Here's our transcript of Pitchwerks #100 with Kenny Chen. We spend this episode talking about the Thrival Festival.
Within only a year and a half to two years of actively dabbling, and learning in this space, I've already been elevated to the world stage on AI policy and the way that these things are happening. I didn't think I'd be here for another decade.
Hey everybody, it's Scot, It's Wednesday and it's the Pitchwerks podcast, thanks for tuning in, so it's our 100th episode but we haven't told our guest yet, and he hasn't walked in yet, so it's gonna be a little bit of a surprise. We've got a little bit of bubbly, here on the table, thanks for tuning in with us a hundred times over the last couple of years. Hopefully, the content is still good enough that you wanna subscribe to this fine program, and then rate and review. I got you! Please do those things if you haven't already. I would appreciate it tremendously. This week we got Kenny Chen - you remember Kenny from roughly about 50-60 episodes ago? It's Thrival time once again. Thrival is a big festival that I'm a big fan of because of the just very useful purpose it serves to society at large, it's a really great way to crash ideas into each other and just figure out what sticks and figure out what we should be thinking about going forward.
Let's talk to Kenny. Let surprise them with... Well, there won't be balloons falling from the ceiling, but let's surprise him anyway.
So Kenny Chen! You've got a glass of champagne in front of you. And this is definitely not gonna be the main thing we talk about today, but we do have to take a moment and just point out, that you are our guest for Pitchwerks 100.
That is frickin amazing! Hey congrats!
Man I'm glad you enjoyed it... We sat and wrestled with it for a minute and we're like, "What should we do with 100?" Buzzy had a ton of ideas. He's done a bunch of different 100th episode kinds of things and every one of them felt like stress and I said, "You know what, it's gonna be a bottle of champagne and somebody I enjoy talking to and here we are. So I did have to work you a little bit to get you in here, at the timeline that I wanted you in to make sure I turned out okay, I was like, "Yeah you better get in here quick... But now you know what the subterfuge was all about.
That's fantastic, I love you Scot MacTaggart.
Well for real, I do enjoy talking to you, and I do think you represent some of the best things about the scene. It's nice talking to you and you're always leaving money on the table, you're always making sure that other people are getting taken care of, and that's the kind of person I feel like I wanna celebrate the 100th episode with...
So like wise, and this is a fantastic milestone, I was just looking back over your guest list over the course of these. Well, it was up to 98 - Mark Bursic - and I was like, "Oh man, he's so close!"
We're so close! I wonder what he's gonna do!
Yeah, right, and then it's just sorry man, yeah, I wanted to pull the rug out from Montrose tiny bit to... Because here's the thing, if I had told you in advance that we... That this was gonna be happening, it would have become a little bit weird a little dominant. And I do legit when I have conversation with you 'cause there's interesting questions in the year but you take it as a compliment. It's intended to be... Thank you for being here, for our one hundredth.
I am honored, thank you for having me.
So let's dig in.
The sixth Thrival it's weird. Those are two words that are weird to put together. Sixth Thrival.
Yeah, I'm not gonna even try to say that 10 times fast...
Is coming up soon. And I have a bunch of questions. And last year, I think we were exposing people to the idea of what Thrival is, but this year, I wanna dig in a little bit, because there seemed to be some real material connections being made as a result now. I know just from, moderating one panel last year, right? I made some really interesting dots connect that never connected before and... And I kinda wanna dive in, so just for scientific purposes can we try...
I try to identify what humans X-tech is supposed to be pronounced as so that I don't offend you along the way.
Well, that's still something that we're figuring out on our end. I say humans and tech so I...
Another say, humans X-tech because that is what is it semantically or whatever.
It's like the right way to read it out or something in you, too. Well, okay, so the ex-there is meant to represent a lot of things. So it could be additive it could be multiplicative.
I took it as multiplicative just to look at it.
We could represent in the intersection of two different kind of veins of thought. And really, I mean so much of what we're trying to do with Thrival on this front is to bring together sometimes a strange, atypical combinations.
It's art, in a lot of ways, right? You're eliciting response, right? You're like... These two concepts never get crashed, together, but it seems like it might be useful.
