Ryan Chacon is joined by the CEO of Unearth, Brian Saab, on this episode of the podcast, where they discuss the role of IoT in our infrastructure. Brian begins by talking about the company, its founding story, and use cases of Unearth. The conversation then focuses on how IoT improves infrastructure, particularly in the United States, and its impact on public health. They also discuss mapping and the effects of COVID on the industry before finishing with a discussion on the future of IoT.
Brian is a serial entrepreneur and product strategist with 25 years of leadership expertise ranging from startups to public company acquisitions. His corporate management experience includes time with Dell, DHL, and Microsoft before shifting gears to entrepreneurial endeavors. Brian identified urgent critical infrastructure data management challenges in his latest venture and built a dynamic platform – Unearth’s OnePlace – to connect assets, data, and teams in the field. With a grant from the EPA, Unearth’s focused on understanding water systems’ challenges and providing a field-first solution to rally a community to get the lead out fast.
Interested in connecting with Brian? Reach out on Linkedin!
Unearth is a venture-backed software company providing field-first critical infrastructure management solutions for top utility and government clients. Unearth’s cloud-based field operations platform, OnePlace, equips critical infrastructure providers with intuitive data capture, real-time spatial intelligence, and streamlined collaboration – connecting assets, data, and teams while powering unparalleled field visibility on any device. Unearth designed five purpose-built solutions for construction companies and water, electric, and natural gas utilities. These include Capital Construction, Vegetation Management, Emergency Response, Integrity Management, and Lead Service Lines. Customers can also leverage Unearth’s flexible platform for their custom enterprise product or check out Unearth’s simple yet powerful OnePlace Field – built for anyone who needs to manage their project on a map.
Key Questions and Topics from this Episode:
(01:44) Introduction to Brian and Unearth
(03:23) Founding story of Unearth
(06:23) Use cases of Unearth
(08:00) IoT and infrastructure
(11:38) IoT and public health
(14:23) Role of mapping
(17:38) COVID’s impact on Unearth
(20:12) What does the future of IoT look like?
– [Voice Over] You’re listening to the IoT For All Media Network.
– [Ryan] Hello, everyone and welcome to another episode of the IoT For All Podcast, the number one resource and publication for all things IoT. I am your host, Ryan Chacon, and on today’s episode we have Brian Saab, the CEO of Unearth. They are a very interesting and fantastic company. They are a venture back software company providing field first critical infrastructure management solutions to top utility and government clients. So this conversation’s a little unique as we talk about some areas, some industries that we don’t necessarily regularly cover. We’ll talk about how the money being invested in U.S. infrastructure, how that’s kind of playing a role in things, how we see IoT influencing and the new use cases in the maintenance, construction, and resilience type projects associated with the infrastructure. We talk about mapping tools. We talk about mobile GIS, there’s a lot of stuff that we don’t regularly cover that I think is super exciting for us to have the opportunity to talk to with Brian. One thing I do wanna ask of you is if you are watching this on YouTube, please like the video, subscribe to the channel. If you’re listening to this on a podcast directory somewhere, please be sure to subscribe to our show if you have not already done so, it helps others find it, helps you get latest episodes as they become available. But back to our show, I think this is gonna be a great episode. I really hope you find a lot of value in it. But before we get into the episode, if any of you out there are looking to enter the fast growing and profitable IoT market, but don’t know where to start, check out our sponsor, Leverege. Leverege’s IoT solutions development platform provides everything you need to create turnkey IoT products that you can white label and resell under your own brand. To learn more, go to iotchangeseverything.com, that’s iotchangeseverything.com. And without further ado, please enjoy this episode of the IoT For All Podcast. Welcome, Brian to the IoT For All Podcast. Thanks for being here this week.
– [Brian] You got it. It’s great to be here, Ryan. Thanks for having me.
– [Ryan] Absolutely. Excited for this conversation. I wanna kick it off by having you give a quick introduction about yourself to our audience.
