Meet the Team: Emma Fechney, Senior Lead, People and Operations

Through a Q&A-style interview, you will hear from VIA team members about things like a typical day at the office and favorite foods.


What does a typical day at VIA look like for you?

One of the things that I love about my job is that for me, there is no such thing as a “typical day.” Because my role encompasses the entire candidate and employee experience, there are often lots of different projects going on at any moment. Examples include planning recruitment events, working with the team on our professional development program, or even ordering a whole lot of pizza for our regular lunch and learn sessions.

I always try to start my day by consulting my to do’s and then from there, it can be a mixture of meetings, catch-ups with team members, interviews, or planning the next team event.

What motivates you to come to the office each day?

People! I am motivated by the idea of enhancing people’s work experience, whether it’s exploring ways to support professional development or strengthening the connection between our team and our vision. Plus, finding ways to celebrate and have fun together never gets old!

What’s something you have worked on at VIA that you are most proud of?

Introducing Lattice, our performance management platform, was a big win for me. Lattice is a tool that helps us plan and track goals, organise 1:1’s, and is an excellent vehicle for supporting a feedback-rich culture. We love the integration with our #shoutouts channel on Slack for constant praise and appreciation! (Not a paid plug, I promise).

What’s your favorite VIA memory?

My first official day is something that sticks out. Not only were lots of pastries involved, but the whole office pushed pause in whatever they were doing to welcome me over breakfast and to get to know more about me and my background. This really set the tone of inclusivity and respect that has not faded since!

If you were given an extra hour in your day, what would you spend it doing?

The angel on my shoulder says learning french, but the devil on the other says catching up on some z’s.

What’s your go-to food?

I can’t go past a really good Kiwi meat pie!

What’s something everyone may not, but should know about working at VIA?

In addition to being a kick-ass energy tech company, our team could have a side career in the food industry. Everyone is either an excellent home cook and/or just genuinely enjoys the ritual of eating great food.

Meet the Team: John Muddle, Team Lead, Data Science

Through a Q&A-style interview, you will hear from VIA team members about things like a typical day at the office and favorite foods.


What does a typical day at VIA look like for you?

My typical workday starts with a coffee, from either one of the local third-wave coffee shops or the machine at work. Once I’m settled, I look at my calendar and plan my day, this can be anything from looking at notes from a previous meeting to making sure I’ve booked a room. When that’s complete, I look for something I can quickly finish before Scrum of Scrums or continue with the task from the day before.

Each day at 10:30, I attend Scrum of Scrums. As a technical lead, I need to know how my epic is progressing, so typically, I will check in with my colleagues before the meeting for any updates and check that the JIRA board reflects our current progress. Typically, there are a few meetings to take a deeper dive on topics raised at Scrum of Scrums. These are a great way to make sure that we are aligned across our epics and to share knowledge. 

Having conditioned myself over many years that 12 o’clock means lunchtime, I take a break at 12 to either buy lunch or heat up some leftovers. Lunch is a great opportunity to socialize with my colleagues on different epics and to give my brain some time to process in the background. Conversations range from the latest computer game, movies, and hockey, but mostly food. 

After lunch, my afternoons consist of meetings, customer calls, and development time. My time tends to be split into hour-long chunks which I’ve planned out in the morning. A lot of my work revolves around supporting my colleagues by answering questions, problem-solving, and pair-programming. One of the favourite ways to tackle a problem is to jump into a spare room and rubber duck the problem. Basically, by describing a problem to a rubber duck, you verbalise the issues you are facing and through this process, you tend to have a better understanding of your problem. Luckily, VIA has hired people rather than rubber ducks, so in fact, you can also get feedback, questions, and suggestions from your colleagues. 

At the end of the day, which is typically signaled by the sending of GIFs on Slack that it’s home time, I make sure to leave my work in a state that allows me to continue the next day.

What’s something you have worked on at VIA that you are most proud of?

At VIA, I have had the opportunity to work on many different projects. I’m proud of every single one of them, but if I have to choose one, then I am most proud of the GDAC™ Transformers project. The reason I have chosen this project is because it is the first application built on top of TAC™. I’m proud to have helped develop TAC™, but it’s even better to use it for the benefit of our partners. The partnership aspect is another element that makes me proud to have worked on GDAC™ Transformers. I have worked closely with our partners for almost a year and to see how far we’ve come together is fantastic. Having had the opportunity to meet our partners in person, I was able to see how the work we have done together will benefit them going forward.

What’s your favorite VIA memory?

VIA is a great place to work, I have so many memories from my time here. One that stands out to me, in particular, was “Game Night”. Each offsite (a company-wide in-person event where we talk about wins, solve project challenges, and plan for the next big thing) typically has an activity where we have a chance to socialize such as bowling, mini-golf, and a scavenger hunt. But, nothing quite beats seeing your own office converted, in-secret, to the ultimate “Game Night” experience to the point where it is almost unrecognizable and something I will never forget.

If you were given an extra hour in your day, what would you spend it doing?

One thing I say to myself quite often is “If only I had more time”, but what would I do with that extra time. If I had an extra hour in my day, I would like to improve my French. Montreal is a fantastic bilingual city and very little French is actually necessary, but to really appreciate its culture and to get the full Quebecois experience a good handle on French is essential.

What’s your go-to food?

My go-to food has to be a sandwich, you can’t beat the convenience, variety, and taste of a good sandwich. In particular, I’m a big fan of a bacon butty, which, for those of you who are unfamiliar, is a very basic sandwich with bacon and butter filling. Bacon buttys tend to be eaten in the morning at home or out and about. They are an excellent way to start the day if camping, at a sports event, or just a day of gardening.

What’s something everyone may not, but should know about working at VIA?