And then you finish with a more literal sense in the fact that, on what is it, Friday night? It becomes Thrival concert as opposed to Thrival panel discussions and having luminaries speak on what it is that they know.
So I just wanted to know, 'cause I mean I've been calling it humans times tech and which sounds clunky to me, and I think I'm wrong.
Yeah, so, let's just go with humans and tech, that's what I say. And I think colloquially that... That's this defining relationship that we're trying to hone in on and what we believe is that we're humans and technology have already been in this dance over the past however many millennia but now it's really hit this kind of critical point where we're asking ourselves Are we going to be replaced by our own creations is this...
Are were gonna become inextricably from them.
Exactly. You were just meeting with Ryan O'Shea.
Who I was gonna bring up.
Yeah, yeah, and so this question of what even makes us human, when there's already so many things that we've implanted in our bodies we're inextricably linked to our smartphones in many ways. We have millions of cyborgs essentially among us with far augmented cognitive and sometimes physical capabilities, beyond what anyone 100 or even 30 years ago, might have ever imagined.
And the 30 is the one that makes me smile it, it's amazing the speed with which we are learning to adapt and... And I do think Thrival lends something very concrete to not just like the people that study these disciplines but actually the larger conversation that happens in living rooms and at kitchen tables right now, the things that people talk about at Thrival tend to be fairly concrete but still forward-leaning so that you can actually talk to your parents and say, like, "Oh you know what, I was at a panel where they were talking about how artificial intelligence might... And then you jump off and the talk's about maybe what your little cousin, might have to do for work, in 20, years, who knows? So humans in tech... See, that doesn't sound so clunky. We're gonna go with that.
Start on the 19th of September and tickets are on sale at Thrivalfestival dot com.
I wanna make sure you get a proper plug too.
I appreciate it, thank you.
It's a big deal, but I also get this feeling like you guys have learned from doing past Thrivals about what direction, and size, and tenor you want the next ones and the future ones to take right?
Oh man, yeah, built upon battle scars, upon battle scars...
Fill me in. What lessons have you taken away from the first five?
Well, and this is speaking as someone who was not in town for the first one, only had the broadest inkling of what Thrival was the second year, I think in 2014, went balls to the walls in 2015, went to everything--
And it went nuts!
Yeah, and then I've worked on 2016-2017-2018, and it's really moved organically. I mean, it's a space where any one who thinks that they can predict what's going to be top of mind and most pertinent next year would just be fooling themselves. And so each time around we start planning, I guess the week after a previous one ends and it's still not quite enough time, but... But I've seen the trajectory track from what was initially a neighborhood, local community-based thing, then grow to encompass a city and then a region and then like a broader... Semi-national space, then moved to national and now we've got our biggest international reach that we've ever had this year in 2018. And with that, with that scope we've really also come to terms with this unique kind of story and advantage that the city of Pittsburgh has more so than any other city that I know of in the world that had a central and pivotal role in each of the previous industrial revolutions, saw the fires of like post-industrial collapse being on the brink of extinction, and then re-discovering opportunities and things like robotics and advanced manufacturing automated systems. All this kind of stuff, but what's happening here is almost like a forecast, or the front lines, of what will become the roadmap of how hundreds of other cities around the world are going to deal with this fast-pace of automation and advanced technology.
I think, and mayor pour says these types of things a lot. Pittsburgh can teach the world a lot about not letting a defeat get you down forever.
Sure, absolutely, yeah. You look at the peak of things, where Pittsburgh was producing more steel out of this one city than the entire Axis powers combined during World War I...
Is that true?
And it played such a pivotal role in the shaping of all these different elements of not just the global economy and technology but the geo-political infrastructure of the world as we know it.
And the resilience story now, educates us as we talk about. Well, does AI mean I'm going to lose my job? Does the IoT present as much opportunity? Like... Are we as down on on the lows are we as high on the highs? You just have to keep an even keel. And we've learned that the hard way - paid for it - how many different ways I'll tell you something funny. My grandfather was born in Pittsburgh.
Then moved to Erie, where it was clean air, clean beaches, a nice place to live. And when my dad said, I'm moving my family down to Pittsburgh, and my grandfather went... What in the hell would you wanna do that for? 'cause he's got this picture in his head of what Pittsburgh was... And that obviously wasn't anything like what it is now. So one of the interesting things about your involvement with Thrival is the fact that you've got your fingers in a lot of pies, right?
