If there’s one thing Patricia Hagen notices in her work with startups and the young people who run them, it’s their ability to identify problems and come up with solutions quickly. “All of the startups we work with today, they really are all very mission-oriented,” said the president and executive director of T-REX.
Hagan’s Friday panel of young professionals fell right in line with her experience. Its discussion, “From School to Geospatial Startups: A Generational Entrepreneurial Shift,” centered around the particular problems and solutions rising to the surface today.
“Right now, there’s this huge bottleneck in artificial intelligence (AI), which is the collection and labeling of training data,” said Dan Kuster, founder and CEO of Cambrio. “Solving that bottleneck is what motivated me to create Cambrio.”
Michael Naber, co-founder of Simerse, discovered the same problem while earning his master’s degree. “The data just really didn’t exist, and even it cases when it did exist, it took a really long time to annotate it and prepare it for the machine learning (ML) algorithm,” he said.
Naber saw the backlog as a potential focus for his own startup, which launched in May 2021 and specializes in developing synthetic data, (annotated, computer-generated data that simulates real-world data).
In addition to synthetic data, all three panelists pointed to heightened data-sharing as another solution to the problem of backlog. Their willingness to share (and insistence upon sharing) data and standards is yet another trait common among this newest generation of entrepreneurs. “It’s just incredibly productive to share some of this out in the open,” said Kuster. “It’s good for training, and it’s good for improving capability. If you think you’re really good at predicting this stuff, show it.”
Second to the problem of data availability is the availability of trained talent. Pat Guillen’s company, Drift Net Securities, addressed the COVID-triggered manufacturing slow-downs by taking specific hardware manufacturing processes in-house—only to discover there weren’t sufficient qualified applicants. “I don’t know how many of you have taken on hiring for your companies, but it’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” said the director of GIS Solutions Architect.
Kuster described the challenge on a meta-level: “There’s the underlying need to increase the tide of capability across the industry,” he said. “The problem is, investing in raising the tide means you might not capture all of it.”
According to Kuster, businesses must be OK with that fact and willing to play along anyway. “I grew up in Iowa, [where], if you want to have a good harvest, you have to plant a lot of seeds,” he said. “Some of those seeds you have to nurture for a long time, and you can’t get too upset when a bird eats your favorite tomato.”
Kuster and Naber were both participants of the St. Louis-based NGA Accelerator, a 13-week program that pairs startups with NGA to receive valuable connections and resources, including hiring resources. “Mentorship and entrepreneurship are absolutely critical,” Naber said. “We have technical advisors, we have mentors, and we wouldn’t be able to survive without any of them.”
“That’s one of the things we do at T-REX,” said Hagen. “Provide the culture and resources for support.”
From a Chicago home base, Guillen has partnered with local colleges to develop mentorship and internship opportunities. “There’s a lot of people that need jobs right now but just don’t have the training to match the new and emerging technology.”
This spirit of collaboration and advocacy—and an exceptional nimbleness in reacting to change—promises to not only fuel this generation of entrepreneurs but set the stage for the next. Returning to his farming metaphor, Kuster left the audience with this: “Make sure you survive long enough to benefit from some harvest so that you can plant a bigger one next season,” he said. “And don’t hold too tightly to one particular seed.”