Radio Cade

COVID Contact Tracing

January 20, 2021 Richard Allen Season 3 Episode 21
Radio Cade
COVID Contact Tracing
Show Notes Transcript

Contact tracing for COVID. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Is there a better way?  Serial entrepreneur Richard Allen is the co-founder of Alert Trace, a wearable electronic contact tracing system. Operating via Bluetooth, the device doesn’t need GPS, meaning fewer privacy concerns and less battery power.  The system will soon be implemented by the US Navy, US Air Force, and NASA.  One-time electrician, mechanic, sound director, record store owner and accountant, Allen has done a bit of everything. He also has launched four companies onto the NASDAQ, and with his wife runs a non-profit that helps rural villages in Cambodia “create a sustainable quality of life."

Intro:

Inventors and their inventions. Welcome to Radio Cade the podcast from the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention in Gainesville, Florida. The museum is named after James Robert Cade, who invented Gatorade in 1965. My name is Richard Miles. We'll introduce you to inventors and the things that motivate them, we'll learn about their personal stories, how their inventions work and how their ideas get from the laboratory to the marketplace.

Richard Miles:

Contact tracing for COVID. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. Is there a better way? Welcome to Radio Cade . I'm your host Richard Miles. And today I'm talking to Richard Allen entrepreneur par excellent. And Co - Founder of Alert, Trace a wearable electronic contract contact tracing system . Sorry, welcome to the show, Richard.

Richard Allen:

Thanks. Great to be here.

Richard Miles:

So first things first, have you always gone by Richard? Cause as one Richard to another, you know, people always want a short it into Rich, Rick or even worse, but this is a family show, but you've always gone by Richard.

Richard Allen:

Yeah. I've gone by a lot of names, but yeah, Richard's fine.

Richard Miles:

Good and full disclosure for our listeners. Richard is on the board of the Cade Museum and his company is also a tenant in a commercial property. My wife and I own. And that's what it's like to live in a small college town. You just can't get away from each other. So just putting that out there for everyone. So Richard, like a lot of entrepreneurs, it seems you've done a little bit of everything and we'll talk about that in detail later on. But before we get into that, let's focus on Alert Trace your current endeavor. If I understand it, it's specifically for COVID contact tracing, but now we know there's already a lot of stuff out there, including our own smartphones that can be used also to do this. So why don't we start by how is Alert. Trace different than those other existing devices that are out there to do contact tracing?

Richard Allen:

Yeah. So Alert Trace is a standalone system that involves small devices. So we build the small devices, the small alert trace devices, which are using Bluetooth to determine the distance between one device and another device and individuals in a work environment of some sort or an organizational environment would all be AltEd with the devices. And it basically just keeps track over time. How close have they been to other people on the team so that if anybody on the team winds up contracting COVID or any other infectious disease, at some point you can go back over any time period that you wish a week, two weeks, whatever. At that time the CDC is saying as the infectious disease cycle, and you can find everybody that they were in close contact with and the duration of that close contact. So it basically helps you then with quarantining or whatever. But the difference between that and say a smartphone app is number one, a smartphone app. Everybody's got a different smartphone, so everybody's gotta be running the same app. Everybody would have to opt in and say, yes, I would like to use that system. And then there's this question of privacy smartphones obviously have just about, about us. All of our social media contacts, all of our contacts, all of our communications, all that is private information that you might not want to share with everybody. So the advantage of using a system like alert trace is that number one, it's much more affordable than a smartphone, very inexpensive devices. They have no personal identifying information stored in them or around them. So they're totally privacy centric and they provide very robust information for being able to do the contact tracing that you would like to do. It's much more affordable than trying to do it manually and certainly much more effective than trying to do contact tracing manually.

Richard Miles:

So I remember when you showed me, I think it was an early version or even a prototype. And one thing I didn't fully understand until you showed it to me, was it it's Bluetooth only, right? It doesn't use GPS, which means you don't have the same power requirements.

