Alumnus-Founded Startup Secures $1.6M in Seed Funding
Fero Labs, a startup co-founded by former WiMNet Ph.D. student Dr. Berk Birand, recently raised $1.6M in seed funding from investors led by Mike Brown (CC’06), managing partner at Bowery Capital and Sinovation Ventures, which was founded by Kai-Fu Lee (CC’83).
Fero Labs focuses on bringing machine learning to the factory floor to optimize production, reduce waste, and improve product quality. As industrial IoT grows, automated assembly lines produce a continuous streamof data, but tools to analyze and act on the data are decades behind. Fero Labs’ statistical machine learning software provides factories with a virtual data scientist to predict quality errors and machine downtime. Customers include a steel mill, oil refinery, and auto factory.
Founded by Dr. Berk Birand (CEO) and Prof. Alp Kucukelbir (Chief Scientist), formerly a Postdoctoral Research Scientist in the Department of Computer Science and currently Adjunct Professor in Computer Science, Fero Labs is located in SoHo. Being here it is able to tap into Birand and Kucukelbir’s Columbia ties, the city’s growing computer & engineering talent, and New York’s relative proximity to Europe, a target market.
Here a conversation with Dr. Birand about Fero Labs and his time at EE:
What inspired the use of machine learning tools to be implemented into these, largely traditional and long established, assembly productions/manufacturing spaces? Where did you see the gap?
I got exposed to the Internet of Things (IoT) space during my Ph.D. at Columbia. My colleagues in Prof. Zussman’s group were doing research on developing wireless protocols for low-power sensor nodes. This was long before IoT became a buzzword in the tech world. The potential impact it would have was clear. Given that I’ve always had an inclination for entrepreneurship, I decided to pursue a startup in that space.
I initially started dabbling with the consumer side of IoT, but it soon became clear that the enterprise, and specifically the industrial angle was much more interesting and the use cases were much more impactful. As we visited factories, we realized that most of the mathematical methods and tools they were using, like SixSigma and Lean, were based on classical statistics. More importantly, most of the modern advances had not made their way on the factory floor. This phenomenon, combined with the continuously increasing availability of data in the sector, created a very large opportunity.
How did you time at Columbia prepare you for the role of CEO?
Most people think that doing a Ph.D. is about becoming an expert on a very narrow topic, and then spending the rest of your life working in that same space. In reality, the value of the Ph.D. is in becoming an expert on learning things very quickly and rigorously. This is why having done a PhD was hugely helpful in preparing me for the startup world. At Fero, we have to learn things very quickly, which is the exciting part of doing a startup. Everything changes from one week to another. As the CEO, I need to get up-to-speed on various topics, from the exciting aspects of statistical machine learning to the less exciting aspects of corporate governance and accounting.
Another important aspect of having done a Ph.D. is to gain the ability to communicate your research, and how it fits into the previous literature. This side is extremely important for having the ability to develop and sell a product. In our case, it also helps that most of the buyers we deal with are technical themselves. Before convincing them that they need our software, we have to convince ourselves.
What about your time in Prof. Gil Zussman’s lab do you believe has contributed to the success of Fero Labs securing funding?
The similarities of applying for VC funding and applying for academic grants are shocking. In both cases, one has to fundamentally understand the motivations for the reviewing party. What are the areas that are most likely to receive grants? There are invariably certain topics that are more in vogue, and it helps to position oneself accordingly. Similarly, it is valuable to understand the investment theses of each VCs, and how the company fits in. When raising VC money, one also needs to have a strong argument as to why the funds are needed, what are the necessary milestones, the future plans. These are all standard components of academic proposals, and I was very fortunate to have been involved in several such grants during my time with Prof. Zussman.
What’s next for Fero Labs?
We currently have many ongoing projects, across a few sectors of interest. We are continuously improving our machine learning models, and comparing them to the cutting-edge methods used in the industrial world. Now that we have verified our technology, our goal is to focus on expanding our sales network and establishing partnerships with industrial companies. We are also actively hiring!