If you have the pleasure of working at VIA then you should know that using GIFs in presentations and on Slack is encouraged. Communicating context and meaning using just text can be difficult at times, but GIFs can add so much more. A strong GIF game is essential to signal it’s time to go home, go to the pub, play badminton, get bread, or celebrate the latest prize that VIA has won.

 

 

The End of Pilot Purgatory

We’re excited to have Andrew Bright, former ABB executive and VIA’s newest advisor, contribute to our blog. Read on to hear his commentary on one of VIA’s latest products, GDAC™ Transformers: 30-Minute Pilot.


Many industrial digitalization projects suffer from “Pilot Purgatory.” The pilots seemingly take forever and never end because no one can decide if they are a success or a failure. Since the term Pilot Purgatory was first coined a few years ago, much has been written about how to avoid it. However, the vast majority of this advice seems to involve throwing more resources, money and scale at the pilot, until well it no longer looks like a pilot but a full-scale roll-out. The logic is clear if the monthly cost of a pilot project is high enough – no one can afford to let the pilot continue indefinitely. How refreshing then, that VIA has come up with a radically different and frankly opposing approach for avoiding Pilot Purgatory. 

Their new GDAC™ Transformers: 30-Minute Pilot takes just 30 minutes, and most of this time is allocated to data gathering. If this were a recipe, you would be allowed up to 27 minutes to source the ingredients and just 3 minutes to do the cooking. Resources, time and money are all minimized. After 30 minutes VIA hopes to have delivered a valuable summary of the health of one of your transformers. If this has proved insightful, the pilot has been a success, if not then GDAC™ may not be for you. Either way, the pilot will have been concluded.

With their 30-Minute Pilot, VIA aims to demonstrate three specific concepts:

  1. show valuable insights about the health of one transformer and that the math really works;
  2. show that valuable analysis can be conducted whilst keeping data private and confidential; and
  3. provide an educational component about how VIA does what it does. VIA does more than provide recommendations, it also explains why & how a particular recommendation was made.

All three of these components are embedded in the 30-Minute Pilot. If you are interested in performing a full fleet analysis going back say 20 years, that’s more of a project and not the goal of this pilot. VIA’s 30-Minute Pilot is true to the spirit and literal about the term “proof-of-concept.” This seems to be an industry first and given the simplicity and radical reduction in resources, I hope that it becomes an industry standard approach.

VIA note:

If you are interested in learning more about VIA’s GDAC™ Transformers: 30-Minute Pilot and perhaps want to give it a try, feel free to contact us.

 

 

Meet the Team: Antoine Dozois, Software Developer

We’re thrilled to launch a new blog series at VIA called “Meet the Team.” Through a Q&A-style interview, you will hear from VIA team members about things like a typical day at the office and favorite foods.


What does a typical day at VIA look like for you?

Like most startups, we are working on lots of exciting projects. Here are some of the challenges that I’m involved in on a daily basis.

  1. Infrastructure: This means having the right data storage and resources through AWS necessary for our workloads. This is in constant evolution because every new project or project phase has different needs. So, we always look for improvements ranging from storage capacity and ease of use to performance and access management.
  2. Data (management, cleaning, processing): To deliver the best AI solution, data needs to be widely available, in the proper format, with good workflow, and overall managed well. This part of the work is more around trying to structure the workflow and the processes involved in the team’s recurrent tasks. We also need to understand the data to manipulate it and find insights that are most relevant for our customers and internal teams.
  3. Building software to empower the team: Software can be built to access data, compute some metrics, build a machine learning model, or display some insight. We build libraries to help us automate and optimize our workflow. Overall, we are always trying to create efficiencies internally through streamlining and automating recurring tasks.
  4. Collaborating with the team: This relates to reviewing code, meeting to organize our work, and helping each other when needed.

What’s something you have worked on at VIA that you are most proud of?

It is hard to pick just one piece of work that I am the most proud of since we are tackling lots of exciting new projects and challenges. But, in the first months of being at VIA, I wrote code to help us better ingest and manage data. It was the first time that I was put in charge of developing some code to solve a problem and make tasks more efficient for the team. We still use part of the code today and are continuously improving it. I think it was a real issue and being able to solve that problem was really rewarding.

What’s your favorite VIA memory?

My first offsite was really special for me, it was the first time I saw the whole team in-person and was able to learn more about every member of the team. It was also really nice to learn about the next challenges we were going to take on as a company.

If you were given an extra hour in your day, what would you spend it doing?

I like to learn, so anything from reading, learning a new skill, watching a documentary, or building something new would be mostly what I would use that hour for.

What’s your go-to food?

As a proud Montrealer (born and raised) I must go with Poutine (from La Banquise for the best in Montreal). I wouldn’t eat it every day because it is not the healthiest food, but I never say no to Poutine when proposed to me.

What’s something everyone may not, but should know about working at VIA?

The different backgrounds and diversity of every person in the company makes it a unique and fun workplace.

 

 

Let’s TAC™ About It: Multiple AI Specialists

In this blog series, we will cover the many capabilities and benefits of VIA’s Trusted Analytics Chain™ (TAC™). So, are you ready to TAC™ about it?

Big data and artificial intelligence, once the exclusive domain of internet giants like Google and Facebook, are no longer a luxury in today’s competitive business environment. It’s estimated that 67% of large companies will have AI initiatives in place by 2021. Based on this percentage, it’s clear that c-suite executives agree that big data and AI are critical to long-term prosperity of their business. 

The first step in any data initiative is to produce and collect massive amounts of data. Once the data fire hose is turned on, many organizations struggle to recruit and develop the data science talent they need to analyze this data and deliver actionable insights. A large ecosystem of big data companies, AI specialist companies, and tools have emerged to solve this data glut and talent shortage. However, there are very real security and privacy risks to consider for the firms that work with external AI companies. Managing and coordinating with AI companies is also costly and time consuming. These barriers can limit the amount of insights a company can gain from the data it has collected.