Richard Allen:

Yeah, that's correct because we don't have GPS in it. We're not able to track anybody's location when you leave the work environment or whatever. It's not tracking you and tracing you, so again, it's privacy centric in that sense, but that also really helps us on the power side that basically we have a single, if you will kind of wristwatch type battery that's in it, that battery will last six months or more. And it's super easy for them to change out that battery later. It's not helpful to have a device that you have to charge every day for contact tracing because people will forget to charge it. And what good does it, do you, if people aren't walking around with an enabled device,

Richard Miles:

I guess the other thing too, is that physically it can be much smaller and lighter, right? Because again, without that GPS and battery supply, this is something that , uh , you can clip on your clothes or put on your belt or where do people wear it?

Richard Allen:

Exactly. Yeah. It can go in a number of different locations. It's got a little wristband that you can attach it to the wristband . In which case it basically looks like a very small flat face wristwatch, but it also comes with little alligator clips and you can clip it to a belt to clip it to a shirt to comes with a little double-sided tape. So you can put it on top of a hard fat if you're working in that environment. So it can be used in a lot of different places. It weighs so little that you just don't even notice it, it weighs less than a wristwatch with weigh.

Richard Miles:

So Richard, I've heard you say before, he can come up with the best idea in the world, but ultimately someone's going to want to buy it. So tell us about what is the ideal organization side, cause this is really geared toward organizations, right? This is not something that a retail customer would go by , right?

Richard Allen:

Yeah. Yeah. Number one, it's got to be an organization because everybody has to be wearing it for it to be meaningful. So you want it to be used in an environment where everybody wants that protection. So that makes sense for it to be companies for it to be organizations. And typically if you've got half a dozen people working in a retail shop, the two of you can , or the six of you or whatever can probably time yourselves and do great social distancing and wear masks and be very safe. Or at least that would be my guess , if you're committing retail customer interaction. So this is probably more for organizations that are going to be at least 20 to 50 people and up. And I would say that the majority of our installations by far are those that have at least several hundred employees and or military and government organizations

Richard Miles:

So just sort of listeners understand too as well. How you capture this data. If I remember correctly, the first time I saw an explanation is that some point or multiple points during the day where the employer employees will go by some sort of, I know scanner's the wrong word, but some sort of device will essentially download their activity for whatever the time period is. And then that goes into a database and then you'd be able to then if you needed to figure out, okay, employee number one was briefly in contact with the employee number 101, is that more or less how it works?

Richard Allen:

Yes, that's exactly correct. The devices store hundreds and hundreds of contact interactions with the other devices around them. But they opportunistically are always looking around for what we call a hub. So the hubs are little devices about the size of the power supply unit that would go on a computer or something. And they can be interspersed to every several hundred feet within a manufacturing facility or whatever. And those have a Bluetooth radio in them as well. And they are looking for the little devices that are the little wearable devices and they upload that data opportunistically, anytime that a little mini as we call them the wearables, anytime a mini comes within distance of the hub, the hub uploads that data and then transmits that data up to cloud servers. And our cloud servers are either the secure AWS cloud servers or in the case of the government we're using government and military secure cloud servers.

Richard Miles:

So Richard, tell us about that. Uh , you had some exciting news a month or two ago, a pretty large contract with the Navy. So tell us how that came about and how is the Navy actually going to use Alert Trace?

Richard Allen:

So we're very fortunate that we have the military get involved with is fairly early. I'd say just probably three to four months after we had started developing the prototypes and just came to us through a number of contacts. And the Navy was the first of those that came to us. At this point, we were working with the Navy, with the air force, with the army and with NASA and with a number of related government groups. But the Navy was the first and again, we were very fortunate that they actually provided us a contract to drill down into the cybersecurity of the system. As everybody knows, Bluetooth is on just about everything today. Everybody's, Fitbit's got Bluetooth. Everybody's phone has Bluetooth, everybody's radio has Bluetooth. So from a security perspective, we needed to be sure that especially for the military, that foreign powers or whatever would not be able to detect how many sailors or how many shipmen were in a particular area. They wanted to be sure that data was totally secure. So we went through about a three month process with their entire cybersecurity group, getting the data to be entirely secure. That was also really helpful to us and just getting us a lot of data from what the military needed in terms of operational capability of the system that has ultimately helped us a lot on the commercial side as well, because everything that we developed for the military of course is also useful for the commercial applications. So that's been a tremendous positive relationship and where they have a lot of bright people, the Navy, their cyber guys are amazing.