For example, the XPRIZE. You play a role as an ambassador for the XPRIZE. Obviously everything that you do over at Ascender, which is helping people launch and grow and those kinds of things. So one of the things I wanna talk to you about is, as I pour more of that 100th episode champagne into this little glass over here... Which, let's be 100% honest. These are whiskey tasting glasses because it's me. So you're involved in all these different things and you get this exposure to let's... Let's isolate XPRIZE for a second, right? I tell people just by way of sort of illustrating this conversation, what it means for you to be an ambassador for XPRIZE.
And so, as background X PRIZE being a global non-profit that's been around for the last 23-24 years, leveraging multi-million dollar incentive competitions around what they call moonshotS, it's breakthrough technologies that have a tremendous social impact everything from ocean spill clean-ups to starting the commercial space industry, like in the mid-90s, so early 2000s and within the last few years, they've really built out more of a robust global community that's centered around, maybe about a dozen ambassadors or so split between Germany Japan.
That's a really small number...
So there might be 18 or...
Still a small nummber. Take the compliment. Kenny come on, man. I'm setting you up for it, you've got the same problem I have... You can't take a compliment.
The ambassadors are essentially people who care enough about facilitating that kind of global connectivity and take a resourceful approach to finding opportunities to form a partnerships to inspire people to throw their hat into the ring and make the next like moon shot break through thing and so really a lot of my role... That's a organically come about, only over the past year and a half, yeah, only for the past year and a half that I've been involved with XPRIZE, it's just been being passionate and excited about what X Prize has been doing.
Yeah, I and then being given the kind of permission and leeway to run with it, interpret that in a Pittsburgh and Midwest Rust Belt regional kind of context to recruit teams form partnerships and that's... So yeah, that's opened a lot of doors for me.
Yeah, well... But what's not to get excited about I mean we are talking about the future and introducing people or at least hosting a room full of people that are trying to get to that connected dot that is more useful. That advances us to the next phase. And it's a host of connected dots, honestly. So now you take that and you apply it is... Yeah, you're sort of liberally shaking a bunch of ingredients together at Thrival right? The same idea. I have to believe that there are stories rattling around inside your brain, where people met at Thrival, maybe they were on a panel together, or maybe someone was really into a subject and they raised their hand and came up and talked to the speaker after the fact where something cool came together because of this Thrival project, which again, seven years ago didn't exist. I mean, I don't know if you've got any examples on top of mind.
Yeah, I do, yeah. We could spend... The rest of this episode talking about those things, I mean, even just talking about my connections that I made in 2015 and 2016 alone, meeting some of my best friends I met Ryan Gayman 2015 at the theater in South Side, because I asked a question and he found me afterwards, and we ended up being co-conspirators for the next 2 and a half years...
Ryan hasn't been on the show. So if you could introduce people to his idea, real quick...
Oh, absolutely he was running Citizen City as an impact consultancy organization doing a lot of great things and now he works for Roadbotics.
Which is tremendous. We gotta get them in here.
One of the fastest growing startups that's based out of Ascender and is essentially taking dashboard mounted any kind of camera turning it towards the street and then utilizing computer vision, essentially, AI to analyze street conditions and preemptively deal with potholes.
And fix it before it needs to be filled!
Exactly, 'cause it can cost 10 times more once it actually becomes a pothole as opposed to just like some cracks on the street that people might not even recognize. So every Thrival, I think has an MVP or two, the people who are just there at everything, and then clearly get the most out of it because they're just genuinely passionate about what's happening and they want to connect with the people whose ideas are being shared. So I guess I was the MVP in 2015, because I went to 29 out of their 32 programs and sent them 27 pages of notes afterwards...
That's pretty hardcore.
In 2016 it was probably a tie between Katelyn Lesk and Kelauni Cook 'cause they came to just about everything. Katelyn ended up sharing video, like vlogs afterwards, talking about her top insights. Kelauni just rocked it with questions.
Kelauni's another one, I'm eventually gonna get in here.
You gotta get Kelauni.
I keep trying! Roadbotics Kelauni, all these are the people who have standing invitations.