TAC™ substantially reduces the time, cost, and security and privacy risks of working with AI specialists. TAC™ does this by leaving data where it is instead bringing verified code to the data’s location, so that the analysis can be performed. TAC™ gives companies the power to decide which analyst can access specific datasets. By streamlining data access provisionment, companies can even grant multiple AI specialists access to the same dataset and leverage the wisdom of the crowd to select the best solution for their particular challenge. 

VIA is working with large utility companies across the globe to help them gain access to the AI specialists that can harness massive datasets collected by utilities to transition to a cleaner, safer, and greener energy industry.

Thank you, 2019. Now, let’s do this 2020!

As we kick off 2020, we can’t help but think of all the moments from 2019 that contributed to what we think will be the biggest year yet for VIA.

Near and Far, Our Team Represented VIA
In 2019, our team traveled the globe to help spread VIA’s message. Our CEO, Colin Gounden and Senior Vice President, Joe Babiec, gave presentations at European Utility Week in Paris, Swiss-US Energy Innovation Days in Austin, TX, various Plug and Play summits, EDP Starter Acceleration Program in Houston, TX, and EPRI Venture Day in Chicago, to name a few. Kate Ravanis, our Chief Operating Officer, also spoke at the Greentech Media Blockchain in Energy Forum in New York City.

In addition, we were proud to sponsor, speak, and participate in several events across Montreal including Women in Physics Canada, McGill Physics Hackathon, and Montreal AI Symposium. We opened our doors for Startup Open House Montreal and hosted our own VIA Open House Party (featured below).

Fresh Off the Press
We wrapped up 2019 with six press mentions, two “Top” lists, and two technical blogs written by our team members. To take a trip down memory lane, check out press mentions here: BitcoinExchangeGuide.comAxios (and follow-up article) GreenBizDisruptor Daily, and Utility Dive; “top” lists here: Top 5 Big Data & Machine Learning Startups in Energy and The 10 Coolest Blockchain Startups of 2019 (So Far); and finally, our technical blogs: The Importance of Unit Testing and Understanding How EV Charging Behavior Affects Distribution Networks.

Our VIA Community Continued to Grow
Internally, we hosted two In-Person All Hands events in Montreal (featured below) where our team brainstormed big ideas for 2020. We held our first annual VIA Spirit Week where each office celebrated what it means to be part of the VIA team. Lastly, we created two videos on what it’s like to join VIA: The VIA Team and Applicant Journey.

The VIA community includes more than just our internal team members. This year, we launched our GDAC™ program and welcomed founding members Hawaiian Electric and Vector to the VIA community. In addition, we were pleased to share that the Westly Group led an investment round in VIA.

Our hats are off to you, 2019. Let’s do this 2020!

Understanding How EV Charging Behavior Affects Distribution Networks

The International Energy Agency projects that 30% of all vehicles will be electric vehicles (EV) by 2030. This transition, at the intersection of electric power and mobility, combined with increased generation from renewable resources has the potential to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the years ahead. To make this happen, utilities who operate the distribution network need to understand how this new demand for electricity will affect smart grid assets. Our primary job at VIA is to help utilities navigate these shifts by understanding their data and fostering collaboration through our Global Data Asset Collaborative™ (GDAC™) program. As an example, VIA recently kicked off our first GDAC™ by focusing on transformers. Through this GDAC™, we are beginning to see that transformers are stressed by the switch to EVs and our focus will be on helping utilities find ways to keep these assets healthy over the coming years.

There are at least two things that make charging an EV different than, say, running a central AC unit. First, the power that needs to be delivered to an EV is around 20kW, which is four or five times the power required for a typical central AC unit, which ranges from 3-5kW. A “short-range” charge to power the EV so that its owner can commute could require around 40kWh, thus a “slow-charge” for a “short-range” car requires about two hours of charging. Powering large fleets of EVs will clearly require extending the capacity of current electricity distribution networks. 

The second issue that makes charging an EV different is timing. The timing of EV charging events changes the daily load profile of the home, workplace, and in urban centers equipped with networks of charging stations. Transformers are generally able to run past their rated capacity so long as they are given ample time to cool overnight. That is changing as commuters return home after work to charge their vehicles, never allowing transformers that time to cool down, which can cause them to malfunction and in extreme cases, explode. EV charging events, because they demand so much power so quickly from the grid, can lead to shifts in voltages along the distribution network. This leads to wear and tear on tap changers and other voltage regulation mechanisms. 

Utility asset managers need to understand which transformers in their fleet are most at risk as EV penetration increases. A recent study by researchers at Ohio State University illustrates what needs to be done to understand the effects EVs have on transformers and voltage regulators (“An Integrated Algorithm for Evaluating Plug-in Electric Vehicle’s Impact of the State of Power Grid Assets”). The authors have studied a representative sample of urban, suburban, and rural areas and tried to answer the question “What would happen to the distribution grid if each home had an EV?” To understand both the total load and the rapid charging behavior, the authors used actual distribution grid topology provided by American Electric Power (AEP) and simulated the behavior of the system as EV charging events are inserted into today’s “baseline” load demand. The authors find that suburban areas are expected to see the greatest stress, as it is assumed that, in urban areas, additional power will be provisioned by specific “fast-charging” stations while the suburban dwellers load will stress the transformers that serve their primary residences. In rural areas, the lower population density typically means that the transformers are not as heavily loaded as in a suburban area. Some authors predict long-term changes in mobility patterns that will increase the number of rideshare services (i.e., Uber). Rideshare cars are typically required to drive all day and would require longer charge times. This corresponds to the most aggressive scenario studied by the authors, in which case they expect insulator degradation to occur after just one year. The results illustrate the socio-technical complexities of planning the future smart grid and the need for detailed studies on how people are expected to use their vehicles.

