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Ben Wilson Of Olea Edge Analytics On The Future of The Internet of Things (IoT), And How It May Improve Our Health & Our Lives

An Interview With David Leichner

Firmware is flexible: Building firmware is never easy. Being able to transit between the physical limitations of hardware — like battery life — and the desire of Product Managers and CEOs to constantly change and grow capabilities is an art. Knowing how to manage it via configuration rather than firmware is the sweet spot.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is beginning to become more mainstream. Millions of people use Fitbit health trackers, Nest smart thermostats, and Ring doorbell cameras, which are early examples of IoT. These are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the potential commercial applications of IoT. IoT has the potential to change the way cities are run, the way our healthcare is managed, the way our cars communicate, and the way our supply chains and manufacturing are utilized. But how exactly will IoT improve our lives? How can it improve our health? What are the new IoT technologies that we should expect to see around the corner? How does one create a successful career in the IoT industry? In this interview series, we are talking to business leaders who are incorporating IoT into their business or who are developing IoT applications, who can share stories and perspectives about the future of IoT. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ben Wilson.

Ben Wilson is the Chief Operating Officer at Olea Edge Analytics. Wilson, who formerly worked as Google’s Chief Technology Officer — Energy, joined Olea Edge Analytics’ growing technology team in 2021 and guides the technical development of new products. Wilson brings 30 years of experience working with the world’s top technology companies. He began his career working on the space station and space shuttle programs at IBM and later served as Chief Information Officer of Siemens Energy and CTO at GE Oil & Gas and P2 Energy Solutions. He joined Google in 2017, heading up Google — Energy’s technical efforts to bring cloud services to the energy sector and use big data to help clients become more efficient.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started in the IoT industry?

It started when I was working on Space Station and Space Shuttle programs with NASA while I was at IBM. The idea that we had to have direct control over things circling earth was amazing for me. The distances, situational awareness, speed, everything was so complex but simplified down to a command. This is what hooked me. I even got to go into mission control once while the shuttle was aloft and see first hand how the tech was being used. Although I had a very small role, it cemented my love of tech and how distributed tech can do amazing things.

Fast forward to my time at Siemens In the early 2000’s and we were trying to figure out how to do diagnostics of gas turbines remotely instead of sending a technician. The time series data was on the machines; it was just a matter of figuring out how to get it. We ended up dropping ISDN or DSL lines to the power plants and connecting them to our turbines but simply obtaining the data was not enough. We needed to do predictive analytics and then signal the turbines on what to do. This was the beginning of large scale adoption of Machine 2 Machine comms (M2M) and control. I think of this as the beginning of IoT. Although clunky, it was very effective for its time and drove improved efficiency of the turbines, reduced unplanned outages and gave our customers confidence in our product.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

When I was working with a global tech company, I had a contractor who crashed their car right into the lobby of the customer we were visiting. They’d accidentally put the car in the wrong gear and the entire car came smashing through the large foyer window, destroying the furniture, and causing a half million dollars’ worth of damage. The customer had a display in that lobby holding a special soccer ball signed by the 1998 FIFA cup winners, France — and it was crushed. It was an epic disaster. Fortunately, no one was hurt, so I can laugh about it now.

Can you tell our readers about the most interesting IoT projects you are working on now?

I’m most interested in IoT when it helps humanity in fundamental ways. For example, anyone reading about the dire drought situation currently happening in the Western US could not miss the dwindling of Lake Mead. We’re hearing stories from around the world about dinosaur tracks, cars, boats and other mysteries being revealed due to low water levels. Lis Mullin Bernhardt, an ecosystems expert at the United Nations Environment Programme, believes it to be more serious than just a long drought “but an aridification of the west”.

Now more than ever, we need technology to aid us in solving these global challenges. In my current role at Olea, our mission is to help cities eliminate all water loss. We believe this mission will have a significant impact on our society’s ability to adequately manage our most precious resource, and sustainably support their growing populations with a finite water supply. Currently, water utilities can lose 20% — 30% of all water produced, meaning it’s produced but never used by a customer. When you think about how much water cities are producing daily, that 20–30% loss becomes a huge number. Imagine if we could eliminate that loss, and help utilities ensure every drop of water is delivered to a customer?

Olea’s IoT product is comprised of an array of AI-based IoT sensors that continuously monitor the health of key assets throughout the distribution network of a water utility, and immediately alert the utility when performance issues arise. Olea is helping utilities reduce water loss by billions of gallons each year, which in turn fosters water equity and community sustainability, in addition to recovering millions of dollars in revenue for the utilities.