– [Brian] Yeah, happy to. So, hello. My name is Brian Saab. I’m the Founder and CEO of a software company based in Seattle called Unearth. My background, I’ve always been in software. That’s kind of been my gig. Originally from Texas before moving out to the Seattle area about 15 years ago. And worked at some big companies like either Dell computing or DHL or Microsoft here in Seattle. But about 10 years ago started a series of companies. So I run a digital agency doing custom work for big brands like NBC and that kind of stuff. I’ve helped start a marketing automation platform that targeted the hospitality sector. But my latest startup, Unearth, really focuses on the built environment. So we really work with either contractors or landowner that have big distributed teams and big distributed assets, and they have to manage those assets. And so you can think of things like energy companies or utilities or transportation, that kind of thing. Which is kind of cool because that sort of ties me back to Texas, which is where, as I mentioned, where I’m from. My family has a multi-generational construction company. My grandfather started it. My dad runs it today. So I kind of grew up in construction and to finally be able to sort of marry my passion for technology with the built environment, it’s been pretty awesome.
– [Ryan] Fantastic. Tell me a little bit more about kind of the founding story of the company. I think it’s always a fascinating place to kind of start. Just where did the idea come from? I know you kind of alluded to a couple pieces already, but just generally speaking, what kind of brought Unearth to exist and kind of what’s the overall role you are playing in the space.
– [Brian] Yeah. My co-founders and I actually started with drones. We were really excited about drone technology. This is sort of back in 2015, 2016 time period. I mean, who doesn’t get excited about a flying robot, is pretty awesome. And we had done some research that suggested that drones and construction in particular were gonna kind of be this perfect match from a product market fit. We’re not hardware experts far from it. So we weren’t gonna build our own drone but when it came to the software that was either helping you manage the drone or more specifically the information that was coming off of it, that was really an area that we thought we could add some value. And as I mentioned, my family’s got this construction company back in Texas so we just invited ourselves on some construction projects. I think when we realized there was a bit of a there there was when there is a dispute that arose between a landowner and a contractor over how much dirt had been dug out of this enormous hole in the ground. And the hole was a stormwater drain off dam. So when there’s a lot of rain and you have to divert that water as opposed to going into people’s homes or something, you put it in the big hole. And there was just a dispute about like we thought we were only gonna dig so much, but you guys are saying you need to dig more. That’s a problem. That problem actually amounts to a lot of money. And this is actually a pretty common scenario. Unearth was born not only dispute, but what we realized when we helped bring that dispute to resolution. So, at first we did something that’s very common today, which is that we used drone data and imagery to do photogrammetry and then do this volumetric study and kind of show like, no, no, the change overtime is correct and the amount of earth that was moved is as the contractor was saying. The more interesting thing that we learned was that you didn’t get buy-in from all the stakeholders associated with that project rather the more math-oriented stakeholders, so the engineers and designers, they were all about it, but the financial partners. So the bankers, the insurance companies, even the landowner themselves, they needed more. And what we found was that just having things like high resolution photography, being able to merge in additional data from either the equipment that was there or even prior surveys, it was the totality of all of that information that got everyone to agree, this is true. And that was the inspiration for Unearth. Was that, okay, look, we have to mix lots of data. There’s no silver bullet. But when you start to mix everything, you really do create alignment and agreement between the people that matter. And then you can start to make decisions and you can make them faster. And that’s kinda where we came from.
– [Ryan] Nice. So take us through any current, use cases you can share, you’re comfortable talking about kind of where the focus is for you all and kind of how it all fits together.
– [Brian] Yeah. So we’re very much focused on critical infrastructure kind of for obvious reasons. We’ve been there for a while, but now clearly the market’s going after that as well. And so as an example, utility customers, they are here to serve power to all of us, right? That’s their job. And that can come in the form of either the electric grid or that can come in the form of maybe gas distribution. And all of that infrastructure requires a ton of attention and support. And so our software is used to help give jobs to team members out in the field. They know where to go. They know what job they have to do that day. Oftentimes it’s some sort of critical inspection. If they do a condition assessment in our software and realize there’s a problem, they then have to create another job for another person to go do the maintenance to fix that problem. And what’s amazing is that this used to all be done via paper. I mean, so much paper. It was unbelievable. And now through the use of wireless technology, cloud technology, mobile devices, it’s really this sort of synthesis of all of these enabling technologies. We can do all of this without paper. And what that means is we can do it so much faster. I mean, the process for those types of inspections used to take weeks. And it wasn’t that the inspection took weeks, but moving that information around to make the right decisions that took weeks. We’ve pulled it all into a day. Everything happens in one day.
– [Ryan] Wow. Okay.
– [Brian] And that’s pretty powerful.
