America at work
Becoming the Boss: Meet the Buffalo Startup Rethinking Infrastructure with Augmented Reality
Cordell Eddings | January 18, 2018

Welcome to #BecomingtheBoss, our series celebrating small business owners who have made the transition from solo-entrepreneur to employer. Check back periodically for new installments.

Mention augmented reality and for many it conjures up images of the Pokémon Go mobile game, which took the nation by storm, turning large swaths of citizens into digital treasure hunters, walking around their cities with their smart phones “collecting” rare digital monsters.

But Heads Up, a technology startup in the unlikely city of Buffalo, New York is using the technology– which fuses digital technology with the physical world–in an unusual, innovative and possibly more instrumental way. They are working to save lives while improving mine productivity, reducing equipment maintenance costs and protecting workers along the way.

The idea behind the technology is to overlay digital imagery on a person’s view of the real world. Heads Up has created a device that fits on a worker’s safety glasses and monitors for safety threats, like excess gas–noise, and notifies the wearer and a safety manager if such threats are present. A light in the wearer’s peripheral vision illuminates and changes color depending on the threat or message. The device monitors for unsafe noise levels and is being expanded to measure heat, humidity, and altitude and worker-down status. The hope is to make heat stroke, hearing loss, and other deadly problems miners have dealt with for generations, a thing of the past.

It will take innovative solutions from innovative companies like Heads up Display to take the country’s infrastructure to the next level. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country’s infrastructure a D+ in a recent report, citing the country’s lack of investment. When it comes to America’s infrastructure, most of us know it must be modernized for sustained economic growth, an initiative the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has made a top priority in 2018. At the forefront of that massive effort will be innovative minds in the business community.

The issue was on the forefront of co-founder Brendon Dever’s mind when he discussed the idea with a friend in a Buffalo Bar. The company has since grown to seven full-time and another seven contractors. We spoke to Dever about his company’s efforts to make skilled labor sexy again, the need to revamp the country’s infrastructure and what it means to be a boss.

What Gets You Going Every day?

“The core mission for us is to get skilled labor to be cool again. There is a massive problem with skilled labor where there is 30 percent underemployment. The average age of skilled laborers is 45 years old in the U.S. It’s become a sector that people shy away from at a time where we need people to think about it the most. There is a huge epidemic that people don’t see coming around our infrastructure, and there might not be anyone there to help when it reaches its breaking point.

“We are working to make the sector sexy again, by bringing innovation and technology to it, to rebuild the country’s infrastructure and to make sure the men and women who are doing the rebuilding are safe and go home to their families the way they came in to work that day. It’s a chance to do cool things, help the country along the way and impact the lives of everyday people. It’s an incredible opportunity.”

What does this problem need solving?

“Industrial safety industry has been largely looked the same over the past 20 years. We look at the opportunity for us to become a standard. Safety glasses didn’t use to be required on the job, and now they are. Hard hats, vests, steel toe boots, and safety goggles as well. They’ve since become standard. And it’s amazing that there was a day that they weren’t. But there are still a lot of safety problems to tackle that can really push our nation’s infrastructure forward. From environmental danger exposures, hearing loss, heat stress that really cause problems. We hope to become a standard.

“There is a big insurance play for us as well. We can incentivize the worker to utilize the system, use the data and provide to the employer if some of their workers need training or special equipment. We document it all and provide it to insurance companies in a way that reduces their workers compensation expenses. We’ve seen success with surface mining and utility workers, and are hoping to break into other markets.”

“The electric, water, and gas industries are experiencing a period of unprecedented change, but the country’s infrastructure needs haven’t caught up. That’s where innovation comes in”.

As You Began to Hire and Ramp up what lessons have you learned along the Way?

“We’ve really had to learn how to learn as we go. And it isn’t easy. And reading about it is very different than being in the trenches and doing it on a daily basis. Dealing with processes, personnel and everything else that comes with being in charge is a challenge, but you have to do it, so you learn how to do it. And you have to take it very serious, because we are responsible for people’s lives. That’s a big responsibility and an honor I take very seriously.

The other surprising part is how much things costs and how long things take. I’ve learned the hard way that you always want things done right away, but things don’t always work out. Whatever your timeline is, double it and add 30 percent. Whatever your costs are, double them and add 30 percent. You have to have patience and perspective.

“For us it’s been a slow burn, but a steady burn and being able to keep going is the most important part. It’s been a wild and exciting ride.