An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
Integrated Roadways is determined to prove we can make roads pay for their own existence through the economic benefits they provide to users. To deliver on that, our goal is to transform roads into networks for connected, electric and autonomous vehicles, providing new services to these vehicles (and their occupants and cities they service) and using those services to generate revenues to pay for the improvements.
As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Tim Sylvester.
Tim Sylvester, Founder, CEO and Chief Technology Officer of Integrated Roadways. Tim’s experience in construction and degree in electrical and computer engineering inspired him to create Integrated Roadways, a smart infrastructure technology provider. Smart infrastructure is the integration of data, communications, power, and networking systems into core infrastructure like roads, highways, and bridges.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you please tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’m first-generation internet. I’ve always been pretty far ahead of the curve when it comes to technology — I started using Bulletin Board System (BBS) and early internet services from Big Blue Disk when I was about seven, back in 1988 when being extremely young online was notable. I remember in junior high catching flack for using email, web chat and online gaming, which are all now standard and normal activities for a young teenager. My first business was selling custom burned CDs in the late ’90s, before Napster made music sharing widely available.
I also grew up in rural Missouri, which isn’t noted for its strong technology culture, so when it was time to join the workforce, I went into construction — it was readily available, and paid relatively well. Long before the DARPA Challenge in 2004, I came to realize road networks were on a path to convergence with data, communications and power networks to support connected, electric and autonomous vehicles (CEAVs). But I also knew technology companies didn’t really understand roads, and roadbuilders didn’t really understand technology, so neither of them were going to tackle the challenge. This opportunity was an entirely new category, and it needed a category-definer (like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Tesla and others) to really pull it out into the open.
And since I understood the market and saw it early, I was in a perfect position to do something about it.
Can you please share with us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
The most interesting ones I’ll keep to myself a while longer, but I’ll share one that’s formative. In 2014 or so, Integrated Roadways had already shown our ability to design and supply prefab modular roads, and we were working with the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) to show how this technology could make it possible to rebuild I-70, which is something MoDOT has been wanting to do for decades.
I was sitting in a meeting with the director at the time, Dave Nichols, and he said something along the lines of, “If you can use the tech to generate revenue from services for CEAVs, why don’t you show me how we can use that revenue to finance the I-70 rebuild?” And I realized that was a key point — make the road pay for its own existence so that the supply for road improvements is sourced directly from the traffic that demands those improvements, cutting out the bottlenecks and inefficiencies from the existing public-funded, low-bid procurement model that has dominated for the last century.
After all, if the current method of funding roads works, then why are our roads in such bad shape? Because the way we’ve been doing it doesn’t work! So, let’s not just improve the tech, let’s use the tech to fix the entire economic model for public road infrastructure, too. Alongside the tech, that was the change in mindset we needed for this to all come together.
Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?
As cliché as it may sound, I try to focus on what actually matters to the advancement of human society. Far too many businesses focus on passing trivialities that only exist to consume time and resources. How many companies out there are driving more garbage production, but not usefully contributing to society?
There are lots of small, meaningful things people can do, too — which are important, necessary, and contribute to the richness of human experience — but what I really wanted to spend my life on was something that would help humanity take big steps forward. I wanted to do something meaningful that could make the world a better place, and there are few places that have more of an effect on society, and the individual lives that make up our society, than infrastructure. Compellingly, that’s also one of the areas that almost nobody thinks about when it’s time to evaluate how we can do better, which meant the opportunity for an impact and to find something that could be impactful was massive. And the likelihood someone else would beat me to the punch was low.
I guess one way to look at it is I want to help contribute. And roads are something that, until COVID, the average person spent 90 minutes on each day, and the entire economy and modern human society fundamentally depend on.
Ok thank you for that. Let’s now move to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?
Integrated Roadways is determined to prove we can make roads pay for their own existence through the economic benefits they provide to users. To deliver on that, our goal is to transform roads into networks for connected, electric and autonomous vehicles, providing new services to these vehicles (and their occupants and cities they service) and using those services to generate revenues to pay for the improvements. This can create a virtuous cycle that massively increases investment in infrastructure (improving incomes, quality of life, and more), while allowing public owners to shift their limited public funds to other civic needs that aren’t in position to be financially self-sustaining like roads are.