Alright, okay we're gonna get them on here.
Yeah, and let's just be clear. Kelauni is Blockchain Billionaire and Black Tech Nation at the same time.
Oh, absolutely, and she recently started another company or organization called Distributed 49.
I don't even know about this...
Yeah, I think she's working on it with Eugene Leventhal who's also like a major blockchain kind of lead in Pittsburgh. It is the two of them. But yeah, I mean, Kelauni came back as a speaker for us in 2017, 'cause we thought she was that awesome. Katelyn, we brought in on the back end, she was just an incredible asset for us in 2017 helping us with a bunch of different things... And we're actually meeting tomorrow to talk about how she's getting involved in this year. Aaron Watson, the same way he spoke in '2016 and '2017, Ansys we brought Tom Marnik from Ansys and had him speak on a panel that Aaron was hosting about Blockchain, when Ansys did not have a blockchain strategy and they went back, right afterwards.
Yeah, they were saying to us. Hey, thank you so much for throwing us there. We met with our executive team immediately after Thrival and basically popped the question of What are we doing with blockchain, or broader distributed technologies, we haven't really prioritized how we're integrating or at least receiving these kinds of risks, and or opportunities, so we end up finding that by bringing a even a lot of these corporate players who... So you would think, have the answers and what not, by putting them in an environment where they're being peppered with ideas and technologies and industries that are sometimes tangential sometimes completely separate from anything that they've ever thought about... That serving as a kind of crucible for new ideas is completely within the realm of what we're trying to finish.
This is why I think it's art, right? It's not the standard definition, but again, I'm a big believer and booster of artists because it's their job to make you think about things. And question things in ways that you wouldn't have... And one of the problems and Ansys is just one of the most sober responsible corporate citizens out there. I've never heard anybody say like, "Oh I worked there and it was terrible.
People love Ansys, but I as I get older, I can feel that my area of expertise has shifted, I'm no longer expected to be the person who necessarily understands the cutting edge idea or the new practice, the new practice is left to people who are studying specific disciplines, and people who are not to put too fine a point on it, not as occupied with best practice, right? So there's new practice, and then there's best practices.
And when you become an older member of the team, best practice becomes your job, and you have to intentionally inject yourself into an environment such as Thrival so that you can immerse yourself in new practice otherwise the power imbalance in your office makes it so that no one wants to make you uncomfortable and therefore you don't get those new ideas.
I couldn't agree more. Yeah, I, it's interesting, we used to call the different Thrival assets - what we currently call humans and tech - used to be Thrival innovation, and music and arts, that just used to be Thrival music. But that question of What do you even mean by innovation was a big one. And I've been asked this repeatedly countless times over the past couple of years, especially once my title changed to innovation director at Ascender. And let me just say one that word is that is one word that's used for at least a dozen if not 100 different concepts. And when put in practice it's incredible how the disconnect between what people even consider to be an innovation ends up keeping it from happening. So are you talking about incremental change or paradigm shifts? Are you talking about trying to maintain best practices or or find entirely left field spaces, is it depth or breadth?
So we had one of your principal sponsors Rasu Shrestha from UPMC Enterprises who has been sponsoring Thrival for a little bit now.
I came in and I asked him that pointed question. I said, "You know, tell me what innovation actually means." And I wasn't trying to be flippant. Someone has to ask this question and you're doing it maybe in a practical way, by actually just throwing everybody up on a stage and letting them figure it out, themselves!
And I, I, I just have this thought and it's a way of kind of connecting those two things. How does effective corporate innovation kind of end up looking like the people who make the best connections, during kind of an opportunity like Thrival? And you often hear people refer to serendipity, like... Oh my gosh, how would I have ever known that Katelyn Lesk and Aaron Watson would cross paths, at this one thing, or old XYZ company, realized that they had an unmet opportunity within this kind of vertical.
I'm fully of the belief that the majority of what we call serendipity. Is manufactured or at least there's a lot more control over it than we have, and it's based on kind of systemic continued behaviors that put an individual, or an entity into the path of opportunity compared to... Yeah, just kind of waiting for...
comfortable opportunity. Opportunity where they feel as though nothing is at risk for them to try something new.
