Austin Ashe from Current by GE discusses San Diego transforming light poles into real time data intelligent collectors with nodes and embedded with sensors.

Can you give us some background as to how Current got started, and how you came to be involved with GE?

Current was actually born out of GE’s oldest company, GE Lighting, which was founded 130 years ago by a gentleman by the name of Thomas Edison, who I’m sure you’ve heard of once or twice.

Since GE Lighting was formed, the lighting industry has gone through several decades of rapid evolution. We realized there was an opportunity for GE Lighting to take a new shape and form with the emergence of digital technologies and we started to focus on not just the light itself, but more on socket that light was going into. We concluded that such a socket represented a very valuable piece of real estate, both within buildings since they all have ceilings and for outdoor environments, like parking lots or streets, since they all have light poles for example.

And so, in 2016, Current was officially born. It’s the perfect blend of energy savings technologies, with digital capabilities that unlock so much more value that energy savings alone. GE Lighting remains a strong business that is focused on the consumer side of the industry.

You were very recently acquired by AIP. What were those negotiations like? Does such a change have any impact on the direction of Current as a company?

It definitely doesn’t change anything in terms of our focus. If anything, portfolio partnerships like with AIP that focus is on enabling industrial, complex, technologies only serve to accelerate our progress and complement us even more. Customers are as excited as we are to continue the journey we started together.

If you look back a couple of years, right around 2017, GE went through a major transformation. In November of 2017 our Chairman and CEO at the time, John Flannery, made the announcement that the General Electric Corporation would be narrowing its focus into three segments:aviation, healthcare, and energy. All the other peripheral businesses would then of course be sold off to help enable that focus. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with those businesses, but it’s a strategic move just to enable focus for all of those businesses. Current was one of the businesses listed, in addition to GE Lighting, and by that point, Current was well on its way in its established new digital business strategy with several customers  and in March of this year, we completed our acquisition into the AIP family and are quickly assimilating.

We couldn’t be more excited to have a partner like AIP. They are a bunch of technology nerds—like us and extremely bright and capable partners that want to see new technologies succeed. They love high-hurdle businesses, they love what we’re doing with our digital strategy. We’re really excited to  have them behind us as we release even more capabilities this year that will enable those solutions for the future.

 When you look at the smart building space and smart cities space, both of those spaces have been around for a little while but what Current was able to do was disrupt those markets and bring about a new technology and methodology as part of an overall new platform.

So, is it still going to be Current, powered by GE? Does the branding stay the same?

Exactly—we still maintain the GE branding, it’s just that now we’re owned by a third party. GE does that quite often. You can look to another recent acquisition where Haier acquired GE Appliances. GE Appliances is still GE Appliances, it just happens to be owned by a third party now.

Can you highlight some value-adds that Current provided to GE, and now provides to AIP?

GE, at its core, is an innovation technology company playing in massive, massive markets on a global level. Current was able to actually create a brand new market for GE. When you look at the smart building space and smart cities space, both of those spaces have been around for a little while but what Current was able to do was disrupt those markets and bring about a new technology and methodology as part of an overall new platform. In turn, that enabled our customers to leverage energy saving and fund digital technologies, which then unlocked new capabilities and new outcomes for those customers through software.

Current accomplished something that GE had not done before. That’s why Current and our digital offerings continue to attract customers – GE quality and innovation in a space they didn’t think GE would ever play. We’re very, very excited that we’ve just started this journey and acquired customers like San Diego, Portland, and Atlanta with CityIQ our smart cities platform; and JP Morgan Chase, amongst others, with Daintree and our smart buildings platform. Those types of customers are a good start to show case the value and then capture the limitless opportunity out there to grow Current’s value.

You launched a smart traffic light initiative here in San Diego. Can you take us on the journey of what it was like to start that program? What are some of the hurdles that you had to overcome in getting that initiative picked up and supported by the city?

Somewhere around 2014, GE Corporate had put a challenge out to all of the business units and said: Look, this company is going through a transformation. We need everybody in our portfolio to become a digital industrial company. And if you don’t have a digital industrial strategy, you probably won’t be part of the portfolio going forward.

Current didn’t exist yet, so what we did at GE Lighting at the time was look at our strategy in terms of how we’re going after cities, municipalities, and buildings. We decided to “go after the socket” and take a hard look at that real estate and understand if it could be repurposed – after all those sockets have elevation, power, and ubiquity.

For example, in San Diego, there are 65,000 streetlights. Streetlights are tall, and that height innately provides avery unique vantage point. Sockets are also ubiquitous—they’re on almost every block. And then there’s power running to these sockets, which is a very, very important capability within that asset when you start talking about powering sensors, especially ones powered by a computer.

