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Business as Usual: VISIMO CEO

Business as Usual

We welcome James Julius, President and CEO of VISIMO, to discuss how his artificial intelligence/data analytics startup can simultaneously be used to combat vaccine disinformation on social media and also to prevent crashes of unmanned aerial vehicles used in disaster response and humanitarian aid missions.

VISIMO develops state-of-the-art data science tools and builds custom, interactive, and actionable cloud-based software. The company just won an Air Force "Agility Prime" Phase I Small Business Technology Transfer award to conduct research on innovative sense-and-avoid architectures for autonomous Orbs and UAVs.

So join the conversation as we demystify data analytics and detail how VISIMO makes data actionable for companies and organizations across industry verticals.

 

 

Transcription: 

So good afternoon, everyone. This is Audrey Russo, President and CEO of the Pittsburgh Technology Council, and thrilled to have this conversation today with James Julius, President and CEO of V Sumo. And I'll introduce him more formally in a moment. But I just want to make sure that everyone knows that we put your microphones on mute. And we have a chat. So you can ask James questions. Jonathan kersting, who is vice president of marketing and media for the tech council spends a lot of his time doing storytelling, he's gonna monitor the chat. And I want to thank Huntington bank for their belief in us in partnership with us for almost a year in doing this series, which is hard to believe that we're coming up soon into March, but we have a packed schedule coming up as well. So make sure that you're signed up a lot of interesting people that we're going to be talking to over the next three weeks. So 40 by 80, is a wholly owned subsidiary of the tech Council, and we focus on entrepreneurship, and and actually pathways for skill development, workforce development, you're going to hear some more stuff about that coming out of the tech council soon. So I'm bringing up James Julius, and I'm bringing him up and we're going to talk about his company v Sumo. And I want to welcome welcome, James, thank you so much for taking the time. I know you've been very busy. But it's important for us to know all the people who are working on incredible things in our region, and you fit that bill. So really appreciate you joining us. So before we get started, I like to know like who is James? How is James? It's been COVID now for almost a year, and your company's been doing some really timely work. So how about if we start from that? Who's James, you regionally from? Pittsburgh? Where'd you go to school? Anything family? Yeah, happy

to. So I'm born and raised here in Pittsburgh, my live with my wife, and we have four kids who live in west of the city. And Robinson, as I mentioned to you at the top of this before I re joined, you know, for between two and 10. So it's a kind of wild and crazy time for us in our life right now. But you know, wouldn't change it for anything. Went to school at went to sort of at Pitt finished my undergraduate degree at Robert Morris, focused in the Computer Information System side of the house, had a master's degree while I was there, got married shortly after school, and going into spending time in the consumer goods space and in the healthcare space with some of the larger companies that are here in Pittsburgh, and ended up getting my MBA along the way from Carnegie Mellon as well. So it was a you know, real fun, I spent my entire career here had the opportunity to, to move, but we have an extended family here. So we decided to call and make Pittsburgh our long term home.

So when did you start the company?

I started the company in Fall 2015. I had spent three years at Highmark previously worked in a lot of different roles there in the finance and analytics space. And after my time, there took a moment to figure out really what was next for me in my career, and made the decision to start business. Oh, and the goal of the company at that point was really to focus on small businesses, I had the chance to see analytics in like really, really big businesses and you know, kind of like the misuse and the spend and all these things like for companies that have great resources that don't always use them, well, what happens if you could bring them to a place that could use them better? So there was a consultative bent to how we got started. And it's really evolved a lot since then, over the past five years.

So let me get this straight. You were a parent of at least two kids, right? If not three kids, when you started, you quit your job. Instead, you're gonna become an entrepreneur.

Yeah, so my daughter was just born in August, and I was my third third born and you can ask my wife, I have a tendency to try to pile on maybe that's just the young and brash and type a side of my personality. But yeah, we started the business in October, I left the left Highmark in September of 15. incorporated the business we actually started the business in October we incorporated at the beginning of 2016. And yeah, so a lot a lot split happened in that period of time.

So how do you how does it feel being an entrepreneur compared to your work before because we work to good places before and you you certainly have a great academic background?

