What Matters Most in Times of Crisis? Our Ability to Respond

Samdesk AI software gives us new tools to understand the impact of crisis to enable better management and response.

Disaster, unfortunately, is a fact of life. As much as we’d like to think we can plan and prepare our

way into a future where nothing bad happens, it’s not possible. We will face crises, natural and man-made, small and large scale, financial, reputational and in the worst possible cases, where human health and safety are at risk. Yes, let’s do everything we can to avoid these situations as much as possible.

And…let’s make sure we have the right tools in place to respond appropriately when crisis hits.

Our ability to manage through a crisis is in direct relationship to our understanding the scope and impact – when it hits and as it evolves. This has always been true, whether we’re talking about the Tylenol crisis in the 1980s or the forest fires on the west coast this summer.

What’s different today? The massive opportunity to leverage technology to help us spot, monitor and anticipate where a crisis is headed.

Enter samdesk – a global disruption monitoring platform powered by big data and artificial intelligence (AI). They help you protect your people, assets and brand with real-time crisis alerts.

The world needs this solution. McRock is such a believer that we are leading the $13.5 million oversubscribed Series A financing with co-investment from our strategic partners, EDC and HarbourVest and McRock co-founder, Whitney Rockley, has also joined the board of samdesk.

Most of this earth-shifting news isn’t good. We’re talking about natural disasters, terrorism, civil unrest, and catastrophic accidents. The kind of stuff that can have immediate and long-lasting impacts on brands, be they Fortune 500 companies, NGOs, institutions of higher education or pro sports teams. Samdesk has clients in each of these sectors, and many others. What do they have in common? An awareness that in times of crisis every minute counts.

How does it work?

Samdesk’s AI platform ingests data from more than 100,000 sources across 27 languages to provide alerts and insights accurately and instantaneously. It alerts organizations on how its people, assets, operations, and brand will be impacted. Samdesk intelligence arrives up to 45 minutes faster than traditional media, giving its clients a significant advantage to protect human life and critical assets or provide operation continuity in situations where every second matters.

Sometimes it’s a global event, sometimes it’s more local. The scale doesn’t matter. The tool works the same way providing instantaneous insight into multiple variables beyond the obvious event details, including live local traffic and weather. These are things you may need to know but maybe didn’t factor into your crisis plan. Ingenious, right? Each alert also includes an interactive map that shows you where an event is happening, and if any other incidents–related or not–are occurring nearby.

Samdesk also filters out the irrelevant information making asset monitoring accurate, and curated event summaries meaningful. And because our world moves fast, notifications are delivered across multiple platforms: direct to the app on cell phones, email, via Slack and more. There are also regular live updates supported by on-the-ground images and video.

Who should be paying attention to this technology and samdesk’s service?

In a nutshell, every business that has corporate security interests. Companies with global operations that need to keep an ear to the ground at home and around the world. Companies that need to ensure customer safety. Executive safety. The ability to facilitate employee or customer evacuations in the event of a crisis.

Remember that list of existing samdesk clients? Some of those organizations, like the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets, may not be obvious examples of companies that have a need to prioritize corporate security. They are in the sports entertainment business, not transporting hazardous waste or operating heavy duty equipment in underground mines. But to their credit, they recognized their obligation to make safety a top priority for the fans, their employees and the communities in which they operate. They recognize the potential risk of everything from weather-related incidents (floods, hurricanes, tornadoes) to threats to infrastructure (bridge collapses, power outages) and even potential criminal activity (riots, neighbourhood lockdowns). Samdesk’s AI technology is trained to recognize 47 different types of security threats.

Read more here about how Freddrick Richardson, Vice President of Arena Security and Public Safety for the Hornets, keeps a host of people and assets safe at home and on the road.

This isn’t a doom-and-gloom story, despite its title. We like to think it speaks to the incredible potential of AI technology. Technology that can help prevent or minimize the impacts of emergencies is a good news story worth sharing.