Forty percent of U.S. roads need significant improvement right now, representing trillions of dollars of unfunded infrastructure liabilities. Even the Biden infrastructure plan would only be a 20% annual federal funding increase for the next five years, which barely moves the needle against our backlog — we’d need a plan like that every year for the next decade or two, which is not going to happen. Meanwhile, road improvement costs have doubled in the last 15 years, and will double again over the next 15. That doesn’t even consider the new costs of the emergent smart cities, smart infrastructure, and CEAV capabilities that our communities will need in that time. When it comes to public infrastructure, the United States is in a death spiral, and we have to try dramatic new things to save ourselves.
We can’t tax our way out of this and the old ways we’ve used to fund roads just don’t work anymore. At the same time, we’re facing the emergence of connected, electric, and autonomous vehicles that significantly shift our technological and economic capabilities — and yet almost nobody has investigated how the changes in vehicles reflect new opportunities for the underlying infrastructure. Nearly 20 years after the DARPA Grand Challenge, academics are just barely starting to look at the infrastructure side of autonomous vehicles. But even then, from a technology stand point, they’re hardly considering the business cases or the socio-economic impacts of the opportunity.
That’s the thing about new technologies — you don’t have to keep doing things “the way we’ve always done it.” New technologies open new doors to new possibilities, so that we don’t have to be stuck with the same dysfunctions we tolerate with existing methods. We can do new things, we can fund projects in new ways, we can use new capabilities and opportunities. Henry Ford said, “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said faster horses.” But what they needed wasn’t faster horses, we needed cars, and what our cities need now isn’t smarter vehicles or federal subsidies, it’s smart infrastructure that is sustainably financed and self-supporting from the revenues it generates from operations.
When public owners took on road improvements 100 years ago, they broke the link between supply and demand, and turned infrastructure funding into a partisan political issue. So instead of facing down two seemingly intractable problems that are on an inevitable collision course, let’s take a lesson from Judo and let their momentum and inertia interact in a way that one problem solves the other — the roads get fixed by providing services for emerging demands, and emerging demands are supplied for by fixing the roads. We’re taking the opportunity to reconnect the supply of money to the demand for road improvements, so instead of public owners having two things they can’t afford, one solves the other — but this could never happen with the current owner mindset where the government funds everything.
How do you think this will change the world?
Computers started with landline telephone connections and investing in internet-native networks completely revolutionized business and our household lives throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Then, telephones went mobile, shifted to cell networks, and became smartphones, which created yet another massive economic and social disruption throughout the early 2000s. These were enormous, world-changing shifts driven by computing technology being merged to the networks and devices.
One hundred years ago, most people were farmers. The urbanization of the world and increasing densification is not only necessary due to our increased population levels but will also be a requirement if we have any chance of surviving another 100 years on this planet. Enabling that urbanization and density without self-destructing takes an entirely new mindset for approaching civic infrastructure, which means we need to make a clean, clear and significant break from the early 1900s’ methods that still dominate.
Re-envisioning roads as networks for CEAVs holds as much, if not even more, economic and social potential as the internet and smartphone revolutions did. We need that world-changing potential to be able to support the emerging demands from vehicles, cities and people over the next century, the same way roads completely changed 100 years ago to accommodate the automobile, which made the last century of economic development possible. This is the exact same thing we’ve done a half-dozen times now — it’s just wearing a different outfit. As has been said, “History doesn’t always repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”
Nearly everyone has a set of kitchen knives. We usually don’t think about them twice (much less fear them), but they’re one of the most common ways to get injured in the home. My point is that a knife cuts both ways, and technology is the same — everything that can be used for good, can be used for evil.
The thing that concerns me the most is the death of privacy and discretion. Unless the sensors put in the road to help autonomous vehicles navigate are developed with privacy in mind from the beginning, it would theoretically be possible to track people’s movements. You can benefit from that on a moment-to-moment basis for navigation, but does the government really need to know exactly where you go every day? Do the police? What about hackers? Can you really trust everyone in the world, or even anyone in the world, to know every detail of your personal movements?
