One of Austin’s superpowers is that we live in the future. We are both inventing the future and it’s being deployed here in Central Texas. We’re joined today by Jeff DeCoux founder and CEO of the Autonomy Institute to talk about one of our key challenges to build this future and that's infrastructure.
A 21st century technical foundation is the bridge to What's next Austin?
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Episode 42 Jeff DeCroix
Michael Scharf: Austin is the new innovation powerhouse, not the next Silicon valley, but the first Austin, we are adapting to the future in real time.
Jason Scharf: I'm Jason Scharf, a biotech executive, and early stage investor. And
Michael Scharf: I'm Michael Scharf, advisor and board member for multiple private companies.
Jason Scharf: You can call us optimist abundance minded up wing, and even solutionists we see a bright future ahead that can be achieved through innovation and
Michael Scharf: In this podcast, we explore Austin superpowers, the people and companies driving our growth and the macro, and microtrends that come together to create Austin today.
Jason Scharf: This is Austin. Next.
Michael Scharf: One of the superpowers of Austin is that we're living in the future. This is a double meaning, both that we are inventing the future and that it's being deployed here in central Texas. Part of that invention and deployment aims directly at one of our challenges infrastructure we're joined today by Jeff DeCouix founder and CEO of the autonomy Institute.
Prior to founding the Institute, Jeff was CEO and founder of hangar. The world's first robotics as a system data acquisition platform. His focus over the last 30 years has been on high tech industries and enhancing business productivity through automation. Jeff has multiple successful exits and multiple patents.
The autonomy Institute was launched in 2018 as a nonprofit consortium of over 100 industry government and academic organizations. It's focused on accelerating the path to commerce for intelligent infrastructure and autonomous systems to foster, both social and economic transformation in cities, the Institute collaborates with large infrastructure investors on the creation of public private partnership programs.
The first of these early deployments are right here in Austin. And that's where we start our conversation. Jeff, welcome. And thanks for joining us on the Austin next podcast.
Jeff DeCroix: Well, wonderful, great to be here. I love the whole concept of Austin next. Cause I think Austin is the epicenter of the future and I think programming like yours is gonna be vital to make it happen.
Michael Scharf: Thank you.
Appreciate that. Let's talk about the programs that the autonomy Institute is working on. You've often described the new infrastructure you're supporting as the backbone and equivalent to either the electrification of America 110 years ago, or the interstate highway project from the fifties and sixties, giving you some general background on intelligent infrastructure, why it's needed, what it looks like and how it's going to be deployed.
Jeff DeCroix: So that's at the heart of the entire push we've been working on for the last four years. So I'd say the, the key thing I I'd actually throw out, which is kind of counter to what a lot of people think is this is far more about public private partnerships in real estate than it is about technology. And you think about in the past, I think all of us understand infrastructure from the standpoint of roads, bridges, dams, ports transmission, you know, grids.
But. Now it's intelligent infrastructure. And of course, a lot of people say, well, what the hell is intelligent infrastructure? So kind of going back to how we got to this going four years ago, we were working on this is. I've been in the tech industry for over 30 years. And I've seen many evolutions of technology, you know, from hardware and software and we've gone, you know, I've seen the transitions from mainframe to PCs, to, you know, data centers that basically helped, you know, the, the internet explode all the way back to the hyper scale, you know, service providers and things like smartphones and IOT devices.
We're now at inflection point where it became clear to us to get a lot of the things that we were focused on, like getting autonomous shuttles and cars and drones and just faster and better in more responsive cities, it required infrastructure on the sidewalk. Because we were talking about, we have to merge the physical and digital worlds together.
And that became the, the challenge is because without a new shift of thinking about how this was gonna, you know, take place, we're going around strapping bolting and attaching all kinds of. Little devices on wood poles. And it was very obvious. That was not the way in order for us to solve the long term aspects of, of infrastructure, especially for the 21st century.
And also it became clear that we were following behind other nation states like China. They were very aggressively pursuing and adopting things like, you know, 5g at the edge. So. Intelligent infrastructure is about like, how do we get technology on the sidewalk and how do we make it, where it can easily be upgraded, managed over time and how do we make it where it's still open to the American way, which is allowing competition and commerce to take place.
Michael Scharf: So there's a, there's a lot to unpack there. And I, I want to go a little bit deeper into the role of the autonomy Institute. You've mentioned you are not building this stuff. It's a function of creating the partnerships.
