There are usually a number of viable roads to get to the end goal — the best one for you is usually the one that is most authentic to who you are.” I have worked with a number of CEO’s overs the years I spent in private equity investing, and I’ve witnessed first-hand successful outcomes achieved using very different management styles. Creating change involves a lot of trust building, and I’ve learned through my own failures that when you stray from who you are as a person, that lack of genuineness is apparent to the very people you are asking to trust you.
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sam Ramadori, COO of BrainBox AI, who oversees the execution of the company’s growth-oriented business plan as well as investor relations. His background includes private equity and senior executive roles, with experience identifying investment opportunities and supporting management teams in the development and implementation of growth-oriented business plans.
Sam held senior operational, investor, and executive roles at private equity firms, including Walter Capital Partners and Brookfield Capital Partners, before joining BrainBox AI in 2019. He has an MBA from the Ivey School of Business as well as degrees in common law and civil law from the University of Ottawa.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Until I met BrainBox AI, I would have said that I had a pretty focused career path, starting out as a corporate lawyer who quickly figured out that he needed to be on the business side. One MBA degree and a couple of management consulting stints later and I ended up in a private equity role at a firm that has today become one of the largest investment platforms in the world. I spent 15 years in private equity, investing in mid-sized companies across a broad swath of business sectors. For most of those 15 years, I was focused on distressed investing including pretty hands-on management roles in turnaround situations, which are in and of themselves tremendous learning opportunities. So far so good — I thought I had found my career calling in life.
Then I met with the founders of BrainBox AI who had the audacious goal of introducing the latest in artificial intelligence technology to a large, fairly staid industry — the commercial real estate sector. Simply put, their goal was to bring the same AI capabilities embedded in a self-driving car to commercial buildings in order to dramatically decrease the amount of energy they consume. I was totally blown away by the concept and inspired by the impact this type of technology could have on the world.
I took the plunge and joined the start-up. The reaction from my business colleagues and friends: “You’re going where?! Aren’t start-ups for 30-year old dreamers?”
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
In the 15 years I spent in private equity investing, I was privileged to work with companies operating in many diverse industries, from traditional manufacturing to fast-moving software firms. The high you experience when you see a company truly “take-off” is beyond gratifying. Today I can bluntly say that I’m living the highest of highs because of the industry-redefining technology BrainBox AI has created for the commercial real estate sector. We’re applying the power of autonomous artificial intelligence to one of the largest energy-consuming sectors in the world — heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems in commercial buildings. Using deep learning, we’re driving reductions in energy consumption in buildings that were previously unthinkable without spending millions of dollars on new equipment. We are able to scale our technology at a fraction of the cost and time required by traditional capital-intensive solutions. In the more traditional real estate and HVAC industries, a technology of this kind is completely disrupting existing energy-saving models and equipment optimization projects and is enabling building owners to unlock energy savings they never knew were possible.
I have no illusions that recounting stories of HVAC optimization strategies at your local bar will make you the life of the party; talking HVAC can make the eyes of even your truest friends glaze over. However, when you understand the sheer scale of how much energy is consumed by all the buildings in the world and the greenhouse gases they create (about 20% of GHG emissions come from buildings), it becomes abundantly clear that the impact BrainBox AI can have on energy consumption globally is truly colossal.
Think about what it feels like to go home to your children and without exaggerating tell them that: “Yes, daddy and his friends at BrainBox AI truly are working to save the planet.”
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
One of the early turnarounds I was involved in was a company that manufactured specialty absorbency materials used in personal hygiene products. A large majority of the company’s product was used by its customers to produce feminine sanitary pads. So, there we were, a group of middle-aged men sitting around the boardroom table trying to figure how to innovate the product in order to present solutions to our customers that would allow them to sell a better performing feminine pad in the market. What’s wrong with this picture?
