The Future Is Now: Allen Drennan of Lumicademy On How Their Technological Innovation Will Shake Up Education
Success is all about personal relationships. If I had to choose the most successful outcomes over the years so far, I would point to those where I developed a personal relationship with the customer. I mean this is in the sense that they knew me, and I knew them. The most important attribute in developing these relationships was trust.
As a part of our series about cutting edge technological breakthroughs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Allen Drennan.
Allen Drennan, CEO, started Lumicademy in October of 2017, bringing together the team of senior engineers who created Nefsis, a cloud-based, video conferencing online service, which Frost and Sullivan cited as the first “conferencing service solution based on the technologies of cloud-computing, end-to-end parallel processing and multipoint video conferencing,” to create the next generation of virtual classroom technology.
Engaging students and educators alike, Lumicademy provides the ability to interact in a live video meeting and view presentations with screen shares, document shares, annotations and whiteboards, all within a tablet or phone experience .Lumicademy offers a high quality video and audio user experience for most mobile devices with our GPU-centric mobile edition. Educators and learners can live chat with peers in up to 62 languages. Users enjoy the learning capabilities traditional ‘video apps’ cannot offer, with an unlimited amount of users joining in the mobile classroom experience.
At Lumicademy, we believe there’s a better way to connect people online. Our goal is to unify the virtual classroom experience, providing a modular and customizable solution to education industries and corporate organizations. We’re excited to bring the authenticity of face-to-face relationships in a virtually-driven world.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Early in my career I saw the need for using computing devices to promote real-time communication between people. At the time, the industry lacked quality software to create those instant connections, and this seemed like a great opportunity for a whole wave of new technologies. Back then, I saw the need for text messages to be sent in real-time across computer networks, but that would evolve over time into video conferencing and other forms of real-time voice. I had a solid understanding of network principles and software engineering, and that vision of a future where everyone could communicate in real-time is what led me down this career path.
I took my fresh ideas down to Sand Hill Road to speak with VCs and was promptly rejected a couple dozen times. Mind you, this was a time before the rise of Twitter, What’s-app, Skype and all the other forms of real-time communications we enjoy and use these days on our devices.
Despite the rejection, I just focused on building solutions, products and services around these concepts while bootstrapping the companies we started. The results were several successful companies along the way that helped to shape how real-time communications worked; including the company being cited by European CEO Magazine and market research firm Frost & Sullivan in 2009 as the first to use cloud computing in a multipoint video conferencing online service.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
There are so many different stories, it is hard to choose just one. I think that a turning point which ultimately saved the first company I started in real-time messaging, thereby cementing my career as an entrepreneur, was when we were a new company, and we had a booth at NetWorld Interop in 2001 in Atlanta. The show started on one of the most infamous of days, 9–11–2001 at 9am, essentially the exact time of the attack. I was having breakfast with the editor of Network Computing magazine at the time, but we were unaware of what was going on. When we walked back to the show floor people were in shock. Many of the vendors started packing up and the show was promptly cancelled. We knew we had to head back home to San Diego, but all flights were cancelled, all trains were booked, and it was difficult to rent a car since we needed to drive one-way from Atlanta to San Diego which takes several days. We set off on our journey home in a huge Ford “Crown-Vic” and I knew at the time, this event would create a real survival issue for our new company, and that the tech sector and related investment might stop. Eventually we made it back to San Diego. We had to reinvent ourselves and find a way to use our real-time expertise to survive. Within a matter of weeks, we had the “big idea” and that was to use our real-time technology to create an alert notification software to notify users in-bulk, of emergencies. That small idea ultimately sold 600K copies and was used by every major branch of the federal government in D.C. including the FBI and Dept or Labor. At the time, we were even on the POTUS’s computer. The product ultimately saved our small company while the tech sector slowed down.
Can you tell us about the cutting edge technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?
This recent pandemic has taught us many things about distance learning, but probably one lesson we are learning is that we need a purpose-built solution to video conferencing designed for educators. The off the shelf solutions people are using for learning lack the immersion required to replicate the experience of the classroom, and general-purpose video conferencing tools are inadequate for education.
We are focused on building the next generation of synchronous distance learning where interaction is forefront and paramount, and the need to learn comes first.
In addition to the problems with the current generation of remote learning, these solutions really lack the privacy and security required for the 21st century. Organizations need to have complete control over their information, and privacy is critical, so we are working on and providing solutions that meet these needs both in the private sector and in government.
How do you think this might change the world?
Education is a key element to improving one’s life. There are large parts of the world that are unable to access quality education in an effective manner due to poverty or governmental restrictions. Part of the issue is that technology is either not available, not affordable or distance learning tools are inadequate for the task. I see a future where broadband is widely available, like Musk’s Starlink satellite Internet service, which will be able to provide high-speed access to remote areas with low latencies. Combined with software technology that can deliver a high-quality live learning experience on low-end consumer devices, this will allow us to extend the reach of education to the entire world.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
I have seen a couple of episodes about the pitfalls of video conferencing on Black Mirror. Some of those storylines are not appropriate for discussion here, but the true worry is that we lose our human connection to others. A world where VR replaces human to human interaction is a theme of recent Hollywood blockbusters. This past year of pandemic education for our children has showed us how one-way streaming of information is not really education. For students to thrive they must have real interaction with not only the instructor but also their classmates. This can happen with technology, if it is designed correctly and based on enhancing our human behaviors instead of replacing them.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?