Building in controls, protections, and limitations from the beginning was critically important to us. If someone with malice in their heart wants to abuse the system, we’re making it as hard as possible for them to use our tech to do that. That’s one reason why we voluntarily include a no-personally-identifiable-information clause in all of our projects with cities, because we don’t want to track drivers, and we don’t want to be responsible for making it possible for malicious people to track drivers, either.
We try to take a user-oriented position with each feature. What if this was happening to me? What if I was being treated this way? Do I really want to use a system that would do this to me, that would treat me this way? We know we can’t impose morality on a technology, but we can refuse to make immoral choices, or choices that are convenient for us that present a risk or danger to others. At the end of the day, we really think about how we’re treating others, which is an extremely important but often overlooked aspect of modern society.
The real “Black Mirror” angle is someone else is already doing what people are afraid our technology might do — think about the phone in your pocket and the applications it’s running. If you’re worried about the consequences of what we might do, let’s take that energy and put it towards the consequences of what people are already doing.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?
One summer in high school, I spent every day on my way to my job sitting in a traffic jam, watching workers prepare the roadbed and grade for new lanes. When it was finally ready for the new pavement, it snowed! So, I spent all winter in traffic and watched them do it all over again the following spring. And I thought to myself, “There’s got to be a better way to do this!” After all, Eli Whitney promoted interchangeable parts for factory-based mass production back in the mid-1800s, so how in the world has it failed to reach road construction? Even the house I grew up in was a kit from Sears 100 years ago! I figured there had to be a way to build roads as a modular system, like giant Lego blocks — a new technology model for roads. And factory production makes so many things possible that are just impossible with site-built techniques.
Many years later, we’d figured that part out only to run into the fact that, frankly, public owners are broke. They just don’t have the funds they need to service their liabilities. If they were private companies, they would have been put in receivership decades ago, but they’re government agencies so they get special treatment. This was around the time I ended up talking to Director Nichols from MoDOT, who tasked me with figuring out how to make the road pay for itself. While that was far from the last piece of the puzzle, it certainly set us off on finding the last major group of puzzle pieces we needed, which was a new economic model for roads. Put the technology model with the economic model, and now you have something that can truly change the world.
What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?
What I’ve been hearing a lot from people lately is: “This is inevitable, this is the future of the industry, there’s no way for this to play out other than roads becoming smart.” Their minds are there, so the biggest thing now is to take that next step to the physical and actually try it out so we have assets in operation to show that this works in the real world on average roads for average cities.
Infrastructure is absurdly expensive. $5 million to $10 million doesn’t go very far when it comes to roads, and that makes people nervous. “Well, what if we lose the money?” Congratulations, you’ve already lost that money 10,000 times over because roads are in miserable shape. But instead of fixing them, we slap on another resurfacing so we can kick the can a few more years until it’s someone else’s problem. Let’s quit screwing around and try something that can help us make a major advancement. It’s not 1975 anymore and $5 million really isn’t what it used to be. Let’s give it a shot! If it works, we’ve solved an enormous problem and we will make an embarrassing amount of money doing so. And if it doesn’t, well, guess what? We spent 0.002% of what we spend on traditional methods we already know don’t work. The cost of not trying it is far greater than the cost of trying it.
It took 30 years to get from dial-up BBSs to fiber internet, from a 2.4gHz cordless phone to ubiquitous cellular, and we’ll get there with smart infrastructure, too. It’s really incredible how quickly good ideas spread once they get a little momentum — it took humanity 75 years to adopt indoor ovens, but only seven to adopt smartphones. Considering half the roads in the nation pretty much need to be rebuilt right now, the demand is there, the capacity to absorb the demand is there, the supply is there, and the cost of delays exceeds the cost of mistakes. We just need a few final pieces to come together before this thing really takes off.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Manage your pro forma. So many people are intimidated by managing a financial model that shows your expected balance sheet, cash flow and income statement. Look, it’s all made up. Forward-looking statements are literally fabrications that are, at best, guided by our knowledge and assumptions. They’re always bad and they’re always wrong. But so were the inaccurate maps explorers used to circumnavigate the globe. The critical factor was they had the guts to try. And that’s the goal here: to make the effort. Build your pro forma so you have some reasonable approximation of what needs to happen to be successful and when. Then go out and see how accurate you were. It took me way too long to get comfortable with this step and now this is the very first thing I force out of my mentor companies when I do startup mentoring.
