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John Burton of UrsaLeo: “Diversity ”

Team — You can get lucky and have the best idea in the world, but at the end of the day when you choose the right team, motivate, educate, and work together success is often imminent. My co-founder Angie is process oriented while I tend to shoot from the hip and make quick decisions. She and others […]

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Team — You can get lucky and have the best idea in the world, but at the end of the day when you choose the right team, motivate, educate, and work together success is often imminent. My co-founder Angie is process oriented while I tend to shoot from the hip and make quick decisions. She and others on my team challenge my thinking and our idea volleying and ongoing discussions have truly been a key to our success.


As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing John Burton.

John Burton is the CEO of UrsaLeo, an enterprise software company that enables users to visualize operational data in a photorealistic 3D representation of their facility or product. For more than 30 years John’s professional career has been focused in sales and marketing primarily in the semiconductor industry. After selling his startup to a Japanese company in 2011, John decided to get out of the hardware world. He teamed up with a former Apple engineering product delivery manager to create an innovative digital twinning and IoT software that is transforming the way companies interact with the data they create and collect.


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’m originally from England and graduated with a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Birmingham in the UK. Immediately after college I got into the semiconductor industry and spent 30 years working in large companies as well as startups in the UK, Ireland, and then the US.

Back in 2011, I sold a startup that I founded to a Japanese company and stayed on for a few years helping to grow the business exponentially, but I knew there was more out there for me. I was getting the itch to start another company and knew I wanted out of the hardware world. A good friend of mine that I know from our neighborhood was in a similar situation. She had worked her way up the ranks at Apple but chose to step back and reevaluate where she was headed. In 2017 we decided to start our own company, UrsaLeo, focused on software, digital twinning, and the fast-growing world in the Internet of Things (IoT).

We spent 18 months doing a lot of research and worked on identifying where there were holes in the software marketplace and how we could capitalize and build something innovative in IoT. Our research included numerous interviews and also a trip to Russia to check out their engineering and manufacturing processes with a team of engineers I had worked with in the past.

Those 18 months brought a lot of insight, knowledge, and pivoting from a number of ideas. At the same time, Digital Twinning, the photorealistic 3D representation of a facility or product, was just coming into focus. We decided to combine the concept of digital twins with IoT. Together and with an amazing team of engineers, we have launched our product and are gaining traction in industries that include oil and gas, manufacturing, construction, building management and more.

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

Believe it or not, IoT has been around for more than 20 years and more recently the concept has been adopted by industrial companies to help them gather and make sense of the billions of data points they collect. However, the way data is collected and analyzed has not changed and does not scale well as companies increasingly create and collect more and more data every day.

UrsaLeo gives people a whole new way to interact with the data they are generating with IoT and the use cases evolve with every new customer we bring on. A great example is a company in the oil and gas field that we’ve been working with. Our team was originally brought in to create digital twins of their equipment and help monitor and collect data remotely. Once they saw how the product worked other teams became excited about opportunities for the use of digital twins in areas that include sales and marketing, training, and operations. What we’ve learned is that the product our team built is flexible and can be utilized across multiple disciplines and industries. With so many options one of our challenges is to ‘focus’ as we continue to disrupt.

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?

Not only did we learn a lot in Russia, the trip played a big role in the name of the company. During our trip, we went to a meeting at a restaurant that served bear dumplings. I had to order them, and Angie, my co-founder, continued to hound me about the dumplings as we made our way back to the states.

Our laughs and conversation turned into brainstorming around the name of the company. Ursae is the latin translation for bear and the bear is a symbol for California, where we are based. Leo is a constellation and we felt it was also representative of us being a cloud-based company (Angie and I are both Leos as well). So we combined the two to come up with our name.

As unique and funny as that story is, I think we could have been a little more thoughtful around our naming convention. UrsaLeo doesn’t tell people what we do — unlike, say, SensorTech or Digital Twins R US. Something descriptive and easy to understand may have been a better option. However, we like to think that in the future our name will be synonymous with Digital Twins and IoT much like Google is with search or Apple with innovative and easy to use technology. Instead of this being a “mistake” it forces us to aim high so that one day our name and what we do will go hand in hand.

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?

