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Ray Almgren of Swift Sensors: “Engineers are supposed to build things to make the world a better place”

Engineers are supposed to build things to make the world a better place. When I was at National Instruments, we did just that and at Swift Sensors, we’re making products that people can use to monitor and make their operations better and hopefully to make the world a better place. As a part of our series […]

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Engineers are supposed to build things to make the world a better place. When I was at National Instruments, we did just that and at Swift Sensors, we’re making products that people can use to monitor and make their operations better and hopefully to make the world a better place.


As a part of our series about cutting edge technological breakthroughs, I had the pleasure of interviewingRay Almgren.

Ray Almgren is the CEO at Swift Sensors, a developer of cloud-based wireless sensor systems for industrial applications. Prior to his role at Swift Sensors Ray was the Vice President of Marketing at National Instruments. Ray received his BS in Electrical Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Ray is the founder and current board member of FIRST in Texas, a member of the National FIRST Executive Advisory Board, and has served on several engineering advisory boards including The University of Texas at Austin, Southern Methodist University, and Tufts University. Follow on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter @swift_sensors, or visit https://www.swiftsensors.com/


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Like most people, it was a little bit of planning and a whole lot of luck. There are two people I can point to in terms of people that brought me to my career path: my dad and my high school sweetheart. My dad and each of my brothers worked for IBM and it never really dawned on me that I shouldn’t pursue anything else besides electrical engineering. My dad never pushed me on it, but I chose that field myself. I attended college at the University of Texas at Austin — in the same city I grew up in. The university has such a large and well-respected engineering program that I didn’t even apply to any other schools! When I graduated, UT Austin wasn’t as massive as it is now. Back then, there weren’t many job opportunities for electrical engineering in Austin, like there were in Houston and Dallas.

A small company I interviewed with, named National Instruments (NI), offered me a position and it was the only job offer I received that was in Austin. I decided to accept that position because I didn’t want to leave the city and my high school sweetheart who also attended UT Austin was just one year behind me from graduating.

Ironically, I took that job and my high-school sweetheart and I broke up nine months later and then I ended up staying in Austin for 30 years! Truthfully, I just happened to work for a sensors company because of pure luck.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

This story speaks to the common example of how misapplying a technology into a field that it isn’t intended for, yields incredible benefits. When I worked at National Instruments, the most popular product was this advanced software tool called LabVIEW. It was used to take measurements in labs and factories all over the world. It was exclusively used by scientists, engineers, rocket scientists, and for working with robotics.

One day, I received a phone call from Tufts University. This professor apparently used LabVIEW for his research at Stanford and was quite familiar with the software. He said that he was interested in licensing the LabVIEW software for a new product from LEGO called Mindstorms. Mindstorms was a robot inventor kit intended to teach children how to build and program robots. It was a huge hit with elementary and middle school kids as an engaging way to teach STEM concepts. This was around 1997–1998 and the product had just been released and received a lot of publicity. However, this professor believed that the software that LEGO was using wasn’t the best and they wanted to use LabVIEW instead.

He came to Austin with the Director of Research and Development at LEGO. I was a young product manager at the time at NI and they asked if we would allow them to license LabVIEW for less than 5 dollars. LabVIEW normally sold for approximately 2,000 dollars a copy, so there was a lot of risk involved in this decision. Many at NI were skeptical about having our software that was specifically designed for scientists and engineers, to be used for kids and have our name be associated with a toy. However, I saw this as a great opportunity to be associated with a household brand and enrich children’s learning and understanding of STEM concepts. I championed the opportunity and eventually LEGO used LabVIEW for Mindstorms. That decision ended up being one of the most valuable experiences that happened to our company.

Four years later, LEGO wanted to do an update of Mindstorms. The retail group at LEGO was considering using Microsoft’s software for this update. We were competing with Microsoft for the deal and did everything we could to show that we could write the software and create a better experience. We ended up getting the deal over Microsoft and we became the supplier of software to LEGO for all of their robotics products, which resulted in millions of children and adults using our product all over the world. To this day, that product is used in STEM education and it’s by far the most popular product of its kind. I learned a lot about brand marketing from LEGO and the product gained a lot of publicity when it launched. It was incredible to see that our software encouraged kids to pursue technical careers through an engaging and fun experience.

Can you tell us about the Cutting edge technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?

What we’re doing at Swift Sensors is democratizing measurements for the world. We’re trying to make it easy and inexpensive for people to improve the safety of their employees’ environments, improve the quality in how they produce products, and better the conditions in the buildings they’re living in. The technological breakthrough is that the sensors make those goals simple. The idea is that we take this sophisticated wireless technology and package it to place anywhere and prevent mistakes from happening. You can monitor hazardous gases and chemicals which will improve the quality of buildings so they can be safer. We’re making sensors available to organizations so they can have better insights and make better decisions that improve the safety and productivity of businesses.

How do you think this might change the world?

