Dr. Alper Yilmaz of Ubihere: “You should always share your knowledge”

One thing I’ve learned is that you never give up, despite what might seem like constant failures. Your tenth, 20th, or 30th trial might not work. Even in situations such as working on your doctoral research, keep on pushing forward.If you don’t think out of the box, then you fail. The second thing is that you […]

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One thing I’ve learned is that you never give up, despite what might seem like constant failures. Your tenth, 20th, or 30th trial might not work. Even in situations such as working on your doctoral research, keep on pushing forward.If you don’t think out of the box, then you fail.

The second thing is that you need to take advantage of opportunities as they come up; at the right time and the right place. You never know when or where you might encounter great minds, great insights, and great creativity.

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Alper Yilmaz, founder and CTO of Ubihere, a solution that uses next-generation location systems to keep track of items in GPS-deprived environments such as remote, mountainous regions or office and hospital corridors. Ubihere came out of years of research and development conducted for US government entities such as the Department of Defense, Department of Energy, and NASA. In addition to his work with Ubihere, Dr. Yilmaz is a professor of geoinformatics with appointments in Civil, Environmental, and Geodetic Engineering and the Computer Science and Engineering (by courtesy) Departments at The Ohio State University. He holds five patents and has been published and cited in academic journals more than 10,000 times. This has been a banner year for Dr Yilmaz: he was named Ohio State’s Innovator of the Year for 2020 and Ubihere was named as an “Outstanding Startup” in Columbus Business First’s 2020 BizTech Awards.

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?

I started my education back where I was born: Istanbul, Turkey. I studied computer science and engineering: first with my bachelor’s at Yildiz Technical University, then with my master’s at Istanbul Technical University. The reason I chose computer science as a field of study was because I was attracted to them. I didn’t have access to computers when I was in high school, so I was drawn to them and was fascinated by the things I learned. After I finished my master’s at ITU, I went for more grad school; this time in Orlando at the University of Central Florida, where I got another master’s degree, as well as my PhD in computer science.

From there, I joined the faculty at the Ohio State University, where I am now. By way of my interdisciplinary position, I was given access to an array of institutional resources and given the opportunity to investigate a wide variety of problems and issues. This led me to the research I do now on navigation and positioning.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

After I started doing my research, I started to work with a number of government agencies including the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy. Our lab was called up by NASA to develop systems for the next Mars mission. From there, we went on to work on a number of different projects; specifically for ones to be used in areas where traditional global positioning systems.

Take the battlefield for example: not only might GPS signals be degraded or non-existent, any signal that could get picked up could get easily jammed. We realized one day that maybe we should look not just into developing this technology further, but also getting it to market. With the help of advisers at the Ohio State University, we began the commercialization process.

After we filed a patent, we thought, “why shouldn’t we start a company rather than someone else licensing that tech?

That led us to found Ubihere. The team at Ohio State and at Converge Ventures, our accelerator/incubator set us up with marketing and the government relations background to get the word out about our technology.

Our product can track any asset, any person without using GPS. This is where disruption comes into play: You can’t install antennas or satellites everywhere in outer space. Yet teams such as NASA still need tools to keep track of objects on exploration missions to extraterrestrial destinations such as Mars.

Enter the Ubihere tool, which has accuracy within centimeters. It has multiple use cases across a variety of sectors, including in healthcare to keep track of key items such as ventilators and other lifesaving machines.

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?

NASA had us test our products in one of their designated experiment locations. Among them was Black Lava Point in Arizona, which NASA has used as a test area for products to be used on the surface of the Moon. The surface is also Mars-like: the sand in the dried-out lake that forms the testing area is reddish.

Back in 2009 when we were working on this stage of our research and testing, we brought helmets with us into which we drilled holes and installed cameras. Besides us, there were a lot of ATV drivers riding the sand dunes. After about 10 minutes, people started watching us. More people came and set up chairs. Some of the students who were working on the project got a little uneasy and offended.

It turns out that our spectators thought we were from Hollywood and that we were shooting some alien movie. I told everyone that we were doing an experiment for NASA. The crowd left soon after.

What was the lesson learned from this experience? The next time we do an experiment on the behalf of a government agency, let the authorities know in advance.

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?

My first and biggest mentor has been my father. He was always striving for ways and things to improve the lives of the people around him. He was a judge. In Turkey the legal education system differs a bit: You major in law as an undergrad, then enter legal practice. When he was 46, the age I am now, he did his master’s. He was telling me that I always should be seeking out and moving towards new opportunities.