The lesson seems obvious today with the increased attention paid to diversity and inclusiveness issues in the last years — not so much the case back then. I can say that it opened my eyes to the importance of bringing different views to the table, but in no way can I claim that the problem has been solved in the last couple of decades. We still face inclusiveness issues in the business world today. In fact, though we do well on racial and ethnic diversity, gender diversity is a challenge that we continue to face at our company today; one that we are continuously working on addressing as we understand that true innovation finds its source in diversity. Practically speaking, gender diversity is a challenge that I’ve come to realize is harder to address in certain industries, but it only means that we have to work harder at it, as I am convinced that a part of the success of our company resides in our ability to resolve this challenge.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
I don’t need to recount the well-known post-war Italian immigrant story, but I can’t really speak about mentors that have been impactful in my life, both personal and career-wise, if I don’t speak about my immigrant parents, aunts and uncles and their experience living the Canadian dream in Montreal. No money, barely high school level education (some were illiterate) and having to learn two new languages, never mind one, just to get by. Watching them start and build their own businesses was the very definition of the words grit, sacrifice and determination. In the toughest moments of my own career journey, just the thought of complaining about the difficulties I was living was extinguished by the vastly different scale of the challenges my parents’ generation faced in their working years. Suck it up buttercup and move on…
As I made my way through the practice of law and into private equity investing, my real school of hard knocks came via working with the CEO of the first turnaround I was involved in. The company had all the issues of a failing business: loss generating, tough union, customers about to jump ship, etc. He threw me into one challenge after another despite my lack of experience in the particular field. “You’ve never dealt with unions before? Don’t care — go mend the relationship and negotiate a new deal.” When it came to the “how”, his words of wisdom were to the point: “You don’t have to have all the answers. Show them that you want to get to a solution that’s best for the company and the workforce and build trust through the process. Oh, and by the way… don’t let yourself get pushed around or bullied, or you’re toast.”
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
Like many, I do believe that disruption leads to positive change over time, and in some cases, disruptive technologies may be our only hope in resolving some of our planet’s biggest challenges. Where I get worried is when disruption moves more rapidly than our ability to adapt our societal structure to meet the new reality. We’ve witnessed a number of major innovation waves in the last decades that have produced significant improvements in our daily lives. Throw into this category rapidly increasing computing power, major strides in many healthcare fields, the Internet, mobile communication, new materials, etc. Right now, we are witnessing some amazing new technologies based on artificial intelligence, cloud computing and robotics, which are likely building blocks of the next major innovation wave.
The issue is that in the last decades we have also witnessed a growing disparity in how the benefits generated by these new technologies are distributed throughout our society. If the middle class and low-income individuals are not benefiting from these advancements, but rather are seeing their living standards decline over time, we are not moving forward on a sustainable path. A clear example of this risk is the way that artificial intelligence combined with advanced robotics is going to significantly change our workforce. I’m sure we can come up with solutions in the form of skills training, changes to our education system and other safety net tools to address these issues, but it will require some foresight and a good dose of political courage to start making these changes.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
There are usually a number of viable roads to get to the end goal — the best one for you is usually the one that is most authentic to who you are.” I have worked with a number of CEOs over the years I spent in private equity investing, and I’ve witnessed first-hand successful outcomes achieved using very different management styles. Creating change involves a lot of trust-building, and I’ve learned through my own failures that when you stray from who you are as a person, that lack of genuineness is apparent to the very people you are asking to trust you.
In most challenging situations, be they turnarounds or high growth ventures, there is always far more to accomplish than time permits. In the first private equity investment I was actively involved in, I had the privilege of working for a year with the new external CEO brought in to right the ship. It was the proverbial “drinking from a firehose” experience. In one of the intense periods we lived through, he pulled me aside and dropped a few words that have stuck with me along the way: “Stop trying to do everything yourself — you won’t make it. Surround yourself by very smart and high integrity people, and then get the hell out of their way.”
“There is very little that can make up for a lack of integrity…actually nothing can.”
Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?
At BrainBox AI we are in the fortunate position of bringing state-of-the-art technology to the real estate sector, which poses unique challenges when it comes to lead generation. For a company as young as ours we are getting an inordinate amount of attention, which makes the pure lead generation side of the equation somewhat easier. Seeing as we are bringing the latest in autonomous artificial intelligence technology to a fairly traditional industry, our bigger challenge is identifying the leads that will perceive and understand the game-changing benefits of adopting a novel technology — those that will open the door to the potential of AI.