So, we approached San Diego with this concept and said: What if we were able to repurpose your streetlights and they would no longer be just streetlights? What if we could repurpose them into a piece of digital infrastructure—a sensor device—that could collect all the data about your city and enable you to think about solutions towards your biggest challenges in a whole new light? (Excuse the pun) Would that be interesting to you? The answer was yes.

So, in 2015, we got started on a pilot with them, and it proved successful on more than one front. In working with the city in these early concepts, they were able to give us some very valuable feedback around what kind of data they’d be interested in, and how they would want to deploy something like this.

We set out to accomplish one or two goals, accomplished those two, and opened up an envelope of about 50 other things that we can do for them in their other departments simultaneously. That was an eye opening experience for both of us. And that’s what ultimately led to the adoption.

I will say, there were some challenges  along the way. As you can imagine, solving one or two issues for a couple of stakeholders in a city is one thing. But, once we were then able to identify 10+other capabilities that could be done for other departments—and trying to get all of those stakeholders aligned and bought in on a technology and acapability like this—that was a huge challenge.

For the first time, the city was forced to no longer think of itself in terms of its own silo. Silos aren’t necessarily bad; they force focus into an area. But, when you think of a large-scale platform, one that can be leveraged for my department, and this person’s department, and that person’s department—and then you look at how we’re all going to share in the cost and then the capability—that’s a new concept. It really took a lot of time and effort, as well as a great deal of thought leadership on the city side, in order to get people thinking about this the right way.

So, we approached San Diego with this concept and said: What if we were able to repurpose your streetlights and they would no longer be just streetlights?

I’m curious about the streetlights. How do these sensors work?

As I mentioned earlier, we had started out with this idea of repurposing the streetlights. But how do you really repurpose a streetlight? Essentially, we had this concept that we were going to put a computer on a streetlight. Let me steal an analogy of the smartphone for just a second.

When you think about what the smartphone is, well, it’s certainly a phone. But, I can guarantee you that for most people, the phone function is probably the fourth or fifth-most commonly used feature. The number one feature is probably surfing the internet, or using the maps application, or calendar organization. There are probably four or five things that a person utilizes their smartphone for before they actually use it as a phone.

What makes that possible is that the smartphone is really a computer with a bunch of sensors wrapped around it. Sensors like a touch screen, camera, Bluetooth, Wifi, GPS, flashlight, gyroscope, etc. When you combine all of those sensor devices and couple them through a CPU, and then build an application layer on top of it, you can now virtualize almost any solution imaginable from those sensors, from a software layer – an “app”. As we like to all say, “there’s an App for that.”

That’s what we wanted to do for cities. We identified that they were not unlike consumers. Where you and I probably had a PDA, GPS device, flashlight, camera, portable TV, iPod just a few years ago, now we only have one widget that combines eight different things. We saw cities buying eight, even 20 different devices to try and enable and power a smartcity. So we said: Why don’t we bring all of those capabilities together in one device, wrap those sensors around a CPU, launch an App store and call it a day? And that’s what we did.

Let’s talk about the data. What are some of the parameters that these smart traffic lights are really looking at and monitoring? What does it mean for citizens and how doesit all play into the bigger picture?

We specifically collect the data through machine learning capabilities. Computer vision analytics through the optical sensors, acoustical analytics through acoustical analytics; then some environmental sensors around that.

The optical sensors, for example, can detect anything that moves around the city. Primarily, that would be traffic—cars, bicycles, pedestrians. They can identify parameters like vehicle type, size, count, speed, direction of travel.

Once you’re able to extract all that data, and deliver it securely to an App, then you’re able to put your finger on the pulse of the city at any given moment in time. And that could be for a split second on a corner of a street, or the last 30 seconds of an entire block, or two weeks of flow around the whole city.

24/7 data, that is densified can help planners figure out patterns and identify where the strengths and opportunities are to increase traffic safety, decrease congestion, utilize parking more efficiently, reduce accidents from bicyclists and pedestrians, aid lawenforcement with evidence, and that’s just the beginning. Essentially, you’re now revolving around the Vision Zero platform—increasing public safety for citizens by empowering the police departments and first responders with more data. So this is our vision, and we do all of this virtually, through software applications—just like on a smartphone.

24/7 data, that is densified can help planners figure out patterns and identify where the strengths and opportunities are to increase traffic safety, decrease congestion, utilize parking more efficiently, reduce accidents from bicyclists and pedestrians…and that’s just the beginning.

You talked about how the city needs helped to map out the path of development in the beginning stages of this program. In progressing the technology, did you and your team come to notice any unintentional societal benefits that this technology could bring? How did that change your direction?

That’s an awesome question. There were two key elements that emerged as part of our journey. One was this concept of an open platform—meaning being open on the top, and being open on the bottom.

