Event Recap: IoTFuse connects Minneapolis and beyond

I was honored to give a presentation at IoTFuse: Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota called “Building the Intelligence of Things with ARTIK Cloud.” This one-day event attracts business leaders and innovators in the Internet of Things space. The sessions consist of a wide range of “vision” talks, as well as a demo of great IoT projects. Other standout presentations included “The Internet of Pigs” and “Restaurants and IoT”. 

I had the pleasure of interviewing the founder of IoTFuse, Patrick Delaney, to learn more about the organization and what is happening in IoT in Minnesota. 

Why did you decide to start IotFuse? What provided the motivation?

IoTFuse began as two separate user groups based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A user group, for those who are unfamiliar, is a collection of software developers and engineers who come together to self-teach, essentially exchanging knowledge and ideas in order to better their skills and better one another.  Often people bring in projects they made in their spare time as a way to show off their skills.

My co-founder Justin Grammens started a user group called “Arduino.MN,” which was focused on Arduino, Raspberry Pi and other, “open hardware,” platforms.  I started a group called “@iotmpls,” which generalized on discussion based upon new software architecture associated with connected devices, as well as startups in this space, of which there have been many here in Minnesota.

In 2015, we merged the two groups and formed a conference, which has grown over the years to become one of the most influential IoT-themed groups in the United States.  We hold monthly meetings, switching up the theme every month and giving a chance for makers and hackers to show off their projects. This is an essential part of our history and our true motivation for continuing and growing – to bring the magic of user groups to a larger audience.

What does the IoT space look like in Minneapolis?

Minneapolis and the Twin Cities overall have a storied history within the computing space. The first commercial programmable computer, the ERA1100was designed in Saint Paul, Minnesota by a group of former WWII codebreakers who had formed a company called Engineering Research Associates (ERA). ERA designed and perfected the ERA1100 computer for the U.S. Navy, as well as for some financial institutions as secondary customers. Engineering Research Associates later spun of one of the largest computing companies of yesteryear, Control Data Corporation, which was based in Minnesota but broke up in the late 1980s.  When computers were large behemoths that filled entire warehouses, Minnesota was the reigning king in the computing economy.  Over the ensuing decades Minnesota has continued to be a sleeping giant, with generations of professionals who live in the worlds of electronics, wireless and computer design, as well as software and web design.  

The Minnesota tech ecosystem has a lot of people who work well-paid corporate jobs, and who have worked on daring new projects in their garages and under their desks over the ages.  This is why the concept of a user group is so essential to how we work here – there are risky, unprofitable projects that one would love to be able to do at work – so you build it at home, and potentially, you build a business out of that, or bring your proven innovation back into work.

On top of that, we tend to be a very collaborative, creative society.  We have a lot of Scandinavian roots here, so it tends to be encouraged to make and show off zany ideas and ideas that help the world.  The types of internet-connected  projects that people like to build include servo-controlled cat lasers, automated mini taco delivery vehicles or emergency medical backpacks designed for developing nations.

While automated taco delivery vehicles may sound like a ridiculous proposition, what’s important is that people here have goals and time to build something which is fun, and continue the learning and self-teaching process which moves things forward. From an economic standpoint, that automated taco delivery vehicle may never make any sense, but some of the architecture behind it may prove valuable in something that has a little bit higher margin (well actually, in the case of Taco Delivery, hopefully a lot higher margin).

What critical pain points in IoT have not yet been addressed?

What we are seeing is an economic movement much more than just a technological change.  There are multiple parallel technologies evolving and intermixing at the same time, and this is going to bring about unintended economic effects which are fascinating.  That being said – one thing I would like to read more about is exploration and discussion around the “fifth horizon.” What happens when say 80% of everyday consumer durables can be tracked? If you know the location and properties of any given asset, to a high degree of precision, and it takes more resources to “hack” that object than the value of that object itself – that will bring about a massive change in the financial services industry and governance.  I think we’re already starting to see this in the high-risk auto-loan industry, with large numbers of sub-prime auto loans being given out by companies which can easily track and repossess vehicles for people who are missing payments. 

There was an episode of “Planet Money” a few years ago, where they got together a panel of economists from across the political spectrum. It’s called “The No-Brainer Economic Platform.”  One of the most interesting things those economists came out with was that we should essentially eliminate all income tax across the board – corporate income tax, payroll tax, all taxes, for everyone – and replace it with a system of taxing carbon emissions instead.  That idea, while radical, has some interesting bureaucratic implications – you would need an efficient, reliable way of measuring everyone’s carbon – which brings up the idea of having tons of sensors on every smokestack and every tailpipe.  In a few years or perhaps within a decade we should be getting really close to having the technology that would allow that.

What investment opportunities are in Minneapolis?

When one asks about “investment opportunities,” there is always a notion that personal financial advice is being given, which I would caution people steer away from following in a blog post.

That being said, what’s interesting to me about Minneapolis is not that there is a massive risk pool of investment capital as there is in Silicon Valley, but that there is a massive lack of what one might term “digital earnings per share,” in relation to Silicon Valley, across many industries. Both the Minnesota and Wisconsin areas have a major advantages in terms of the abundance of technical and engineering talent, yet with a perhaps doubly more easily obtainable quality of life, when compared to the coasts and other tech hubs around the country. You find the same technical capabilities here that you would in Silicon Valley, but housing pricing is still a half or even a fourth of what it would be in that region. Minnesota has a diverse economy, and has more fortune 500 companies per capita than any other metro area of the nation. Companies like these have a voracious appetite for building digital revenue streams, but they don’t necessarily have the capability to build things internally.  This is because if they attempt to do so, they may end up getting punished by Wall Street – R&D is highly expensive and not profitable. 

So it is my contention that intrepid technologists who are good, solid business people can post up in Minnesota and build relationships with large companies, while building technologies that they may use on their behalf, with the target of later being acquired by said large company.  One could work with local technological skill sets to build the technology needed here. I would say that in Minnesota this applies to many industries, including healthcare, medical devices, retail (both operations and consumer durables), mining, materials, manufacturing, energy, logistics, agriculture technology, etc.  If you just look for a list of the biggest companies in Minnesota – you’ll get an idea of what might be some wide swaths of areas to learn about and get into.  

What you will not as likely see come out of Minnesota are companies like Uber or Theranos.  Both companies, at their onset, represented highly risky, transformative ventures which no one knew whether they would succeed or not – at the time. In the case of Uber, we just didn’t have as many mobile users as Silicon Valley, and in the case of Theranos, you would have been constantly shamed by your research doctor friends at the Mayo Clinic telling you that you can’t start a medical equipment company with no clinical trials to back it up. 

The successes you will probably see are companies that heavily tweak an economic paradigm, building competitive value early on in the process, and have enterprise-facing solutions. There is less need and drive to “totally disrupt” an industry, and more incentive to “transform” industries to adapt to changing technological climates.

What are your goals for 2017?

I am working on building a stronger base for the IoTFuse 2018 conference. We’re looking at having over 2000 people at our conference next year, and we will be running all sorts of workshops in addition to the expo.  I’m also excited about our big annual hackathon, which takes place on Saturday, October 28th, 2018, which should have around 100 to 150 people there.

You can sign up for the IoTFuse mailing list here.