Richard Miles:

So this must be ideal, I guess, for the Navy, because on a ship or large base, I imagine you have situations where it's really hard to either monitor or enforce social distancing, that sort of stuff. So in the end, no matter what the rules are, the reality is is that you're going to have sailors or employees come into contact with each other. And you got to figure that out pretty fast, right? If you've got a bunch of sailors that COVID outbreak, you want to know who they came into contact with, and that would be awful hard without a contact tracing system.

Richard Allen:

Yes. And actually, and it's probably even goes beyond COVID-19. This is, I think, been a wake up call and I know that our military is very concerned about not just COVID-19 about, about future infections and even biological warfare. And they're concerned. I mean, if you can imagine we've got ships all across the world, they've got nuclear warheads on them. If a ship is in essence, taken down by a disease that runs rampant across the ship very rapidly, it could certainly be a security risk. So there is all of that , both in fixed installations, army, and the like, and in Naval installations, it's a really, really important national security matter for them to be able to track this. And frankly, doing so is really affordable. When you look at the cost of doing this kind of electronic contact tracing, it's really affordable at that kind of level.

Richard Miles:

So you anticipate , and my next question, which was going to be what comes after COVID because obviously at some point COVID will still be with us, but it won't be as much of a threat. And then hopefully contact tracing for that goes down to a minimum because you have a sufficient number, people, vaccinated and so on. So what are some of the potential applications on the horizon? Obviously I can think of a few off the top of my head in that for advertisers. It's very useful just to find out where people are congregating and they do that through the cell phone data, but for like a large organization that has say hundreds, even thousands of employees, as you've said, there are other potential communicable disease , but are there other sort of non-health reasons that a company would find this useful?

Richard Allen:

Yeah, there probably are. As far as just the contact tracing goes, what we think is a number one this year, we believe that contact tracing is going to probably continue to be an issue for most of the year of 2021. And just because by the time the vaccine gets out there and we really get to genuine herd immunity and we've really gotten through COVID-19 it's , it's going to be later on this year. So for companies that are trying to keep production lines running and keeping warehouses running and keeping a film production going, and that sort of thing, it's going to be an issue for the rest of the year. We will probably, as we get towards the end of this year, began to focus a little more on what we had been doing previously with a couple of our partner companies. And those are for instance, employee safety routines, where not only are you just contact tracing between individuals, but individuals that interact with various equipment and machinery. You have large scale construction sites when you're building large airports, when you've got large indoor facilities for manufacturing, and you've got a lot of equipment are individuals that are using the pieces of equipment trained for the safety on each of the individual pieces of equipment. We can tell all of that information. We can also tell frankly, when somebody comes to work, when they leave work. So you kind of get to build all of those HR or management issues, especially on large scale construction sites and the like that you can track when people arrive, you can track when they leave, correct when they're taking breaks. So that you're able to do a lot of what we previously have had to have been done with managers running around with their time blocks or whatever. So there's a lot of application for us beyond contact tracing and beyond this year. But this year, I think I mentioned the film industry where we're really taking off in the film industry right now. We've got a Warner brothers, the producers of the walking dead and several film studios that are using our devices to keep their productions running.

Richard Miles:

So yet another reason to stay to the very end of a movie, right somewhere you'll be on the credits, right? Richard Allen contact tracer.

Richard Allen:

We haven't heard about that, but we wondered if on one of the walking dead, you might actually wind up seeing one of the little devices.

Richard Miles:

So Richard you've been developing the company and the products or several other product for a couple of years. And if I remember correctly, initially you started out making a pet tracker and then you were also at the same time, or maybe subsequently integrating smart Bluetooth devices in first responder vests, and then along comes COVID. So was there a distinct moment in your company when somebody realized like, Hey, we can do this, or did you just sort of have to iterate your way to Alert Trace?