Being open on the bottom—being open in general—meant that the city wasn’t locked into any one proprietary technology. They could utilize this across a broad range of hardware and software applications and with other partners they had. That open platform drove us to use specific standards around Bluetooth and Wifi and LTE connectivity, and things of that nature—USB ports, POE ports, very standard industry protocols that would allow it to be open on the bottom.

Being open on the top meant that we needed our API to be flexible. It needed to be easy to use for the standard developer and the broader development community. So, we pivoted to a very streamlined approach that enabled broader developers to get access to all of this data and feed the street light node data into their use case. Being “open”while “secure” was not an easy goal to obtain, but with 5+ world class apps now on the platform, we are glad we partnered with the folks that we did.

The second emerging element was it really just opened our eyes to this new civic engagement model that cities have been desperately trying to get their hands around. It’s about changing that paradigm between city official and citizen to create more of a partnership, a working relationship with the community. That enabled us to have a much broader discussion around these capabilities.

It wasn’t just going to be GE or Current building your solution, it was going to be the city’s partners. It was going to be the partnerships of the downtown district. It was going to be the university students, the entrepreneurs, the incubators within the city that all had access to this data. And so we had to really think about how to go from a point-source solution delivery mechanism to a super-broad, open umbrella concept that allowed anyone to come in and play in the sandbox. 50+ Apps later, we love the ideation and engagement the citizens have brought forth and built from scratch to help the city run the way they want it to.

 It’s about changing that paradigm between city official and citizen to create more of a partnership, a working relationship with the community. 

In regards to that open-source data model and the current API you have, what incentives or funding opportunities are there for startups to take a look at that data and brain storm improvements on that technology, or figure out new use cases for it?

I love this question, because it really gets at the heart of what the smartphone actually did, which was create massive economy for developers. But there are a couple of nuances with this platform that make it a little bit different in nature.

First and foremost, the city owns the data that comes off these sensors. And that is a very important concept, because it’s really the city that is in the best place to determine who should get access to what data, and when and why. So it’s the city who is able to open and close those “data valves,” if you will, serving as the data gatekeeper. What that really means is—while other cities might think of it differently—the city of San Diego specifically, is going to start out by opening a handful of data streams up to the community to help solve a couple of really key use cases and key challenges.

And what they’ll probably do from there is things like hackathons and other ideation sessions, and whoever comes forward with the best idea will likely get funded to go develop that application into a production-level product. In that case, it will not only be utilized by the city of San Diego, but it’s likely to be utilized by any smartcity across the globe. So that’s how I see the first phase of this. There will come a time where there are even more mechanisms in place, but we’re still so early in the process. The nodes in San Diego just got installed last year, and the first data sets only just started being used to come up with the core citizen based use cases – my favorite idea so far was a food truck app that helped food truck drivers find open parking spaces, where active pedestrians were, to help generate more revenue for the driver and provide a “new service”to these citizens who were likely not expecting to see a food truck that day. 

To date, we’ve only done a few of these sessions and we’ve seen probably three or four really great ideas come to light—again, excuse the pun—that are going to be built into a production environment. But, as you look at our broader ecosystem of partners, each of their applications is getting enriched. So, part of the startup community that has applications for cities already can actually ingest our data, and make their existing application that much more powerful with access to the data sets they’d never had before, thus creating new funding mechanisms for themselves.

Let’s turn to Current as a startup. How important is having the backing of a big corporation like GE in working at a city-level on smart city initiatives? Does backing from oneside make it more likely to get backing from the other, and what’s the best directionfor that to flow? It seems like you had some city interest before GE was fully sold on the concept, so could it go either way?

Well, it’s important to note the smartcities digital business within Current was absolutely a startup within GE. We took this from pure back-of-the-napkin concepts all the way through the MVP lean startup process. There were milestones and other funding mechanisms along the way. So, there were absolutely goals that had to be reached before GE would allow us to take the next step.

I would certainly say it was very comforting to know an organization like GE was interested in this concept, and that brought about the right kinds of funding mechanisms, resources, leveraging systems, processes, and vendors to help get us there. But, that tie to GE also raised the bar for where we needed to be with our milestones as compared to a Silicon Valley start-up. That said, after the fourth or fifth milestone, when we got the full funding we needed to go GA [General Availability], we got our first order in the system from a paying customer and off we went. But before that time, it was still very much an incubation startup that all but carved out from the day-to-day GE.

Where do you see this smart traffic light program heading over the next few years? What major cities would you say your next deployments are likely to be in?

There are a couple of ways to think about that question. Number one is: Who will be the early adopters? We’ve seen cities like San Diego, Portland, and Atlanta have them as well, but that was actually done through the utilities. The utilities provider there is Georgia Power, a subsidiary of Southern Company.

What’s interesting about that is the utilities are going to become an emerging force behind the adoption of IoT smart city technology. Utilities actually own about 60% of the street lighting infrastructure in North America. So, utilities are seeing this as an opportunity to provide a new service to their constituents.