You Wouldn’t Use a Screwdriver to Hammer in a Nail

But you CAN use engineers to build and scale your business (and build the technology behind it)

News of tech sector surges are nothing new. There may be occasional setbacks, but rebounds ALWAYS follow. Look at the strong tailwind created by the Covid-19 economic recovery and change in government leadership in the United States. Technology companies are reaping the benefits–NASDAQ-100 was at a low point (6,994) in March 2020 and has more than doubled to 15,000 in August 2021.

Investing in technology is always a smart decision. Why? Because technology has proven time and again, to solve problems and improve how we do things.

Plus, we can’t discount the seemingly unfettered confidence and optimism among the innovators that their technology will become the new gold standard. And that determination is partly what attracts a lot of investors and in turn helps fuel their successes.

What’s behind the drive to innovate?

We can speculate all day, but I’ll share a little secret with you.

It’s the engineers.

OK…they may not be the entire reason the tech sector thrives, but they’re definitely a key ingredient.
They play an essential role in creating the technology that is the source of the initial corporate value. Engineers are also often the entrepreneurs or work in top management themselves. Understanding the mindset and habits of these key team members is critical to tapping into their genius (Yes, genius … no bias here) and using it to fuel continual innovation and growth.

Consider when:
● Times are tough – a recent global pandemic and using technology to enable social distancing and improve safety on the job site Triax
● Or when there’s a new way to solve an existing problem – leveraging robotics to improve safety and productivity in material handling Otto Motors
● And to capitalize on a new opportunity – improving the environmental impact of cities through micro-mobility solutions Dott

The engineers are often the brains behind the solution.

To understand where this innovation comes from, let’s dive inside the mind of an engineer for a minute.

Full disclosure: I’m an engineer. In case that wasn’t already obvious. Don’t be afraid…I promise we don’t bite!

But let’s first acknowledge the abundance of engineer jokes we could easily make. I’ve heard them all. I admit some are funny (OK…a lot are funny) and some even illuminate some truths about us.

For example:
● Engineers are excited to discover, understand, and use technology, but are less inclined to work in the financial and commercial areas.
● Engineers are good at math. (Duh.) That capability could be applicable not only to technology development, but also to building financial models.
● Engineers often stick to the details. This is where their ability to concentrate shines.
● Engineers are good at building logic. (Go ahead, snicker. I can’t hear you). This skill set translates nicely into building business schemes and business models.
● Engineers are happy to solve problems. However, ‘how to solve’ is just as important for them, and may, at times, lack consideration of ‘the economic impact of the solution.’ If they can connect the logic up to this point, they would be able to explore a value proposition.
● Engineers feel comfortable with things they can prove, understand, explain, and predict. Also, they think realistically and fairly. Therefore, they are a little conservative. (Yes, I said a little and I stand by it.) It takes energy and courage to move into uncharted territory.
● Engineers are looking for someone who understands them and their ideas. They’re people too! They talk enthusiastically with such people, but they can feel uncomfortable talking with those who do not speak “engineer-ese”. You won’t often find an engineer in roles that rely heavily on communication, like sales. (Speaking of which, have you heard the one about the salesperson who…never mind.)

It’s time we embrace engineers! We have so much to give.

Engineers have the capacity and desire to contribute well beyond the parameters of engineering and what is typically asked of them.

Pressure, temperature, density, humidity, rotation speed, vibration, etc. These are parameters that engineers are familiar with. But why not leverage the engineering mindset when it comes to capital, value propositions, financial impact, financial models, business models, communication, etc.?

I propose that successful tech companies are already recognizing the potential and tapping into the contributions engineers can make to these parts of the business as well.