Author’s Note

As a highly-trained problem solver with deep scientific and computing expertise, I’m always hungry for tough problems to solve. There’s no doubt that integrating EVs into the smart grid is a tough problem. More importantly, it is a high-impact socio-technical problem that we as a society need to solve to transition to a greener future. Working together with the world’s largest utilities, VIA is in a position to help solve these problems, a privilege I am grateful for every day I go to work. At VIA, we have a company value, “Love in=Love out” which means that if you love what you are doing, you will do great work. I expect we will do great work in this area, and help our customers navigate the challenges of the EV revolution.

The Importance of Unit Testing

In March, VIA’s Ashley DaSilva, Team Leader, Product Development, was invited to lead a workshop on unit testing for McGill’s Computer Science Graduate Society. The workshop was part of their seminar series: CS Tools and Tricks, which introduces graduate students to topics they may not otherwise explore in depth in their academic programs. Ashley discussed the critical importance of software testing, why developers should embrace unit testing, and when and how to use mocking. She shares her experience with unit testing and a recap of her workshop below.

Learning Never Goes Out of Style

I first learned the importance of software testing in the early days of my theoretical physics Phd program. Back then, most of my coding was limited to scripting. I wrote scripts to model physical systems, analyze data, and visualize results. Over time, I started writing modules to be reused by myself or my colleagues for different projects. The first time I attempted to refactor one of these modules, it broke in unexpected ways, and I spent days tracking down and resolving all the issues.

I’ve grown significantly as a developer since those days, and now lead a product development team at VIA, focused specifically on the Trusted Analytics Chain™ (TAC™). Every day, my team and I build, test, and deploy Docker containers with microservices. This includes Airflow and RabbitMQ for scheduling tasks, Redis as a cache storage, and BigchainDB to host a blockchain. Software testing is critical to each stage of product development, and something we constantly work to improve.

Unit testing is the foundation of VIA’s software testing process, and an essential skill for all of our developers. For example, TAC™ contains several components that all need to communicate with each other. We maintain a list of python scripts that are authorized to run on the system. Components of TAC™ must download this list to verify the checksum of the scripts. If we did not use mocking for the content of the list in the unit tests of these verification functions, then every time the list was updated, the tests would all have to be updated to account for the change. With mocking, we are free to update the list of scripts without affecting the status of the unit tests.

Ready, Set, Resilience!

Clean Architectures in Python by Leonardo Giordani is a great resource for learning more about unit testing and test-driven development. During my workshop at McGill, I presented examples of unit testing and mocking and shared a few exercises for the students to practice on their own. Some of these exercises came from the github repository associated with Giordani’s book. I’ve included some other examples below:

First, let’s look at a snippet of code. The code below shows a DataAnalyzer class. It has a method, get_data, which is a placeholder for however one would want to retrieve the data from an external resource (e.g., a database or an http request). It also has a method,
analyze_data which performs the sum of the items in a list:

class DataAnalyzer:
   def get_data(self):
      # Gets data from an external resource
      pass
      def analyze_data(self):
         data = self.get_data()
         result = sum(data)
         return result

The code below shows one example of a unit test that uses mocking of the get_data method:

from unittest import mock
from calc.analyzer import DataAnalyzer
def test_analyzer():
   analyzer = DataAnalyzer()
   with mock.patch("calc.analyzer.DataAnalyzer.get_data", return_value=[1.0, 2.1, 3.5]):
      result = analyzer.analyze_data()
   assert result == 6.6

In this example, the unittest.mock.patch will be applied to the method specified as its first argument and return the assigned return value every time that method is called from inside the scope of the patch. A sample list is assigned to the return value of the patch of the get_data method. This list should have the same format as the expected output of the get_data method, which in this case is a list of floating point numbers. Finally, the result of the analyze_data method is checked that it matches the expected value.

Mocking can also be used to check how you handle exceptions:

import pytest
from unittest import mock
from calc.analyzer import DataAnalyzer
def test_analyzer_connection_error():
   analyzer = DataAnalyzer()
   with mock.patch("calc.analyzer.DataAnalyzer.get_data", side_effect=ConnectionError("Could not connect.")):
      with pytest.raises(ConnectionError):
         analyzer.analyze_data()

In this example, instead of specifying a return value, there is a side effect. When the specified method is called, the side effect will be executed. In this case, a ConnectionError is raised by the get_data method. Using a side effect is particularly applicable when you have logic in your code that catches and recovers from errors.

Stay Curious

I enjoyed leading a thoughtful discussion on unit testing, and fielded some great questions from the students. One that stood out to me was:

“How can developers make sure that their mocks don’t get out of date?”

This is a really important and sometimes tricky topic! At VIA, we know that unit testing is only the first step of software testing. We also use other types of tests, like integration tests or end-to-end tests help identify problems in mocking before our software reaches users. And isolating and resolving problems at that stage is key to setting ourselves up for a successful integration. 

Mocking allows the freedom to isolate one particular part of your code and focus your unit tests on that functionality. Ideally, the expected inputs and outputs of the component being mocked are not going to change. This is typically true for external modules that you will use, at least within a particular major release of the software. However, if you know a software update will cause a change to your internal code base, it is your responsibility to recognize and communicate how that will affect your teammates. That’s why VIA believes that, in addition to testing, strong team communication and values like Learning Never Goes out of Style, Ready, Set, Resilience!, and Stay Curious are what help us develop and deliver the best iterations of our software to our users. 

