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Innovations in "Industrial Strength" Infrastructure: Preparing for the Potential to Upgrade The Physical and Digital World as the U.S. Congress Considers Massive Investment

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Last month over 75 companies virtually attended the 2021 Frontier Conference, a two-day virtual conference for up-and-coming leaders in the industrial world, including the world's top innovators, thinkers, executives, and entrepreneurs to rethink the future of industrials. The conference featured the future leaders of the industrial world who focus on emerging technologies for all the vital industrial sub-sectors.

Presentations and Q&A sessions about basically every sector of business were held, including one on innovative infrastructure.

With a new infrastructure bill forming in DC, a roundtable discussion between four industry leaders regarding infrastructure took place during the conference, hosted by Tim McManus, the chair of the Smart City Works Venture Studio advisory board; panelists included Don DeLoach, Dr. Robert Eberhart, Bob Mazer, and Eric Helin. The four joined together to discuss new innovative ways of approaching infrastructure and the role of a venture studio for startups.

Eric Helin is the Senior Manager of Innovation at Exelon, one of the largest energy providers in North America.  He and his team scout new technologies and partner with startup companies with access or expertise in technology that could be valuable to the company. Helin discussed the opportunities where digital transformation can make a significant impact in the infrastructure industry.

"Just the idea of leveraging data as value plays a huge part in the future of the energy industry. Digital twin technology is a potential game-changer to be able to target infrastructure investment where it is needed," said Helin. "So based on where the need is, we can model populations, demographics, etc., and forecast what the population demographics tell us about the future of electricity demand."

Helin also discussed that while garnering digital knowledge is crucial for the future of infrastructure, physical upgrades in technology can also play an essential part.

"Advancements in understanding where underground utilities are and letting robots do the trenching for you eliminates some of the errors that lead to cost overruns, which directly affects efficiency," Helin stated. "And then there's a lot of innovation around safety as well, where we have new technologies that can keep people safe, and limit lost time to injury."

DeLoach, a managing partner and co-founder of Rocket Wagon Venture Studios with over 20 years of experience as an entrepreneur across different industries, spoke about the role of venture studios, what they are, and how they help sustain startups.

"It's a group of seasoned entrepreneurs who understand what it takes for startups to succeed. This team becomes a working extension of a startup trying to get to commercialization," said DeLoach when asked to describe their venture studio model. "90% of startups fail. And they fail for all kinds of reasons. Often, they don't hire the right people. Some don't have the right business model. Then there's a list of 20 other things. Still, these are all mostly execution risks, which is exactly what the venture studio does to assist startups avoid as they proceed from their initial product to becoming a scalable, viable commercial entity".

DeLoach also explained Rocket Wagon Venture Studios, the new venture studio he co-founded, and how it offers startups a unique helping hand compared to other options.

"Rocket Wagon Venture Studios has teamed together with smart City Works Labs to create the Smart City Works Venture Studio based on the Rocket Wagon model. This is a  team of seasoned entrepreneurs who have IoT and cyber/physical experience combined with construction and infrastructure experience. This creates a trifecta of experience to help startups in the infrastructure space. We think that that increases the likelihood of success tremendously, so we're very optimistic about this offering," DeLoach said.

Bob Mazer is one of the founders of Smart City Works, an accelerator program that focuses on infrastructure for other companies.  Mazer explained how his program tries to help startups and notices the potential the venture studio model may have.

"Companies go through our very hands-on program, but we can only spend so much time with them after they've finished the cohort, and a lot of them go out to spend time trying to raise money. That's necessary so that they can survive," said Mazer. "Taking it to the next step is challenging, which is one of the reasons I'm intrigued by the idea of a venture studio. It allows you to help that company, bringing it to the next level."

Dr. Robert Eberhart, an Associate Director of Research on Entrepreneurship and Society at Stanford, directs a research initiative on how entrepreneurship is changing the world around us. Dr. Eberhart spoke about why startups fail and how venture studios aid startups to get past these mistakes.

"The half-life of a company is about five and a half years, and the top reasons companies fail is because they do not match their product or service to the market. In other words, the business models are wrong," stated Dr. Eberhart. "Venture studios teach companies how to build the right business models, and this is how they survive and succeed."

While all four spoke about different topics within infrastructure, they all emphasized the need to drive innovation within the infrastructure industry. While every other major industry has seen gains in productivity five times what it used to be, productivity in infrastructure has stayed relatively flat since World War 2.

McManus also pointed out at the beginning of the session that a McKinsey's research has also shown that our industry has experienced the lowest levels of investment in technology versus every other sector except agriculture.

"If we can bring productivity and our industry up to an average market level, it would mean an economic impact of $1.6 trillion per year. We're dealing with one of the largest ecosystems in the world that has one of the poorest practically represented performance," said McManus. "So, the need for improvement in any assistance from a digital solution has never been greater. This is the most fragmented industry in the world, with the most to gain."


Arti Loftus is an experienced Information Technology specialist with a demonstrated history of working in the research, writing, and editing industry with many published articles under her belt.

Edited by Luke Bellos

Special Correspondent

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