went on to found AGT International, and I believe you went over there shortly afterward to join him as Chief Technology Officer and Chief Scientist, that is where I believe we all met way back when. You guys were very close to Cisco as I remember, the original IoT World Conferences that they were doing at the time, AGT was always at the center and being featured there, so true highflyer in what I’ll call the smart city spaces.
What were some of your key wins there, and we’ll save IoTA for a short discussion after!
Well, AGT kind of came into being because once we did 4D Security Solutions which was domestic US, the clear question was, why not elsewhere? And that was the beginning of AGT International. So, we did some really large projects in the Middle East, starting with border security, and then critical infrastructure, which by and large were large oil and gas installations which were inland, at sea, onshore, again real large stuff and really complex stuff. That took us later also to Safe Cities. So, smart cities in 2005 and 2006 weren’t quite a thing yet, I think there were certainly people who were talking about it, but it didn’t have the name recognition that laypeople are familiar with these days. But safe cities was a thing and was the next thing we did, that also had a lot of concerns that have oddly I would say have come into focus which had to do with surveillance, air privacy, and many other aspects which are today of much greater concern let’s say than they were back then.
But placing 20,000 video cameras in the city was also a new toy, and that led quickly to smart cities, because one of the things we realized at the time, we had put in place a lot of smart infrastructure into the cities to do security, but a lot of it could be reused assuming the different stakeholders could work it out; you now have cameras at strategic points that you could use for example for traffic control, which these days is par for the course that you’ve got cameras everywhere all the time, and are using them for traffic and security, and other purposes. But yeah, in that sense AGT had some early wins, I think as you indicated a little bit ahead of the curve, and again that’s what made it fascinating.
As an aside, AGT for a geek like me was such a great place to be at because there was an appetite to just attack anything that seemed interesting, seemed to have a market, and seemed to have customers. Yes, we started way back from security, but we ended up doing a lot of as you said, smart spaces, smart cities, and one of my favorites ended up being a smart home for the elderly population. I think we also talked about that way back, and this notion of in the developed world a lot of people who want to grow old at home but want to do so in a safe and secure way, and they don’t want to have the feeling that someone is watching them. So, there was a lot of interesting tech in doing non-obtrusive monitoring and creating a product that was a smart home specifically for the elderly.
Of course, what’s great about that, you tell that story to anyone and there’s immediate recognition and empathy because everyone has a story about their dad, their Uncle, their Grandmother, whatever. So that was also under the auspices of AGT, and it was a great project.
I do remember discussing at the time, and I think generally considered to be ‘age in place’, is the term I’ve heard used quite a bit now, and very compelling use cases as you said.
And an interesting one, the aside that I threw out earlier, IoTA, this was one of the last projects I remember working on with you guys, where the idea was could we put effectively analytics in the cloud, and do all the data collection at the edge, but do the analysis, and at the time that was still pretty early on in terms of the migration to the cloud. But I thought it was very interesting the way you guys had considered, and I think Mati even announced it at the last of the Cisco events at the time. But man, you fast-forward a couple of years and we have C3, Uptake, and on and on, companies that especially in the digital industry space have done very well in it. So, another point where you guys were very early pioneers in that.
Yes. I would say again because we were a little early on the other stuff and doing the large interdisciplinary complex projects that I described, you come across this stuff, and of course, IoT has become such a big thing, but when you go back to engineering practices of the 80s and 90 before IoT, IoT Internet of Things was coined in ’99 I believe, but way ahead of that there were what’s called cyber-physical systems, where if you talk to engineers from back then they’re like ‘Yeah, we did that! We had sensors back then and we used them largely for control systems and others.’ Anyhow, we came across a lot of the building blocks and a lot of the use cases early-on, so that when we were doing IoT projects, and everyone was building what I would call IoT connectivity platforms which just connected proprietary sensors and data sources, and then sent them somewhere; we recognize that that’s the important first stage, but then what do you do with the data? Usually, it’s you ship it to someone else, to IBM, or something like that.