There were clues in those habits I listed. Did you see them? These are my tips for tech company leaders who want to get the most of their engineering resources:
● The strong math skills of engineers can be applied to the financial side of the business. They would be able to jump in without any allergic reaction.
● The engineer’s logic construction ability can be used for connecting technology, value, and reward, which is exploring value propositions and building business models.
● Engineers should be encouraged to communicate with team members with different skill sets and experience. They frequently enjoy it, though it helps if these people have first sat through the “communicating with an engineer in 3 easy steps” seminar. Seriously, mutual understanding is key.

Rethink the boundaries of engineering

Technology is just the front end of the value chain. It’s possible to draw a path to the back end of the value chain by expanding the boundaries of engineering and defining opportunities for further collaboration, a powerful tool for tech companies to solidify and even grow their value in uncertain economic times.

Embrace engineering, expand the boundaries of the engineering team, and just watch what comes next. World domination, yes please!

About the Author: Akira Tanabe is a member of the McRock investment team, an engineer at heart and in practice. Akira has extensive mechanical and process engineering experience with a specialty in industrial digital solutions. If you are an Industrial IoT/AI startup and would like to partner with us to build the next-generation intelligent solutions for the physical world, reach out to me on LinkedIn or visit us at www.mcrockcapital.com and follow on Twitter @McRockCapital

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McRock Connects with Triax to Optimize Workplace Safety and Efficiency

McRock leads US$12.5 million Series A financing in connected worker solutions company.

Built for the toughest industries in the world, Connecticut-based Triax Technologies, Inc. is advancing the digital transformation on worksites in construction, energy, mining, and manufacturing. The company’s wearable IoT solutions provide data-driven visibility to elevate worksite safety, productivity, and security, while minimizing health and safety risks.

McRock led the US$12.5 million Series A financing that included participation from Connecticut Innovations and existing investors. As part of the financing, McRock Co-founder & Managing Partner, Scott MacDonald, has joined the Triax Board.

Triax recently launched a wearable technology that provides key worker-to-worker, worker-to-location and worker-to-equipment-based intelligence to deliver insights into daily operations. In addition to real-time safety alerts that proactively notify workers before entering hazardous areas, the latest solution automates headcount and hours for daily reporting and labor billing verification. The solution also tracks equipment utilization, identifies bottlenecks causing inefficiency and supports social distancing and digital contact tracing.

Triax achieved strong growth in 2020, adding many new clients and industry verticals, including energy, mining and manufacturing, to its well-established construction client base. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Triax quickly became a critical partner in creating a safe work environment to keep their customers’ doors open during the Covid pandemic through social distancing and contact tracing.

This is McRock’s second investment within weeks in the rapidly growing connected worker sector. On June 7, the fund announced it had participated in the US$25 million investment in Poka Inc.

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McRock Jumps into Poka to Connect and Empower Frontline Factory Workers

Poka closes US$25 million Series B round to connect workers as the foundation of a digital transformation strategy.

Do the Poka…

The name Poka Yoke is the Japanese term for mistake proofing. The idea behind Poka was inspired by the challenges its CEO & Co-founder, Alex Leclerc, experienced while working at his 114 year old family food manufacturing business Leclerc. Which, for the record, makes some of the best cookies in the world.

Alexander teamed up with Antoine Bisson, a life-long friend and former engineer at Microsoft and Ubisoft, to create a software tool built specifically for manufacturers. Poka, a leading connected worker platform, has raised $25 million in Series B financing in support of the company’s next phase of growth. McRock Capital and 40 North Ventures joined existing investors Schneider Electric Ventures, CDPQ, Robert Bosch Venture Capital, and Leclerc in this financing round.

The manufacturing sector is facing a perfect storm of challenges from a worsening skills crisis, increased operational complexity and workforce volatility caused by the pandemic. According to a recent study from The Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte (2021), 77% of manufacturers say they will have ongoing difficulties in attracting and retaining workers in 2021 and beyond. Poka helps address these challenges by giving factory workers the ability to learn continuously and solve problems more autonomously at the point of need.