Because Olea has IoT edge compute across thousands of assets in a utility, we’re always considering how else we can leverage IoT to further reduce water loss. We have lots of ideas. The innovation and the results we’re seeing give me great confidence in our mission to eliminate all water loss for utilities, and also speak to the potential of massive-scale IoT projects.

How do you think this might change the world?

We need water to survive, period. There is no substitute for water. And water scarcity is increasingly a concern. It’s changing the way water is viewed and valued. Olea wants to use IoT to transform water management for utilities. Ensuring that every drop of water is accounted for means utilities have water accountability. This also benefits society by improving water equity across residential and commercial customers, and it also fosters sustainability for the community as a whole.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks of this technology that people should think more deeply about?

As an eternal optimist, I love Black Mirror. It’s an interesting way to explore speculative, futuristic technology to comment on contemporary social issues — where is technology taking us, how does it play a role in everyday life, etc.

So tying into Black Mirror and these twisted futuristic outcomes, I think of the “what if” or potential drawback of not having this technology in the water industry, or having the technology too late. Water is an invaluable resource, a basic human need. Sometimes it’s difficult for us in the U.S. to conceptualize a world where there is not enough water to accommodate basic needs like drinking, growing food and bathing, because no one really thinks about it until they don’t have it. But that day is already here in many places in the world, and it’s going to become a global issue very soon. So I think it’s critical to bring all the attention we can to this issue now.

What are the three things that most excite you about the IoT industry? Why?

  • Edge computing everywhere.
  • The insights that we can gather from data.
  • How AI will use that data to drive unique individualized outcomes.

The reason those three things are interesting to me is because of the unique, individualized outcomes that you can drive from data. There are computers everywhere. Data can be gathered from these devices and I can use AI to interpret it, and I can give you outcomes that you couldn’t have achieved before.

A simple example would be lowering your car insurance rates by putting a sensor in your car to track how well you drive. That’s a precursor to many other devices. They’re going to be built over the long term, and that’s going to drive an individualized outcome for people.

What are the three things that concern you about the IoT industry? Can you explain? What can be done to address those concerns?

  • Pervasiveness
  • Hacking
  • Unintended consequences

IoT is going to be everywhere, and because it’s everywhere it’s going to be hackable, and because it’s hackable it’s also going to have unintended consequences. When you look at those three things together, they can also have a very positive outcome — where a fitness tracker could help you understand your fitness level based on daily steps or how you walk around a city, for example — but they can also have a negative outcome. I’m glad there are knowledgeable people in the security industry who are already thinking about these things, and I think security is a crucial factor that must be considered by anyone creating IoT solutions. You must anticipate the unintended consequences in order to prevent them. I know Olea does with our IoT solutions.

Can you share with our readers a few of the exciting future applications of IoT that you have seen?

It’s about where IoT is going. I think although we talk about IoT in terms of smartwatches, your phone, or a device that goes on your car, but that’s just the start. I think it’s going to be the pervasive use of it in cities that is going to make a fundamental difference in our lives.

For example, John Deere has revolutionized the way farming is done today. They use IoT devices on their tractors so they can do a better job of seed planting, streamlining the process and eliminating the guessing game. They’re able to know how much fertilizer will go there, and how much water to expect based on forecasts and past rainfall. They’ve gotten to a point where it is true science on how those farmers are actually farming that specific acre of field. It goes to show how that data collected can provide benefit and increase efficiency across an entire industry. That level of capabilities is already coming to cities.

This application to cities is obviously a longer process: the use of satellites is going to look different from NYC to farmland in Illinois, but the digitalization of cities into “smart cities” will fundamentally change the way we as humans will interact with the world. This will become essential because of the density of people living in cities today. Digitalization will come through AI and will be managed by IoT. IoT is going to be the physical component.

I think we who work in technology and especially in IoT want everything to be software-based. But where you win is when you have a physical component that goes with it. For example, Google is a search engine but they’re selling Google Home, Nest devices, and Pixel phones, why are they doing that? They’re doing that because physical matters more and more. Facebook too has moved into the Virtual Reality space, which again shows that physical matters.