- Solutions come from different places than problems. If the guy who’s sick knew how to get better on his own, we wouldn’t have doctors. And yet healthcare is one of the most necessary industries. We need to stop assuming that because public agencies have the problems, they also have the answers. The first step in getting help is admitting you have a problem, and, boy, public owners have problems. Let’s stop being coy and pretending they don’t need to change. Avoiding acknowledging the problem just makes it worse. We also have to realize there’s a level of discomfort and uncertainty to finding solutions. I had someone say, “We tried innovation and it didn’t work!” Yeah, well, I skipped dessert and I’m still fat. A diet isn’t something you do once and call it done, and neither is innovation. It’s a process, it’s an intention, and it’s a mindset. You have to be open to new ideas and try them out as a core operational practice, because you never know what you’re going to miss if you assume you already know the answers and you’re too scared to try something different. “The demons are all in your head.”
- Move slowly and fix things. Miss me with that “move fast and break things” attitude. That’s for people whose offering is so unimportant and unnecessary that it doesn’t really matter if it works or not. What society needs is more things fixed, not more things broken. And we move way too fast as it is. Mostly that speed is in dismissing new ideas when, if we’re going to be quick about anything, we should be quick about dropping old ideas we know aren’t working anymore. When I say, “move slow,” I don’t mean to intentionally slow to a crawl. I just mean don’t try to go so fast you lack time to do it right, half-ass everything and create more problems than you solve. America is powerful when we whole-ass things.
- Set the stage to make failure impossible. For anyone whose personal story begins more modestly than “with a small loan of a few hundred thousand dollars from my dad” (which is the real story behind most well-known entrepreneurs), you have to take a different approach. That’s why I’m not a fan of “fail fast.” That’s a mantra for people in an investment-rich environment where they’re capitalized by professionals who don’t see any personal loss from business failure. That may describe a large number of startups in places like San Francisco, but most startups aren’t there, don’t have access to those investor networks, and don’t have large amounts of personal capital to draw from. Most of us are working with money from people who would take a personal loss if the company failed, so “fail fast” is an irresponsible and dangerous attitude. It is, however, a great way to encourage a barrier to entry that limits access to opportunity for average people! That’s one reason why our approach has been towards resiliency and sustainability, to make decisions that ensure we’ll survive no matter what. This means the only thing at stake is our growth rate, which makes it easier for us to raise funds from people where the money is meaningful and personal. And it also means we spend those funds on things that have residual value even if the worst happens, because then we have actual assets that can be divested to recapitalize our investors. The only thing at risk here is the internal rate of return, not the continued existence of the company. Is that a slower pace of growth than what you get by letting the wind blow a stack of money down Market Street? Absolutely. But it makes more sense for the average people who have started the vast majority of startups. Don’t fail fast, set yourself up so it’s impossible to fail and you can be the one who makes it easier for other entrepreneurs to get started.
- Define success on your own terms. One of the most common questions I get asked is, “If Integrated Roadways could be bought by any company in the world, who would you want it to be?” That question baffles me because it assumes that selling the company is a success condition for us. Why would we make selling out a requirement for recognizing our success? Admittedly, that’s the dream for a lot of people — build and sell. Lots of entrepreneurs and investors gauge someone by how quickly, frequently and repeatedly they get in and out. Get things just to the point where it looks like it could work, make it someone else’s problem and move on. But that’s not by any means the biggest marker of success. In my view, selling a company like that is often a sign of failure, that the company couldn’t actually succeed on its own, or that the founder didn’t care enough to get it there. Its best future was as a minor subdivision of something else, a lamb to the slaughter. Admittedly, mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell, so sometimes these kinds of mergers work out really well. But most of the time, they’re just a sign that someone was building a feature, not an independent company, or in our case, an entire new category of industry. In our view, success isn’t someone writing us a check for a few billion dollars, as nice as that may sound in the abstract. Our success is hundreds of millions of people owning shares of our business, and billions of people owning shares of our local subsidiaries through project-based crowd funding. That way, when we bring smart infrastructure improvement programs into communities, the members of the community can show their support by investing directly in Main Street and receiving a share of the proceeds that their community generates from our mutual success. That’s my view of success — helping catalyze a new American century by stimulating reinvestment in our own communities, our own economies, our own lives. Investing our wealth at home, growing our local economy, helping straighten out the budgets of our local municipality, making lives better for our families and neighbors. Yes, it means financial success, too, but as a byproduct of work well done, a bit of a “thank you” from the communities we help rebuild and thrive. There are as many types of success as there are capable people in this world, and it’s ok if what you consider success isn’t the same as what society or your peers might assume of you. Be yourself, that’s the only person you can be.
Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?
You have to be utterly reliable. Nobody should ever ask “Where is he?” or “Why didn’t he get that done?” To lead, you have to set a good example for everyone. Say what you’re going to do, keep your word, and others will learn they can rely on you, then make choices that allow you to rely on them. You have to set the culture and mindset that people will emulate. Poor leaders pick a direction and tell everyone to carry them there. Good leaders are at the front of the pack setting the direction and pace and helping ensure everyone keeps up with them.
I am extremely diligent about my schedule — everything I do is on my schedule, and everything on my schedule is what I do. All my employees can see it, and they can hold me accountable in the same way I hold them accountable. After all, if I want them to answer to me, shouldn’t I answer to them as well? Functional authority is earned through respect. I overcommunicate expectations to people — I’d rather say it five times and be heard twice than say it once and not be heard because I can’t expect everyone to hear (or remember) everything I say. Even I can’t do that, so I can’t expect more of others than I give of myself.
I work out five times a week, sleep eight hours a night and eat very clean. If I don’t take care of myself, I can’t work and if I can’t work, how can I expect others to? Don’t try to show off and sleep four hours a night to prove how productive you are. Don’t try to work 60 hours a week to show how committed you are. Neither of those work and the quality you produce is subpar. I guarantee eight hours of work from someone who slept eight hours the night before is better every time than 16 hours of work from someone who slept four.
And that goes for family and private time as well. You’re not going to impress me by working over weekends and holidays. Instead, you’re going to make me concerned about your pending divorce, health problems and mental collapse. And at the end of the day, when you work your life away for someone else, what do you get? Maybe a cheap gold watch, but the only thing you can really bet on is that tombstone, which will get here no matter what. Pace yourself, take care of yourself and live a balanced life — you’ll enjoy it more and have more of it to enjoy.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Integrated Roadways is a smart infrastructure technology developer, vendor, and operator. The company’s initial product, Smart Pavement™, transforms traditional roads into a software-enabled networking and sensor platform to support connected, electric and autonomous vehicles.
Treating the road as a network generating revenue from commercial operations enables Integrated Roadways to engage cities for privately financed and managed large-scale, long-term smart infrastructure improvement programs. This approach transforms the average city’s greatest liability, its public road infrastructure, into a financially and technologically self-sustaining asset, ensuring our cities continue to support economic development and competition while providing for emerging public and commercial demands for next-generation vehicles, devices, and city services.
Over the next 10 years, our goal is to capture 10% of the infrastructure market in the U.S., representing 200,000 lane-miles of road and 80,000 intersections, which is approximately $900 billion in total asset value with annual recurring revenue flow of $300 billion.
If any of those combinations of words interest you, let me know, I’m sure there’s a lot we can talk about.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
The best way is to follow Integrated Roadways on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. You could follow my personal LinkedIn, but don’t expect much because I’m not overly active — there’s far too much other work to do, and too little time to do it.
I appreciate social media’s importance, but the best way to reach me is over email — I do my very best to give acknowledgement within a few days, even if it takes longer to provide an actual in-depth response. I work very hard on sharing an equitable amount of effort and insight with everyone who reaches out to me as they put into that outreach, so if there’s something we need to talk about that adds as much value to my life as I can add to yours, shoot me an email and we’ll get it on my schedule. What’s my email? It’s not hard to figure out and there are several ways to get there, but that practice is left as an exercise to the reader. You need to show me you care enough to make an effort if you want me to return the favor. But if you have something interesting to talk about, I’m very much looking forward to hearing from you.
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.
Integrated Roadways: Tim Sylvester’s Big Idea That Might Change The World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.