Why one tech company is rejecting its state's push to reopen
Hypergiant CEO Ben Lamm has found a way to keep R&D operations strong while bucking Texas' reopening trend.
Hypergiant's founder and CEO Ben Lamm is used to innovating with satellites. COVID-19 presented him a new challenge: to get creative with satellite offices.
Texas is returning to business as usual, even in the face of what Gov. Greg Abbott said Monday was an "unacceptable" rate of spread of coronavirus. But Lamm has decided to keep his team of more than 200 employees in the state working remotely. "The Dallas local government, the Austin government and the Houston government are not as bullish on reopening as the governor is," Lamm said. "Even if all of the cities were moving forward, we're not ready to do that yet."
In a conversation with Protocol, Lamm detailed why he's bucking the trend in Texas, what he's done to reshape Hypergiant's work structure, and how he's planning to ramp back up safely over the course of the next year.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Texas is lifting its pandemic-related restrictions. Hypergiant is bucking that trend by not fully reopening. How did that decision get made?
The opening sequence in America has turned into a very politicized thing, which I don't think it should. If you look at all the stats from Dallas, Austin and Houston, where we have offices, [cases are] just continually growing. I think reopening pretty quickly coupled with the peaceful protests of the Black Lives Matter campaign has created the right environment for things to jump again. It's great that the governor is reopening, but Hypergiant is not following the Texas protocol.
But we're very lucky as a company: While we focus on critical infrastructure, space and defense, 90% of the work we do is software. And I would say that our biggest asset isn't in our patents or crazy technology, it's our people. If someone got sick because we reopened the office too early, if they took it home to their grandmother, and then if someone died because we needed to get back in the office really quickly, I don't think that's something I could have on my conscience. And so it just means that instead of us spending time in the office, we're spending a lot more time on employee health. So the decision criteria that we're using is we're reading all the research on vaccines and best practices.
We do have a shift policy for our space business and our R&D business, though. If someone's working on Gen Two of our bioreactor, they need to physically do that, so we came up with these distributed work labs. We ended up renting a couple of small warehouse spaces, so the bioreactor team is going to work there, and they're going to have a one-in one-out policy. At most, we're going to let two people there, and they'll have to wear a mask the entire time.
I saw a great report come out of Bill Gates' foundation talking about how they're going to let 10% of employees back in their offices starting in August. And then 25% in October, and then 50% by the end of the year. We're tracking towards that. But we may just have people work remote for the rest of the year, unless they absolutely have to be in there. I know people want to restart the economy, and I think there are some businesses where you absolutely have to be there for your livelihood. But if you're fortunate enough not to be under those circumstances, I don't think you should add to the problem.
In that shift dynamic, what's been the hardest thing for your business to work around?
The first is employee health. We have a distributed team outside of Texas. I wrote an article about slow working where I feel like I just have one massive, long workday, which really redefines the work-life balance. Specifically for some of our employees in New York, we're trying to be really flexible with scheduling because people in Austin, Texas, and people that are in New York City have a very different life right now. Whether you're in a one-bedroom apartment or you have a house and a family and a pool can make it a very different life when you're sheltering in place.
R&D has also been a challenge. People don't realize this, but the research — the R in R&D — you can do remotely. And there's a lot more research than development in R&D. So we've gotten further on research, but we haven't announced many new innovations of late because we've been so focused on research and we've been very thoughtful about the development.
The third challenge that we've had, which has actually turned into an opportunity, is our space business. While launches and other components of our constellation as a service platform have been challenging, the excitement for our satellite-monitoring and operations platform that we call H.I.V.E. (hyper intelligent vehicle enhancement) has grown. The entire reason that we built that platform as part of our space business was to allow operators to not just manage three to five satellites from a network operations center, but to be able to manage 150 satellites from your iPad on a boat, using AI in smart automated systems.
While COVID has caused certain challenges with that business from a manufacturing perspective, it created an insane urgency and excitement for our platform. And we've had an influx of people because different government facilities have had limited capacity. If they can't put all of their people in shifts in command centers, and they need to start having people do it from home, what does that look like? Not even just for this pandemic, but for potentially the next?
With H.I.V.E. specifically being designed for remote use, how did the pandemic change the decision-making process related to development and launch?
We've been building our space business for the last two years, and we started working with the Air Force, Space Force and others, and then the pandemic hit. And, since then, then there's been a follow-on of both commercial and government clients and the other defense partners. It's made other industries that rely on face-to-face and that are traditionally outdated, at least from our perspective, to really start to reevaluate what their priorities are.
Systems and mission control and ground station software is just terrible, and that's not because of COVID. They're terrible when it's 74 degrees outside, no wind or clouds, and everyone in the world is healthy. There are bad UIs or rows of texts, and you have to work in a terminal. It's a very grueling process, but it's so important for everything from telecom to critical infrastructure to defense. And so we have wanted to marry great UI/UX with an artificial intelligence layer on top of all the ground station networks so that we could allow those teams to be able to use autonomous tasking or have remote access to their constellation. This has just accelerated that vision.
So if there is a silver lining to COVID, I think one of them is that there's been some rapid advancements of technologies that can make the world better by improving systems that just were really bad. And I think the pandemic shined a big light on what was broken.
For R&D, you said your focus has been on the research side, but how are you thinking about development in relation to the pandemic?
I think that we've made tremendous advances because we've been so focused on the research side. And it's changed my perspective with our R&D group to what we can do right now that could impact lives and make a bigger impact on the world.
Once a quarter, we'll talk about what's coming down the road, and the team recently showed me a robotic agriculture system. [They highlighted] what's happening with big machinery and factory farming, but said there's a big miss in using AI and computer vision for it. [I said] we should do it, but it shouldn't necessarily be the highest priority.
[Then as the pandemic hit,] to not have fresh fruits and vegetables during at least the first phase of COVID was really a shock. And I wished I would have prioritized it because I would've taken the first unit then and tested it, and I could've reported back to the development group in Slack. That kind of changed our mindset of, should we be focusing right now on things that we think are really cool with our R&D? Or should we take a step back and say, what do people need? And reverse how we're looking at it that way.
So we've now obviously accelerated that project. We spend a lot of time researching it, designing it out in CAD and designing all the software systems for it, so it's helped change our perspective.
As you look to the second half of 2020, beyond the circumstances related to the pandemic, what are you most excited for at Hypergiant?
One of the things that we've done recently, even during COVID, is we built out our constellation-as-a-service platform, which includes designing constellations, building constellations, deploying constellations, managing with our software and using our deployers off the ISS and the Sigma spacecraft and a few others that we're going to be announcing. But separately we use that infrastructure for deploying our own constellations. And we've got two constellations that we've been working on: One is an imaging technology that's amazingly groundbreaking. It looks like it's going to work. We've had it work with synthetic data. It worked on drones. We put it in space, and we finally got the data back from space. And so I'm really excited that we will know in 2020 if that works. I know that sounds like kind of a weird thing to be excited to think about, but after several million dollars and two years of work, we will absolutely know if it's one of those groundbreaking technologies.
And then I'm really passionate about climate change. We were going to deploy our Gen Two bioreactor and unveil it at South by Southwest, but obviously that didn't happen. So I'm really excited about rolling that out publicly and then also getting results back from some of these buildings that we partnered with — to physically go to a building, and see our bioreactor making a difference on climate change and then being able to look to see what the scale is on the city level. Those are both things that we've spent a lot of time and effort on that we think they could be pretty impactful to the world and to our business.