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Special Event: Keywell, Uptake

Entrepreneur Brad Keywell touts data-driven business as current reality

Uptake founder and CEO discusses data’s ability to boost the transportation sector as featured speaker for NUTC-hosted special event


Though we’ve yet to see the flying automobiles envisioned by the creators of “The Jetsons,” high tech has nevertheless invaded the transportation sector.
With smart technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) transforming transportation by air, road, sea, and rail, veteran entrepreneur Brad Keywell reminds that the potential to run a data-driven business exists in the present as well as the future.
“There are conditions now in transportation … that you can’t even envision what can be done,” Keywell said during a Nov. 7 program hosted by the Northwestern University Transportation Center (NUTC) on the University’s Evanston campus.
During the hour-long program moderated by Gregg Latterman, an adjunct lecturer of innovation and entrepreneurship at the Kellogg School of Management, Keywell, the co-founder of Groupon and venture capital firm Lightbank, discussed his entrepreneurial roots and interest in the transportation field, which he called one of the reasons “humanity exists.”
Venturing into transportation
Describing himself as “voraciously curious,” Keywell first entered the transportation game in 2005 with Echo Global Logistics, a provider of technology-enabled transportation and supply chain management services. Within four years, the transportation brokerage Keywell founded alongside colleague Eric Lefkofsky had matured into a $220 million business.
“Echo began with a question: why is nobody in the transportation space collecting every ounce of noise?” Keywell told an audience that included Northwestern students and faculty as well as transportation industry professionals. “Our impetus from the beginning was to capture every piece of information possible, especially when it comes to understanding supply and demand in transportation.”
Echo’s success spurred Keywell and Lefkofsky to create another transportation concept combining insight with improved workflow.
In 2014, the longtime business partners launched Uptake, which merged data analytics and machine learning with deep industry knowledge to unlock the power of data for industrial sectors like aviation, rail, and construction.
Driven by the rising capabilities – and diminishing costs – of sensors, the cloud, and connectivity as well as advancements in data science and the ascent of predictive insight as competitive advantage, Uptake devoted some $500 million to the development of its software-as-a-service (SaaS) platform.
“Uptake became an obsession,” Keywell said of the venture.

Exciting prospects

Uptake also became an immediate hit, beating out more celebrated, headline-grabbing upstarts like Uber, Slack, and WeWork to top Forbes’ hottest startup list in 2015.
With an unrelenting focus on data integrity and its four core value propositions – improving uptime, productivity, safety, and cybersecurity – Uptake began securing customers and demonstrating its worth to partners. Powered by a constant stream of data from sensors, locomotive and fleet enterprises, for instance, leaned on Uptake’s data to understand precise maintenance needs, which improved safety, cost management, and productivity.
“So what they’re really buying [from us] is profitability,” Keywell said of Uptake’s client roster that today includes some of the globe’s biggest corporations.
And while Uptake demonstrates that the ability to run a data-driven business and make data-driven decisions exists in the present, Keywell is also excited about the possibilities ahead, particularly in transportation areas like brokerage and multimodal where there remains significant runway for improvement.
“Everything has to be optimized,” he said.

Driving the transportation sector forward

Keywell’s talk sat between a pair of NUTC events designed to increase knowledge sharing and collaboration within the dynamic transportation industry.
NUTC’s Fall 2018 Industry Technical Workshop preceded Keywell’s evening program on Nov. 7. During the workshop, executives from leading freight and supply chain management companies such as Coyote, Redstone Logistics, Uber Freight, and Echo as well as upstarts HubTran and Project44 discussed the current state of the freight industry, best practices for connecting customers to carriers, and improving the end-to-end user experience.

The following day, NUTC hosted its Fall 2018 Business Advisory Council meeting, which included sessions exploring the state of intermodal transportation, the promise and pitfalls of AI, and handling operations under duress. Companies such as Coyote, Uber Freight, Uptake, and Echo are all represented on the BAC, which helps the NUTC design research and educational programs that serve the ever-evolving transportation industry.

“There is never a dull moment in the transportation world, with each day bringing some announcement of a new technological milestone, major merger or acquisition, new service innovation, or potentially significant geopolitical event with implications for global trade,” NUTC director Hani Mahmassani said.

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