Many industrial leaders including Nestlé, Bosch, Johnson & Johnson and Tetra Pak have committed to developing workforce competencies and operational knowledge by including Poka as a pillar of their digital transformation strategy. “The concept of connecting every single worker was the foundation of our digital journey and supports a highly collaborative culture while ensuring high quality standards for the production of Purina’s pet care products,” shared Paul Ingram, Director Digital Manufacturing Operations, Nestlé Purina. “We believe having workers connected and able to get information whenever and wherever they are in the factory is key to agility and our ability to continue advancing and innovating our processes.”

Digitally connected workers are empowered workers

Alex and the team at Poka have a goal to help their manufacturing clients turn every production problem on the factory floor into an opportunity to build collective knowledge, learn and improve.
For the McRock team, sampling high-quality cookies from the Leclerc factory might be one of the best investment analysis tasks we have ever done. More high-quality cookies please…


Are robots taking over the world? Yes, and we think it’s a good thing!

Here’s why…

When humans and machines work together, we get better, faster and safer ways of moving the world forward and we have countless examples throughout history to prove it.

The monumental progress in automation has expanded the capabilities of modern machines to unprecedented levels, giving the human world a considerable leg up in advancing productivity, performance and safety across industrial sectors. This is a good thing.

And yet, we still face growing concern over the job-destroying potential of these innovations, a topic that has only gained momentum recently with the impact of Covid-19 accelerating automation projects.

This isn’t the first time advancements in technology have created a challenge between humans and machines. (No, we are not talking about the Terminator, although a rogue Atlas robot can get pretty close!).

This resistance goes back to the early 1800s when cotton and wool workers rebelled against the power looms, seen as a threat to hand weavers. This type of resistance continued with events like the Swing riots and goes on today with protests against automated checkout stations and self-driving trucks.

Were any of these conflicts successful in rolling back the progress? Not even close.

On the contrary, when you look at robotics throughout history, we repeatedly see how humans and machines working together makes change for the better.

Introducing industrial robots –  Hello Knucklehead!

More than 65 years ago, in 1956, George Devol an American inventor and physicist, made an early prototype of what he then called a “Programmed Article Transfer device”. Three years and many iterations later, his invention translated into the first industrial-grade robotic arm, named Unimate. General Motors was the first company to deploy this 2700-pound robot on a diecasting assembly line in Trenton, New Jersey. In a very short period, approximately 450 Unimate robotic arms were deployed in diecasting by large and small manufacturers. Machine operators nicknamed the robot as “Knucklehead”.  Manufacturers and Unimation were supported by the worker unions because the new equipment wasn’t used to displace workers. New robots were added only in response to attrition, which was high given the harsh working environment of the diecasting shops.

Almost parallelly, KUKA developed its first automatic welding system and a few years later FANUC shipped its first numerical control (NC) machines. Robotics technology in the decades that followed moved from hydraulic systems to all-electric robots primarily serving the automotive manufacturing industry.

The primary theme of these early innovations was their focus on automating tasks that were too dangerous for humans to continue doing, particularly while pushing the boundaries of productivity. The machine operators largely welcomed the knuckleheads and robotic arms in favour of moving to higher skilled jobs within the firms.

These robots can move…on their own

Move over Elmer, Elsie, Shaky and Flakey and make room for CARMEL! (Autonomously, of course)

The first autonomous robots go back to 1948 when William Grey Walter created two ‘tortoises’: Elmer and Elsie. While they never made their way into industrial applications, they were the cornerstones. Twenty years later, in 1968, the first mobile robot, affectionately named ‘Shakey’ was developed at Stanford Research institute (SRI). Shakey, at one point referred to as the “first electronic person”, had a deep impact on robotics and AI research. Shakey’s successor – Flakey was launched in 1985, but got its butt kicked by the University of Michigan hero, CARMEL, at the first AMR competition held in 1992. Since the days of CARMEL, AMRs have come a long way. NASA, an early adopter of these advanced mobile robots, used them primarily for exploration purposes. Several years later, AMRs made their mainstream debut in the industrial verticals with warehousing applications. The logistics industry quickly started to deploy AMRs to move goods from one point to another. Packed with some of the best technology that exists today, AMRs in industrial environments not only improve efficiency and productivity, but also conditions for workers. AMRs take on repetitive and cumbersome jobs, giving workers an opportunity to move to other more skilled tasks requiring human expertise.