IoT devices compile all this data for us to then use, evaluate outcomes at a higher level, digest the data, and take action accordingly. That is why IoT is going to be the center of so much innovation. And that innovation has just begun in the water industry. IoT is equipping utilities with all-new insights they’ve never had before: where they have leaks, low pressure, failing meters, theft and so on, so they can eliminate “lost water” and know where every drop is going. When utilities can account for every drop, they can also ensure their largest water consumers (commercial and industrial users) are paying their fair share. Both of these things can prevent rate hikes for residents, improving water equity and enabling cities to sustainably support growing populations with a finite water supply. I’m excited about the potential for IoT to fundamentally change the way water is managed, starting here in the U.S.

Can you help articulate to our readers a few of the ways that IoT can improve our health and improve our lives?

I’ve already mentioned how IoT is driving a fundamental change in the way water is managed in the U.S. Through IoT we’re going to have new data and information that’s going to enable us to make smarter, better informed decisions, and things like artificial intelligence are going to drive that.

Most people already have a tracker on their wrist or in their pocket today, feeding us data to understand how to take better care of ourselves. The data is compiled to create these very simple rules of thumb that allow us to live our lives better: the 10,000 step rule, do I need 8,000 or 12,000 in cardio activity, and so forth. The point is, we now have these tools where we have data about our own human bodies, and that data is helping us be more active, improve our sleep, reduce our screen time, and make informed choices that can improve our health. Someday we’re going to know exactly how many calories we take in every day, we’re going to know how much sugar we’ve consumed, and be able to better identify and prevent disease.

My expertise is in product security, so I’m particularly passionate about this question. In today’s environment, hackers break into the software running IoT devices, for ransomware, to damage brands, or for other malicious purposes. Based on your experience, what should IoT manufacturing companies do to uncover vulnerabilities in the development process to safeguard their IoT products?

For industrial IoT devices, they should treat them as being on the on-prem DMZ, and design security accordingly. This reduces the remote attack surface on the devices.

Many IoT devices are installed in places where the manufacturer can’t ensure physical security. The biggest attack surface for these IoT devices is direct access to them. To address this threat, a secure element with tamper switches should be used to protect data and operations of the IoT device, and always encrypt data at rest and in transit. This also allows a device to have a verified boot and a trusted identity to provide authentication for network connections.

With the architecture principles described above in place, the process needs to focus on supply-chain security (hardware, software, and tools), secure coding practices, and — last but not least — testing.

What are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career In The IoT Industry?

It’s not things you need but things that are important to understand. For me, in the IoT world, it is these three things that guide my decisions every day.

First-party data matters: What is first-party data? it’s the data your IoT devices generate/create. Everyone else’s data is suspect and has to be cleansed, harmonized, and put into a schema that your data can understand. Why do all of that work — under the risk of it changing at some software engineer’s whim — when you can use your own? Build your own IoT hardware, so your first-party data can make your software better!

Hardware matters: If you don’t understand how data was sourced and processed, you will struggle to find the signal in the noise. This is why downloading data from other devices, the internet or anywhere else is such a struggle. I’m looking at you Alexa, and Google Home, the “universal remotes” of our generation! When you build your own hardware, you will fundamentally understand the data and be able to focus on the signal without having to deal with the noise. Your customers will notice and appreciate it.

Firmware is flexible: Building firmware is never easy. Being able to transit between the physical limitations of hardware — like battery life — and the desire of Product Managers and CEOs to constantly change and grow capabilities is an art. Knowing how to manage it via configuration rather than firmware is the sweet spot.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Water is our most precious resource, so ensuring everyone has access to safe, affordable water is crucial. There are huge swaths of the global population who do not have this today. I’d like to see a change in the way we view, value and distribute water, make “lost water” a thing of the past and improve water equity worldwide, so that our planet can more sustainably support the world’s population.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

They can follow me on LinkedIn, and they should also follow Olea Edge Analytics’ various social media channels, which can be found on our website.

Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.

About The Interviewer: David Leichner is a veteran of the Israeli high-tech industry with significant experience in the areas of cyber and security, enterprise software and communications. At Cybellum, a leading provider of Product Security Lifecycle Management, David is responsible for creating and executing the marketing strategy and managing the global marketing team that forms the foundation for Cybellum’s product and market penetration. Prior to Cybellum, David was CMO at SQream and VP Sales and Marketing at endpoint protection vendor, Cynet. David is the Chairman of the Friends of Israel and Member of the Board of Trustees of the Jerusalem Technology College. He holds a BA in Information Systems Management and an MBA in International Business from the City University of New York.

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David Leichner, CMO at Cybellum

David Leichner, CMO at Cybellum

David Leichner is a veteran of the high-tech industry with significant experience in the areas of cyber and security, enterprise software and communications