The Internet of Things: a local perspective

ECE and Keller Hall play host to IoT Fuse 2015

March was an exciting month for the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE). Keller Hall, where the department is housed, played host to a one-day conference titled IoT Fuse 2015 on the Internet of Things on March 19, 2015. It was organized by the IoT Minneapolis Meetup group and presented some lively conversations that gave us an insight into what lies ahead in a connected world. Patrick Delaney, an ECE alumnus, was one of the organizers of the conference, and we had the opportunity to ask him some questions after the event. Here is what he had to say about his interest in IoT, the key points of the conference, and the road ahead:

Tell us about your interest in IoT. When were the seeds of interest first planted?

I have had a wonderful time building my two businesses, particularly my second one, designing and manufacturing LED solar lamps. I am fascinated with the concept of being able to work with and design new gadgets, as I am sure many people within this space are. I started working with network-connected gadgets as far back as 2011, when I began developing connected solar products. However at the time the phrase, “Internet of Things,” had not yet hit mainstream. I think the phrase “Internet of Things,” went from the “Buddy Holly,” level of popularity to the “Elvis,” level of popularity some time
last year. I became acquainted with some semiconductor devices, which were specifically marketed toward industrial Internet of Things applications, and started to notice the word pop up in the news more and more. Large companies such as CISCO started to put a lot of marketing dollars into the phrase, and people unaffiliated with the tech world started to refer to it. That’s the point at which I decided to start a Meetup.com group here in the Twin Cities around the concept; it became something to rally people around.

How has your interest in IoT evolved over the years?

The Internet of Things is not a real thing; it’s just a conceptualization. It’s a way to get people together around a topic. There are certain technology areas which are associated with it such as wireless connectivity, distributed
computing enabled by cheaper processors, big data tools and analytics, as well as the emergence of rapid development, prototyping and agile software methods. That being said, we are living in very exciting technological
times in which the edge of the internet can potentially be pushed further out via cheaper, smaller devices. Thus, my approach has been to look at the conceptualization as a “group,” i.e. the truth about the “Internet of Things,” is pluralistic. There are different perspectives from different industries, which help inform each other as a whole. That being said, as an electrical engineer I have been pushing myself very hard (re)learning to code. The basic skills I learned in C++ and MATLAB back at the Univer sity of Minnesota have proved to become more relevant over time as I go forward learning Java, Python, and start to understand more about software architecture.

How is the MN tech industry poised to participate in the Internet of Things?

From a historical-cultural perspective, Minnesota is very well positioned—we were the first place to realize commercialized networking with the advent of Engineering Research Associates and Control Data Corporation.
Adapting hardware for computing and networking is in our DNA—we are arguably the strongest Midwestern state by far in this area and have been for over half a century. The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation have ranked Minnesota as the second highest performing tech state in the nation after Massachusetts. We have over 400 different software companies, particularly within the mobile space, which is arguably the first wave of the Internet of Things. We also have a vast, diverse industrial base. So overall, I believe that as long as we can continue to learn to collaborate and listen to each other, to manage the vast technological challenges associated with bringing connectivity to physical things, we will continue to be one of the leading states, if not the leading state in this area. Of course we are not an island, and will work with many different parts of the world to make this happen. The world is faced with managing a whole new type of IT architectural challenge, we will be a significant contributor because of our technological talent, but also because we are a Midwestern state, where we live and interact with all sorts of industries and “things,” out there in the real world which can be transformed with the power
of distributed computing and wireless connectivity.

Details on the ranking are available here: http://www.govtech.com/state/Top-Tech-States-Ranked-in-New-Ecnomic-Report.html

What is the IoT Minneapolis Meetup group about?

Within the theme of collaborative learning @iotmpls was formed as a way to bring people together so that we can learn from each other and try to take in different perspectives about how we see the present state of technology
shaping up in various industries. It’s like the story of the six blind men: one goes out and says, “Hey, I think this is a rope,” the next goes out and says, “No, it’s a pillar,” the next goes out and says, “No, it’s a wall.” Turns out, they were all right in their own way—they were looking at an elephant, feeling the trunk, leg, and belly. This is a type of technological phenomenon and age where it is beneficial to take in different perspectives on the subject and try to imagine a better world. So each month, we pick a different industry or technological vertical, and bring in real people, folks who live and breathe Internet of Things—either they started a business that harnesses a certain form The Internet of Things: a local perspective ECE and Keller Hall play host to IoT Fuse 2015 of connected device, or they are a hacker or researcher with an incredible depth of knowledge on a particular subject, such as “open hardware,” or “remote monitoring of biosensors.” Each person gives a 5-10 minute talk, and then we open up to the audience for questions and collaborative learning and suggestions. Almost without fail, there is an incredible amount of learning and perspective exchange that takes place—for me at least! But people keep coming back; we usually get around 50-70 people there. Of course, networking afterwards is a significant part of the value as well. Some terms that have been coined by some of our presenters and contributors have included, “IoT architecting,” “system of systems engineering,” “real-life mouse,” (referring to Playtabase), and “hardware as a service,” all of which entail various aspects of the present-day ecosystem that can be leveraged to create new business models and occupation types.

How was the idea for IoT Fuse 2015 conceived?

In the software development world, there are a number of homegrown conferences that take place on a regular basis to delve into a topic, such as the Midwest Python Summit, and Mobile March. My friend Justin Grammens,
who is part of the senior management of a local software company Code42, came to me with the idea of putting together our own Internet of Things conference. He was one of the founders of Mobile March [a conference
that explores trends in mobile technology], which has been going on for about five years now. The University’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering was kind enough to sponsor our location, and we found interesting local speakers within the IoT Space, and marketed the event through various avenues. We ended up selling out completely, and had a wonderful set of speakers. The venue worked out great and we can’t thank
the University enough for providing the space.

What was the purpose of the conference?

While @iotmpls is more about the individuals and different perspectives on a monthly basis, typically within a more entrepreneurial realm, IoTFuse was about fusing together all walks of life, including large corporate interests, within the space. While I tend to be someone who is biased toward scrappy entrepreneurial startups because of my background, it is important to realize that one of our competitive advantages here in Minnesota is our large corporate environment. So, about half of our presenters were entrepreneurs and hobbyists, while corporate presenters comprised the other half.

What are some takeaways from IoT Fuse 2015?

What came out of IoTFuse is that there is an interesting interplay between the large corporate players already out there providing all sorts of software and hardware tools and perspectives, and the individuals who are looking
to strike out on their own and do some thing totally innovative. While large companies do not tend to excel at completely breakthrough innovation, they provide the process and control necessary to have a stable environment that a given entrepreneur can pick from in terms of technical tools to utilize. The trick for the entrepreneur or startup CTO is of course being able to pick and architect the right tools, which have the correct amount of overhead and features to fit a given situation. Next year will be even better, and we will continue to propel Minnesota to the top of the IoT scene!

Patrick Delaney is a 2008 B.E.E. graduate from ECE. Always the entrepreneur, he started with a landscaping business called “Forest Restorations”, which removed invasive species from homeowners’ properties. A trip to Nicaragua was a turning point for him. While there, he learned of the lack of access to electricity, which triggered a project in his mind: solar powered lighting systems. He drew on the advice of Professors Bruce Wollenberg, Ned Mohan, and Paul Imberston to guide him.

Patrick graduated and started working full time, but this project was never far from his mind. While working for a Chicago-based manufacturer, he learned the ropes of manufacturing in the electronics assembly hub of Shenzhen, China. Based on this experience, Patrick formed another small business designing and manufacturing LED solar lamps for developing countries and non-profits in the US.