More specifically, our lead generation strategy focuses heavily on educating our target market on the opportunities that exist with artificial intelligence and establishing ourselves as a thought-leader. As there are very few companies currently operating in our space, we feel that it is our responsibility to share insights in order to not only inform the market but also build trust with the key players. AI can be perceived by some (or even many) as a big, black, unpredictable, scary box and we strive to demystify this. Tactically speaking, we generate and share a significant amount of thought leadership pieces, and generate leads through webinars, speaking engagements, articles, videos and media interviews. Our goal is to lead the discussion on the use of AI in the commercial HVAC sector and to engage with the industry players that are keen to learn more about it.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
Buildings are the largest consumers of energy on our planet and BrainBox AI’s autonomous AI technology will make a very large impact by reducing energy consumption in buildings by up to 25%. Beyond the significant energy savings being produced, our meaningful impact on climate change will come from the scalability of our solution. There are no upfront costs and the installation in a building of our single edge device takes less than 3 hours. Our ability to deploy across a large portfolio of buildings in a matter of weeks is unparalleled, and despite having launched to the market only a year ago, we are already installing in buildings around the world, remotely.
For our next act we are working on BrainBox AI 2.0, which takes on a macro view of energy efficiency by extending our autonomous AI technology to the energy grid level. This entails leveraging the power of AI across a group of buildings in order to proactively manage energy demand and avoid energy peaks across the grid. This game-changing innovation was in fact inspired by a natural phenomenon known as swarm intelligence, which can be seen in the collective behavior of a school of fish or swarm of bees. The way these large groups of animals collaborate and act as one allows them to more successful; every-day actions like gathering food, reproducing, or protecting themselves from predators become exponentially more efficient through collective action. Our goal is to reproduce this swarm intelligence behavior in the built environment in order to create a more synergistic relationship between the energy distribution grid and the cities they serve.
The supply/demand balance challenge that the industry faces every day is becoming an increasingly critical issue in fast-growing economies where energy demand is rapidly outstripping the supply infrastructure, and in developed countries that are aggressively pushing the adoption of intermittent renewable energy sources (e.g. wind and solar). This is where BrainBox AI’s swarm intelligence technology can revolutionize the demand component of this balance challenge and truly speed up the transition from fossil fuel-based power generation to renewable energy sources.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
Hands down I am most inspired by leaders that were able to persevere through the most impossible odds and maintain the inner courage and willpower to lead others through seemingly hopeless situations. Frederick Douglass — Prophet of Freedom is an amazing biography of a man who rose from a life of slavery to become an abolitionist leader, author, editor and diplomat. How does someone start life being treated as “property” to then go on to become a great orator and tireless abolitionist? How do you overcome the severe disadvantages of living through the brutal existence of a slave as a young person? Frederick Douglass started early life with a complete lack of formal education in childhood, only starting to learn the alphabet at the age of 12. Lifting yourself from those beginnings to become an educated white-collar worker would have been miraculous enough — but going from that starting point to being a great orator and leader fighting against slavery does not even seem to fall within the realm of the possible. True inspiration.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Success is not final; failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” — Winston S. Churchill
Though the quote reads as if it only applies to major struggles or career challenges, to me this quote also applies to one’s personal life as well. Without a doubt, major career failures can really impact your confidence and often spill into your personal life in very negative ways. Personal or family tragedies take the cake though, as they are without fail totally devastating to the soul. We have all lived them, or seen someone close to us live through them, and the courage displayed in these moments is both impossible to believe and inspirational at the same time.
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.
I have all the faith in the world in humanity’s ingenuity when tackling our planet’s biggest problems. My biggest fear though is time — or more precisely, the lack of it. At the pace at which we are witnessing major climate change events happening, we have to be concerned about the speed at which we can change course. My sense is that climate change will behave like an avalanche in the way it plays out — the longer we let it go without intervening, the more powerful its cascading effects become and the more difficult (not to use the word impossible) it becomes to stop it.
Changing how entire industries operate and how we behave at the individual level is not a fast process — we just won’t get there in time. On top of it, these changes become all that much harder to implement in developing countries where ensuring minimal basic living standards (food, education, security) is understandably prioritized over climate change issues. I believe that our only real hope is to start adopting high impact, low-cost technologies that can be implemented at scale quickly — and by this, I mean new technologies that can be rolled out in weeks and months, not in years and decades.
I’d like to name this movement “Speed and Impact Matters” — keep an eye out for it.
How can our readers follow you online?
At BrainBox AI, we are at the beginning of an exciting journey as we tackle the largest energy-consuming category in the world — buildings. We would love for your readers to join and support us on this journey by following us on LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Facebook, or check out our website. Doing something as transformative as changing how energy is distributed and consumed on a global basis is not easy, and we are certainly not above asking for and accepting help and support along the way. As for myself, I am always up for conversation and can be reached on my personal LinkedIn where I share some thought-leadership articles and current affairs articles that spark my interest.