The 5 Game Changers that Made 2018 VIA’s Year

Trusted Analytics Chain™ (TAC™)
In 2018, VIA’s Trusted Analytics Chain™ (TAC™) moved from early development stages to first pilots and now, is ready for an official launch in Q1 2019. Along the way, we were invited to speak about TAC™ at events across three continents, including the 9th Asian Leadership Conference in Seoul, Iberdrola’s Innoday in Madrid, and Greentech Media’s Blockchain in Energy Forum in San Francisco.

We were honored to accept the MITX Best Technology Innovation Concept award, which recognized TAC™’s potential to transform the energy industry. In addition, we demonstrated TAC™’s capabilities during our first ever webinar this past fall.

CEO Colin Gounden ALC

VIA TAC MITX Award

VIA Greentech Media

 

 

 

 

 

 

Team Growth and Development
VIA nearly doubled in size this year with the addition of 10 new team members in both our Somerville and Montreal offices. And, we are actively recruiting for the following positions to be based out of the Montreal office: Front-End Developer, User Interface and Experience Designer, Software Developer, Software Engineer, and DevOps Specialist. Visit our Careers page for more information and to apply.

VIA Hiring

Press Features
VIA enjoyed a record number of press features this year, highlighting both our technology and the team behind the tech. In January, CEO Colin Gounden was interviewed for Inc. Magazine to discuss VIA’s approach to building its team.

Additional media outlets include: com! Professional Magazine, FutureTech podcast, Digitex Futures, and Clean Energy Finance Forum. For links to these features, visit our Press page.

VIA Inc. Magazine

 

 

Brand Refresh
In March, VIA debuted its new name, logo, and website, as part of a brand refresh. We also introduced “Solve with VIA” as an anchor to our brand, one developed through brainstorming with the entire VIA team and consulting with our most trusted partners. The idea that clients “Solve with VIA” was an ever-present theme through these creative sessions, and ultimately inspired VIA’s newly designed logo. The logo visually represents the journey VIA takes with its clients from identifying a problem to finding a solution.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Partnerships
We are so grateful to our partners that have helped support our progress and made our success possible. And, today we are proud to announce our newest partner, KWHCoin. Through our partnership, KWHCoin will use VIA’s Trusted Analytics Chain™ (TAC™) to securely and anonymously analyze consumer behavior from smart meter data in order to help its utility partners better incentivize their customers to use renewable sources and clean energy. Earlier this year, we also began working with BigchainDB, leveraging their database to make TAC™ a consortium blockchain.

We were accepted to Accelerace, one of Europe’s top-seed accelerators, as part of their Cleantech program. Accelerace will help us establish a corporate presence in Denmark, make introductions to leading European utilities, and gain mentorship from experienced Danish entrepreneurs, cleantech executives, and industry experts.

Additionally, we were accepted to NVIDIA’s Inception program, which is designed to nurture startups revolutionizing industries with advancements in AI and data science.

VIA Accelerace

VIA Spotlight: Girard Newkirk, Founder and CEO of KWHCoin

Girard Newkirk, Founder and CEO of KWHCoin, spoke with VIA about his journey from retail executive to founder of a decentralized virtual global power company. KWHCoin aims to deliver reliable, clean, renewable energy access for disadvantaged and underserved communities across the globe using blockchain technology and smart contracts.

Tell us about yourself.

I was born and raised in Pender County, North Carolina and attended East Carolina University, where I studied Political Science and Finance. I have two beautiful children: a six-year-old son and four-year-old daughter. My professional background is in retail, and most recently, I worked as a Vice President for Macy’s in the Silicon Valley District.

Prior to founding KWHCoin, you were a retail executive for over a decade. What inspired you to leave that industry and pursue building this platform for renewable energy resources?

I have always been interested in finance, energy, and building systems to provide access and social impact for the disadvantaged and underserved. But the real turning point for me was my daughter’s stroke. She had a stroke at birth and struggled to survive. This experience put into perspective the need to live a purposeful life. As she lay in the NICU, I promised her that I would work on something to make the world a better place for her and my son and so, here we are.

KWHCoin aims to “improve the lives of the 1.2 billion people across the globe without reliable energy access.” What are some of the key ways KWHCoin works to accomplish that mission?

As we began to travel to and interact with markets in Africa and the Caribbean, we quickly learned that the solution needed was more than just energy trading and a blockchain. We discovered we had to develop an entire ecosystem to support the needs and overcome current barriers that kept 500 million households without energy. So, we modified our original plan. Now we have become an energy solutions provider as well as a platform for sustainable infrastructure development.

You talk about the “Internet of Energy,” and how the internet can act as a digital rail to deliver clean, localized energy to members of the network. Tell us about your vision for the global impact of an Internet of Energy.

I think the energy generation and distribution systems of the very near future will be much smaller, localized, and driven by both demand response and the coordination of software for efficient delivery. We envision all distributed energy resources as being critical to grid reliance, so we decided to design our platform as a mechanism for distributed energy resources to collaborate and communicate in a transparent environment. This enables each energy resource to become its own energy company and this independence will flourish in the coming years.

VIA uses its blockchain-based Trusted Analytics Chain (TAC) to establish secure access to confidential and distributed energy data, making it available for AI initiatives like predictive maintenance. How do you see TAC, or similar applications, fitting into KWHCoin’s goal of establishing a decentralized virtual global power company?

I see TAC as being a critical component to the development of the Internet of Energy. Security and coordination are the hardest and most important elements to the success of decentralized energy development and TAC is a bridge to connect data, energy usage, mitigate security threats, and foster collaboration.

The United Nations’ scientific panel released a report in October describing a strong risk of climate crisis as early as 2040. How do you think KWHCoin’s work is helping to combat some of the contributing factors of climate change? What further action do you think needs to be taken to prevent some of the more severe consequences of climate change?

I think we immediately need to invest in sustainable infrastructure development and work together to build compensation models that will attract investment and reward the public for good behaviors that contribute to the deployment of more renewable energy sources.