– [Ryan] Absolutely. Now let me ask you, so you talked about infrastructure, which is actually a topic we haven’t covered all that much on the podcast. We haven’t had many guests that have as much exposure. It sound like you all do to this. As just a general citizen, we hear about how much money the government’s regularly spending on infrastructure. So, how do you kind of see IoT playing a role in kind of maintenance, construction and things like that when it comes to the infrastructure that we have around the country?
– [Brian] Yeah. Well, I mean, just taking the latest infrastructure bill that was I think a watershed moment quite frankly for our country that’s a trillion dollar, right? That’s gonna be spent ostensibly over the next 10 years, but a lot of it’s gonna kind of happen in the next few years across some major categories. So our grid is one, right. Like where we get our energy from, our transportation scenarios like roads, bridges, highways, that sort of thing. And then water, right? And so I think a lot of us have heard about Flint, Michigan and all the lead that’s in the water lines there. So these are real material aspects of our society that we have to address, how we get around, how we get power, the drinking water in our homes and our schools, it’s really key. And there’s a ton of physical labor involved in dealing with this kind of stuff. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of that trillion dollars is gonna go to actually be moving or delivering material or building new structures or transmission towers, et cetera, but gathering information about what we have today and then allowing ourselves to make some key decisions about what we need in the future. Technology can really drive that in particular IoT. So I’ll give you a prime example, lead service lines. These are water lines. They’ve been in place for generations quite frankly. It looks like spaghetti underground. You don’t quite realize it. We think it’s real uniform, it’s not, these water lines are running everywhere, but ultimately it’s delivering water to your home, my home, our neighbors home and schools. And we’re discovering that there’s actually a lot of lead out there. I mean and lead causes all kinds of health problems. We have to discover and determine where those water lines are. And IoT is a perfect technology to help us go do that inventorying first, as well as the long term monitoring over time. So you can see scenarios where we don’t really know where those water lines are. There’s a pipe that goes from the water supply down into the ground and then there’s a pipe that pops up at your house. But in between, we obviously know it’s flowing, but we don’t know where it is, but there are technologies that allow us to do sensing in the field to then identify where those lines are. Our software is used to then document that for posterity sake so we know exactly where those lines are. And then there’s other technologies that are used to sense continuously what’s the quality of the water that’s flowing through these pipes. ‘Cause quite frankly, there are some lines that need to be replaced. There are some lines that just need to be monitored and we can save ourselves a ton of money if we don’t have to replace something necessarily if we can just monitor it and make sure that the water quality that’s going through that pipe is okay, but we have to be proactive about it. So there are really just enormous opportunities to bring IoT and other sort of technologies to bear that are gonna just improve our basic society. And there’s billions, I mean literally billions of dollars at stake.
– [Ryan] Yeah, absolutely. Yeah’s super fascinating to think about how the technologies that we talk about on a daily basis, on our podcasts and on our website can play a role in kind of that public health side of things and really improving the environment in which people live and help improve the life in communities. So one of the questions I kind of wanted to ask you also is how do you kind of view not just IoT, but just let’s think about technology companies in general, how do you kind of view their role in supporting and helping improve infrastructure, helping initiatives that are directly impacting the public health. And I think technology companies kind of can play a large role in this, but I’d love from your perspective kind of how you all approach it and just think about that way to participate in those initiatives.
– [Brian] Yeah. Well, I mean, I think from our perspective on Unearth, we have a real responsibility to play a key role in education and quite frankly, just arming those individuals that put on their boots, put on their hardhats and go out into the real world and work on our critical infrastructure every day. I mean, that’s who we honor. I mean, just as an example, we’ve all come through COVID and the pandemic, it’s been a crazy two years. Our customers never stopped working. They didn’t have the luxury of going home and working at home. They had a responsibility to go out and continue to work. And so we really try to honor them. So ways that we can contribute, one is around education. We can help bridge that divide between those that have done a job the same way for a 100 years. I mean, roads have basically been built the same way for a 100 years. The way we’ve put in plumbing or the electric grid, et cetera, it’s been done the same way for a 100 years. And technology is really changing how we can do so many things including how we manage our infrastructure, how we manage our work, how we share information amongst all the key stakeholders. And so we have a responsibility to educate. And then we have a responsibility to push that technology out. And so a lot of times with our customers, it’s about showing them what’s possible. So we’ll actually arm them with the technology, be it cloud computing back in the office or some mobile technology that they’re using via their smartphones or tablets or what have you. And we can literally show them how they can do their job in a different way, which then they get incredibly excited about ’cause they can see the potential. Again, going back to some of our customers, they have backlogs of work that are hundreds of years. They know how much infrastructure they’re managing. They know what their workforce looks like. And at their peak performance, it will take them a 100, 200, 300 years to go look at everything, monitor everything and figure out, okay, this is the true condition, I’ve done my job, I’ve done the proper inspection, but with technology we can dramatically pull those time scales into something reasonable, right? And that’s where we feel like we have a responsibility to be as proactive as possible.
