Every company has its critics, and sometimes it’s the CEO’s 9-year old daughter.
Jeremy Frank co-founded KCF Technologies with Penn State professor Gary Koopmann.
The company had small beginnings — Frank sitting in an office by himself for the better part of the first year — and it has undergone necessary fundamental transformations to succeed in a rapidly evolving technological world.
Thing is, there is a little voice that gives Frank ideas about the company. It’s Lillian, 9, one of the boss’ children.
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“In the context of this company, she thinks most adults under-appreciate children and lack creativity,” Frank said. “She wants to start some type of activity that helps a company like this include children to create better, more inspired ideas.”
Frank discussed his children, the future of technology and how he hopes his company will be on the frontier of technological advances for decades.
Q: What do you do?
A: We give machines a voice. That’s our slogan. We solve problems at our customers’ sites by implementing smart wireless sensor technologies to give machines a voice. Basically that means we measure their health using sensor data, transmit it via the cloud and analyze the data to make recommendations for how to avoid problems like unexpected failures of their pumps and their fans and their compressors. Those failures can be extremely expensive.
Q: Why would a company need that?
A: I’ll give you an example. We put sensors in factories that make cars. In every manufacturing plant, which is an extremely complex and sophisticated process, those companies have to be outrageously efficient in order to be successful. The process of making cars is highly automated and dependent on machinery. One of the plants we work with has a scissor lift conveyor. Picture at your favorite amusement park the thing you put the kids on and its cart that goes in a circle on a track. The same thing exists at a plant, and it moves the cart through processes. That cart sometimes breaks down. If it does, they stop making cars, which costs them money very quickly, and you could be losing a million dollars or more a day. Our sensors, about the shape of an egg, instantly plug into a wireless receiver, stream all of this data and our software analysts build dashboards for customers to see a clear image of the machine with help dots all over it. The dots are green, but if they turn yellow or red that’s when action needs to be taken.
Q: What kind of companies do you work with?
A: We have a couple major markets we sell to, the automotive manufacturing industry, the chemical manufacturing industry, the pulpit paper manufacturing industry, the oil and gas industry and to a lesser extent the power generation industry.
Q: Are there areas you’re looking to go into?
A: The markets we’re selling into are enormous. It’s interesting, the Internet of things. If you’ve heard of it, we fall into the industrial Internet of things and people talk about its market potential in the trillions of dollars. It’s starting to happen. Our sales are growing rapidly by over 300 percent right now. We’re growing as fast as we can. The biggest market we aren’t in yet — which is the biggest one — is the food and beverage industry. I say we’re not in it yet, but one of our newest emerging customers is Anheuser-Busch. We just installed our first plant with them in Ohio last month and are in the middle of rolling it out to 10 breweries.
Q: You had small beginnings, though, right?
A: We incorporated in November of 2000, and I was finishing my Ph.D working for Gary Koopmann, a distinguished professor of mechanical engineering. He was running a lab called the Center for Acoustics and Vibration at Penn State. We started short courses together and were traveling the world giving courses on how to use vibration as a very high-end tool to design machines to be quieter. We started the company just before I graduated, and it was a consulting business to address vibration issues in the design of compressors and fans. Whereas now we’re selling to their customers and helping them troubleshoot problems. It started out just me sitting in an office by myself for most of the day, and it took a year or two before we hired our first intern.
Q: Was it challenging for people to understand what you were doing?
A: It is still challenging. Running a small business never stops being challenging. One of the realities every company faces, if you look up the numbers, every company has a 10 percent likelihood of failing every year. I have a 10 percent likelihood of failure strictly by the numbers. I don’t believe that in my heart, but that’s what the numbers tell you. You have to continuously reinvent yourself, and this company has fundamentally reinvented itself three times. The consulting business we started was not an effective business. It was difficult to make the transition. We were nearly out of business several times, so it will never stop being difficult.
Q: You mentioned the Internet of things, and not everyone will understand that. Could you explain what it means?
A: The Internet of things is basically smartphone technology becoming embedded all over the place. Instead of just having a human user of smartphone technology it will be in industrial plants, in your HVAC systems, your fans. It will be data streaming from all of these things, so you can run them more intelligently.
On consumer side, Nest, the crowd controllable thermostat in your house, gets a lot of attention. Cars will be a part of it when this technology tells you when you need maintenance, scheduling oil changes for you based on where you are, integrated GPS. It’s going to be amazing. I have a little drawing on the wall. The last 40 years started with the first big wave was the software PC wave with Microsoft the de facto success story. Then there was the dot com wave and Google and Amazon the de facto success stories. There was smartphone in 2005, which Apple is the de facto success story. And then we get to 2015 and it’s the Internet of things. It’s just the next step.
Q: And you have KCF written underneath it?
A: Yes, and that’s the goal, to be the de facto success story.
Q: Change of pace. I met two of your children here last year. What are some things they’re working on?
A: They’re each interested in different things. Lillian is very interested in being an engineer and inventing things. In the context of this company, she thinks most adults under appreciate children and lack creativity. She wants to start some type of activity that helps a company like this include children to create better, more inspired ideas. My oldest daughter, Catherine (11), is an artist and is very creative on computers. I’ve been talking to her about how you can combine those skills in the context of how it would be valuable to a company in the real world. My son Eli (7) is into sports — fishing, baseball, lacrosse, so he hasn’t necessarily developed career thoughts yet. My youngest is Carolyn (5), and she is whirlwind of fun.
Q: How do they inspire you with their ideas?
A: I’m inspired by them a lot, not so much in the context of their ideas, but the things they need combined with how quickly technology and the world is changing, just trying to imagine what their 30 to 40 careers are going to be like. It inspires me to learn stuff and teach them stuff to be successful in that world.