We often describe blockchain now as the internet in the early 90’s: it’s difficult to imagine the impact it will have on everyday life. That being said, how do you think blockchain will influence the way we live in the next 5 – 10 years?

I think we will see an array of disintermediation. The public, if we execute distributed systems and technologies effectively, will benefit tremendously from lower cost and more security of their data.

Would you like to add anything else?

Thank you for this opportunity. We encourage everyone to check out KWHCoin and join us on our mission to electrify billions and build a more sustainable planet.

So, You’ve Updated Your Privacy Policy

If you’re like me, your inbox has been flooded since late April with emails announcing updates to privacy policies and terms of service. Consumer brands like Yelp and Etsy, social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram, and, it seems, everyone in between all sent emails. It’s no coincidence. The newly implemented General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) means any company operating in the European Union (EU) needs to update its existing privacy policies to comply with this legislation. And as it turns out, that’s quite a lot of companies.

While it was specifically passed in the EU, GDPR has far-reaching implications for companies around the world. The policy addresses consumers’ growing need for transparency and privacy, which, at first glance, seem to be competing interests. But WIRED offers this helpful explanation: GDPR “gives people the right to ask companies how their personal data is collected”, stored, and being used, and to “request that personal data be deleted. It also requires that companies […] get your consent before collecting it.”

Consumers’ growing need for greater data privacy, security, and anonymity, as well as transparency from companies that collect data, extends to the energy industry. Smart meters are a great example of this: EU Member States “have committed to rolling out close to 200 million smart meters for electricity and 45 million for gas by 2020″, at which time it is “expected that almost 72% of European consumers will have a smart meter for electricity while 40% will have one for gas.”

In theory, utilities could leverage the massive volume of consumer data collected by these meters for AI initiatives that seek to improve predictive maintenance and energy efficiency. However, utilities don’t own this data, consumers do. And the EU wants to safeguard it. So, how can utilities balance consumers’ rights to data privacy, security, and anonymity, while leveraging this wealth of new information to improve service reliability and efficiency?

At VIA, we are enhancing our Trusted Analytics Chain (TAC) platform to address this challenge. TAC Permissions is a new feature that allows energy companies’ customers to determine who has access to their personal data and how it is used. Permissions are stored in TAC’s blockchain, making them immutable and auditable by consumers, corporate compliance departments, and government agencies. VIA’s solution helps to alleviate the tension between:

  • Customers’ needs to protect their data
  • Energy companies’ and algorithm providers’ needs to access data to develop and implement valuable services such as improved energy efficiency and reliability.

Smart meters are just one example of the many digitalization technologies that energy companies are using to transform their operations. The industry as a whole is more data-dependent than ever before. In parallel, consumers are more aware than ever of the consequences associated with misuse of their personal data. Legislation like GDPR requires companies to know and comply with customers’ preferences about using personal data. VIA is proud to offer TAC Permissions as a solution for ensuring that customers’ wishes are respected while AI initiatives yield new ways to improve service and efficiency.

Six Values in Six Months: A Co-op Reflects

My name is Meg Foley. I have worked as the marketing execution co-op at VIA’s Davis Square headquarters since January. And this is the story of how that became the most rewarding experience of my life (so far!).

That’s me!

In my two years at Northeastern University, I have already made major progress towards some of my life goals, like traveling the world, earning a college degree, and getting real-life work experience (and I still have three more years to go!). I studied abroad in Dublin my first semester, went to classes in Boston for the next two semesters, and worked at a startup in Davis Square for the past six months.

These experiences have all made me who I am today and my time at VIA is no exception. I gained essential professional experience, and each lesson stemmed from VIA’s company values.

Respect a good challenge and challenge with respect

We believe in facing challenges head-on with passion and excitement. We’ve created an environment where team members feel psychologically safe to raise alternative ideas and share their personal concerns, helping us reach better outcomes in the end.

The team loves to step out for ice cream on a hot day! And after a particularly warm day in February, J.P. Licks even featured one of our ice cream photos on their social media.

As the marketing execution co-op, one of my primary responsibilities was maintaining our Zoho CRM (a database that helps us manage all our relationships with our ever-expanding network). But more than just maintain this system, I made it my mission to make it even more efficient and effective. One component of that meant making data reports, like our sales pipeline, more visually appealing. To do this, I worked closely with VIA COO, Kate Ravanis, to hash out the goals and strategy for how this would work.

For me, the biggest challenge was putting my Excel knowledge to work and being patient with changing formats and preferences. Through many versions and rounds of feedback with VIA’s executive team, I eventually found a way to incorporate everyone’s input and all the essential details. Now that visual report is a part of the team’s biweekly demo, and this challenging project led to a new staple piece of internal communications!

Learning never goes out of style

Learning is all about feedback and trying new things. Each person, at every position in the company, has frequent feedback sessions with their manager to set goals and priorities, reflect on accomplishments, and discuss areas for improvement and additional support.

Somerville team at our brand launch (this was a huge deal to be a part of)

One of my friends, who is also on a co-op at another organization, was shocked to hear how often I speak with my supervisor on the marketing team. “I wish I could get any feedback at all!” he said. I was proud to have such an open line of communication, which has been so important and useful for my personal growth.

This open communication also meant I was able to speak up about projects I wanted to pursue, like becoming the VIA Culture Coordinator, and skills I wanted to develop, like written communication, so I was really able to shape my role at VIA to better fit me. With each new responsibility I took on, I created a comprehensive process guide so future co-ops can continue building on projects I started, like our new Instagram account. I hope these guides allow for many future smooth transitions from one co-op to another, and that it’s one way I can continue contributing to VIA’s learning-focused environment.

Be each other’s biggest fan

Everyone deserves a high five once in a while! The more we support each other, the more we encourage wide ranging contributions from diverse backgrounds to solve problems.