Exactly, I mean, so for example, the... The only reason why I'm involved in X PRIZE and have since been invited, I now serve as the Pittsburgh Ambassador to the UN's AI for good initiatives, and I just got added to the inaugural AI commons. Oh yeah the website, just went live two days ago. It's an AI Commons network that is coordinating problem sol- problem owners and problem solvers literally around the world.
Thank you, I'm still kind of in disbelief that within only a year and a half to two years of actively dabbling, and learning in this space I've already been elevated to the world stage on AI policy and the way that these things are happening. I didn't think I'd be here for another decade.
So other than being on the Pitchwerks podcast, what you attribute that to?
It's back to that kind of manufactured serendipity kind of thing. And a big part of it, I think, also ties to a combo of I guess open-mindedness and generosity, so...
I think everybody expected you to say the first one, but maybe not the second.
Yeah, and I think I really wanna emphasize the second where generosity and the power of giving first and the power of empathy for other people, I mean, really, so much of what you do on this podcast for Pitchwerks is... Scot, you put yourself in the shoes of the person that's sitting across the table from you and you think of their business as if it was your own and you just give and give in terms of advice, thoughts around improvement, best practices, and of course the podcast itself as a means to propagate that message and give them more opportunities, from which serendipity might emerge. I think that is the probably... Yeah, probably the most powerful kind of catalyst for... So these kinds of connections and--
I subscribe to the art theory that we were talking about in terms of what used to be called Innovation and is now humans and tech. I subscribe to this. I truly believe that the sparks that fly, off of one thing can turn into a fire somewhere else, and if somebody is just there to make sure that they get that energy, cool things can come out of it, right? And honestly, one of the things that I'm kinda driving toward here is I think there's a lot of people that would benefit from attending the innovation sessions, the humans and tech sessions. Sorry, I'm old school and I'm from Pittsburgh, so I call things what they used to be called...I think there is a group of growing companies and also a group of mature, at-risk-of-fossilizing companies that need that full immersion. And honestly, like I... All of this was kind of by way of saying, "How do we put the right words into those people's mouths, so that they come out and actually expose themselves to why don't we have a blockchain strategy like Ansys did a couple years back which you know how hard it is for a company to admit that this is something they should have been looking at, but didn't. If I'm the person who is the Kenny Chen of ABC Corp, I'm the Innovation Manager, innovation planner, I'm the future product specialist. I think I probably need to be able to make a case to my superiors or my executive team that this is a... And it's not an expensive ticket, it's like 200, if you buy the VIP. And I love the VIP experience, but you don't have to do it.
Sure, yeah, yeah
So, it's not an expensive thing. And it's three days where the programming or two days with the programming for the humans and tech where you can actually be there while take UPMC Enterprises is there basically crashing ideas together for you? And I don't know everybody who's on the docket yet. But that's if I were you, that's the message I'd be trying to put out there on the street is look...we all know that there's rust forming on our company, but your subordinates are afraid of telling you that the future is in a completely different market or completely different product set or a different way of looking at the world. So just come to this thing and see what people say.
Totally... And going back to your previous question about how we learned over the years and have continued evolving this Thrival used to wanna be everything to everyone. We used to have back-to-back panels that would jump from sports analytics to how to build a music ecosystem within a city to reducing food waste, and improving sustainability.
Back then, you probably thought that demonstrating a big tent strategy would bring people in at a time when you were afraid about numbers, but you're not afraid about numbers anymore.
This time around and last year as well, we broke things out into chunks that weren't so much defined by the industry vertical or the type of technology that's involved, but more based on how pertinent it is and accessible it is to people from different kinds of demographics.
Kenny Chen everybody. Make sure you turn out for Thrival Festival. It kicks off on the 19th.
Man, thank you.
Alright, that's the end of the show, thanks for tuning in. And again, I appreciate all 100 and everyone has been on the show, it's really been a lot of fun. We're gonna keep on trucking, but make sure you check out thrival festival dot com. And it's not that far away at this point.
Tickets still available. There's a couple days' worth programming, and then they finish it all up with a concert on Friday night, starting at 4PM, I hope to see you there. Hope to see you for the next 100 episodes.
Beginning in February 2019, transcripts are being added for selected episodes over time.
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