Yeah, I mean, coming from you know, Philips respironics and then tamani and then and then Highmark working with you know, in embedded in really great organizations. The Entrepreneurship side of things is a totally different ballgame. Partially because there's things like, and I know, this is a question I think you want to get to a little bit later, but I'll bring it forward, if you don't mind. But you know, we bootstrapped the company. So this was taking money out of my 401k, which wasn't about, you know, huge righteous, it was basically took some money forward and said, Okay, we're gonna live on this, and we're going to fund the business and get it started. And there's a lot of things they don't teach you about how to start a business, despite having an MBA in finance and analytics, and I was trading foreign currency for a long time at Del Monte. And I have all like, really great, you know, institutional and industry experience. But they don't teach you how to file a PA 100 with it with the state. And, you know, what are the things that you need to know for payroll? And how do you incorporate a business like, they don't teach you these things, and there's not always great resources of how to do it. And so getting the business started, and then we had a couple of different models that we tried to go with having a lot of subcontractors and I had an equity partner at one point that didn't work out like, and there's just, I'd say, I probably have more things that we've done wrong in the past five years and more things that we've learned from not things that have caused us to go out of business or even have really challenged us in a way but challenge us as a means to also think differently. And, you know, really the the key decisions, what I've seen allows to be successful, is realizing that I need to bring in really smart people along the way to help advise to help guide and help lead the company alongside and I've been really blessed to have, you know, great people, you know, be in my company with me.

So how many people are working with me now.

I last I checked around the 1415 mark, and we have three interns coming this summer and two students new hires coming they just graduated will be joining us in May and so rapidly growing, which is also kind of cool. And like in the pandemic like totally terrifying, because it's one thing me worrying about, you know, my own family and financial well being, which I've kind of gotten used to over the past five years. But you know that that's I think that's an ongoing fear that any any entrepreneur has, it's kind of really hard to explain to somebody that hasn't been in that situation. But really caring for the livelihood of now over a dozen people and what it means to them and going through this is a whole different, you know, thing that I'm really fortunate really glad that we've been able to navigate it quite well.

So you were excited. We actually recognized you last year for in tech 50. Yeah. And so let's see, let's go back to the earliest days of you, finding the company founding the company. Yeah. What What was the problem that you wanted to solve?

Yeah, so one of the biggest things I thought that businesses lacked was good information when it came time to make a decision. So even a step before that when the company name is visible, but it's not despite it being all caps. It's not an acronym. It actually is concatenated to words really demented. What it means visualize more. So what can companies do if they could see more if they can understand more is happening in their company? Could they make better business decisions? Right, so that was the initial thinking, you know, the the the logo, we have a lighthouse, it's part of the logo, we want that to be something that helps show direction and also give morning, you know, for people that was like the initial founding. And so we were really heavy into Visual Analytics. That was something that was really starting to become popular in 2015 2016. Jonathan mentioned, no, yes, both Carnegie Mellon products, they, that led to some really like brand confusion in the beginning of this because it was awesome. So it opened some doors for us like,

Oh, you know, you're that Carnegie Mellon company.

I'm like, yeah, yeah. And they're like, how's the IBM thing? Go? I was like, no, that's not us. You know, so that was that was kind of fun back for it for a little bit. Enough time has gone by that that confusion is kind of since gone. But you know, when we're really having the visual analytics, what can we do to take a lot of different data and information and then present it in a way that business leaders can make decisions. We basically said, business owners develop this sense of gut this intuition. Now how can you come up with with data and analysis tools that help you know, align to that, that gut but also help you know, avoid misinformation help give you the right information, you need to run your business? We use terms like demystifying right, how can we take this black box see kind of reporting and analysis and then present it in a way that's nice and easy? But we've evolved into you know, so much more than that and really through the help of the The key leaders and developers that we've hired over the past five years.

Well, so now let's talk about an issue that I think you've had an opportunity to work on many of us can relate to, and that's the vaccine hesitancy. And it's a relationship to disinformation campaigns, which is run on social media, you know, etc. And thankfully, there's a group of people I believe, at Pitt, right, that have been pretty, you know, passionate about trying to figure this out, and you are sort of part of that project, you're helping pet. So what can you talk about in terms of that project? And it's really particularly important now that I think the United States like it, nine to 10% of people are having at least one vaccine.

Yeah, so one of the biggest challenges you have with social media in general could be the possible spread of misinformation. And the goal of this project was to understand how misinformation can affect different communities, such as minority populations. So, you know, we're working in partnership with Pitts under a grant through a local foundation here to help provide these researchers with information that they can use to better understand and in an analyze the information that's associated with COVID-19. So there's basically two types of social network analysis could almost think of like spider webs. One person says something, they've retweeted it from somebody else. And they understand that this person is a person of influence, and so on, and so forth. So they be able to understand how the networks of this information can actually be used to influence other people and where to the sources and misinformation come from. So we can pull in lots of variants around vaccine COVID. And while a lot of people don't share geographic indicators, there's things that we can do to get context clues. So it allows us to kind of slice and dice information and provide researchers with, you know, really sound insights about what things they can do to understand the sources, and then how to combat that type of misinformation.