Jeff DeCroix: Yes. And so it'd be good to understand a little bit more about build outs too. Cause I think when people think about intelligent infrastructure, they have a hard time understanding, but I think it's the same thing as if you go back in time.
Believe it or not. It took seven years for Thomas Edison to convince people this thing called electricity was gonna be beneficial to society. And I think all of us would agree that that was a, a invention and in something that everybody wanted to have within our communities. The other thing that we kind of point to is Eisenhower took five years for Eisenhower to convince the, the world or really the nation that interstate highways were gonna be beneficial.
And it was very different than the way we were just building roads, you know, during the, the. And the autonomy Institute is focused on how do we work with the collaborators? Because we know this is, this is a huge challenge. This is not something that any one industry partner can do, or even a group of industry partners.
It has to be collaborative of government and the community. To embrace the, the build out of this infrastructure within whether it be a city or down a corridor with or within, you know, communities. And the best word we use for the autonomy Institute is, is the catalyst is we're trying to be the catalyst that actually pushes this and works with industry partners to make it
Michael Scharf: I want to ask you a question because in a sense, this looks like. A lot of how we have developed in the, the tech industry when I was a kid, everything was mainframe. And then we had, you know, digital and then the IBM PC. And now we have microchips in everything. But at the same time, we've kind of flowed back into the large data centers to do the bulk of the work.
And we have sensors and computers on the edge. When I worked for a large aerospace company. They were doing consulting on intelligent roadways and their idea of an intelligent roadway of smart infrastructure. If you will, was to put everything into the road and very, very little, if anything onto the car.
Now, this sounds
Jeff DeCroix: The complete opposite.
Michael Scharf: yes. Now we have autonomous vehicles level one, two, and three, and we have those little delivery robots running around the streets of Austin. And we haven't done anything to the roadways yet, but with the intelligent infrastructure system that you're talking about, we're kind of sliding back into.
A better balance of stuff on the edge and in the centralized kind of units. How does that look to you in terms of where we're headed and what's needed to be done?
Jeff DeCroix: Well, your observation is correct. And it's mainly because you, you had the experience of the aerospace industry. Cause the aerospace industry looks at what's happening in like autonomous cars and trucks.
And there's like, we know where that goes. They, they know it. It's not, it's not an answer to the, to the, the challenge because you have to have a combination. It's not all. On the vehicle and it's certainly not all on the infrastructure, but without infrastructure, you're not gonna have orchestration and collaboration and really solve the challenges we really do have as a nation, because without, you know, going into any details, I mean, we've have multiple technologies that really have to be on the sidewalk, you know?
So we're talking right about right, right now about transportation, but. The us D O T was given the 5.9 gigahertz spectrum, which are, is basically about safety and risk mitigation at the edge for vision zero 20 years ago, and the cost and the economics of deploying that was not feasible for the us government to sustain the same challenge that we have with the carriers with 5g.
The same challenge of how to get terrestrial GPS to be a backup to, you know, what's, you know, taking place with GPS satellites in, in space. It's the same challenge we have on getting edge computing to allow some of these really rich applications for AR VR that will spawn in entirely new set of applications and services.
We can't even think about, you know, today. And that infrastructure supports all that. And it's the reason it's been a challenge is because it's not just one industry that wants to embrace it. It's multiple. And you kind of have to herd the cats together to realize if we don't come together, we're, we're not gonna have the roadways that allow all of us to succeed with the businesses that we.
Jason Scharf: It's an interesting point when you talk about the multiple industries, because one of the, you know, superpowers that we like to, that we've observed and call out, I call it the, you know, the power of and right. It's, it's manufacturing and, and robotics, it's sensors and, you know, electrification. And so I think that that's an, an interesting point here and why maybe something like intelligent infrastructure can be a.
Austin special sauce is because we have that spread of industries that are also used to having these kind of interesting, whether it's technology crossover, business model, crossover talent crossover is a very Austin type of thing.
Jeff DeCroix: It is very, Austin is very Texas. And I'd say that, trust me, there's innovation across the us.
So, so this is when, when it comes to the actual technology and the implementation, it's not necessarily, oh, it's all gonna happen in Austin. But the one thing we have in Texas is we like to build, we like to actually go out and get away from the keyboard and actually build physical things. And the, the fact that, you know, companies like Tesla have come in, it's really magnified the interest we have as, as a city in a state to embrace industry 4.0 and build physical systems and leverage really advanced technology and software.
