“When you start a company, you have the extraordinary opportunity to liberate industries from the ‘it’s always been done this way’ mentality and replace it with a ‘we’re doing things the way they should be done’ mindset,’” explains the CEO of Uptake Technologies Brad Keywell.
A lifelong entrepreneur, philanthropist and YPO member (since 1998), Keywell has co-founded nine technology companies, including Groupon, Tempus Labs, Echo Global Logistics, MediaOcean, Drivin, Lightbank and Uptake, for which he won the 2018 EY Overall Entrepreneur of the Year award in the United States. The honor was bestowed on Keywell not only due to his proclivity for disrupting traditional industries and business models through innovation, technology and big data, but also for his work leveraging business for social good and his commitment to philanthropy.
On the Uptake
An industrial AI and IOT software leader, Uptake’s predictive analytics software solutions make industries more productive, reliable and secure by bridging the gap between data and outcomes. By harnessing data generated by sensors and other correlative sources, Uptake’s software provides actionable insights to the front line of global industries including energy, aviation, manufacturing and transportation. Their clients are not only able to streamline operations and enhance efficiency, but also to achieve financially optimized business portfolios that move the most valuable and demonstrable metrics.
“What we’re doing is taking every valuable piece of information — from sensors to electronic controls and other external sources— and running them through our AI and machine learning platform to provide insight that allows our customers to take valuable action,” explains Keywell. “We’re able to tell our customers exactly what to do (and what not to do). When we tell a rail customer they shouldn’t put a certain locomotive on the track because it’s going to break in the next week, they’re able to verify and our software tells them what parts are needed to remediate the issue. By creating artificial intelligence and machine learning engines, and an entire software platform built around them, Uptake deploys a precision of insight that’s extraordinary.”
More than money
“My orientation?” Keywell says when asked what drives him. “It’s simple: what else can I learn?”
Most recently what he has articulated is a clear goal that goes well beyond just making money. Keywell aspires to create in a way that also delivers a positive impact on the world. So, while growing Uptake from 50 to 700+ employees and a valuation of more than USD2 billion with industrial giants like Berkshire Hathaway Energy and Caterpillar as well as the United States military among its clients, Keywell created Uptake.org to leverage the company’s data science models and talents for social good.
“There are so many nonprofit organizations doing amazing work for social good yet operating with limited funds,” says Keywell. “These organizations are looking ahead with profound insight, but leveraging technology that is decades old. They need the latest tools to solve far-reaching problems, and Uptake.org is giving away our technology and our talents to assist NGOs to achieve faster and more sustainable results.”
Uptake.org’s initiatives include an application that helps find human traffickers using data from air and rail travel, identifying behaviors with Uptake’s AI technology and alerting authorities at border crossings. Another of Keywell’s creations is Chicago Ideas, and ideas platform he created in 2011 that draws some of the world’s most fascinating storytellers to share ideas and initiate impactful action. Chicago Ideas now draws over 30,000 people each year and has become the world’s largest city-based ideas platform. And in 2018, he created wndr museum, based in Chicago, which showcases experiential and immersive art.
“Uptake addresses the most extraordinary opportunity I’ve ever seen for technology to directly impact how industries work and operate,” says Keywell. “If you multiply impact delivered through technology by the size of the industry where it can be delivered, the magnitude of the value creation opportunity is beyond anything ever seen in enterprise technology.”
The secret code
Even after 25 plus years of building and growing companies (not counting the greeting card company he started when he was six, or the home watch service when he was 13, or the Sunday brunch delivery service he had when he got his driver’s license), Keywell is still finding ways to innovate and to learn.
“I’ve experienced lots of different cultures, some intentional; and others just sort of happened,” he says. “With Uptake, I learned, and I decided to be more intentional regarding our culture. I believe cultures benefit if leaders communicate more often and more clearly, so on New Year’s Eve 2016, I made a resolution to write a weekly letter to everyone in the company.”
“When you start a company, you have the extraordinary opportunity to liberate industries from the ‘it’s always been done this way’ mentality.”
Not a personal letter to every employee mind you, but a company-wide letter. Keywell called them “Sunday Thoughts” and the first few letters proved to be a challenge.
“In the beginning I had some serious dread and writers block,” Keywell laughs. “I had no idea what to write about … I feared I was sharing too much or that I had nothing to say. But I kept at it, and now it’s been almost three years and I haven’t missed a Sunday.”
In keeping with his instinct to reach out personally, his reaction when he found out that he won the EY award for Overall U.S. Entrepreneur of the Year was to Facetime his kids.
“That’s what you do when you’re 49 years old,” Brad says. “Instead of going out to party, you FaceTime your kids. My daughters are both away at college and were very excited … I think they were most excited that I was on the cover of a magazine.”
As the U.S. winner, Keywell will now compete for the prestigious EY World Entrepreneur Of The Year™ Award in Monaco in June 2019.
“The whole thing is thrilling,” Keywell says, struggling to find the words to express the sentiment. “I really respect this award. In my opinion, it’s unique in its objective and comprehensive judging methodology — no entrepreneurial award has this level of efficacy. I first learned about the EY Entrepreneur of the Year award in 1991, 27 years ago, which speaks to why I’m both honored and sincerely humbled.”
For Keywell, the journey is about creation. It’s about paying attention and “noticing” so that you can identify opportunities and act, so that you can build businesses that deliver delight and value on a massive scale.
“It’s not about investing, it’s about building,” says Keywell. “It’s not about theory, it’s about identifying inefficiencies and opportunity, then creating the technology and the businesses that unlock spectacular value.”
EY is YPO’s strategic learning advisor.