Pittsburgh’s Company Spotlight: Identified Technologies
This week’s featured startup is Identified Technologies, a graduate of AlphaLab Gear building drones to improve worksite safety and efficiency.
Here we talk to founder and CEO Dick Zhang.
IC: To start off, what does Identified Technologies do?
DZ: We’re a year-and-a-half old — graduated out of AlphaLab a year ago — and we help construction and oil and gas, these dangerous job sites, work faster, work smarter, work safer.
We do it via real-time 2D and 3D data that we capture via proprietary drone. So the drone flies itself, captures data by itself, can land and swap its own batteries, living on the job site by itself. We’ve got our own analytics pipelines we push all this raw data through and make it useful for our clients, to help them save hours, days, and weeks on these really, really expensive projects.
IC: How’d you come up with the idea and what has you passionate about it?
DZ: I had a thing for drones when we first started this. One of my buddies back at Penn worked in their robotics lab and worked with drones, and he was just showing me around. I just fell in love with drones. I ended up going out to a job site one day, not really intending to sell; we were just doing an exploratory exercise. And then I got a call the next day and he goes, “Hey Dick, it’s John. You were on my site yesterday. We’re kicking off this new project, so how much would it cost to get this on-site next week?” So he wrote a check in days, and I didn’t even have a company yet.
That’s how we got into construction, then started digging deeper and saw all these huge inefficiencies in an outdated industry.
IC: So you had a sellable product by the time you got into all this?
DZ: Well, yes and no. We had a contract before we had anything, [before] a product, a solution for their problem — we didn’t even know what the problem was, you know. That was great. But we actually originally proposed a solution for the military using this as a safety and security tool.
IC: How many people did you start Identified Technologies with, and how many people work for you now?
DZ: It was me, it was just me. I had an early investor who I met through my Penn networks. I moved out to Pittsburgh, didn’t really know anybody or know anything that was going on here, and then I hired an early team of really, really talented technical folks; most of them associated with Carnegie Mellon. Then grew the team to four or five last year, and we’re now a team of, about to be, 11 in a few days.
IC: What key positions are you looking to add in the next six months to a year?
DZ: The next six months — good question. The next six months is going to look a lot like building out our software team and building out our sales team. With the software team, we’re looking for folks with deep expertise in the full-stack, web-stack. And then with the sales team, you know, ideally someone with experience and a network in our industries, but we’re also open to the “no experience but really hungry” kind of person.
IC: What are some of the key skills you look for in people?
DZ: We put a lot of emphasis on agility, reputation, and communication. I think [those] are the three big ones. Obviously, there’s not a day here that we’re not moving at light speed. While moving that fast and obviously going through really risky decision-making, Identified Technologies is starting to, and will continue to, build a reputation in our industries. It’s extremely, extremely important we maintain the highest quality of service, safety, and integrity.
And then of course, communication. You can talk to any one of the guys here and they’ll tell you communication is a big part of working smart, working fast — successfully working together.
IC: And sometimes not communicating when you want to, because you don’t want to interrupt someone’s day.
DZ: Exactly, exactly.
IC: What were some of the biggest challenges you encountered starting out, and how do those compare with what you’re challenged with now?
DZ: I think early on, and now, a big challenge was focus. Just because — have you ever flown a drone?
IC: Just the toy helicopter ones [laughs]
DZ: Yeah, [laughs] well what we saw a lot in the early days was, we’d bring this out to potential customers and everybody is like, “Oh, I could do something with this. This would be great. Let’s make a product.” And we had 14 different kinds of customers pulling us in 14 different directions with 14 different products. It’s just tough, you know, with a startup with limited resources and limited time doing so many different things. So we had to buckle down, focus, and get one thing done; and be really, really, really good at any one thing. We realized that and started focusing on our current markets, and have, so far, been doing a good job of building up to that model of just complete domination with our current customers.
So that was a big emphasis early on, and now it’s still focused, but we’re focused on growth, focused on scale, focused on doing things efficiently. Obviously we’re going to have growing pains, but being smart about which growing pains we go through.
IC: Where are your offices and what do you like about your space?
DZ: We’re right behind Bakery Square in a very industrial neighborhood. We’re still putting signage up, so it’ll look more like an office building in the next couple of weeks [laughs]. But, [if you’ve] been in AlphaLab Gear, you’re familiar with the really open layout. We moved to Gear and just really loved that layout for a number of reasons. People, so far, seem to like it and work better in this collaborative environment. So we got this big, 5,000 foot ex-warehouse that we turned into an office. And we also had this requirement for high ceilings since we do a lot of drone testing in the back. So we got a big 1,500 foot testing facility that we’re building out right now.
IC: When do your best ideas come to you?
DZ: Usually when I’m talking to others on the team. It usually goes, I’m thinking something, and then a teammate will say something else, and then all of a sudden realize what we really should be doing. It’s very much a team effort, and we’re very lucky to have what I consider to be a world-class team.
IC: What were you doing before this? You mentioned Penn?
DZ: Yeah, University of, in Philly. I was a mechanical engineer, so trained as an engineer, then worked in pharmaceuticals in operations and strategy, and then worked on Wall Street. Did that golden life for just under a year, and then ended up coming out here.
IC: That explains why you’re good at pitching and talking with the Wall Street types!
DZ: [laughs] Yeah
IC: What do you enjoy most about running Identified?
DZ: What do I enjoy most about running Identified. So just something about my personality: I need to always be challenged, because I get very bored and lose interest very quickly. And fortunately, it seems like every hour there’s a big new challenge that we’ve gotta overcome or a decision we’ve got to make. And so just the boatload of decisions and issues that, as a team, we face really keep me engaged. And again, fortunate to have a solid group with us here to make all that possible.
IC: Cool. So what networks or organizations have helped provide you guidance along the way?
DZ: I would definitely say AlphaLab Gear. Hands down, without a doubt, I would not be anywhere near this without AlphaLab Gear. Again, you know, I was first-time founder, first-time trying to lead a team and grow a company and I had no idea what I was doing. I was very fortunate to have them around to make the early days happen.
Since then, we’ve built up a really excellent network, obviously within the Innovation Works community, but also within our own investor networks. We’ve got guys from all over the country who have built [strong companies]. Actually one of our investors is currently going through a $5 billion transaction with his own company. We’ve got guys with really, really deep expertise in this world, so the networks we’ve built with our investors — and Birchmere Ventures included — have really made all this possible.
IC: When’s the last time you went on vacation and where’d you go?
DZ: Well, when I got to the office this morning. Living the freaking dream!
No, seriously! [laughs] I mean my parents are out in California, they moved there about two years ago, so probably Christmastime, when I went back.
IC: We can also go with, what music are you listening to right now?
DZ: Well, I’m not a big music guy, actually.
Me neither! I just need some background noise sometimes.
DZ: Yeah. So it actually turns out, when we first moved here — at Gear there’s always people around, it’s always noisy, and it’s actually kind of a hindrance most of the time. But, we got here, and the first day after we moved in we’re all sitting at our desks working, and I had to break the silence. I was like, “This is too freaking quiet.” So then one of our guys brought in his old stereo from his house. Now we keep a radio running just to provide background music. I believe that’s classic rock radio stations.