Spicing up the Industrial Internet of Things

Nov. 15, 2016
Machine-learning company Bit Stew is acquired by GE.

Thomas Edison famously said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Kevin Collins can relate. By fanning the embers of a promising idea for years, he built his powerful machine-learning company called Bit Stew, which GE (the company Edison founded) just acquired it for an undisclosed sum.

GE made the announcement at its Minds+Machines conference, taking place this week in San Francisco. (See  on Twitter.) 

Collins says Bit Stew will help make Predix, GE Digital’s cloud-based platform connecting devices on the Industrial Internet, faster and more effective. Bit Stew collects data coming from hundreds of sensors and quickly funnels it into software that analyzes the data.

“Data integration is the Achilles’ heel of dealing with data coming from diverse sources and systems,” says Collins. “With our technology, we can intelligently ingest data, model it, make sense of it, establish relationships and cleanse the data through our artificial intelligence engine, which does in minutes what can take months, if not years, for a human to do.”

Getting here was a tough journey for Collins. In 2001, he started NetReliance, a business-to-business transaction firm with customers including Agilent Technologies and Amazon. But the startup went bust after tech stocks collapsed soon after the company was founded. “We lost our house and our entire life savings, and we had two small kids at the time,” he says.

Despite the setback, Collins and his wife found they enjoyed being entrepreneurs and decided to start again, this time more cautiously. Collins and partner Alex Clark, Bit Stew’s chief software architect and co-founder, came up with the idea for Bit Stew after learning about the data-integration problems the industry was facing when the pair was working at another startup.

In 2009, they launched Bit Stew in Collins’ native Vancouver after landing a large Canadian electricity utility, BC Hydro, as their first customer. The utility trusted the then unknown startup to integrate and analyze data from 2 million smart meters, 2,000 network devices and 30 operational, enterprise and legacy systems. (Today, BC Hydro’s smart grid deployment is recognized by the global energy industry for its digital transformation.)

Bit Stew emerged as a leader in data intelligence for the Industrial Internet, and five years later, when GE was working on Predix, Bit Stew grabbed the attention of GE Ventures executives. As the relationship grew, GE Ventures led a $17 million Series-B funding round for Bit Stew. GE Digital’s acquisition of Bit Stew marks the first time that the company has acquired a firm that GE Ventures invested in. Since the GE Venture’s investment, GE Digital and Bit Stew have worked together with several large customers to integrate data from different complex sources.

Collins said he sold to GE because of how well Bit Stew’s product fits with Predix. “GE has the most well thought-out strategy when it comes to the Industrial Internet while everyone else is struggling.”

Collins believes that adding MIx Core to Predix will make it easier for asset-performance-management software to improve the efficiency of everything from power plants to factories. At a power plant, for example, the platform can learn how machines and assets are connected, gather data from alarms and from sensors on turbines and show how well machines are operating.

“The machine does the job of the human. It detects patterns in the data and automatically finds synergies and connections. A human doesn’t have to get involved,” says Collins. That data is then fed into APM software, which can suggest things such as how to optimize fuel flow to a turbine or when to schedule maintenance to avoid costly downtime.

“We have more than 35 million connected devices on our software already, and we process more than 10 terabytes of data every day,” says Collins. “We manage as much data as the content of the printed collection of the U.S. Library of Congress every day.”