Richard Allen:

It actually happened in tandem with one of our partner companies, and there were kind of two precise moments during which it happened. So one of our partner companies located out in Texas, we had been producing the devices for them to use on the large construction sites. I've mentioned the Dubai airport where they've got some 20,000 employees. So we had been providing a little wearable devices for them to be able to track the employees on slate over there. So they had unknown to us decided, gosh, you know, this would be a great thing to get into. We should search out there to see if there's anybody that could produce a contact tracing device for us while they were doing that. Dr. [inaudible] one of our co-founders here and our CTO just walked into the office one day and said, Hey, you know, and this was probably back early March. You know, we could do this contact tracing thing electronically with Bluetooth only if we just got rid of the GPS element on our little devices and just stripped them down, we could do this with Bluetooth. So we all said that might be a good idea. Let us take a week and think about it. So literally we took a week and we came back a week later and we said, okay, you know, we've looked at the market and we think this is a good idea. Well , He, and John and Rusty, and a couple of our guys who are in prototype development had actually created a prototype. They had just gone ahead with the idea. So that's where inventors are really great. They don't wait to find out about the market. They just go do it. And they had created a great little prototype. So at that point we decided we would launch the product. And so we went through the normal stuff that you do i n a really rapid, rapid deployment fashion. And it was only about a week later that the other company, o ur partner company reached out to us from Texas to tell us that they had had the same idea. And they were wondering if there was any chance that we might be able to produce a contact tracer for them. So it was a perfect fit because they were the ones that w ound up with t he military c ontacts and actually had a lot of the sales and marketing machine a nd b uilt up. So it was just a perfect marriage. And we just put the two companies together and created a new company.

Richard Miles:

And did you ever have any moments of doubt because it was obviously a huge pivot and reorienting of your resources. Did you ever think, are we jumping off a cliff here or did you just kind of know we've got the tiger by the tail now.

Richard Allen:

There's always doubt because you don't know until you come up with the concept and then you've got a prototype, but before you can actually get something that you can sell, it takes a few months. And certainly during that few months, you've always questioned whether or not you're doing the right thing, but I think everybody's gut told us that it was the right move . And thankfully, in this case, we only needed to wait a few months for the proof of the pudding to basically appear when we started really getting the major interest. And then when the military stepped up and I'm one of the fortune 500 companies, Boston Scientific, big medical manufacturer , they stepped up and were one of our early development partners. So we launched into several of their production sites initially before the thing was really ready for prime time. And they were incredible development partners with us in helping to get it really refined and working well.

Richard Miles:

So you make it sound so easy, Richard, but I remember seeing you over the summer and they're were a few nail biting moments. It seemed like, Oh boy, what have I done here? So,

Richard Allen:

Oh, definitely. Yeah. We threw the kitchen sink at this and the kitchen sink was a really expensive kitchen sink. So we basically took everything. We had everything we could borrow, anything we could get from any source and put it into this. So we had a lot riding on it , a ton , the success of it. And he probably turned the corner for us in probably September or so, maybe October, we finally got to breathe a sigh of relief and go, wow, we've really made it.

Richard Miles:

So I'm sure part of that confidence was the fact that this is not your first rodeo for listeners who aren't familiar with you, the Gainesville entrepreneur community knows you sort of the godfather of the startup scene here, and you don't have any hit guys working for you, I assume, but a call you the godfather. And you've been involved in lots of different ventures. I didn't know until I dug into your bio, but as a kid, you wanted to be a scientist. Then you discovered you're good at selling stuff. And along the way, you've been everything from a licensed electrician and mechanic, autobody, repairman sound, and light director of big rock concerts and the owner of a record shop. And then on top of that, you have a couple of degrees, one in creative writing another one in accounting. And if that's not enough, you've launched four companies that are analysis on the NASDAQ at least four that I know of. You're sort of like the Forrest Gump of North Central Florida, Richard. Uh , yeah , I got to say, and I mean that as a compliment, I was introduced once as a Forest Gump and I thought, wow, I guess that's a good thing.

Richard Allen:

Um, and I just want to say, and this is not false modesty. Every single company that I have started has been a success because of the incredible people that are around me and to come up with the ideas and that work like it's their company, because it is their company. We've just had amazing teams of people. And if I have any gift at all, it is just in the gift of being able to be blessed by being surrounded by so many talented and great people on these teams.

Richard Miles:

Right. I was going to say, I've always found that one of my greatest strengths is to realize how many I don't have, and then you go out and look for people who can help you or sort of cover for that. Once you realize you can't do it all yourself. But yet what I wanted to ask you is, did you ever have a career philosophy or does an opportunity present itself? And you just say, sure, what the hell or did you have a detailed blueprint when you're nine years old of your life? How do you approach these opportunities as they come along?