So what are there any findings yet that you can talk about? Yeah, not

yet. And still early stage.

And, you

know, a lot of the information that we have is confidential. But the the key thing is that, you know, we're one of the few organizations who are capable of getting in and doing this type of analysis through large social media organizations, what we're doing in like, very, very focused with COVID. with University of Pittsburgh, we've done in other projects with the University of Pittsburgh, or similar projects, with USC out in California. And so we are working with these academic partners to be able to help provide them information that they might not otherwise be able to get their hands on.

And why can't they get their hands on information.

Some of it's just just really understanding the expertise of how to access certain API's, whether it be through Twitter, or Reddit or others. And so us being a data analysis company, and we know how to get this data and extract it and then provide it in a way that they can actually do the proper research on.

So you really aren't important arm in terms of this space. One wouldn't think that, that this would be a problem. But now, this is a great opportunity. There's other areas, I mean, in terms of sentiment and misinformation that I would imagine that people would be interested in. Are there any things that you're seeing,

as far as like other areas that people could be? Right? Yeah, it's this is where it starts to be challenging for us to be able to tell you for certain, because we work both in the private and the public sector spaces, and the some, one of the things of public sector is a lot of these funding opportunities. And these thoughts are they take a long time to bring to market, you know, we're working in in partnership and putting proposals together that are still identifying how to work in combat, not just COVID-19. But how does you know, what is the next pandemic, what is the next thing that's going to come out so like, one of the things we can learn from what we're going through now and apply it to what the next big thing is, it doesn't even have to be in the United States, it can be in in other parts of the developed or undeveloped world. And so that's where, on the private sector side of things or in the academic or research partner side of things, the the needs are a little bit more specific. And so we try to partner through, you know, through them with them to be able to help them understand what their needs are, and that aligns to our broader public sector strategy. We is where we'll talk about in a minute about the kind of awards that we've gotten through the the Air Force, it's under, it's under a specific project with the acronyms STTR. It's It's essentially a small business collaborative research project where we are working in collaboration with academic institutions to solve a specific problem and are working with and developing these partnerships with other academic Institutions not only has helped us build relationships and embed us within those teams, but understand what other types of problems can we potentially be solving with them in the future?

Well, so you landed, let's go into this, you landed a couple of high profile assignments right there with the army in the Air Force. Okay. Can you talk at all about those projects? A little bit? Yeah. So

what's nice about these projects is they represent the two sides of the business that what we've established, as I mentioned, we got going really as a visual analytics company. But we've developed not only into doing visual analytics, but we're doing that more like as an add on at this point, we've built into a software development, a cloud development company, as well as a data science company. So there's two pieces of the business that we're bringing forward. And these projects are a good representation of what we're doing there. So let's take, for example, the army, we're working in collaboration with the Army's artificial intelligence Task Force, the Software Engineering Institute, and through CMU to be able to develop what's called Project co ECE and what co ees essentially is, is the first centralized data science platform for the army. And what the goal is, is creating a platform that is scalable, it's agile, it's modular, it's portable, but most importantly, it's open, you're not tying themselves into specific vendors, it allows them to be able to, to grow and some problems in the data science space for anybody. That's folks that are typical and are understanding like how to do analysis, you run into different limitations, whether it be hardware limitations, or you get access and security limitations, or what happens if the tools and packages from one person are not consistent with another, you might not be able to load, you might not even get the same results. And so we abstract all that away, we make it very, very simple for a user get a login access tools, and be able to help the military drive some of their operational initiatives because AI is just such a huge focus of the IETF. The army futures command and more, more broadly, of the current administration, like AI is a huge focus area. So the success of CODIS is going to be hugely important to the department defense here over the next few years. On the Air Force side of things, those STTR projects I mentioned with you. One is under an umbrella called agility prime. And so agility prime, essentially, we're developing these algorithms to help unmanned aerial vehicles or orbs to be able to have sensitive void technology that allows them to work within humanitarian aid missions for effective transportation goods help with traffic congestion, different Technology Readiness. And so that's like really cool data science sort of stuff that we get to deploy. And on the other hand, we're working to develop synthetic imaging through another project that allows essentially, for these different projects, to have better technology to understand landscape, understand terrain, and really deploying some of these high end artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms in the field. So the goal that what we have is bringing these forward and then actually finding the ability to deploy them within the military. So it's, it's a really cool opportunity for us to partner with academic partners, but also bring some of these technologies to life.

