America at work
One Startup is Changing the Way we work. Here’s Why the World’s Largest Aviation Company is Helping Them Do it.
Cordell Eddings | March 6, 2018

Welcome to #BizUnited,a new series highlighting innovative partnerships between large corporations and small businesses across America. Check back for new installments.

Time is money. And Brian Ballard is working with one of the largest aircraft companies in the world on technologies that promise the future workforce more of both.

He’s the CEO of Upskill, a company developing augmented reality software for wearable devices.

That means technology that places digital objects into the real world using front-facing cameras or see-through displays that don’t block out your surroundings. The technology is deployed in production across an array of fieldwork, heavy manufacturing, and warehousing environments, augmenting workers’ experiences with custom voice and gesture-driven apps, and providing HD audio and video feeds for a first-person view into everything from field service training to constructing jet engines.

And the future of the technology could see nurses wearing them to find veins, surgeons wearing goggles that help identify body parts, firefighters using augmented reality to quickly locate building exits or defibrillators,  all while wearing built-in feature in a glass, headset or digital contact lens.

It sounds like the stuff of science fiction movies, but the technology is already in use at businesses like Coca-Cola, where Upskill has used the technology to help the food company get broken equipment up and running in a fraction of the time that it would otherwise. And GE where the technology has helped workers complete tasks 15% faster in some areas of the company, saving them millions of dollars in the process.

Along the way, the company’s technology also caught the eye of Boeing, where the technology has helped the aviation giant cut the time required to wire planes. And that relationship sparked a venture that is helping both companies realize their full potential.

At a time when the workforce is going through a massive transition the possibilities for training and educating workers to succeed in an age of automation is the area that Upskill is gunning for.

“There is a competitive shift happening in the market, but people shouldn’t be afraid to lose their jobs to automation,” said Ballard. “We are seeing augmented reality enter every aspect of work. Connected workers will become the norm. Our dream is to change the face of labor.”

‘I wish we invested in you’

The company, which began in mid-2010 to develop a wearable display for soldiers in the field, has evolved into an augmented reality platform used across an array of field world, manufacturing and warehouse environments, layering digital images and prompts across what workers are seeing and doing.

The company’s partnership with Boeing took off, after impressing the Aerospace Company while working on a project for the company.

An executive from the airline said ‘I wish we invested in you,” Ballard said.  “I thought ‘that would be cool if you guys had a venture fund,”’ Ballard said.  “Little did I know that it planted the seed of things to come.”

Fast forward six months later HorizonX, a Boeing venture fund, which invests in aerospace technology, was born. The venture fund was on the hunt for innovations in manufacturing and cutting-edge business models of companies who expect a product in the next 15 years.  And that hunt led them back to Upskill’s door for a formal partnership.

The company’s partnership has made a big difference for both Upskill and Boeing, setting the groundwork for technology that has the potential to change how we all work, based on a simple idea: if you have to stop working to learn, you aren’t working. So why not do both at the same time?

Upskill CEO Brian Ballard

“The world is going through an evolution in the way we are trying to access information,” said Ballard. “In the work environment, we have a very strong disconnection from the information that matters at the moment we are doing it.”

‘Seat at the table’

For Boeing, the partnership means tapping into emerging technologies, business models and bright ambitious talent at an early stage. This has the immediate benefit of helping them refine some of their current business practices. Long-term, it means access to businesses, customers, and ideas that they might not have come across in their day to day business.

For Upskill, it’s given them access to a valuable support team—including communications, administrative and other business process support– which many startups don’t have. It’s also given them a front row seat to one of the largest companies on the planet and firsthand knowledge of Boeing’s products, and some of their brightest minds. The partnership has been a textbook example of what large and small businesses can do for each other.

“We have parts of the company who find the startup, love the technology and the team behind the technology and they work on limited projects within the core business,” said Logan Jones, senior director of HorizonX. “We have a seat at the table. That wouldn’t have happened without the partnership.”

For now, Upskill is focused on helping blue collar workers do their jobs better. But they hope to grow into other industries as the technology evolves.

“Working with a company like Boeing means we make a better product. “Boeing makes you rise to that standard.”