Richard Allen:

I definitely did not have a lifelong blueprint. And if you look at my swerving career in life, you would realize that for sure. But I think that probably one of the key essential parts of my character is that I always want to know how things work. It doesn't matter what it is ever since I was a kid and lots of folks were like this as a kid. And lots of folks still are, but it's like every single thing I want to learn, how does it work all the way down to the molecular level what's going on? And so that has largely driven me. I think that people come up with ideas and concepts around me, and I want to find out all the elements of how it works. And if you're in business that goes beyond just the science and technology and how did the electrons flow and how's the display screen work or whatever it also gets into, well, who's going to buy it. Why are they going to buy it? How's it going to interact with their life? How's it going to make them feel? What's the interface going to be because of all that, I think it winds up helping you to basically be part of a good team, because you need to have people around you who are good at all of those aspects. From the science side, from the technology side, from the human side, from the marketing side and from the finance and business and accounting side.

Richard Miles:

So Richard, I thing I usually ask most of my guests is , were you a good student? And was there a particular age at which you sort of crystallized for you? This in general is kind of what I want to do a particular event or teacher or mentor, or how did that work out for you?

Richard Allen:

Well, that's a great question. I remember when I was a child that I got to visit one of my uncles, I had several uncles and one of my uncles lived up in Missouri, Elva , L Allen and Alvin Allen industries was his company. And he made lots of car parts for the insides of automobiles, the door panels and all those kinds of things. And in order to do that, he had decided that he needed to actually build the big punch press machines that actually punch those things out. And in order to do that, he had decided that he needed to have a steel mill. And so he smelted the steel and poured it into mold and created these large punch press machines. And then they would move the punch, press machines in and use those in production to produce these parts. And then on the side, he had decided that he wanted to go into crystal radios. This was back in the forties or fifties, I guess, and that he had wanted to go into desalination kits for the Navy. And I just remember visiting his plant one time and just being overwhelmed by how cool. So I think that he was probably a major influence on me and he had no idea that he was just kind of do everything. So I would have probably been in the eight to nine range somewhere in there that was probably a major influence in my life. Right .

Richard Miles:

So there's something about that world that you thought was kind of cool and pointing its way?

Richard Allen:

Yeah, yeah. Wanting to do kind of everything. And that kind of gets to, you asked if I was a good student. I was a really good student at figuring out how to do the least I needed to do in order to get a relatively. Okay, great. Very good . I was very good at that .

Richard Miles:

That's efficiency, right? Most amount of output for at least amount of input,

Richard Allen:

But I was interested also at the same time and , and everything. So when I was an English major, I decided I wanted to take four quarters of calculus because I also had wanted to take electrical engineering when I was an English major to do that. I had to have the four quarters of calculus. So I took those and I took organic chemistry. Cause I was thinking, well, you know, someday I might become interested in medicine. So I took kind of a broad array of stuff and then wound up getting my degree in creative writing and then went back and got the finance and accounting degree after that. Right .

Richard Miles:

Richard, one thing I remember shortly after we met about 10 years ago, it seems like we were in an event in Gainesville. And I was very impressed because some young entrepreneur wanting to do a startup company came up to me, mistakenly thinking I could help him do this and you were in the room. And I said, no , no, no, no. You need to go talk to that guy over there and ask him for advice. And you took all the time that you had in that event and you listened to the person's questions. I'm sure you probably don't remember it, but my guess is this happens to you probably frequently that a younger version of yourself comes and says, Hey, I want to start a company and I've got this great idea. What sort of questions do you get? And then what sort of advice?

Richard Allen:

Well, the questions that you would get are the standard questions where somebody is coming up and they've got this concept and they think it's a great concept. And so you'd be wanting to listen to that. And usually they are great concepts. And my response to those is usually to think about them from the standpoint of a customer and we have a market system here. And so you've got to really think about how big of a market might you have. You can come up with the coolest idea in the world. That would be really, really helpful to somebody. But if the market for it's only going to be a handful of people, so likelihood is that you're just not going to have enough financial resources behind it to make it viable. So somebody really does need to think about the total market. How big could it be? And then if it looks like it's big enough that it might support taking it forward as an entrepreneurial idea, then you kind of really need to drill down into what's it really going to take to develop this? And once it's developed, what's it really going to cost to produce? And then if you put yourself on the other side of the fence and you're a consumer and you're trying to buy what it is that you just produced, how much are you willing to pay for that? And does it have any kind of recurring revenue structure to it? And that at least put you into an overview of whether or not it might be a viable entrepreneurial idea. That's the advice I would give to folks, right?