We thought well that could be done that way but why not do it in a more targeted way, and think about the fact that we saw a lot of this coming; edge computing was also sort of a new thing, and Fog which Cisco coined, these were all new things and we were saying, ‘Well, if you’re going to have some non-trivial compute at the edge, and you can do some of those analytics there and then just do the heavy lifting in the cloud, we should have a non-interruptible pipe if you will, and if you control that pipe you can also think of where do I want to do the compute given that bandwidth is not for free? You can do a lot of stuff on the edge and people were shortly thereafter starting to put a lot of, for example, computing power in cameras, so rather than sending a crazy video back to some cloud now you’re really just sending relevant stuff because you’ve done some of the analytics on the edge.
So, IoTA came from that realization, and again it was just the fact that we had a fantastic team that consisted both of hardware guys, but also of really top-notch data scientists, again a term that was kind of sparse back then; ‘data science’ I remember seeing it for the first time 2010 or 2012 and it was not very well defined, and all this stuff. So, we had some really good people in that domain as well which let us come up with this concept and work it out. Yeah, that was again super-interesting.
Yeah, even from the outside-in at the time, I must say I envied you guys in terms of the work that you were doing. So, earlier we talked about two threads if you will, smart city software, smart mobility solutions, and how they seem to be converging at least in your career. I know how you’ve joined Urban Software Institute as Chief Scientist there, and really running both sides of it, tell us a little bit about Urban Software Institute and some of the work that you guys are doing there.
Urban Software Institute is a German for-profit software company founded in 2013 by Professor Lutz Heuser who for a while was at AGT as overall CTO right after coming off a long career at SAP as head of R&D there. He started up Urban Software Institute to create what we had also considered at AGT, building an Urban or a smart city platform. So today at Urban Software Institute we talk about Urban Data Platforms, we basically provide the data infrastructure and data management platform as a service. We connect data sources through connectors that we build and develop, and at this point, we’ve got roughly 110 of these connectors that we’ve developed for various sensors and systems, and if a new sensor comes along for which we don’t have a connector yet it’s usually a matter of a couple of weeks of developing one.
So, we connect those data sources, we manage the data and we’ve got analytics embedded in this platform. We handle real-time, we handle historic data, and we produce useful – as we like to say – actionable information to our customers, the customers being typically the Mayor, the CIO, whatever the case may be, other decision-makers in the city hierarchy. We’re headquartered in Germany and most of our sales and projects are in Germany, but we also have branches in Hungary, in the UK, and in Australia, and, as you know working also in the US.
Yeah, that’s kind of the bread and butter of Urban Software Institute.
We also now have daughter/sister companies that were founded for more specific solutions, one being smart mobility, which is called Urban Mobility Innovations, and the other is our only place where we actually touch hardware and do system integration, which is called Urban Lighting Innovations and is focused on smart streetlamps and smart street lighting. So, this notion of streetlights that have sensors embedded in them that are connected and have edge compute and have various ways of connecting to a back end and so forth. So, by this point, Urban Software Institute is really able to address many urban-related problems, customers, markets. And as you said, over the last year or so I’ve been very focused specifically on smart mobility; and to your question, smart mobility is really becoming one of the most important pillars I think in smart cities.
You’ve had almost two decades of experience with smart spaces, safe cities as you called it earlier, and such; but you’ve lived pretty much every phase of the Gartner-hype cycle. I know you and I had some early discussions, an experience I’ll call it, the trough of disillusionment that so much of smart cities really ran into, that AGT clearly did as well. If I talked with Cleantech investors they’ll talk about the same thing, a trough of disillusionment, I’ve heard some people talk about Cleantech 2, and I heard a large institutional investor the other day use the term Cleantech 3 referring of course to the upswing they’re seeing relative to the Biden administration, a lot of the new policies that are there as well.
So, let me ask, do you see a smart cities 2 coming, and does it have a similar trajectory to let’s say the Cleantech 2 or 3, in terms of the next wave?
I think so, whether it’s going to be smart cities 2 or something else I’m not sure. But you’re right in the sense that early-on we were all struggling with use cases for smart cities and even earlier-on people were saying smart cities is bringing broadband to the city, which of course is important but far from the far-reaching stuff that’s seen today. So, I would say that today there’s a much better understanding of what smart cities are, you can also see this, and for me, a good indication is standards bodies. In 2012 there was nothing, a couple of years later British Standards Institute came out with a couple of things, mostly ignored. And today there are just dozens of things going on that have to do with smart cities, and that’s usually to me also some indicator of maturity. I think most stakeholders and cities became better at understanding what technology can do for them, what digitalization can do for them, or what digital transformation can do for them.