And they’re getting stronger

Imagine bench-pressing a Toyota Camry?

Earlier this month, Clearpath, a McRock Capital portfolio company launched the 2nd generation of its OTTO 1500 AMR. In 2015, they were the first-to-market in the heavy-class AMR. When we say heavy class, the OTTO 1500s really mean business. This thing can lift your Camry and do a bench press with it.  Today, AMRs have fundamentally changed industrial material handling workflows and opened doors for deeper robot-to-robot interactions.

AMR platforms like OTTO, equipped with arms and manipulators, can take on far more challenging use cases like mobile picking, truck loading and unloading in verticals like logistics, retail and manufacturing. A glimpse of the possibilities were flaunted at the launch of Stretch systems a few weeks ago.

Yikes! Now they can see

Machine vision as a concept dates back as far as the 1930s, when Electronic Sorting Machines offering food, used sorters based on specific filters and photomultiplier detectors. Modern day vision systems started with Cognex, founded 1981, producing its first vision system, DataMan, an industrial optical character recognition (OCR) system capable of reading and verifying the quality of text marked directly on parts and components. In the same year, the industry also witnessed the first production implementation of a machine vision system right here in Canada.  A General Motors foundry at the St. Catherines, Ontario, used Consight-I systems to successfully sort up to six different castings at up to 1,400 an hour from a belt conveyor using three industrial robots. Now, that’s impressive!

Today, “3D vision” is perhaps the most important breakthrough giving robots a more complete understanding of their environments. It also lets robots handle unexpected variables better, helps machines collaborate with humans safely and enables robots to perform new tasks on the fly without constant reprogramming.

Humans and machines – the best of both worlds

Should we be worried about these robots that now have arms, vision, mobility and can also use AI to teach itself? Aren’t they getting a little too close to humans? The short answer is, NO.

There is no way to reduce automation to a simple binary between “manual” and “autonomous.” Instead, it is about finding the right balance between aspects that we would find useful to automate and tasks where it remains meaningful for humans to participate. There are many practical benefits of humans participating in automation systems. Let’s call this human/machine interaction, hybrid systems.

These hybrid systems take away the pressure of building perfect algorithms (if any such thing exists). Using human intelligence and interaction, automation systems are exempted from getting everything right while also making it a quick and efficient deployment.  Further, hybrid systems can incorporate human preferences, a flexibility that lacks in otherwise autonomous systems. Finally, an important advantage of such systems is transparency. When humans and AI undertake a task alongside one another, it becomes harder and harder for the process to remain hidden. This transparency helps in getting buy-in from the operators and decision makers alike, a very key requirement for a solution to scale in the industrial sectors.

This hybrid philosophy is at the heart of one of McRock’s portfolio companies, Plus One Robotics, where they believe Robots Work, People Rule! as they pioneer human-in-the-loop (HITL) systems. The company gives robots the eye-hand coordination to pick and place objects in the warehouses and distribution centers using 3D and AI-powered perception, so robots get smarter over time. Plus One-enabled robots can occasionally call for help from digitally connected humans called, Crew Chiefs.

Erik Nieves, Plus One founder says “We believe the future of robots isn’t to try to continue to make robots smarter, but to connect robots to smart people”. Well said, Erik!

Robots taking over the world? Yes. Taking over the role of humans in the world? Not today Wall•E.

As for the “robopocalypse”, we’ll leave that for feature films and science fiction novels.

Authors: Udit Bhatnagar and Akira Tanabe