Jon Lindén, CEO at Ekkono tells us about smart IoT technology.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Jon Lindén: Thanks for asking. We’ve all been healthy through the pandemic, but it’s a different life to work from home and not traveling to see customers and do tradeshows. On a personal level, I see some benefits with this, but there are also many things I miss from the interaction with colleagues at the office and meeting customers to make magic happen.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded Ekkono.
Jon Lindén: I’m a serial entrepreneur. I even call myself a rebounding entrepreneur since I can’t stop myself from starting companies. My most prominent endeavor was my previous company, Procera Networks, that I co-founded in 2001, moved the headquarters to Silicon Valley in 2006, took public on NYSE, re-IPO at NASDAQ, and had almost $100m in sales of DPI equipment to telecom operators worldwide when I left in 2014. After leaving Procera, I did a consulting assignment for the University of Borås in Sweden, looking at the commercialization of research, and that’s where I met my co-founder Rikard König. Rikard led the research on predictive modeling and had deployed a full machine learning stack on a small device. With my telecom background and from extensive discussions with operators on IoT, we saw an opportunity to make it easy for product companies in different industries to make their products smart, self-learning, and predictive.
After all is said and done, in 2016, we incorporated Ekkono Solutions AB and brought two of my former colleagues from Procera along as co-founders; Anders Alneng as VP Sales and Joakim Andersson as VP Solutions. We were pioneers in Edge Machine Learning, and with a strong sales and customer focus, we’ve educated customers and won accounts like ABB, Alfa Laval, Volvo, Siemens Energy, and Husqvarna that use our software for predictive maintenance, smart battery management, virtual sensors, and auto-optimization.
For extended company history, check out “The Ekkono Story” here.
How does Ekkono innovate?
Jon Lindén: The true potential in IoT is not in connecting things and collecting data. It’s in extending the relationship with your products to after they leave the factory. This enables product companies to expand their core business by helping the customer run their products more efficiently, more sustainably, avoid unplanned stops, and extend product life by reducing fatal wear. This presents entirely new revenue streams, business models, and the possibility to build a competitive edge based on genuine domain expertise.
But this can’t be done manually. It requires automation. Automation in IoT spells machine learning. Traditional machine learning means that you collect data from thousands of devices to find common denominators. There are not that many common denominators in IoT as the products operate in different environments, for different applications, with variations, and under different load. With edge machine learning, you can learn these individual and super-local conditions to optimize and monitor every individual device. We enable this advanced edge machine learning to run even on very small and constrained devices and for software developers to expedite the development of such functionality. And our unique ability to do training at the edge, onboard these devices, means that we can generate personalized machine learning models that learn the normal state for a unit and detect when something deviates.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Jon Lindén: The pandemic has been hard on us. We provide new, disruptive technology to traditional product companies. This is part of their innovation work. A lot of customers froze budgets due to the uncertainties when the virus came and focused only on core business while assessing the situation. Many companies were also lacking a process for innovation work when people worked from home, not collaborating in the same lab and with the physical products. And our customers, just like we, don’t meet their customers face to face or do tradeshows, which means that new product releases are on hold while waiting for the pandemic to pass. So, while we haven’t lost business, deals have been delayed. This has impacted the annual results as it has been going on for over a year, which has made it hard to raise funding since we haven’t proven all parts of the business model as planned. Eventually, we had to make some organizational changes and reduce the team on positions that were hired to enable future hyper-growth, to manage the one thing that’s in our control – cost. This has no impact on our customers, but now we have to sail through the pandemic at a slightly slower pace to accelerate innovation again as our customers, and we get beyond this uncertainty.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Jon Lindén: Letting people go is the toughest decision to make. Every crisis comes with new experiences. I proclaimed a year ago that “don’t worry, we’ve been through similar situations before, but prepare for this to take long – at least three or four months”… I stood corrected after the summer. I’ve seen nothing like this that has been going on for this long, where the entire world is in a forced lock-down, but where life kind of continues on a parallel track. As always, you wish you had done more and faster. But the lesson learned is that you make decisions based on what you know at the time. You have to constantly reassess the situation and try to avoid just confirming what you want to see. And remember that not making a decision is also a decision. This causes a communication challenge as you want to keep staff, customers and investors informed, but without confusing or worrying them for no good reason. But communication is more important than ever in a situation like this.
What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Jon Lindén: We’re still a small company, which means that people skill is still the most important management skill. Interaction with people has changed as it has all moved online when everyone is working from home. Fortunately, Ekkono is a tech company that was “born virtually,” as even the four founders are based in different locations, which means that it wasn’t a big practical transition. Still, alignment, making sure that people feel ownership and involved, is harder when some of the spontaneous cross-functional interaction disappears. But the best you can do is lean forward and think “how interesting,” to see the potential, and just work with the conditions at hand. Try and remove some of the pain and anxiety from constant change.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Jon Lindén: Our primary competition is open source alternatives. This means that we don’t fight other companies that we meet in the lobby for our customers. I’m surprised at the limited competition we still face, and I appreciate competition as we can share some of the marketing cost of educating the market. We’re pioneers in a new space. No one even talked about edge computing, even less edge machine learning, when we started. Now we’re one of the ten most requested companies at WebSummit based on these buzzwords. We’ve been instrumental in creating this space. And there’s no doubt that connected things will become smart. It’s only a question of when the inflation points occur. Assessing the timing is my main responsibility. This requires some luck, but as the famous Swedish downhill skier Ingemar Stenmark said, “the more I practice, the more luck I have.”
Your final thoughts?
Jon Lindén: Why do I do this? Why do I start to keep starting new companies? Why can’t I work as a bus driver? But every time I ask these questions, I realize that I love what I’m doing. I love the dynamic juggling of different things, challenging what hasn’t been done before, and feel the indescribable joy of getting the first customer order. But it’s a tremendous amount of time and work to achieve this, which means that you can’t do it for money alone. For us, the bigger reason is to do good. I sincerely think that optimizing every air conditioner, pump, motor, and vehicle edge machine learning will facilitate the next big sustainability leap. That’s why my definition of success is when I can walk through town, point at things, and say, “there’s Ekkono inside, there’s Ekkono inside, and there’s Ekkono inside” because then I know that we make a difference.