Phoenix's new, legacy tech firms pave way for local IoT growth | Crain's

Phoenix's new, legacy tech firms pave way for local IoT growth

The Greater Phoenix Economic Council is at the forefront of efforts to develop and expand IoT in the Valley. | Photo courtesy of GPEC

Have you heard of the internet of things? If not, you eventually will, since it has the capacity to change our lives as much as the internet itself.

IoT is the interconnection of computing devices with everyday things, allowing them to send and receive data. Increasingly, there are more and more things inside and outside our homes that have Wi-Fi and sensors embedded in them, such as cars, thermostats, lights, refrigerators and other appliances.

There are wearables, such as the Apple Watch and Fitbit, which have embedded GPS and heart-rate sensors, as well as the capacity to tell you how far and how fast you have walked or run. More advanced medical wearables not only collect biometric data, they can also detect life-threatening conditions and even help with patient diagnoses, according to company claims.

Locally, the Greater Phoenix Economic Council is at the forefront of the rapidly expanding IoT industry. GPEC is a public-private partnership whose mission is to attract and grow quality businesses and advocate for greater Phoenix’s competitiveness. GPEC works with its 22 member communities, Maricopa County and more than 150 private investors to achieve its mission.

“A few years ago, I was talking to a number of legacy companies,” says Chris Camacho, president and CEO of GPEC, “and they would tell me a common theme on their technology roadmap was the use of technology in a connected way, where everything was digitized and connected to the internet and mobile [devices]. I met the folks at ASU who were building the systems that allowed real-time communication from a device on someone’s wrist to the war zone in Afghanistan.”

Seeing those local engineers provide the Army significant research and product applications left a strong impression, Camacho says. However, he’s equally impressed by the civilian applications in such fields as healthcare. 

“Dexcom, in Mesa, is producing a connected medical device that measures in real time the insulin in diabetic patients. So, the doctor can assess the patient’s insulin and sugar levels and send alerts via mobile to the patient if there are any warning signs. Med devices are becoming much more connected. We’re seeing this new phenomenon evolve, where connectedness is a part of marketability.” 

The global market for smart sensors is currently $154 billion, according to GPEC. The market for IoT solutions is projected to reach $8.9 trillion over the next five years and $60 trillion in investment is expected for industrial IoT over the next 15 years. 

“The reason we’re focused on IoT and these new technology industries so much is that the workforce is going to change at a pace we’ve never seen before," says Camacho. "We want to get well ahead of that curve. So, we have our universities and community colleges focused on this industry.”

Phoenix will ultimately become a “smart city,” where electronic sensors will supply information to monitor and manage traffic and transportation systems, power plants, water supply networks, waste management, law enforcement, schools, libraries, hospitals and other community services, according to Camacho.

“In the near future, you’re going to be driving into Scottsdale, Phoenix or wherever, and you’ll have the ability to download a parking app that will be able to tell you where available parking spaces are before you get to the parking garage."

The Valley is home to a number of IoT-related industries, ranging from some of the leading microprocessing and computer chip companies to aerospace and healthcare firms. Camacho says the primary industries locally are wearable technology companies — who offer a combination of military, consumer and healthcare applications — autonomous vehicle companies, and cybersecurity firms.

Among the top companies operating locally in the IoT space is General Motors, which has a major IT division in Phoenix that supports autonomous vehicles. Intel, Mobileye, Waymo and Uber also have Valley operations focused on the development of automated vehicles. Additionally, Avnet, Microchip and ON Semiconductor are all locally headquartered companies that are breaking ground in the IoT space. 

While GPEC is unable to determine exactly how many jobs result from or are related to IoT, Camacho says the number of companies and graduates, as well as the level of tech-job growth, is significant. 

“The advantage we have as a market is that we have legacy industries, which have predominantly been chip-enabled and embedded system-enabled, that are root leaders in the industry."

But the economic growth and jobs potential for IoT remain difficult to accurately project, Camacho says. Many IoT products are still in the lab and in the process of development. Nonetheless, he is optimistic since this is still a nascent technology with plenty of room for growth. 

“We’ve become a state that supports the testing of these new-age types of products," he says. "There’s a strong likelihood that companies will not only come here, set up operations and test, but ultimately, long term, this will be the place where a lot of this technology is invented.” 

Given its connectedness and ability to influence so many things in our daily lives, IoT is heavily dependent on cybersecurity. Creating secure networks is critical to public safety and, ultimately, to the success of IoT. As Camacho puts it, cybersecurity is the new-age infrastructure of the 21st century. 

The intellectual property of large corporations is also at great risk, as it is regularly under attack. These are critical factors to the future of IoT. While there is plenty of hope, hype and seemingly endless possibilities, there are also numerous challenges. 

“There are things that we should keep in mind as we design and develop these devices and networks,” says Jamie Winterton, director of strategy for ASU’s Global Security Initiative. Winterton is involved in the cybersecurity efforts at ASU and helps to develop its strategy for security research. “I absolutely see the value they can have. If we design these things with security in mind, then I think we can have both.”

The problem, as Winterton sees it, is that not enough technologists consider the critical nature of securing the data coming from various devices and networks. This results in vulnerabilities, which raise some concerns for her.

“One of them is what you can find out about someone from their IoT pattern. Consider someone with medical issues. Senior citizens could hugely benefit from having an interconnected home. But we want to make sure that the data that’s collected about them isn’t stored somewhere and available for exploitation.”

Winterton notes that big data breaches seem to be an almost daily occurrence. The personal information of millions of Americans is constantly at risk. IoT adds another layer of risk, information can be stolen from medical devices and in-home devices.

“These things live with us,” Winterton says. “They’re taking data about us all the time. If that data is not encrypted and it’s not stored for just a limited amount of time, then those people are vulnerable to profiling, identity theft and other kinds of exploitation.” 

Winterton has an additional concern about IoT: On their own, these individual devices don’t have that much computational power. However, when they’re all linked together, you could get a botnet — a network infected by malicious software that can be controlled by hackers without the individual device owners’ knowledge.

“A lot of internet-connected devices have a similar software setup,” she says. “If there’s a vulnerability in that software, you can chain a lot of devices together. This could be used for cryptocurrency mining or doing a distributed denial of service attack on a website. We need to be able to protect our devices and make sure that they stay within their realm. You want your toaster to make the perfect toast for you, not join somebody’s bitcoin campaign or send an overwhelming number of packets to the State Department.”

From a smart-city perspective, where everything is interconnected, an entity with bad intentions could wreak a lot of havoc, says Winterton. Think streetlights, traffic lights, vehicles and other connected infrastructure.

“Once networks are connected together, they share vulnerabilities,” Winterton says. “Your threat surface expands monumentally. So, we want to make sure that all of the pieces in that network are secure, as well as all the connections between them, so they can’t all be taken out at once.”

Still, Winterton remains sanguine about the future of IoT if security is baked into the design of the devices and networks. 

"I think there’s a lot of good to be gained. We want to make sure that it’s a long-term good. We can only ensure that if we think about how we’re going to secure the devices, the networks and the people too.”

April 6, 2018 - 2:34pm