– [Ryan] Absolutely. Yeah. Makes a ton of sense and totally agree. I wanted to actually pull back to something you were talking about earlier when you were kind of going through the history and the founding of the company, you talked about the drone usage and the work that was done in Texas. And that kind of got me thinking about mapping software and technology and how it relates to these infrastructure and just general IoT projects that we see. I see maps playing more of a role every day in different solutions. And I just wanted kinda get from your perspective, where do you kind of see the biggest need for mapping tools in more of the infrastructure side of things that you are working?
– [Brian] Well, I think in some ways maps have always been there, right? I mean, GIS as a category plays a prevalent role in any sort of infrastructure project, but it’s always been in the domain of the specialist, right? There’s been-
– [Ryan] Can you define like GIS real quick just for audience?
– [Brian] Yeah. Sorry. So, geospatial, geographic information systems. It’s really the study of space. It’s the study of geography and it can oftentimes be a deeper analysis. So it’s not just the map, but it’s an analysis of maybe some what ifs of what’s going on within this territory. What we really try to do is democratize that analysis, we try and make that mapping information available mainly because everyone kind of gets it. When you show someone a map, you don’t have to explain much more, right? It’s like, in some ways, if you think about something like Google Maps, it’s so ubiquitous and we all just generally rely on it, that when you incorporate that in someone’s job, it just makes their job that much easier. And then what we do is we take it the next mile and we start to layer other information against the map. If everyone understands the geography and understands where they are relative to perhaps the critical assets they need to work on or where their team is or where their the next job is, they just become much more productive. And it has applicability in many scenarios. I mean, yes, your standard predictive like scheduled maintenance of course, but emergency response as well. An emergency response is new information just cropped up perhaps from an IoT sensor or some other sort of remote sensing technology that has alerted command and control that there is an issue and you wanna push that information out to the team that can respond as quickly as possible. One, you wanna know who’s the closest team. Two, you wanna push to them the right information. And if the size of the emergency is large enough as an example in an earthquake or a wildfire or a hurricane, which happens, even the mapping goes beyond just the work itself. I mean, we have scenarios where hotel rooms are listed on the map because it’s like, look, we know you’re in the field, you’ve been working 18 hours. You gotta get some sleep, put the tools down, drive to this hotel, a room is waiting for you, get some sleep and then you’re gonna get at it the next day. We really haven’t quite seen the ends of where maps can add value. It’s kind of across the board.
– [Ryan] Fantastic. Yeah, totally agree. It’s very exciting space. It’s something that’s interesting because obviously, like you said, maps been around forever, but the application of them and how they’re interacting with the software and then obviously connected to the hardware side of IoT is super fascinating just to see what’s possible kind of as this technology grows. I wanna to pivot here for a second and just ask you, obviously, when we’re talking about the government, we’re talking about kind of the public health, that gets into the conversation of kind of what we’ve experienced for the last number of years throughout the pandemic. And I wanted to ask from your perspective as an IoT company, how has COVID really impacted your business and the infrastructure providers that you work with and kind like what challenges that really cause to occur. And then at the same time, how things kind of how’d you overcome a lot of that.
– [Brian] Yeah. Well, I think a lot of companies shared our concern, which was when COVID first set in, we were kind of thinking survival, right? Like how do we make this work? I think we figured out pretty quickly that for all of the harm that a global pandemic was having in our society, it was actually creating a bunch of awareness that I think was generally positive for an organization like ourselves. And that was because, like I said, our customers, the people that we served, they still had to go outta work every day. What they couldn’t do was go to the office. And so many of their is well established communication rhythms in decision making processes broke down. They would usually huddle at an office somewhere, kind of look over maybe some major blueprints or maybe some major maps and figure out what was the work that was gonna happen that day and then go from that hub out into the world to go do their work. And then they would bring any paper that they had documented in terms of condition assessments or reports that they might have bring that back into the office. None of that was gonna happen again. And so there was a very fast realization amongst our customers that their behavior was gonna have to change and that technology was gonna play a major part of it. And we’ve seen that carry forward to now, which is that, quite frankly, it’s time for a digital transformation and that digital transformation has to be top to bottom. It has to be that they have to upgrade all of their infrastructure and the sensing in that infrastructure. The more the systems that they rely on can be feeding information back to them. That was gonna be a major shift for them and an important one. And then to the extent that they could then arm their teams with digital technology, that would allow them to receive that information and respond to it in real time was also critical. So we’re actually pretty excited if I’m being honest, like we’re really sort of energized when we see what’s happening across industry. And that these are generally kind of older industries that have kind of done things the same way for a long time. And all of a sudden they’ve realized like, it’s time for a change.