You can see john Ingram wrote something he would like something in layman's terms, that you could share the issues many overlook when they're beginning of data project. One thing is to use data, but how to make it actionable. Yeah, that's

always challenging, right? I'd say the way here's the way that we have approached it, I can't say that's the solely the only way. First off more More generally, people want to jump right to the solution, right? You probably have seen this in your own businesses, maybe not so much with beta, whatever the you know, you're experts in as a company, and you kind of want to jump right to the solution without a thorough understanding of the problem. So our our process has always been consultative in nature, taking a step back, what is the goals that you're trying to solve for? And some businesses are they really love that part of the process that helps refine their their, the purpose of it, and totally important for data projects in general? Because in order for the data to be actionable, you need to know, how is it actually going to answer the question that you have at the end of the day? And is the question that you're attempting to answer is that the one that you're really focused on in the project, because sometimes you uncover through questions, that you're actually trying to solve something totally different than you think you saw it out to start with. So that's kind of not a great way to start off the explanation. But it's a way to say you consultatively understand, what are you trying to solve for in order to make the data actionable? We look to get it down to the most granular level of information. Essentially, what can you do to categorize it? How many different ways can you ask a single question that data because the more that you get into the analysis, you'll find out That the what types of questions you want to ask are going to evolve, organizations start to get data and information and they get really, really excited. And then they get frustrated again, because they find out that they had to go back and get more information that they didn't have at the start of it. So that what we always tried to do is thoroughly understand where the different types of branches, what could what could you possibly ask, and then make sure those types of categories are represented in the in the data set itself.

And so it's so interesting, because I came out of bi business intelligence, right, which is pre AI. And many people have these legacy systems that are in there that just do this, what I would say internal web crawling, what you're talking about is actually throwing that all up in the air and saying, No, we're gonna look at what you're trying to solve. And look at every point of where you have a repository.

It depends on the on the needs of the organization, right? When we're working within a software development side of things, we like to make sure we're partnering with the business to understand like, even as a developing a software product, for example, we develop a software product that helps the construction safety industry, and that where it initially started helping keeping keep people safe, because we're, you know, up until recently, this area was like huge in the natural gas production space. So working with those companies, that means to say, if you are more safe, you know what that means, as far as dollars last time, you're actually bringing new people in what about insurance costs, and we've provided it and created a tool that help people understand that better that tool now is being used in local universities. So they understand case studies so that the people before they even leave the school are getting immersed and how to become, you know, better and safer employees on a job site. These are things that we you have to give yourselves the freedom to know where you're ultimately going to go. And you know, traditional bi is more of descriptive, it's going to answer a question, but it's very hard to be able to know where that question is going to go by us working in developing cloud and web based tools for companies and and doing this all through an open source development, and allows us to essentially scale with the needs of the organization. And then the skill we have internally. Not we're not just data jockeys, we're not just coders, right? We bring both of these people together in the organization to help develop a really cohesive tool for whomever our client is.

So what do you think if you were to imagine the year ahead? I mean, who would have ever imagined the year we just had, but let's imagine the year ahead, where do you think that there's some areas that are going to proliferate?

Yeah, I think that things like in this space, where we are right now, this artificial intelligence, machine learning, like these are topics that are like really, really interesting top of mind. Partially because everybody hears them, they're a little bit buzzword right now. And they're buzzwords and people don't always understand, hey, right. And what we expect to see is a lot of businesses saying, Ooh, I like that. It's something I don't have. And I feel like I should be doing it. I encourage any business that wants to be able to think if they can be able to use this better, because it leads anything to how to automate, you know, normal tasks, we came alongside a fortune 100 business, and they were spending $200,000 a year just for somebody to move information around on Excel sheets, right? Whenever you start to realize that there is it's a relatively low bar of a bit, a lot of businesses have to jump over. And then we start to be able to connect, what are some of these big tools so they can be able to see where things are going. The great thing is, is that technology is very accessible, it's inexpensive, and there's organizations who are who are primed to be able to provide these types of actionable tools back to organizations. That's one of the biggest things I see company are coming rather in the in the future. Also, this lack of need to tie yourself to a specific large vendor for all of your needs. You know, I don't want to call out any single vendor that may or may not be represented in this call, but you know, finding yourself being able to essentially pull yourself out of locking you know, vendor lock in type of situations, it may be more expensive in the immediacy like in the first year cost by by your into three 510 year ROI is by far exceed the vendor lock in type of costs.