Moore’s law has held mostly true since it was first coined in 1975 and I am big believer in the concept. In layman’s terms it is on the principal that computers become increasingly more powerful as they become more compact. When I first started thinking about real-time, my epiphany was when I realized that text messaging would only be the beginning of this revolution. It would lead to real-time voice interaction and real-time video conferencing, and various other forms of real-time communications as the CPU of the device became more powerful. Since those early days of single core processors, we now have multi-core processors and GPUs driving our devices, all of which can be used to improve the experience for real-time. We have rearchitected our ideas for each of the evolutions. We are still seeing advances in the areas of real-time and we will continue to do so in the future. There is a long list of billion-dollar companies and billion-dollar exits based around real-time communications, with more yet to come.
What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?
Real-time communications continue to evolve, and what consumers expect from the technology continues to evolve as well. I would argue that no one company will dominate in this space for any lengthy period, because consumer demands continue to mature, and we have not even scratched the surface of what is needed for real-time communications on a global basis. Once high-speed, low latency Internet is available to the entire planet, we will see even more widespread adoption of technologies related to messaging, synchronous voice and video communications. Large, new opportunities for real-time communications exist in countries all around the world.
What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?
We started developing our platform for video conferencing and collaborative communications before the pandemic hit, not knowing that virtually overnight the pandemic would force people to work from home, and education would switch to distance learning. We had not launched our platform yet, but overnight there was an immediate need, so we have been providing the service free-of-charge to educators and organizations in the community. Additionally, we work with our partners in the government sector to deliver solutions that meet up with the requirements that they are unable to obtain from most other cloud based, general purpose web conference or video conferencing solutions. This is extending our reach into areas that are untouched markets, due to the need to address the requirements for military grade privacy and security related to communications.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Nobody does this alone, and at the risk of offending anyone, I would say that I been fortunate to be surrounded by a great group of software engineers my entire life. I believe that great products are not built with large teams of software engineers, they are only enhanced. Great products start with a small handful of super-talented engineers executing upon a shared vision. Finding those people with the talent to execute at that level is nearly impossible, and I have worked with so many genuinely smart people with great ideas.
One individual I would specially mention, and I have been working with for the greater part of my career is Erik Van Bilsen. He is an incredibly brilliant and humble software engineer from whom I have learned so much over these years. One of those rare talents that most large organizations are lucky to have only a few of, because you cannot measure that talent in a typical interview. From our first time working together, he has taught me so much and made me a much better software engineer. We started this latest venture together, and we are co-founders of Lumicademy along with our other partners working in the government sector.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Part of my joy comes from helping others be able to communicate more easily and efficiently. Watching my own child use technology that we built here at Lumicademy to improve her math through truly interactive tutoring over our platform shows me the power of the technology, when properly applied, to shape learning for the future. I hope to see a day where this is available to the most remote areas of the world.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Being lucky is more important than being good. My mentor, Steven Peltier, use to say that “timing is everything in business”. I learned along the way that it does not matter how great your invention is, it matters whether the timing is right. Too early is as bad as too late. I learned that lesson in both my successes and failures in business.
- Success is all about personal relationships. If I had to choose the most successful outcomes over the years so far, I would point to those where I developed a personal relationship with the customer. I mean this is in the sense that they knew me, and I knew them. The most important attribute in developing these relationships was trust.
- Be careful who you hire when starting up. You are only as good as the people around you, listen to them and learn from them. When you are first starting out make sure you hire the correct people for those first 10 jobs because it will make you or break you.
- You need more money than you think you need. It has been said before, but you will certainly underestimate it. Either you need more cash before your business reaches break-even or you will take off and need more capital to grow faster.
- Never underestimate an opportunity. If I look back on my career, the biggest opportunities came from small meetings on my calendar that at first glance, seemed insignificant. The best things happened from the most innocent introductions, so always keep an open mind and while sometimes you need to say no to the opportunity, do not be afraid to say yes.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Communications is transformative, and I believe it is the key to developing empathy by means of knowing others. It is difficult for most people to hold onto their prejudice when it impacts those we know, love and care about. If I could inspire just one thing in this world, it would be for all of us to communicate with each other in a way that helps us really understand what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes. Imagine what the world would be like if we all truly empathize with each other? Communications is key in getting us all there and I hope to play a small part in making that happen.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There are so many great quotes and my friends would say I mostly use either football or farming phraseology. There are others like Ma’s “forget about your competitors just focus on your customers” and my mentors have used a choice few. But for me, the golden rule is paramount in that “always treat others how you want to be treated” serves you well in business. So many entrepreneurs and founders get into trouble by not following this concept. Treat, not just your shareholders or your customers as you expect to be treated, but make sure you treat your employees with the same respect.
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 🙂
I have raised varied amounts of money over the years from different sources, some friends and family in the early years (which I would never do again), angel investors, and now mostly private equity, but never the traditional venture capital route, even though I tried. Fortunately, in some of the ventures we have been able to boot strap our growth, and in others, private equity has been available from prior business relationships. For Lumicademy, we can fund the operation through our connections, and the private equity investment from them.
I found out over the course of the years that the investment capital came from the other sources for us, and not from the VCs. It has crossed my mind how much bigger the exit could have been if we infused large amounts of capital in the early years from the VCs, but I am happy with the course we took at the time, as well as the journey and the outcome.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
On Twitter: https://twitter.com/lumicademy
Lumicademy has a presence on Twitter, Facebook and Linked-in so feel free to reach out to us if you would like to discuss your needs and requirements. For me personally, while I have social media accounts, I prefer to spend my social time playing with my kids and seeing my family and friends.
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.
The Future Is Now: Allen Drennan of Lumicademy On How Their Technological Innovation Will Shake Up… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.