It can bring awareness to things that are largely invisible to the general population. People don’t realize that there could be harmful air-borne substances in the areas they live by or that the systems that control temperature in their building are not good and waste energy. If we can share that information to them in a digestible way, and it’s not that expensive, then they will realize there are better ways to do things. Sensor technology is helping people understand that if you monitor temperature at an affordable price, then you can improve the system that tries to control that whether it’s a manufacturing process, food safety, or employee safety. It will ultimately lead to more productivity and safe environments.

The recent Texas snowstorm disaster is a good example of this. There was no real technology problem that wasn’t solved that could have mitigated some of the challenges caused by the Texas snowstorm, but it points to the importance of monitoring to help prevent situations like that from occurring to begin with. Our most popular sensor is the temperature sensor because temperature is the most monitored thing in the world. 70% of the world’s data measured temperature. If the temperature isn’t right in any part of your business or personal life, things get very challenging and uncomfortable. Life is not good when the temperature is not where you want it to be and that was evident in the recent snowstorm.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

The potential drawbacks fall under the personal responsibility category. The biggest drawback is a theoretical problem. If you make sensor technology so automated and simple that you can forget about it, it might become an issue later on. I think about how my daughters who don’t have the slightest idea of where things are because they use Google Maps so much.

If you’re in the restaurant business, our product obviates the need to monitor temperature because it will be monitored for them. However, that does not mean that employees shouldn’t worry about temperature and just completely put it in the hands of automation because food safety is important. Having awareness is important.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?

The convergence of sensors, wireless, batteries, and cloud. That’s what makes all this possible. When you put them all together, you have a breakthrough because now you can do this easily and at a low cost. This is how IoT started and became available and understood. For us, the battery is the long pole in a tent. The better the battery becomes, the better we’re able to do what we do and take better measurements. Our problem is how can we make this battery last for 5 years and how we can measure it because customers don’t want to replace batteries. From a strategy point of view, that technology is improving, however there is a massive amount of monitoring and improvements that aren’t accessible at this point.

What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?

Better batteries because it is the limiting factor for all this great adoption. In the industrial sector, if you want to measure ammonia, which is important if you’re a chicken farmer, you need a lot more power to do so. The dance between how to eek out more and more power in a small space is one of the keys to widespread adoption. The second key is showing significant examples in industrial IoT where businesses made vast improvements in how they operate and how it has helped them eradicate losses of their inventory. Those are the kinds of things that will lead to widespread adoption.

What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?

For us, what’s most important is building awareness or educating the public about the benefits of sensor technology and how it is applicable in different industries. We do this through various marketing efforts, such as thought leadership, blogs, showcasing case studies, by hosting webinars, and doing interviews like this one. All of these efforts work together and have helped establish our company as an authority in the IoT and sensors industry.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Dean Drako, the founder of Swift Sensors. He’s an extremely successful technical entrepreneur. He has made many companies successful, has a great career, and became a great mentor and leader for me to look up to. Dean needed someone with both a technical and marketing background to help with Swift Sensors. And he took a chance on me. I had been working at a billion-dollar company for my entire career up until that point. Dean offered me to take a job at a startup with no marketing resources and essentially take it out of stealth mode. It was a risky move because often when you bring a big-time company exec into a startup it often fails. I was way overqualified, but it ended up being the right thing to take this position. When I reflect on that situation, I was able to see Dean’s vision. He must have seen the upside in hiring someone who had the potential to do other things as the company grew. I’m really grateful to Dean because I get to do now what I was trained to do at NI.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Engineers are supposed to build things to make the world a better place. When I was at National Instruments, we did just that and at Swift Sensors, we’re making products that people can use to monitor and make their operations better and hopefully to make the world a better place.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

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. 🙂

For people to think about their actions and decisions from a long-term perspective. Often if people do that, they get much better results in every aspect of their lives. Think about how something is going to last and have value more than just in the immediate future. I try to live by that, particularly as it relates to the company. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t care about the short-term. The long-term is made up of a bunch of short-terms, so you can’t just punt today’s decisions. Looking ahead and thinking things through is something that I value. In meetings, I pay very close attention to how quickly people answer questions. I prefer when people are more thoughtful when they’re answering a question.

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

“Everyone’s right from their perspective.” — Mike Maples

Mike Maples is the business genius behind Microsoft Office. He came to National Instruments back in the day to give us advice as a company and shared this quote. What I took from it was how accurate the statement is. People come from a perspective and think they’re going to be right. Therefore, if you want to influence someone, consider and approach the problem from their perspective and ask why their perspective is this way. I don’t get mad at someone who disagrees with me. Instead, I try to understand where they’re coming from.

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

There’s not a single business out there that doesn’t know of things they could measure or wish that they could monitor. And the only reason that they’re not doing it now is because the costs seem too high. We have an opportunity to improve the business productivity and safety of every employee on the planet.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

To see what Swift Sensors is up to, you can follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter @swift_sensors, or visit https://www.swiftsensors.com/. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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