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Overall and Emerging: Uptake Technologies, Inc.

 

Transforming business through data

Brad Keywell has built Uptake Technologies into a powerhouse software company by gleaning deeper insights from the Internet of Things.


Brad Keywell could have eased up on the throttle after founding six successful companies, including e-commerce giant Groupon. But that’s not in his DNA, especially when he sees an opportunity to start a software company that could transform the world of business.

“Six years ago, I saw a clear pattern,” Keywell says. “Sensors had been installed across industries, yet the resulting data was not being used.” He envisioned a software company that could combine these sensors with today’s ubiquitous connectivity and the vast, low-cost storage potential of the cloud. The resulting data and insights would then be used to help companies in asset-centric heavy industries improve operations.

After sketching out the AI platform that would power his vision for a business capable of challenging the industry status quo, Keywell founded Uptake in 2014. Since then, he has helped the company focus on making many of the world’s industries more productive. Uptake has grown rapidly, from 50 to 750 employees, and it now counts such global giants as Berkshire Hathaway Energy and Caterpillar among its industrial clients, achieving unicorn status — a valuation of more than $1 billion — in just its second year.

Addressing issues of consequence

Uptake has seized a competitive edge by demonstrating that it can deliver value quickly. For example, only weeks after one client plugged its systems into the Uptake platform, the software predicted that a major mechanical failure was about to occur. As a result, the customer was able to fix the malfunction proactively, saving $250,000.

By itself, this would represent a powerful value proposition. Indeed, simply solving the issue of machine downtime would save global businesses up to $647 billion per year. But Keywell is not satisfied with just improving business performance. Steering Uptake to “address issues of consequence, not convenience,” he has also strived to make sure Uptake pursues a vision of “a world that always works, and a world that works at its best, cleanest, safest and most secure at all times.”

The potential upside is tremendous, Keywell says, citing a World Economic Forum study that estimates the digital transformation of industries — enabled by companies like Uptake — will create more than $10 trillion in value for society by 2025 via consumer benefits, reduced CO2 emissions, jobs created and lives saved.

Profit and purpose

Uptake’s AI platform builds upon and integrates existing data, making its data science and machine learning models even more insightful and predictive. Keywell fully embraces the potential of AI, but he also refutes predictions that it will take away jobs from people in the business world of tomorrow.

“We believe AI and emerging technologies will augment human intelligence, thus enabling people to do more — not negate their employment,” he says, citing the example of a mine in Sweden. After the mine was automated, the workers didn’t lose their jobs. Instead, they now sit in front of computers, operating a remote robotic loading process.

While he acknowledges that the employees of tomorrow need to learn new skills to thrive in a world dominated by AI, Keywell views this educational necessity “not as a burden, but an opportunity.”

Moreover, he believes this education should go far beyond just learning coding skills. The company training program, called Uptake University, offers courses on philosophy, conscious leadership, interviewing 101 and how to create cocktails. The reason is simple, he says: “Continuous, rigorous learning gives individuals an edge.”

Sunday night emails

Given his view that people play a key role in AI companies, Keywell goes the extra mile to make sure Uptake’s employees understand his vision. As part of a 2016 New Year’s resolution, every Sunday night he sends an email to everyone in the company. He calls these letters his “Sunday Thoughts” in which he attempts to give each employee “a snapshot of his mindset” and offer “consistent calibration of where we’re headed and why.”

In keeping with his focus that AI should change the world for the better, Keywell also emphasizes that Uptake needs to be a force for good in the world.

“One of the biggest misconceptions in technology is that we have to choose between profit and purpose,” he says.

“In the world we envision, one that always works, there doesn’t have to be a choice between what’s good for business and what’s good for citizens or the environment.”

To that end, he founded Uptake.org to leverage the company’s data science models and its talent for social good. For example, one application helps anti-human trafficking groups identify patterns of coercion in victims’ data.

In 2011, Keywell also founded Chicago Ideas, a year-long program that draws some of the world’s most courageous storytellers to share ideas and “instigate impactful action.”

Programs like this are just one way Keywell is trying to transform the world, by helping people share great ideas and better leverage the insights gleaned from the Internet of Things.


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