You don’t have to struggle as you once would have, to figure out what the smart city solution ought to be, just because you’re getting tenders and the market is kind of defining it. There’re truly new paradigms like smart mobility again, almost completely absent a decade ago but now in the sharing economy, we have shared mobility, its cars, its scooters, its bikes, we have on-demand transport, we’ve got Uber, we’ve got autonomous vehicles around the corner, although I think that’s probably going to take a little longer, and somewhere in there, there’s also still the talk of drones delivering pizza and stuff like that! Which I’m a little bit more skeptical about.
But I think things like that in the realm of mobility and similar things in other disciplines like energy and air quality. Air quality is also a great example, air quality monitoring a decade ago was real large hardware on roofs of big buildings spaced a few kilometers apart, specialized knowledge, etc. and today there are outfits that will sell you hardware and software for a couple of hundred bucks. You can install it on your balcony, and you can go on a website and see all the installations of your neighbors, and you can get real-time data on your immediate neighborhood or in the city where you live, you can make decisions on – ‘I’d better not use my bike in this particular area because air quality index is really crappy today. So again, this is going back to the perfect storm, once you can build these sensors and got some kids writing an app, and a little bit of software in the cloud, wow! So, all these things certainly cities are now well aware of, and they want that kind of stuff.
The last thing I’d emphasize is data; I know it’s such a cliché about data’s the new gold, or data’s the new oil, or whatever, but it kind of really is, and part of it is because data is available, again something that you couldn’t quite say a decade or a decade and a half ago. There’re massive amounts of datasets out there that are accessible to anyone, and you can build fantastic applications on top of them and offer fantastic services. And now the challenge is, how do you go about handling the data, and that’s something that we also highly involved in; there’s a Europewide project called GAIA-X which deals with not only who can access the data, but how they’re allowed to use the data, and trust in data and a whole bunch of concepts which are now off the drawing board and being implemented, because it’s become actually a political topic as well.
Yeah, in fact, I was sat through some of the Hannover sessions last week and GAIA-X was certainly right up there with data sovereignty, you can’t listen to one without listening to the other. And so, I think you’re absolutely right, perfect storm, certainly COVID has been an accelerator, a digital accelerator as we like to say, in many ways as well.
So, when you’re not busy working at Bell Labs, being a Ph.D. at MIT, or a serial entrepreneur, or pursuing really cool companies and working in cool companies like Urban Software Institute, where do you find your personal inspiration?
I’m still a geek at heart, even though I’ve been on that scene between technical and business somehow, and project management as needed, I’m still a geek at heart. I’m still an IEEE member so I still get IEEE Spectrum and I read it religiously. Being an MIT alum I get MIT Tech Review in my postbox for free, which is also amazing to me, and they’re a high-quality journal. Believe it or not, I’m a New York Times subscriber and I read a lot of tech stuff on there but also a lot of other stuff that’s become interesting to me in a lot of social aspects, and things like that.
Maybe last but not least, I still watch quite a bit of TV here and there. I like interview shows, both serious stuff like Amanpour and on the other side Bill Maher. A lot of times they interview really interesting people, and a lot of times those people have written books, and so this usually leads me onto really interesting journeys and really interesting people. One of the last ones that really caught my eye, maybe you’re familiar with him, he’s a professor at NYU for Marketing called Scott Galloway, he wrote a book called Post Corona. He made the point that you just made, that COVID was an accelerator, he goes into some detail in analyzing it. I watched the interview with him, it was like wow! There’s a lot of stuff I hadn’t thought about. I went out and bought the book.
So, it’s stuff like that, that many times provides inspiration. Other than that, the usual stuff, I still love to travel and hang out with my kids.
When you’re able to travel, right!
Well speaking of interesting people, Gadi, thank you so much for spending this time with us today.
Well, Ken, it was a true pleasure. I always love our discussions and I hope we can do it again in a podcast or otherwise, and I look forward to the day when we can see each other face-to-face again.
Amen! I’m still looking forward to finally being able to step into Israel for the first time since last year was blown up due to COVID.
So, this has been Dr. Gadi Lenz, Chief Scientist of Urban Software Institute, and a lifelong practitioner of smart spaces. Thank you for listening, and please join us next week for the next episode of our digital industry leadership series. Thank you and have a great day.