Colin Gounden, CEO and co-founder of Via, joins Dara to discuss data privacy and how blockchain can help safeguard security in the energy sector.
- Arguably, the energy sector has been overlooked in the age of blockchain and AI-backed innovations. But blockchain-based digital collaboration platform Via demonstrates how infrastructure companies and governments can collaborate without compromising the security of their data.
- Colin Gounden, CEO and co-founder of Via says improved collaboration (and a larger pool of data) can help boost renewable energy innovation and “make communities cleaner, safer and more equitable.”
- Colin shares insights on data privacy, decentralization and regulation; federal intelligence and defense interest in utilizing Via’s software; and energy data and equity.
I’ve covered everything from patent trolls and NFTs to the Reddit/GameStop chaos and the world of sextech on my podcast, but there’s one highly regulated ecosystem I’ve never explored: The energy industry. In light of the global energy crisis and the perennial, devastating effects of climate change, it’s about time we talked about how technology can disrupt our reliance on fossil fuels.
Most people in the AI, machine learning and blockchain space look to apply those technologies to healthcare and financial services. But Colin Gounden and his co-founders chose to launch Via, a global provider of blockchain for the clean energy sector, because energy has been “kind of overlooked” in the latest round of digital innovations.
Somerville, Massachusetts-based Via, according to its website, is a global company with a secure digital collaboration platform that’s “helping infrastructure companies and governments, including those with a similar mission, collaborate to solve some of the world’s toughest analytical problems together.”
Via’s CEO Colin puts it more simply: “Our goal is to make communities cleaner, safer and more equitable.”
On an episode of Tech on Reg, I spoke with Colin about the decentralization of both data and the energy industry, data privacy and analysis, and what the heck clean energy has to do with blockchain and tokenization. Here are just a few of his insights on empowering the future of renewables, one block at a time.
Infrastructure data: Invaluable but inviolable
Colin studied biochemistry and molecular biology in college, but his love of technology led him to a career in the startup world. He founded two companies that had successful exits, then became an investor and board member at three MIT startups and one Harvard startup. A few years ago, Colin felt drawn to the mission-driven entrepreneurship model and jumped at the opportunity to co-found Via with longtime colleagues he worked with at various companies.
Via is part of an industry-wide transformation that has crystallized over the last five years: “We’re in a position where that energy itself is decentralizing,” he explains. “We’re no longer [ solely ] burning fossil fuel to heat water to turn a turbine that sends electricity down the wire.”
Innovations like rooftop solar panels — commercially available since the 1970s — mean anyone can generate their own power. Electric vehicles are “cleaner” and more efficient than gas-powered cars, but they pull quite a bit of juice from the electrical grid. Those are just two reasons why there’s a greater need for analysis of distributed data about power utilization, says Colin.
But this kind of data is subject to strict (and regionally inconsistent) security regulations. Colin recalls talking with representatives from a power company who were interested in working with Via, but couldn’t share information about the company’s operations because it was classified as “critical infrastructure data.”
That problem drove Colin and his team to develop a platform that allowed the use of data that, while private and secure, is still analyzable.
“That was the origin of the company,” he says. “Helping to create a data platform made for clean energy in this sort of odd world — the intersection of decentralized data and very private rules.”
And as it turns out, he adds, “blockchain was a good solution for that problem.”
Artificial (business) intelligence attracts national intelligence
It also turns out that if someone (like the team at Via) can figure out how to keep data private and secure while simultaneously available for analysis “other people come looking for you — or help you,” Colin adds.
People like Uncle Sam: In 2020, the U.S. Department of Defense became one of Via’s biggest customers.
In fact, Via’s software is rated for use within the government’s highly classified levels of information and workflows. Just a few weeks ago, the company secured a large project working with a national intelligence agency, winning a bid against one of the largest consulting firms in the world.
Altogether, Via has eight-plus contracts with the U.S. government, all in the defense and intelligence arena — and “it’s all because of this ability to keep data private and secure,” Colin says. Unfortunately, he’s not privy to any juicy state secrets … yet!
Who owns what data?
Via’s products allow energy companies to compare benchmarks and work together with fellow utilities to save on operations and maintenance costs — and analyze larger pools of data for insights about infrastructure maintenance and staffing.
The company’s Web3 Skylight platform even provides energy companies the data they need to target individual customers who produce more power (via solar panels, for example) than they use — and approach those customers with attractive incentives, just in time to fortify the electrical grid during sudden spikes in demand.