In life and work George Papa, a stellar professional with a long career in the semiconductor world, has been a powerful mentor for me. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and working with him for 15 years. He believed that personal integrity is vital to running a company and this is now a way of life for me. George instilled in me the importance of being on the up and up at all times including being honest even when it is hard to do. I’ve worked hard to integrate integrity and honesty into how I run my business and live my life and this philosophy has proven to be fruitful.

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 of the key elements of disruption is evolving processes while making things more efficient. Disruption is positive because it makes our jobs and lives easier and often less boring. However, when we disrupt we are often also disrupting people out of a job. From our perspective, the work that UrsaLeo does will, at the very least affect, maintenance departments by making them more efficient and effective. While this is great for the bottom line, we also know that it may mean the loss or displacement of legacy jobs.

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 actually three key words that have helped me in my personal and professional journey.

Team — You can get lucky and have the best idea in the world, but at the end of the day when you choose the right team, motivate, educate, and work together success is often imminent. My co-founder Angie is process oriented while I tend to shoot from the hip and make quick decisions. She and others on my team challenge my thinking and our idea volleying and ongoing discussions have truly been a key to our success.

Fun — At the end of my last career I was dragging myself out of bed. Not loving my work anymore I started to phone it in. My team and everyone around me saw this unfold and I knew it was time to get out because I was not having fun anymore. For work to be fun for me it has to be challenging so I work hard at challenging myself to create fun and keep me and my team motivated.

Diversity — For any company to be successful it is important to have diversity at every level. Especially when the creation of strategy is involved. I’ve watched a number of CEOs surround themselves with people that think the same way they do and at the end of the day hiring yes people leads to a lot of no. No to quality products, no to disruption, no to success. Beyond gender, Angie and I are different in so many ways and that has proven to be very successful.

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?

Prior to COVID-19, trade shows, seminars, and networking events played a key role in generating new customers for our business. In lieu of tradeshows, we’ve started a sales outreach program and focus on coordinating online demonstrations with leaders in the industries that we sell into. While much of this has been cold calling, our team has had a 20% success rate and it is a much more efficient and affordable way to garner new customers.

We’ve also done quite a bit of PR and marketing and have worked with our PR team to position me as an expert in the digital twinning and IoT space. I’ve been participating in virtual panels and writing opinion pieces that are being picked up in trade publications. By positioning me as an expert early in this burgeoning industry, we’ve been able to garner the attention of potential customers while also gaining market share.

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

Right now we know we have a disruptive solution that works well in North America and Europe. Both of these continents operate in a similar way from a business process perspective. Asia, and specifically Japan, is our next conquest. Disruption is a challenging thing in a country that prides itself on age old processes that work. Having said that, the Japanese love efficiency and when you marry our efficient platform with their processes we think this will entice them to integrate our products into their workflows.

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?

Written many moons ago the book Win Friends and Influence People is a go to for me. I come from an engineering background and am a tech guy at heart. My education and demeanor have made me focus on efficiency and being direct. Early in my career I often upset people with how direct I was and could never figure out why my ideas were often resisted. After reading that book, I realized that people make decisions based on emotion and then justify their decision with facts. That was a real lightbulb moment for me and my approach to working with others and presenting ideas has changed dramatically.

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

John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens whilst you’re making other plans.”

As humans, many of us think that things will happen a certain way and work to plan our days, weeks, months, and years ahead. Then something comes along — like a pandemic — and disrupts all of the planning that you have in place. My new mantra is, if I’m going to plan ahead I also need to plan on pivoting because every once in a while things change and you have to pick up the pieces and figure out what’s next.

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. 🙂

Although many are already inspiring climate change and a focus on environmental sustainability, these movements are ones that seriously resonate with me. I’ve done my best to participate by making small incremental changes in my behavior as it relates to the environment. My most recent change was getting rid of my car and using any and all means of public transport that I can. While massive environmental changes are important, we all have the ability to make an impact by shifting even the slightest of behaviors in favor of a cleaner and better world.

Our team also believes that UrsaLeo technology will have a positive impact on the environment. For example, in the agriculture and oil and gas industries UrsaLeo is helping companies monitor equipment and other resources so they can act on issues before they become catastrophic failures. We’re also helping with the elimination of waste while making processes more efficient. All of this combined will have a positive impact on the environment. So in that way we are doing our part to enact change.

How can our readers follow you online?

Feel free to find and communicate with me on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/john-g-burton/

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