So here you are five years in almost six years in, is that right? That's right. What um, you have about 15 people you are hiring, what kind of people are on you? What kind of people do you have on your team? Yeah, so

we have most of our folks are technical in nature. They These are people who are front end Or back end or cloud developers, and there's so many different job descriptions that exist in this space. But essentially, these are really, really intelligent, I would say, brilliant computer software, developers, these are folks generally with computer science degrees, to have some type of experience in working in different web and different coding technologies, typically Python, that's the one that we're very heavy in as an organization, folks that are self starters, you know, folks that are that are capable of working in this type of remote environment of where we, you know, currently live as a company. And in particular, we're hiring in the software quality assurance space. So we're ramping up our testing and QA capabilities for both our internal r&d projects, as well as our client projects. And there's some different support roles that we'll be hiring for here over the next, you know, three to six months as well.

And so just back to the army AI Task Force, is that still, in fact,

it is. Yeah, it's been expanding their their presence here in the Pittsburgh area.

And then are you involved with any of the autonomous land based vehicles, in addition to new abs.

So we through the different partnerships and different projects that we have, there's different organizations that will partner with I know, we've had conversations with a couple of Pittsburgh based organizations, both in the robotic side of things, and a couple of others as well, that really aligned to our overall proposal strategy. So what we've seen and this is one of the things that helped us really thrive in the pandemic, is, in fall of 2019, we, we saw that one of the biggest challenges what we have in our space is education, and get in if in order to educate people, sometimes we have to be able to understand what are the alternative markets that we can be able to diversify ourselves, since we've really started playing more in this what we're seeing all this success in the public sector space, it's on the back of us making this decision in late 2019. to really move forward. While we've seen some growth in the private sector, most of its been in the in the public sector space. So in the public sector, as I mentioned to you, some of this is to in order to be successful, because we are still a small business, there's not a lot of employees. And in order to help legitimize a lot of the work that we've done, it's through partnership through whether it be large industry partners, or through academic partners. And that's where we really see our growth in the long run not only through doing these types of responses in the SPR STTR, working through these, these types of Small Business Research set asides, but also working in the private sector, that we've developed relationships through everything is relationship driven. And working in our in our public sector space has allowed us to really ramp up off the relationships that we've developed with these companies.

And so, so anything next on the horizon for you that you want to share anything that you're feeling you've been in Pittsburgh for a while, anything that you're feeling or thinking about in terms of, you know, working remotely, I mean, you're working remotely, everyone's working remotely, except you. Yeah, I'm

in the office, some small house and for kids, it's not a conducive, you know, work from home environment. But I can remember, you know, distinctly before any federal state, local agencies gave the shutdown order, you know, we had prepared months in advance to, to go through the shutdown, we went through a communication platform adjustments made sure we went through active testing, because we knew that something was going to happen by us, you know, loving data, we were tracking a lot of this very intensively leading up to it. And so we were ready to to go remote. Whenever that that happened. We Matter of fact, we went remote, you know, March 14, without a hitch, right. And so we ended up getting a little bit of a larger space to allow us to accommodate the social distancing, we did all the things from giving up and keeping the desks moved apart to you have the different air filtration and things that all the successful businesses that have been able to attest to say they've done successfully. We were able to open for a short period last year and able to do it safely. But, again, US tracking the data in the way that we do we voluntarily shut down again in late q3 of last year. And so we've been working apart, you know, largely since the beginning of November. And we find it's really important to focus on employee engagement and what are things that we can do to promote creativity such as doing lunch and learns or doing something one of my vice presidents brought to organization that he called TGI T or Thank God it's Tuesday events, right? It's a way for us to, you know, disengage from from the normal work that we're doing to promote just, you know, getting together and and engaging with each other. That's the biggest thing is, you know, on the best day of remote work, it's not going to be as good as what it would be like actually being in person. But we're certainly efforting as hard as we can to give everything that we can to our employees while we're in this time off. I mean, I'm very thankful that, you know, our employees, payroll wasn't affected, their benefits weren't affected the rate that they were getting wasn't affected, we managed to keep not only managed to keep everybody busy, you know, but we nearly doubled the size of the organization, a headcount perspective in the middle of this pandemic, and you know, and we're poised to, you know, grow another five to 10 people before the end of the year. So it's really fortunate.

All right, well, I want to thank you for joining us. We have James Julius, we'll be staying connected to you. I think we put your website out there VSA Mo, and really appreciate the work that you're doing in staying in Pittsburgh and building this company. And tomorrow, we have Theresa Huber. She's a CEO of interval Allah, and we're gonna have fun talking to her. She's an advanced manufacturing and running a powerhouse of a company here in Westmoreland County. So I want to thank everyone again. Thank you, James. Thank you, everyone, for being here. We'll see you here tomorrow, same time.

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