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Meet the Mentors: Ralph Brown, Technology Whisperer

by Leah Oppenheimer | May 16, 2018 | Meet the Mentors |

Welcome to UpRamp’s ‘Meet the Mentors.  In this series, we’re showcasing the wealth of resources available to Fiterator teams throughout their journeys with UpRamp via the mentors available to them.

Ralph Brown joined CableLabs in 2001 and has been CTO since 2004. He began his career at Bell Labs and joined the cable industry 24 years ago, first as the Chief Software Architect at Time Warner Cable, and then as Chief Set-Top Systems Architect at Excite@Home.

Ralph, thank you for taking the time to talk to me today, and thank you for giving your time as a Fiterator mentor! Since we're talking about startups, I have to ask you - what would your startup be if you were a founder?

Ralph: It would be something with a significant impact on healthcare or education. These are two areas where technology has to play a significant role. Automation will drive the need for higher levels of education to move into the new jobs that technology will create. Employment models will change with the gig-economy and new, innovative means of delivering education will have to be developed.

We also need to be able to care for a population that is living longer with each generation (hence healthcare). My startup would have to address one or both of these issues.

That sounds like something that would fit well into our industry - especially thinking about The Near Future videos that CableLabs has produced. Let's move on to some real startups - can you tell me how you see their relationship with our members changing?

Ralph: The UpRamp Fiterator is a game-changer. The cable industry is a capital-intensive business, and capital-intensive businesses place big bets - and they want a reasonable expectation of return on the investment. Having a program like the Fiterator allows us to rapidly determine which innovative bets make sense and which ones don’t.

On the flip side, startups face the issue of how many cable operators they must pitch in order to land a deal. Despite a lot of consolidation, there are still a lot of cable operators of differing size and competitive environments. For a startup, finding the cable market that fits their product is a “needle in the haystack” problem. So the question there is of value: is it worth your time? Your money? Also, operators are so different. Comcast and Liberty Global have north of 26M subscribers, Lyons Communications has 500. There's no one-size-fits-all approach.

UpRamp is changing both sides of that coin: we're vetting startups so the industry doesn't have to, and we're also getting the startups through these layers and helping them find a better fit for their product. The CableLabs and UpRamp mentors have insight into the cable industry that you really don't have unless sit at the nexus of technology development in the cable industry.

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Teltoo, cohort 2

You're saying it's changing. The Fiterator is in its third year, and Innovation Showcase is one of the longest running and successful pitch events of its kind. How have those programs had an impact on that change?

Ralph: It's actually really interesting how it's all evolved. Back when we first started the Innovation Showcase, it wasn’t a high priority - we thought, 'let's just see if we can get any innovative companies to come to a CableLabs conference and pitch to the cable industry.'  For awhile, we had a hard time getting interesting companies to show up, and the pitches varied wildly in quality.

Down the road, we realized that we needed to invest a lot more time and effort into it. We started giving the Innovation Showcase companies training and coaching, and as we did that, we found that some of the startups were actually getting deals done right on the floor at the show. They were making sales, getting investments, and establishing business partnerships. Word got out that there was money to be made at CableLabs conferences, and now we have companies knocking on our door to get on the stage.

At that point Scott Brown saw how we could have even a greater impact and put together the Fiterator program. The opportunity is really valuable, and startups noticed.

What about the industry and their take towards startups and innovation?

Ralph: The real challenge for operators has been "how do I take advantage of the pace of technology? How do I move faster?" The Fiterator helps that issue by answering those questions in a way that allows operators to tap directly into innovation that's already in motion, that people are investing in. It allows operators to be more agile by wrapping their hands around technology and putting it to work.

Let's talk about the whole connectivity ecosystem. What innovation do you see currently taking place that excites you?

Ralph: Lightfield camera and display technology, because it offers the ultimate immersive experience, and it's moving at a much quicker pace than I expected.

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Trinity Mobile Networks, cohort 1

You've been a mentor for 4 teams, including Trinity Mobile Networks and Teltoo. What have you discovered during your time as a Fiterator mentor?

Ralph: I think having expectations set appropriately is really key to making the most of this experience. You have to be willing to learn, and really thirsting for insights, not assuming that you already know everything.

And since we're working with startups, I have to ask you some founder-favorite questions. How have you personally embodied "fail fast, fail forward"?

Ralph: In terms of my personal history, an idea that I wanted to launch that didn't quite make it to market was a low-cost competitor to the Silicon Graphics workstation for computer animation. I have the dubious distinction of having worked for a company that went bankrupt on two continents. I learned A LOT through that experience!

Where do you envision the cable industry 10 years from now? What technology will be essential?

Ralph: Ten years from now, this won't be the "cable" industry. Instead, operators will be providing always-on, always-connected, high-bandwidth, low-latency user experiences. At this point, though, I don’t believe that we can really envision the full range of user experiences that their networks will enable. We can see the trends, we can get glimpses, but the full picture has yet to resolve itself and it will always be changing.

What words of wisdom do you have for cohort 3 and beyond?

Ralph: The cable industry is very different from what they may expect. It's far more collegial than other industries, because a lot of operators began as family-owned (i.e. startup) operations and were not direct competitors.  That means that there's a lot of collaboration in this industry.

Last question, Ralph. You know that startup founders drink a ton of coffee, so we have to know: Aeropress or French Press?

Ralph: Nespresso.

Even his coffee is high-tech.

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