And I think that that's what gives us the advantage and what really sets us up to be the first to implement a large scale deployment of intelligent infrastructure to meet community needs. It's it's not, once again, it's not about the technology, it's about what this is gonna do for the communities.
And a lot of it intelligent infrastructure, even though it can serve incredible use cases like autonomous shuttles in regions day one, it might just be getting broadband across the entire city. So we no longer have kids at home not being able to access schools.
Jason Scharf: Yep. So I want to dive into the details a little bit here.
We you've got two pilots going on right here in central Texas. Can you describe them? You know, where are they located? How are you partnering? What are
Jeff DeCroix: they?
Yeah, so the, the, the first deployment will take place at, on camp Mayberry, which is with the, the Texas military department. And the second, hear us talk a lot about is down on SH 130 and that's in major collaboration with the clean energy tech center.
That's that's right on, on SH 130, the, the Texas military department, we've been working with them for over four years because they see. A lot of the use cases, really helping them with disaster response, emergency management, public safety, and just meeting community needs after, you know, disasters and having resilient communication.
Being able to leverage a more resilient supply chain during a disaster is, is ideal. And this infrastructure, you know, satisfies those, those needs. They also are opening up, you know, in this camp Mayberry deployment that's that's right there on, on, on MoPac. It will support many city and state agencies.
So it's going to be a Petri dish of collaboration and allowing a lot of testing to take place. On sh one 30, you know, we have, you know, multiple, you know, truck companies, shuttle companies, rovers and drones, and even autonomous lawnmowers that will be deployed. And it's all about getting infrastructure deployed and getting the test data and the, the resilience in the systems that show that these can actually move directly to commerce because our, our main mission.
Of the autonomy Institute is path to commerce. How can we accelerate, you know, the nation forward starting here in Austin to get these systems deployed and There's a lot of details we can share about the actually there's more than just, there's about four different you know, projects that are developing in Austin.
The other thing I'd say is we actually don't call 'em POCs or pilots because it it's kinda like you, you can't, you can't test. Interstate highways by laying three, do three miles of concrete, asphalt town saying, Hey, it doesn't work. I guess, I guess we need to go back to the drawing board and over the last 10 years, and we've heard about smart cities and, and all that.
And we have a library of Congress of data. Proving the value of resilient communications and, you know, sensors at the edge to, you know, address vision zero applications. It just solving that real estate challenge and having something that is evergreen, something that allows technology to be rolled out over time and replaced over time.
Jason Scharf: So let's dig into the details a little bit. Start with the camp Mabry what is the actual infrastructure that is being put in and built to be able to allow this kind of disaster resilience and the.
Jeff DeCroix: I think all of most people have actually probably seen small cells, you know, deployed, you know, the city of Austin has small cells being deployed by like at and T think of it as it, it looks like a smart pole, but the key concept of what's being deployed on camp Mayberry is about 21.
Of these pins, public infrastructure network nodes will be deployed and it will allow various testing of different types of wireless networks, different types of sensors, whether it be LIDAR or radar or cameras, different types of compute And what that does is provides the resilience in the network that has to be there for these 21st century applications.
As, as much as we hear that 5g is about downloading Netflix really fast. And you see these commercials, it's about enabling these resilient systems and safe and, and providing, you know, safety devices to, you know, whether it be transportation or, you know, manufacturing or just supply chain logistics.
And that will all be. The goal is initially like there's 12 pins down the main drive that will be you know, part of the, the process. And that will allow significant demonstrations of the use cases that they're looking to, to solve for.
Jason Scharf: So I'm gonna couch this by saying I'm not an engineer.
You earlier, you mentioned like that the problem we had was, you know, you put a box on a metal yeah. On a, on a wood. Pole. And that wasn't enough. Walk me through the difference between the box on the, on the, you know, the wood pole and the pin and how that is better infrastructure
Jeff DeCroix: So maybe start with the, the story.
So let's just take it a very simple context of broadband. Cause all of us, everybody in the audience knows broadband now. I mean, just like we, we all know supply chain because of losing our toilet paper, but broadband was a initiative we've been trying to solve since 1996. So since 1996, we had a bill that we're gonna solve broadband.
Well, all we do every four to five years is realize we've fallen behind some neighborhoods. Don't have the proper access. They don't have enough speed. So we go out and get by the next widget and we bolt it and strap it onto wood pole. And say, oh, done. We're we're finished or we can, you know, move on. And then of course, four to five years later we're now our speeds and our, you know, connections have to be upgraded again.