Colin and his team wanted to use blockchain technology because it “happens to be very good at dealing with things that are decentralized in general,” he says. Plus, he notes that Web3 and similar innovations “aren’t just technology movements, but [ they’re also about ] giving ownership, control and voting rights back to individuals and consumers.”
Interestingly enough, the data I generate as an individual is mine, and the data you generate is yours, “wherever it was captured, or whoever happens to be the custodian of it,” Colin explains. He tells me that if my home has a smart meter, even if it was installed by the power company and it gathers data stored on that company’s servers, and even if I paid to have that smart meter installed, it’s legally mine.
“But if somebody uses that data, do you get compensated for it?” he asks. “No, and there’s no compensation back to you.” Information generated by the Web3 Skylight platform can begin to help change this equation.
With pervasive power comes great vulnerability
It seems natural to me that the Department of Defense is so interested in what Via does. The privacy and security component is absolutely critical, but so is freeing up our nation’s dependence on other sovereign nations for oil. I ask Colin whether he thinks VIA’s technology can be part of that effort.
“I don’t know that it was the case a few years ago when we started,” he says. But it’s “becoming the case” now, for two major reasons: One is that since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, cyber attacks on the power grid infrastructure have gone up tenfold. That’s a big concern for local and national governments, because these attacks go much deeper than simply disabling popular websites. Modern life requires a lot of electricity, so protecting our grid is fundamental in our societal hierarchy of needs.
“If you lose the internet, it’s inconvenient and you kind of go back to life in 1976,” Colin says. “If you lose power, you go back to life in 1876.”
The other reason the government might be newly interested in energy independence: It is the single largest consumer of energy in the world. In fact, about 77% of our nation’s entire energy spend is by the Department of Defense.
Just last year, President Biden signed an executive order setting the goal of the federal government sourcing 100% carbon pollution-free electricity by 2030. That’s why most of Via’s work for the government so far is “related to basic infrastructure and electrification,” Colin explains.
‘Energy deserts’ and equity
As an example of what AI analysis can do, Colin presents a hypothetical: collecting data on ownership of electric vehicles (and thus increased power use for charging purposes). EVs are “actually quite stressful on the grid,” he says. Certain communities or companies might want to reinforce the grid and upgrade infrastructure wherever there are a large number of electric vehicles.
There’s one problem, he notes: Who’s buying all those Teslas? Wealthy people in wealthy neighborhoods — which means low- and moderate-income communities might not get upgrades to their infrastructure because the analysis found that people in those areas buy traditional cars or use public transport.
It’s also why some neighborhoods get new Whole Foods stores and other neighborhoods don’t: the “demand” (in the form of high-income demographics) isn’t there. That’s how we create food deserts. “Energy deserts” could be next.
The difference, says Colin, is that Amazon owns Whole Foods, which is a publicly traded company. In most communities, the power company is often a monopoly and is usually highly regulated. Its job is to serve everyone, not just a niche.
“Equity matters” in the energy space he adds, noting that data privacy is a big part of making decisions about infrastructure. An investor or other entity that aims to improve the electrical grid, for instance, will want to know who’s using the power –– particularly their income levels. That crosses into personally identifiable information and presents “a whole different set of issues,” Colin says. “It becomes thorny quite quickly.”
Those “thorny” issues are why some states have passed privacy and security laws, although federal legislation remains elusive.
Innovators love to debate whether or not the U.S. government is a friend, enemy or frenemy of innovation.
Colin thinks they’re actually “BFFs,” and that laws and regulations (such as intellectual property protections like patents) play critical roles in innovation. Pfizer and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines were developed and went to market quickly because they followed a proven process, with the resources (especially the funding) of the U.S. government.
I’m not so sure I agree that the federal government views innovation as its bestie, or vice versa. Biden’s March 2022 executive order on “Ensuring Responsible Development of Digital Assets” was frustratingly vague. Developing new regulations is a long, arduous process diametrically opposed to the “fail fast and break things” mentality of tech startups. Doesn’t that slow down the pace of innovation?
Not necessarily, says Colin. He thinks even nominal moves like Biden’s executive order provide two important things: “Air cover” for companies that can point to the government’s validation that the innovation is “the direction we’re heading,” and a sense of urgency.
“Every government agency has like 50 things on their agenda [ or more ]. This now has to be one of them,” he says, referring to the issues laid out in Biden’s order. “It no longer gets put off.”
As Colin puts it from a CEO’s perspective: “It’s going to happen, and we better have a point of view on it.”