Comcast boosts ties to Penn IoT research (Updated)

(Adds comments from David L. Cohen, Vijay Kumar, Amy Gutmann) "The goal is not to do a research project. The goal is to build devices," Alex Khorram, the veteran telecom financier who runs Comcast's new MachineQ Internet-of-Things initiative, told the crowd gathered Tuesday at the Pennovation Center.

That's the Grays Ferry Ave. complex where Penn has invited big companies and start-ups to work with faculty and students on robotics, the digital-sensor-linked Internet of Things and other cool data and product development projects. 

Khorram's comment might be carved in concrete at the former DuPont Co. paint factory and lab, where Penn president Amy Gutmann, Engineering dean Vijay Kumar and Research vice provost Dawn Bunnell have opened the gates to partnerships they hope will augment old-fashioned government and corporate research patronage at the Ivy League medical-engineering-university complex.

As linked devices transform media, comunications, transport and other basic industries and systems, "all facets of life will depend" on being able to gather and process data from sensors placed, well, everywhere, Korram added.

Comcast announced MachineQ in October. The initiative seeks to develop devices Comcast can plug into its existing home-entertainment and home-security services to expand its Internet of Things networks, using the LoRaWAN standard that Khorram says is becoming popular worldwide. Comcast statement here, FierceWireless article here.

Why aren't more devices already talking to each other? There's not enough cheap powered networking in place to reach all the places Comcast and its customers want to connect, Khorram said.

The old lower-power 2G (second generation) wireless network might have worked pretty well as an IoT backbone, "but all that's going away" as more modern networks spread, and "it's cost-prohibitive" to use later-generation services for basic machine links. So a focus now is on boosting battery capacity so the "connected society (can) happen."

Comcast's Xfinity network "does a great job offering high speeds, short distance, high network" that could be extended for more applications, Khorram noted. Work is being done on amplifying user systems to add functions and spread their use over wider areas.

But Comcast is also focusing on industrial networks like the Philadelphia Water Department's emerging IoT ssytems, and "putting little radios on Comcast towers in certain neighborhoods," and other possible ways for Comcast to develop digital smart "Connectivity-as-a-Service," just as Google, for example, is putting sensors in data servers to speed data processing.

To promote the initiative at Penn, Comcast is sponsoring an IoT Pennovation Challenge -- read about it at http://bit.ly/comcastpennovation -- "seeking five to seven faculty and student teams of up to five people to invent and create innovative solutions for the Internet of Things on the MachineQ platform."

First prize is $3,000 plus six months' access to Pennovation Center machines and services and help from Penn's I-Corps business development program. 

Signalling the venture's importance, Khorram was joined by President Gutmann (who that morning had announced a three-year extension on her $3.3 million/year+ contract, to 2022), Chairman Cohen (a Comcast Senior Executive Vice President), Dean Kumar, and guests including Gabriel Investments founder (and Penn medical-research backer) Richard Vague and Citizens Bank area president Daniel Fitzpatrick, plus dozens of Penn scholars.

Gutmann repeated Penn's "innovation mantra" -- that "partnerships produce progress." She cited such famous business couples as Google founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin, the pair behind Ben & Jerry's ice cream, and electrical inventor Nicola Tesla's friendship with writer Mark Twain as models for the kind of corporate-academic cooperation she hopes Pennovation will attract:

"When tinkerers and investors come together with artists and scientists and they roll up their sleeves and step off the beaten path," and "pool resources," Gutmann said, "that's when things happen."

She said it's her goal for academic-corporate cooperation to be "sophisticated and sleek," as well as "modern and messy... there is no place more messily beautiful." So "we are lighting up innovation with a partnership between Penn and Comcast, two of the largest pillars of Phila's community and economy."

(Penn is Philadelphia's top private employer, with over 35,000 workers. By stock market value, Comcast is the most valuable company headquartered in Pennsylvania).

Gutmann thanked "David Cohen (CEO) Brian Roberts and the entire Comcast company for engaging in this bold partnership with us." Neither side has said how much Comcast is spending on the effort. Penn's research budget has been around $1 billion a year for the past 10 years, most of it in the medical school or the engineering school, Penn officials say.

Research vice provost Dawn Bonnell called Pennovation "the physical embodiment of Penn as an enabler of innovation," where "faculty, students entrepreneurs and corporate partners come together and develop a cross fertilization that will allow us to be agile and facile."

Cohen disclaimed scientific and engineering knowledge: "I am everybody 's straight man." He did claim for the two enterprises he serves -- Comcast and Penn --status as "the leading employers" with "the leading impact on the economy in Philadelphia. We have many of the leading thought leaders. We have a shared vision for partnership between the University as an academic center and as an economic generator."

Cohen added, "I don't want to exclude anyone else from this big tent partnership. I think Penn and Comcast  have an opportuinty to energize the innovation economy in Philadelphia, and to provide some marketing muscle" to back the city's small-tech sector. Penn and Comcast could together build "one of the leading innovation economies in the country, if not the world." 

Dean Kumar voiced a wide vision: The world faces "food, energy, water, infrastructure" challenges, as well as medical issues, the focus of most Penn research. "The opportunities are huge" if the school can attract enough research and development support, he noted.

And health tech isn't so far from "a lot of things Comcast specializes in," Kumar added. "It's about devices. About sensors. About getting that data and how the data connects people to each other and to networks... Today we're talking about connecting homes; tomorrow, connecting the world."

Cohen contrasted what he's trying to do with Penn with the "classic model" of the former Bell Labs in their glory years: Back then, "when you wanted to innovate, you built up really high walls, and worked within those walls. The last thing you wanted to do was to let anyone else know" what you were developing.

By contrast, in Cohen's telling, the "21st Century model is all about collaboration, sharing and partnerships. The pace of change is so great, an institution  that tried to build a wall is likely to be slowed down and not to be successful.
The way you turbocharge this is through partnering and collaboration and opening up the eco system. That's what allows Penn and Comcast to be leaders here." 

(That's strong and paradoxical stuff coming from Comcast, which maintains a famously high profit margin precisely because it doesn't give product away, unlike the old TV broadcast networks, but charges premium prices to deliver proprietary content and services.) 

Cohen also noted Pennovation is already playing a role in bringing area companies togther. He pointed out that Hershey Foods, the Pennsylvania-based chocolate maker, is working with Penn robotics scholars to develop new systems upstairs at Pennovation -- and added that "Hershey and Comcast are now talking about ways we can work together to collaborate in the information-technology space."

Dean Kumar says commercial partnerships bring hope of reducing the "inefficiency of bringing research to market. The Federal Government (where Kumar worked as a White House science-programs manager) spends $85 billion a year on research, but very little of it becomes commercial."

A veteran robotics and drones developer, Kumar says robots and the Internet of Things are related and converging fields, as demonstrated in Hershey's Pennovation robotics project, for example. "This is symbolic of the things we need to be doing to keep talent in Philadelphia," the dean concluded.