So if you think about what, why did so much technology evolve over time? So fast within data centers and equipment closets and all that is because a standard was developed by bell labs in 1922. It's called the 19 inch rack. And it's just to, to the layman. All it is is a shelf that, that everybody agreed to design their computers, their storage, their network devices too.
And over the last 100 years, Every single data center, every single equipment closet, every single roadside cabinet, every single cell tower leveraged that standard to deploy and upgrade, you know, technology. So the data centers had an evergreen platform, you know, that was an evergreen platform that allowed them to continue to upgrade and we need and have an evergreen.
Platform on the edge, on the sidewalk to support these technologies of what needs to be installed today, tomorrow, and for the next, you know, 30, 40, 50 years.
Jason Scharf: So today the pins might be using 5g, but then in 10 years, I don't know, the, the cycle time they'll, you know, it's a. The equivalent of the 19 inch rack is just instead of changing out the server, you're changing out, Hey, now we've got six G and Seveng and on, on infinite item.
Jeff DeCroix: Exactly. So instead of going out and strapping a, a, a steel strap around a wood pole and attaching a, a radio to it it's all taking place inside of the structure. So it's, it's ver very, very similar to the way the 19 inch track was designed where it's conducive of plug and play. Architectures and, and systems, and probably the biggest thing that the community is embracing about it is because aesthetically it's gonna clean up the streets scape immensely because you're not gonna be looking at all these things.
If you walk around city of Austin or really any city, you'll see wires and straps and all kinds of strange things, hanging off all over the, the city and that all goes away, it all over the next 10 years will all move indoors. To these condos on the
Jason Scharf: So if these two pilots, what's the time scale, what's the actual
you know, KPIs that you're looking at. And then what happens next?
Jeff DeCroix: It it growth and, and our goal is those will be the best places for city, state and federal leaders, state D O T you know, people will come and touch and see and, and kind of, you know, get comfortable with it. But the goal is to get many P threes, public, private partnerships established.
For large scale projects to take place. And by 2023, have what we call the intelligent infrastructure commerce, act, past, which would allow an all 50 state build out. So it, it's not that, oh, if this is gonna happen, if the P no, it's it's gonna happen and it's gonna happen, whoever moves, you know, the, the, the quickest, and right now, The early partner that collaborated with the city lost in almost six years ago on their small cell platforms.
They've already deployed over 500 equivalent pins in Denver and they just won a deal with New York city where it'll be up to 5,000 of these put into the downtown city of New York.
Jason Scharf: How well have we been working with the city of Austin? One of the things that we also talk about is, you know, we're, we're living in the future, right?
And what that really means is both from your point as a technology, but also deployment. So when I look at the camp Mabry I'm assuming this is, you know, this is actually Texas state, not Austin itself. But then the I 30, I think is probably closer with the, the city. How, how has that been working with the, you know, the city government and being able to.
Do that public private partnership and deploy
Jeff DeCroix: Well, I think, I think that's, that's been the, the, the biggest challenge, not because they're, I mean, we're dealing with over 200 individuals in the city of Austin alone and in incredible collaborators, people that really want to, to, you know, see this happen.
And I think there's. You know, early on, there was a lot of confusion about, oh, wait, is this, is this a technology? Is this, you know, what is this? So it took time, very similar to what happened with even interstate highways to, to understand the concept, understand it was far more about a public private partnership and collaboration with industry.
And it was critical. To have collaboration with the city and the state to then work with the communities, because this has to be community led. This is not about the city doing something or the state doing something. It is about us seeing the value of this infrastructure meeting my needs and my community meeting my needs and my city and my needs in the, the states.
And how can it really magnify these, these 21st century applications and impact on our personal lives?
Jason Scharf: So we're going through a massive change right now in infrastructure. We've got, you know, project connect, a multi-billion dollar initiative. How are you? We kind of, are they playing nice together as we're trying to build out both, you know, we wanna be a forward, you know, thinking initiative.
how's that working?
Jeff DeCroix: I, I think it'll go over extremely well. Cuz number one, these two are very complimentary to each other. And we met very early on with the CEO of project connect. You know, the
unfortunately he's now moved to, to Washington, but you know, Randy really had an incredible vision.