The marketing team treated me to a fun brunch on my birthday.

Every person on the team is recognized and celebrated for any number of reasons: professional accomplishments, personal victories, or even birthdays.

In fact, on my birthday I was taken to a lovely brunch by my marketing team. This is a fond memory I’ll treasure forever. Celebrating the individual, like we did on my birthday, is central to VIA’s culture. As the Culture Coordinator, I was proud to be a part of creating even more structure around what we celebrate and how, like birthdays (of course), work anniversaries, and fun holidays like Pi Day and Star Wars Day.

Ready, set, RESILIENCE!

We are solving problems that others have considered unsolvable. Difficult problems require patience and grit. Individuals require resilience to approach a major challenge and overcome all the smaller challenges along the way.

During my co-op, VIA achieved a lot of exciting milestones. One that stands out in particular was winning the MITX Best Technology Innovation Concept Award. We were thrilled to learn we were finalists, but in order to qualify for the next round of review, someone from VIA would need to present a demo of our blockchain-based Trusted Analytics Chain (TAC).

Due to the very busy travel schedules of our client and business development teams, the only person available on the night of the demo was a member of our marketing team. She needed to learn (in just one weekend) the inner workings of TAC and how to demo it, and prepare for any number of questions that might come up with the judges (I was happy to help her prepare by asking the most challenging questions I could think of, and many of those were actually asked on the night of!). Without her determination and ability to deal with high stakes situations, traits that come naturally to everyone on the VIA team, this feat couldn’t have been accomplished.

Love in = Love out

We believe that if you love what you do, it will show in the quality and productivity of your work. Twice a year we get together for a company-wide offsite where team members’ contributions are recognized and new ideas are discussed.

The team has grown from then to now, we have 20 employees as of June 2018.

We had an amazing company offsite this April. This experience was one of the times I felt most immersed in VIA’s love in=love out culture. For example, during the offsite we had an ongoing activity: a fun fact scavenger hunt. Everyone received a list of fun facts with blank spaces next to them, and our goal was to match the anonymous fun fact to the right person. You would not believe how much we committed to this scavenger hunt! I had so much fun getting to know everyone on the team through this activity, while enjoying some friendly competition (people even formed alliances to pool their answers!). It just goes to show that when people really love what they do, it shows, even in small moments of downtime during an all company meeting.

Stay curious

Technology today is moving at a super fast pace. Curious people who constantly explore new approaches and think outside the box help find the best possible solutions.

Some of the marketing team at a recruiting event at Northeastern.

AI and blockchain technology are two of the hottest buzzwords in the tech world (and beyond) right now. But, explaining what they mean exactly is not so simple. The marketing team stays curious about how we can better make writing about what we do more accessible, and our CEO Colin Gounden does a great job of sharing creative anecdotes and analogies to help us.

One example of that is his Van Halen story: the band’s 1982 world tour contract explicitly stated there shouldn’t be any brown M&Ms backstage. Colin explains how this seemingly bizarre request actually illustrates how Ethereum’s smart contracting functionality works. People’s eyes light up every time he explains this (a real A-ha! moment). Marketing was even able to use this to write one of our latest blogs: “Rock Science: How Van Halen Invented Smart Contracts”.

Goodbye and thank you!

That’s my team (on St.Patrick’s Day) rocking green.

I will miss VIA. It was an adventure, one I couldn’t have trekked without the team here in Somerville (shout out to Marketing!). It must seem cliché at this point, but there is not a single thing I would change about my co-op. Being at a company that cares about the individual as much as the company is rare, and I think the strong set of values is to thank for that.

Rock Science: How Van Halen Invented Smart Contracts

Since their debut in the late 1970s, Van Halen has become one of the best-selling bands of all time, selling over 56 million albums in the US alone. Their music defined a genre (and a generation), and inspired countless musicians to follow in their footsteps. But, their impact reaches much further than the music world. In fact, you could argue Van Halen’s reach extends even into the blockchain boom we’re seeing today. How so? Well, Van Halen sort of invented the smart contract. Let me explain.

By Colin Gounden

You may be familiar with one particular bit of lore from Van Halen’s long and storied career: the band’s brown M&M clause. In their 1982 world tour contract rider, which clocked in at an impressive 53 pages, Van Halen specified that in the bowl of M&Ms in their dressing room, there should be “ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES.” Now, the rider also demands herring in sour cream and four cases of Schlitz Malt Liquor beer, so it’s easy to chalk up all this to diva-like antics. However, in his autobiography Crazy from the Heat, former frontman David Lee Roth shares insight into the genius behind this oddly specific request:

“Van Halen was the first band to take huge productions into tertiary, third-level markets. We’d pull up with nine eighteen-wheeler trucks, full of gear, where the standard was three trucks, max. And there were many, many technical errors — whether it was the girders couldn’t support the weight, or the flooring would sink in, or the doors weren’t big enough to move the gear through.”

Roth goes on to explain that because their equipment needed to be handled with such specific care in order to ensure the safety of band and audience members alike:

“[…] as a little test, in the technical aspect of the rider, it would say “Article 148: There will be fifteen amperage voltage sockets at twenty-foot spaces, evenly, providing nineteen amperes . . .” This kind of thing. And article number 126, in the middle of nowhere, was: “There will be no brown M&M’s in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation.” So, when I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl . . . well, line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error. They didn’t read the contract. Guaranteed you’d run into a problem. Sometimes it would threaten to just destroy the whole show. Something like, literally, life-threatening.”

Not divas at all, Van Halen used this M&M clause as a way to test that their equipment, their band members, and their audience were safe. And their if/then logic (if there are brown M&Ms in the bowl, then the contract wasn’t read carefully) is similar to how the smart contracting functionality of blockchain platform Ethereum works as well.