– [Ryan] So let me ask you then, where do you kind of envision the future of IoT in the industry that you work in?
– [Brian] I mean, in a number of places, right. I think that, first and foremost, remote sensing is just gonna become a must have, right. We’re just gonna see an increased reliance on remote sensing and the gathering information across huge territories. There’s still, I think a belief that I gotta get eyes on it, I gotta send somebody out and put their eye on this thing. And that’s still kind of prevalent. That’s a cultural aspect of some of these industries we work with, but there is a growing recognition that the early warning system needs to come from remote sensing and that once the anomalies are identified, yeah, sure we’ll still go put some eyes on it, but we can’t just be sort of wandering around aimlessly, so to speak and, and be looking for challenges. I definitely think that mobile technology tied to a more robust broadband backbone is gonna just lead to all kinds of jobs, relying on digital tools. Our software runs offline. So we have the benefit of sort of working resiliently in both online or connected and then disconnected scenarios. But man, with 5G coming and just the ubiquitous connectivity, I just think it’s gonna create a lot of opportunity. And then I think the last area kind of back at the office is we’re seeing a big shift to the cloud, which kind of makes sense, right. Is that these are prem solutions that have been in place for a long time. They’re all giving way to a movement to the cloud, meaning your data, all of your historical data, all of it is getting packaged up securely into the cloud and then is accessible anywhere, right? Like if you’re working from home or whatever, no problem you have access to it.
– [Ryan] Right. Right. Absolutely. Yeah. Those are all fantastic points. I think we’ve seen a lot of similarities across different industries as far as, especially the legacy side we’re getting out of the legacy systems or the on-prem systems into more of the cloud-based stuff, just from kind of the power that provides these organizations to be able to enable. So a lot of similarities, but great insights for sure. So let me ask you as we kind of wrap up here, for audience out there wanting to learn more, kinda stay in touch, kind of just get a sense of stuff you have going on, or even follow up with questions what’s the best way to do that?
– [Brian] Yeah, thank you for asking. You can always check out our website, unearthlabs.com. We have an amazing blog that we are constantly featuring tons of information. And then if there are specific industries that you’re a part of, we have a lot of industry landing pages. So as an example, I’d mentioned lead service lines. We just released new information related to the work that we’re doing around lead service lines. And so I would encourage anyone in your audience if they’re interested to stop by our website and learn more.
– [Ryan] Fantastic. And kind of next three, six months, anything we should be on lookout for that is exciting on your plate that hasn’t been released yet? You don’t have to give us obviously any secrets, but just things we should be kind paying attention to.
– [Brian] Well, I think a along with lead service lines, we’re actually partnered with the EPA on that. And so I think we’re pretty excited about our responsibility there to work with the federal government all the way down to local municipalities. And so we’re gonna continue to talk about the work that we’re doing there, ’cause we’re very proud of it. And then also just say that we realize that we’re just a piece of a broader software ecosystem. So you’ll start to see more and more announcements around integrations related to our platform. We’re a key partner to Bentley software systems. That’s another major player. Procore is another one. So we’ve kind of got a slate of integrations that are coming out that I think will be important to the market.
– [Ryan] Fantastic. Well, Brian, thank you so much for your time. This has been a great conversation about topic we have not covered a lot of, so I’m really appreciative you taking the time to kind of share this insights with our audience here and really appreciate it and hope to have you back at some point in the future.
– [Brian] Absolutely, Ryan. Thanks for having me. It’s been a pleasure.
– [Ryan] Thank you. All right, everyone. Thanks again for watching that episode of the IoT For All Podcast. If you enjoyed the episode, please click the thumbs up button, subscribe to our channel, and be sure to hit the bell notifications so you get the latest episodes as soon as they become available. Other than that, thanks again for watching and we’ll see you next time.