He saw number one, the value of intelligent infrastructure and how it could and provide rich services to the people that were using cap Metro and really. Expand the, the, the user base and he wanted to lead with the intelligent infrastructure. And I think there's a lot of designs and plans on how systems like this will be deployed at like bus stops and at the the different locations for the light rail.
The other thing that this intelligent infrastructure will do today, That is complimentary to, to our mobility. Challenges is just optimized. Like by having this deployed in, in east Austin, as example, we can now activate controlled locations where autonomous shuttles can actually pick up, you know, disadvantage or elderly and move them around their community and, and back home where.
The greatest challenge that mobility districts usually have is manpower for buses and for operating, you know, small shuttles. And if all of a sudden, now you can have an operation center where one person can controlling and, and managing. Remember, this is human on the loop. It's not, these things are out.
Just doing whatever they want. These, these vehicles would be in control with an operation center that allows one person to control four, five, maybe even 10, you know, in the future shuttles to, to, to manage transportation more effectively.
Michael Scharf: We
talk a lot about innovation and the innovation ecosystem here in Austin.
You've described the intelligent infrastructure project as the equivalent of launching another MCC or Semitech here in Austin. now we know that those programs had a, just a huge impact on the community. All you need to do is, is look at the roster of semiconductor companies here in central Texas and how they're growing.
Can you describe how this intelligent infrastructure project is going to have the same kind of impact on innovation here in Austin?
Jeff DeCroix: Well, first of all incredible respect for, for what MCC and Semitech did for, for the community. And actually the autonomy Institute, we spent a lot of time with people like Admiral Inman early on back in 2018, realizing that this could not be done by industry.
So a lot of lessons learned on, on what they did. I'd say it's, it's clear that intelligent infrastructure will spawn the largest infrastructure built out in our nation's history, which we have to have because we are falling way behind on productivity as a nation. I'm not sure if you saw the article just last week, our productivity up what dropped to 1947 and then we're, we're looking at this massive explosion of.
Obviously inflation and the, the price points and the way you solve that is increasing productivity. So I think this, this intelligent infrastructure will spawn a nationwide build out to solve simple things like broadband and, and vision zero applications. But it'll also enable industry 4.0. It will create millions of new jobs.
I mean, jobs that are exciting and it really help accelerate new technologies and services that we're not even thinking about. Right now, because, you know, it's kinda like Uber, nobody thought Uber was a thing. But if it wasn't for the, you know, the iPhone and that infrastructure, it would've never happened.
So I think Texas will lead the adoption with robotics and autonomous, you know, you know, systems, resilient, supply chains. And I think the, the impacts it'll have on employment workforce development and, and businesses will be much larger than even MCC and Semitech
Jason Scharf: we spent
a lot of time talking about the future and how we're gonna get there with its intelligent infrastructure.
What are the largest challenges to making this happen?
Jeff DeCroix: Leadership with the community and government. So it's I think, you know, industry with we have over 200 industry partners involved. Industry understands the challenge. The elephant has to, you know, elephant in the room has to be addressed. And government sees it.
Community wants to see the benefits of, of a cleaner, more resilient infrastructure. But the public private partnerships for digital infrastructure have not happened yet. I mean, there, there might have been small pockets for like wifi in certain cities, but, but something like this has not been done. So I think the biggest challenge is realizing that as a community, we have to be part as a, all the, the government's entities.
We have to be a part. And without that collaboration, we're, we're not going to see Austin leading, you know, this it, it it'll happen. It might happen somewhere else. But I do come back to your earlier comments so that Austin is very uniquely positioned to lead the charge and make it happen and, and become the ones that did the reference architecture.
That can be repeated everywhere across our
Jason Scharf: So we always like to end the podcast with the same question. What's next Austin.
Jeff DeCroix: So, so where is the puck going? Once again, I go back to your earlier comments is we like to build, so I think what what's gonna happen in Austin is we're gonna embrace more and more the physical world.
More about how software technology can impact the physical world. And I, I think if you think about if intelligent infrastructure scales and we start to see autonomy, you know, you know, scaled across you know, the United States, I think the singularity will all point back to it happening in Austin.
Jason Scharf: That's an interesting future to look forward to. Jeff DeCouix founder and CEO of Autonomy Institute. Thanks for
Jeff DeCroix: Thank you. And I appreciate it, and I hope you guys keep on getting this great content. Thanks very much.
Jason Scharf: So what's next Austin. We're glad you've joined us on this journey.
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