Similar to traditional contracts, Ethereum smart contracts set specific rules around how users can interact with each other and exchange items of value (e.g., money, information, or property, like band equipment). What makes smart contracts different than their traditional counterparts is their ability to code these rules into a secure blockchain and automatically enforce them. So, transactions on Ethereum can only happen if the specific parameters within the smart contract are met. For example, if Van Halen’s contract rider existed on Ethereum, the band could rest assured knowing that their equipment had only been handled by those who had followed the exact parameters of their contract.

Let’s face it: we’re not all rockstars like Van Halen and blockchain isn’t exactly a consumer technology (at least, not yet), so who does smart contracting benefit? Well, for starters: high-stakes industries like energy that historically haven’t been able to implement AI initiatives because of data security concerns. AI needs lots of data to make predictions, so for companies with highly confidential data, like utilities, lack of secure access to data has been a major blocker for AI. Smart contracting has the potential to spark a massive AI revolution in the industry, and that’s a really big deal.

Let’s say Utility A wants to predict when their transformers might fail. To do this, they would need to provide AI Solution Provider B with data like the exact latitude and longitude of every transformer they operate. This kind of information is incredibly sensitive (and oftentimes, a matter of national security), so without a secure way to share it, utilities could not provide the data necessary for a solution provider to build a customized AI algorithm. However, Ethereum could provide a platform for blockchain-based applications that set specific restrictions around how data can be accessed. In that case, Utility A could set the rule: AI Solution Provider B can access Data C for Purpose D, thus protecting their data from malicious actors or requests.

The potential impact of AI in energy is extraordinary. From predictive maintenance to resiliency planning to grid modernization, AI can improve the reliability and efficiency of operations and service of utilities across the world. And while adopting new technology like blockchain can be daunting for any industry, think of Van Halen’s question from one of their most recent hits: When was the last time you did something for the first time?

VIA Reflects on its Largest Company Offsite Ever

In April, VIA brought its Somerville and Montreal teams together for our first company offsite of 2018 and our largest one ever (with 16 team members!). Offsites are essential to our company culture: they offer an uninterrupted time of sharing team wins, solving project challenges, and planning for the next big thing.

By VIA Careers

Once the Somerville team arrived at our Montreal office, we launched into our “unconference” – a relatively new format for our offsites. We found that moving away from formal presentations and towards open, free-form discussions made the overall offsite experience even more productive and engaging for everyone.

It’s not entirely unstructured, however! Team members submit topics beforehand about what they want to discuss, like best practices for communication, how to identify the right professional development opportunities, and the future of blockchain in energy and beyond. We vote as a group to finalize the list of topics at the start of the offsite.

VIA company offsite      VIA company offsite

CEO Colin Gounden and COO Kate Ravanis kicked off the unconference with leading the vote on discussion topics and handing out gifts. This time, each team member got a copy of the original Winnie the Pooh, by A.A. Milne, with a personalized note from Colin. You may remember from our last offsite blogWinnie the Pooh is special source of inspiration for us.

VIA company offsite      VIA company offsite

The open discussion format inspires even more collaboration across the technical and commercial teams, inviting fresh perspectives and big picture thinking.

VIA company offsite      VIA company offsite 

After our discussion sessions, we hit the links for a friendly round of (glow in the dark!) mini golf: an impressive display of athleticism from all. No offsite would be complete without this time to step away from the day to day and connect with teammates outside of work.VIA company offsite

In the coming months, we’ll continue to grow our Somerville and Montreal teams. If you’re interested in joining the fun, check out our careers page for the latest opportunities.

3 Ways VIA Prioritizes the Team Behind the Tech

VIA is not your typical tech startup. From our unique application of AI and blockchain, to our belief that humans + AI solve problems better together than either alone, VIA has certainly carved out its own niche in a crowded field of solutions providers. But according to our team, what really sets us apart is our people-first mentality. In order for our technology and solutions to stay cutting edge, we need to continue building, cultivating, and supporting the team that got us where we are today.

By Kate Ravanis

1. Building a great team starts with recruiting great team players.

Our CEO Colin Gounden said it best in his recent interview with Inc. Magazine: “What we want are people who are smart and motivated, and who are good at solving problems. You can teach programming and data science, but not innate things like motivation and problem-solving and creativity.”

What we are really looking for are individuals willing to learn, evolve with our technology, and roll up their sleeves to do whatever comes their way.

2. Cultivating a great team requires an effective feedback process that facilitates a regular dialogue around individual’s desires and abilities.

We know that each person on our team has a unique set of strengths, areas of expertise, and career goals. And, we know these things are subject to change over time. At VIA, we rely on our feedback process to ensure we stay in tune with each person’s desires and abilities, which is the first step to ensuring they continue to feel motivated and productive.

One key component of our feedback process is frequency: we schedule bi-monthly reviews (instead of the more traditional annual review cycle) to provide consistent opportunities for self-reflection, goal evaluation, and constructive feedback. To borrow from Winnie the Pooh: frequent reviews are a chance to “stop bumping for a moment” and reflect on what’s working, what isn’t, and what we can change (and how) to become more effective.

3. Supporting a great team means balancing your team’s desires and abilities with the company’s needs. Our allocations team has a goal of matching the Desire, Need, and Ability (DNA) of people and the organization over time.
Understanding the DNA of our team is only one piece of the puzzle. The real value (for both the individuals and the company) comes from putting that information into action. At VIA, our allocations team uses this knowledge to make thoughtful decisions around project and talent management. We strive to balance what an individual wants with the tasks the company needs completed. This means making an effort to create opportunities for team members to learn new skills and tackle new challenges (and not just assign tasks within their current wheelhouse), which is essential to long-term satisfaction and team morale.