Today, utilities provide electricity, gas, and water to cities and their residents. Well, how about supplying data? They could supply data to cities, to help them build this application ecosystem(AKA App Store) in order to solve big challenges.

In the next few weeks, you’ll be seeing another utility announced here from our side, that’s going to be adopting this technology and hopefully a couple other utilities. That’s one area to think about where this goes.

The other area is just the sheer capability of a connected system like this on a street light. You will start to see, more and more computer vision and ML analytics get developed and deployed to the edge. We can do this over the air, which is really nice as no bucket trucks are needed to go up there and screw around with the hardware.

So, as these new data sets get deployed there will be more and more powerful applications solving more and more challenges, thus the App store grows every day and cities get more and more livable, safer, workable, sustainable.

Lastly, when you think about the connectivity infrastructure around Bluetooth, Wifi, LTE, and the up-and-coming 5G, you’re going to see an even broader connectivity play between things like autonomous cars, and other pieces of equipment around the environment that need to interact with each other, using this very valuable data set that we’re extracting to provide services to those assets

As these new data sets get deployed there will be more and more powerful applications solving more and more challenges, thus the App store grows every day and cities get more and more livable, safer, workable, sustainable.

In regards to the hackathons you’ll be running, would you say that’s the best way for other technology startups to get involved? Can you think of any other ways a company like that could get involved?

Yes, there are two ways. Number one is if you do the hackathon, it will be a very visible event. Generally, the ones we do in the city of San Diego have the Chief Operating Officer present. Then the Chief Data Officer and/or Chief Technology Officer often helps in deciding who wins the competition. So, you’ve got key stakeholders within the city that are looking for the right partner, which is a lot different than a grassroots effort of calling up a random person inside the city.

That’s one way, but keep in mind with that option there’s a limitation that it will likely be focused around a certain use case or idea. If that company has a niche in a particular area that’s not being covered during that event, the chances of that bringing value to them are pretty small.

Secondly, one thing the city has done that’s really clever is make a lot of data available on their website through their open data portal. You can just go online, onto their portal, and request access for the APIs.

Once you do that, you immediately get contacted personally by a city official. It’s not an auto-generated system—you actually get contacted by them directly, with a physical person who asks you,“What are you working on? What data would you like?” They actually listen to you, and make sure you’re a suitable subject to get access to the data. If you are, now you have an automatic contact in the city who is eager to see you succeed with your App. After you demo your MVP, you can then get access to live data and work toward deployment.

That all said, we are at the infancy stages of how these mechanics come together, so buckle in, its going to take-off in a big way soon.

To wrap up, we like to ask all our contributors one final question: Can you leave us with one work or life hack that you personally use to keep yourself motivated and successful?

Absolutely. I can give you two: one for work, and one for life.

For work, I think particularly in the startup and entrepreneur communities, there’s one thing I like to think about,and everyone says it: “If it was easy everyone would be doing it.” That can be encouraging to some people, but it’s also pretty cliché. I like to think about it in terms of a very applicable example: what happens to our bodies in everyday life.

When you’re working out, you’re lifting weights, or you’re running—whatever that physical activity is that you’re doing, even if it’s just having fun—after a while, your muscles start to burn, right? And what’s happening there is you’re accumulating a build up of lactic acid in your muscles. But even though it burns, what some people don’t realize is that lactic acid is actually the thing that triggers the growth hormone in your body that builds more muscle. So the more lactic acid you build up, and the more you’re burning, the more muscles you’re actually building and becoming stronger.

So, in your day-to-day work life, as you’re grinding through and taking on challenges and knowing that what you’re doing is ultimately your goal, your passion—just know that as you’re burning, you’re building the muscles that will make you stronger and more prepared for the next, bigger challenge. The simplified version of that is the common saying, “No pain, no gain.” When I’m facing a challenge, I find it really encouraging to think about it in that way.

On the life side, I think our time on this earth is just so short lived, that you have to make every day impactful. This may sound really simple and overly-sentimental to some, but the one thing I try to do every day is to make one person smile.

It generates good circular karma. It proves authenticity. Sometimes, it comes back to you, and they’ll make you smile. But at the end of the day, we’re all human. We’re all trying to work together in a really complex world. If you can just make one person smile a day, you can change that person’s trajectory for the day, or even the week, the month, or who knows—maybe their life.

During the past 3 years, Austin Ashe has successfully run a start-up division within General Electric called Current. He leads a strong, multi-site team responsible for closing large partnerships and deals that not only built the division, but changed the company.  Austin transformed GE Lighting, a 130-year old business, by leading the inception, growth, and development of its first IoT/digital business, and created GE’s Intelligent Cities business.

Keep up with Austin on LinkedIn.

Illustration by Damian Dideńko.