2020 – Starting at the top

Never a News Famine in Silicon Valley

2020 started at the top for LIDAR Magazine! Managing editor Stewart Walker was invited to attend the GeoBuiz Summit, which took place from 12 to 14 January 2020 in Monterey, California, billed as, “The only geospatial business leaders’ conference that brings together thought leaders and decision-makers from North America, the IT and geospatial hub of the world. Join us to understand the future business directions and digital transformation trends.” This prestigious conference, of which I was told this was the sixth iteration, is run by the well known Geospatial Media and Communications organization from India, which publishes Geospatial World, manages the related website and conducts geospatial market research. The organization’s conferences take place all over the world, the best known being the Geospatial World Forum events. Its CEO, Sanjay Kumar, is a familiar figure on the world geospatial stage and his aspirations to run high-level events and leverage the power of the geospatial industry by persuading people and organizations to work together have made their mark. More recently, he has been instrumental in the foundation and success of the World Geospatial Industry Council (WGIC), an association of companies representing the entire ecosystem of the geospatial industry[1].

Around 150 movers and shakers from the geospatial world gathered in Monterey. The name of the meeting is coined from the business and buzz of the geospatial industry. The exalted level of the attendees was manifest at the opening session, during which Sanjay, Scott Pace (US National Space Council), Jack Dangermond (Esri) and Steve Berglund (Trimble) shared the stage. Steve was on fine form, having only a week before ascended to the post of chairman, relinquishing his CEO position – to CFO Rob Painter – after 20 spectacular years at the helm. The meeting consisted mainly of panel discussions, both plenary and parallel. The magazine’s role was to moderate a panel on “Miniaturisation and Innovation in Sensors”, the first of three panel discussions in a parallel session on New Space. Between the first and second of these panels was a lightening talk by famous visionary Michael Jones.

The panelists were Anthony Baker, CEO, Satellite Vu, United Kingdom; Chris McCormick, chairman and founder, Planet IQ, Colorado; and Jean-Francois Gauthier, VP sales and marketing, GHGSat, Canada. Each of these represented a start-up currently at some stage in the process of raising capital and launching a constellation, each to sense different phenomena – heat of buildings; the atmosphere; and gases such as methane and CO2. They were deeply knowledgeable and easily answered the set questions as well as some from the engaged audience. Other space start-ups, such as Capella Space, the subject of an article in the next print issue of LIDAR Magazine, featured in other parts of the summit and, of course, one must wonder how the New Space market will evolve. In the 1960s or early 1970s, ambitious geofolk wrote software for least squares adjustments, stoically punched on decks of cards, but now they seek venture capital and launch satellites … will there be a shaking out or will the sky indeed go dark? Smallsats with lidar remain elusive, but SAR smallsats are here, sure to make a difference especially with measurement of small changes in elevation through time.

Two days breathing the rarified atmosphere of C-level executives, VC people, Stanford graduates and other geospatial celebrities were challenging indeed. There are too many memories to record here, but maybe these random scribbles give a flavor. A member of a panel on “Realtime analytics and the location economy” on the opening morning was Arra Yerganian, chief brand officer of Tivity Health. This is not a geospatial company, but it’s well known to your reporter – it runs the Silver Sneakers program through which those of a certain age can enjoy gym facilities free of charge! At lunch on the second day I met Dr. Erwin Frei. I had last talked to Erwin at a Leica sales conference in the glorious Swiss resort of Wildhaus in the early 1990s. For a while he managed the Leica plant in San Ramon, California, manufacturing TLS systems following the acquisition of Cyra. Now he is head of hardware for Palo Alto start-up DeepMap, which provided top-of-the-line mapping for AVs. His founder and CEO, Dr. James Wu, was formerly chief architect at Baidu and his CV also features Google and Apple! The last plenary on the first day was a panel discussion, “Investors: mentoring and driving geospatial innovation”, expertly moderated by Nigel Clifford of Marlin Equity Partners. The panel was asked whether there is anything special about the geospatial industry in terms of the financing and nurturing of start-ups. “Not really” was the consensus! Nor was there anything especially forbidding about the regulatory environment, which was less intense than that of the pharmaceutical industry. The second day opened with a strong plenary, “GEOBIM: driving digitalization of construction and engineering industry”, moderated by Nadine Alameh, CEO of OGC. There was lively discussion of whether the construction industry is still living in the dark ages or whether, with digital twins and the sharing of voluminous high-quality data, it is already enjoying time and cost savings as well as a reduction in waste. And on several occasions, attendees directed questions to the podium on new export controls that include “geospatial imagery software specially designed for training a deep convolutional neural network (deep CNN) to automate the analysis of geospatial imagery and point clouds”[2]. One of the government experts who ventured a response was Kevin O’Connell, director, Office of Space Commerce, US Department of Commerce. His advice? The controls are in a period of public comment – use it!

The final plenary was a discussion on “The big debate: data protection and privacy conundrum – who and how much?” A large panel representing academia, government and private industry was spiritedly moderated by Sanjay and there was no question of the gravity of the issue and the intolerance of any “head in the sand” attitude. WGIC has just drafted a report, “Geospatial information and privacy: a quick scan of privacy legislation in selected countries,” which should prove a useful resource as the debate continues. The meeting ended with a glass of champagne to celebrate Sanjay’s 50th birthday, underlining the friendly environment in which the thought-provoking panel discussions, lunch-time round-tables and networking took place. It was a privilege to be invited.

Your reporter’s week was not over, however. I had an absolutely fabulous meeting with Quanergy Systems in Sunnyvale, California, one of the big automotive lidar players whose systems have entered the UAV-lidar world. Quanergy’s M8 is included in systems integrated by the familiar UAV-lidar integrators who often feature in LIDAR Magazine, for example in GeoCue’s True View product. I met with CTO and co-founder Dr Tianyue Yu, and marketing communications manager, Sona Kim. The discussion will be published as a full article soon, but it came at a strange moment. On 7 January, Velodyne LiDAR had announced the shift of founder and CEO David Hall to the position of chairman and the accession of CTO Anand Gopalan to the top spot[3]. I met with Quanergy on 15 January and, indeed, one of my questions was about succession planning. The following day, Quanergy announced that CEO and co-founder Dr. Louay Eldada would step aside, retaining a consultant/evangelist role[4]. Indeed he had left the board a couple of days before I pitched up and had been replaced as CEO by board chairman Dr. Kevin Kennedy[5]. There is never a news famine in Silicon Valley!

[1] www.wgicouncil.org

[2] https://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/bis-publishes-a-temporary-unilateral-55841/

[3] http://lidarmag.com/2020/01/07/velodyne-lidar-announces-anand-gopalan-as-new-ceo/

[4] https://www.bizjournals.com/sanjose/news/2020/01/17/founder-steps-down-as-ceo-of-sunnyvale-lidar.html

[5] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-01-16/quanergy-ceo-steps-down-after-driverless-tech-unicorn-stumbles

About the Author

Dr. A. Stewart Walker

Stewart is the Managing Editor of the magazine. He holds MA, MScE and PhD degrees in geography and geomatics from the universities of Glasgow, New Brunswick and Bristol, and an MBA from Heriot-Watt. He is an ASPRS-certified photogrammetrist. More articles...