When I was working on my master’s at Istanbul Technical University, my mentor Prof. Muhittin Gökmen, who had completed his studies at Michigan, suggested I look at grad school in the US. I then came to the University of Central Florida, located outside of Orlando. My mentor at UCF, Prof. Mubarak Shah, was at the top of his field and suggested I explore fields of research that wouldn’t necessarily pigeonhole me into academia.

Also, I have to mention Dave Bergeron at Rev1 Ventures and Eric Wagner at startup incubator/accelerator Converge Ventures. Both organizations have given us funding and guidance as we continue to grow.

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?

One example of a technology that has stood the test of time is GPS technology. The military was using it in the 1970s and today, it’s integrated into our cars and smartphones. Many countries operate their own satellites, delivering data at different bandwidths. At the time, it was an incredibly disruptive technology and I think navigational technology will continue to be a mainstay of our lives.

Now another example of technology that’s been disruptive, yet with some hiccups: RFID, a very small tag that retailers put on high-value items to prevent theft. It can also give information on customer interest; say, if a shopper picks up the item to examine it.

To give a real-life example without naming names, this technology was deployed by a major retailer located here in Ohio. The company purchases about 4,000 of these units. When they were brand-new and the batteries inside were fresh, they worked fine. But the battery dies after two weeks. The tags quickly became a headache. Store employees had to scramble around to find each tagged item and replace the battery or tag.

While companies adopted this technology as a cost-saving measure wound up spending more time and money to fix the system. While item inventory certainly presents an issue, any solution needs to be able to solve this problem with a tool that doesn’t require frequent battery replacements and requires minimal service and upkeep.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Outside of my research at Ubihere, I do research at my lab at the Ohio State University. My journey is an ongoing one.

One thing I’ve learned is that you never give up, despite what might seem like constant failures. Your tenth, 20th, or 30th trial might not work. Even in situations such as working on your doctoral research, keep on pushing forward.If you don’t think out of the box, then you fail.

The second thing is that you need to take advantage of opportunities as they come up; at the right time and the right place. You never know when or where you might encounter great minds, great insights, and great creativity.

And the third, you should always share your knowledge. As an academic, I always mentor students and seek to guide them with what I’ve learned through research and through life.

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?

Being part of a university, I have to innovate constantly: I need to generate leads and beat the existing gatekeepers. The government provides tech transfer funding to leaders and innovators who are looking to develop tools that have government applications that could also work well in the general marketplace.

So I think I would say for that sense, for that matter, it’s so important to be open about whatever research is being conducted and whatever moves are being generated at the research setting.

I’ve worked with large companies such as Ford and Trimble. On that front, lead generation is not the main issue. It’s coming up with a solution that will actually solve the problem at hand. Developing innovative solutions and products should make use of creative and qualified ideas to address key issues within a variety of contexts.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

The Air Force is already starting to onboard Ubihere’s technology at Dyess Air Force base in Texas. On the healthcare front, COVID has made the need for hospital and medical inventory tracking all the more pertinent. From our base here in central Ohio, we have the footing to go bigger and continue to shake up inventory management as we know it.

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?

I read a lot! I also listen to a lot of podcasts. Primarily I read historical works and listen to podcasts about history. History is the map for how humanity has arrived at our current position. Over the past two years, I’ve read plenty about Greco-Roman, Chinese, and Ottoman history.

In terms of podcasts, History Unplugged is a great choice. Scott Rank, the host, has a PhD in history and regularly fields questions from listeners on various hypotheticals, such as what it would be like to have lived during a given era. Past developments vis-a-vis politics and religion can help put the events of today into context.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Mine is from the great physicist Stephen Hawking: “One of the fundamental rules of the Universe is that nothing is perfect! Perfection simply does not exist… So, the next time someone complains that you have made a mistake, you have to tell him/her that that may be a good thing, because without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist.”

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. 🙂

My influence is in the research circle — not TikTok or Instagram. I often talk with my students and my kids about what I think of life and humanity in general. I do often talk about history: not so much in terms of repeating history but in terms of how previous generations’ choices have brought us to where we are today. Some choices are right; some are wrong. You need to make sure you select the right from the wrong. We need to follow the right direction and teach and educate people to do the same.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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