Richard Miles:

Now, that's a solid advice. So now let me flip it around on you. Is there anything that you wish somebody told you, let's say, I think back on your 21 year old self that you now know, right. Do you wish that you knew when you were a lot younger, either starting a company or researching an idea or more life general lessons for the benefit of being a little bit wiser and a little bit older, what do you wish you knew then that, you know now?

Richard Allen:

Yeah . You know, I think about that some. I mean, it's a question that I've been asked before as well. And I think if I go back to my younger self college age , self, whatever, shortly after, there was certainly a time during which I could have gotten an earlier story in all of this, but honestly, all of those other ideas, all those other ventures, all those other employment opportunities that I pursued each one really helped. And every experience really added a lot to what ultimately created success with our very first public company. So I don't think I would go back and do anything different. And I think the way that it worked was just perfect in the aftermath of things. When I look back at the things that we have created and we have done, there've been a couple of times that we've started up with ideas that were great, great ideas and everything about them seemed perfect when we invested a few years and a lot of time and a lot of money and they wound up not working out, everything doesn't work out and in the aftermath, I can almost always go back and trace it back and go, yeah, this is why it didn't work. You can't know everything in advance, right ? So sometimes you just have to move forward on faith.

Richard Miles:

I find sometimes the most powerful lessons are actually those that you take away from the failures or the setbacks. Those really stick with you. And often they're a little bit more identifiable than sometimes it's the successes, which, you know , sometimes to have a cast of hundreds, just a little bit hard, maybe to call those as honestly as setbacks. One last thing, Richard, I didn't want to miss the opportunity to mention one other thing that you and your wonderful wife do. You run a great nonprofit called Sustainable Cambodia. So tell us a little bit about that, how long you've been doing that and what is that about?

Richard Allen:

Oh yeah. Thank you for that. And we've been at that for about 16 or 18 years now. And , uh , we work in rural villages in Cambodia. Our foundation has set up so that we have no paid staff, no overhead internationally. The only staff that we have our team in Cambodia, which made up of Cambodians and it's an empowerment based model. And we work with at this point a little more than 30 different villages in the rural part of the country where , um , basically post committee Rouge families trying to rebuild their lives after the genocide and our program is based on helping them to both create a sustainable quality of life through income, through largely agricultural training. So they grow alternative crops in the like helping them to install a wells safe water, bio sand filters with top rainwater, harvesting community ponds. And then we've got fell 20 schools in those rural villages that take kids all the way from preschool all the way through grade 12. I think we've got maybe I think on the order of 25,000 children that have graduated through that program, we've got almost a thousand. I think that have gone through Cambodian university towns and our scholarships. And most of our team that's working in Cambodia now is made up of former students who started when they were little kids in the villages, went to school through our programs, went to university over there in our scholarships and have returned to the villages. And they're part of our team. Now we're kind of on our second generation now of the internal management team. And it's , um , it's one of those things where you look back on your life and you go, I would have never predicted that I'd be doing that. But it's probably the thing that gives the most meaning to our lives. My wife and I both just deeply grateful that we've been able to be involved in that over these years.

Richard Miles:

It's a fantastic model. And I got to say the only downside, but someone like you, Richard is you make the rest of us feel really lazy. I'm trying to, trying to figure out how, how many hours in the day do you have? You must only sleep two or three or something to get all this stuff done, but I want to thank you very much for being on Radio. Cade and I want you to promise me that during the Alert Trace IPO, when you ring the bell, invite me and I'll take you for a beer somewhere near the stock exchange.

Richard Allen:

You got it. You got it. Thanks.

Richard Miles:

Thank you very much. And look forward to having you back on the show at some point. All right. Thanks.

Outro:

Radio Cade is produced by the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention located in Gainesville, Florida . Richard Miles is the podcast host and Ellie Thom coordinates inventor interviews, podcasts are recorded at Heartwood soundstage and edited and mixed by Bob McPeak . The radio Cade theme song was produced and performed by Tracy Collins and features violinist Jacob Lawson.