Computing on the ‘edge’: Q&A with EDJX’s co-founder John Cowan

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RALEIGHEDJX is getting ready to disrupt the internet.

Just last week, Raleigh-born edge-computing startup (pronounced Edge-X) announced that it’s partnering with Cubic Corporation to unveil what it calls the “the world’s first Internet of Military Things Edge Platform.”

The platform – which promises to bring real-time, low-latency computing to the battlefields — is being launched from the Autonomy Institute Alpha Lab at Texas Military Department’s Camp Mabry in Austin, Texas. It’s part of the institute’s Public Infrastructure Network Node (PINN) rollout announced earlier this year that relies on EDJX for its main infrastructure.

‘Edge computing’ is tech’s next frontier – and Raleigh startup EDJX is a pacesetter

And that’s just one vertical.

WRAL TechWire’s Chantal Allam recently had the chance to sit down for a chat with its CEO and co-founder John Cowan. Here’s what he had to say:

TechWire: First off, you’re Canadian. How did you end up in Raleigh?

John: It’s a bit of a long story, but as my wife likes to say, Raleigh chose us. We didn’t choose Raleigh.

I’ve been an expat for most of my life.  I left Canada in the late 90s. Back in 2009, I was living in the Cayman Islands when I was raising venture capital for the first time for the parent organization EDJX. I toured around the United States meeting with various venture capital firms, up and down the East, Texas, the Valley, the usual suspects.

My business partner and I made the decision that wherever we raised institutional money would be the place that we put a flag in the sand. I met many people in North Carolina, including Dennis Kekas, the Chancellor of Centennial Campus at NC State at the time. He pitched me on Centennial Campus, and I left there thinking, this is probably the best kept secret on the East Coast. It had all of the benefits of the Palo Alto ecosystem, but at the tenth of the cost.

TechWire’s LinkedIn Live chat with EDJX’s CEO John Cowan today at 1 pm

In 2010, we raised venture capital from Intersouth Partners in Durham. We relocated that year and set up shop initially at Centennial Campus and eventually downtown.

Over the years, we’ve been courted by partners and investors on the West Coast, but every time we did the analysis, we couldn’t reconcile the work-life balance benefit to the Triangle.

TechWire: Take us to the beginning. How did you end up starting EDJX and getting into edge computing?

John: We were thinking about the idea of using blockchain to distribute computers for use by developers. We were enthralled by this idea of decentralized applications, and we were building prototypes in that world using platforms like Ethereum and Hyperledger.

Right around that time, we were finishing the first prototypes of what would eventually become EDJX. I’m a firm believer in a decentralized network of computers. I took the prototype out on the road to show some of our partners in 2018, and one of those stops along the way was a friend of mine named James Thomason (co-founder of EDJX), a serial entrepreneur with companies acquired by Dell and others. James and I met in 2014 when he was the CTO of Dell Cloud. We saw eye-to-eye on what the future of cloud computing was going to be and how the pendulum was going to swing back from centralized computing to decentralized computing.

We both concluded that EDJX belonged squarely at the edge and not the cloud because there’s going to be a significant challenge in extending the architecture of cloud computing to the edge. Our respective research had concluded that the economy for the Internet of Things was going to dwarf everything that came before it. It was going to be bigger than cloud computing, mobile computing, ecommerce; it will be bigger than all of it.  As entrepreneurs, it was just too irresistible of an opportunity to pass up!

We decided to pursue the market by solving unique problems that we knew the developer audience would experience as they got serious about building apps on the edge.

That’s how EDJX was born. Technically speaking, we began bootstrapping in late 2018 and incorporated it in March 2019. Soon after, my co-founder and CFO Mike Preston, and Iraised the first external round of capital.

TechWire: How much have you raised to date?

John: We’ve raised just under $12 million.

Source: EDJX

TechWire: What is edge computing?

John: Edge can mean a lot of different things to different people. But the general idea is to compute locally, to get as close in proximity to data and connected things as possible.

The edge isn’t ‘why’ or a ‘what’; it’s a ‘how.’ Let me explain: In the universe of the Internet, we’re moving from this realm of abstract apps, like Search, social media, mobile apps, games, and systems of better communication, to a world where software is responsible for making critical decisions — whether that’s to start or stop a machine in a factory; or to alert first responders, or to control vehicles.

This is a new and very different dynamic. When you pivot that dynamic in your mind to move into real-world applications, things like latency – the time it takes for a byte of data to go from where it’s generated to where it can be processed, and then returned in some usable format –  become much more relevant to the programmer. That round-trip time in the cloud computing world can take anywhere from 50 to 150 milliseconds. Some proponents of autonomous and connected machines and devices and IoT say the latency threshold needs to be much less than 10 milliseconds.

That creates a significant architectural problem, and that’s what EDJX has solved. Today, when your computer or your phone connects to the internet to interact with the world, it is doing so in a fairly ‘static’ fashion. The applications that we rely upon are written statically to the cloud and content is served to us via hundreds of ‘caching’ servers located in various peering hubs.

As a basic example, consider a near future where you’re using your phone to connect to your favorite content while walking down the street. Rather than traversing a network of cell towers and eventually getting a call back across the internet, your device  connects to a computer located in the traffic cabinet at the intersection, close to where you are. Your data and code are served to you right when you need it, exactly where you need it. With EDJX, developers can write code and data once to the EDJX network, EdjNet, and the network takes care of ensuring that it is always close to the connected thing, like a device or a machine, without any manual intervention or extra work to do for the programmer. In this way, EDJX allows for ultra-low latency data processing (data processing without delay) and code execution everywhere and anywhere, at “planet-scale”. And for all things IoT and edge computing, this is an exciting innovation.

TechWire: In late 2020, you were in beta phase. Where are you now with the platform?

John: The platform has been live since early summer. It’s live in over 20 markets, soon to be 32 markets globally. If you sign up to an account on EDJX, you can accelerate code and write data across the EDJX EdjNet.

On the near horizon, we’re beginning to build private versions of EdjNet for very large-scale constituents. We’ve found a lot of compatibility with the Department of Defense (DoD), and the Department of Transportation (DoT). Our EDJX platform will enable intelligent traffic systems and what we call the Internet of Military Things. There will be a raft of other verticals that follow, like healthcare and industrial manufacturing.

EDJX’s John Cowan with RIoT’s Tom Snyder.

TechWire: How quickly are you scaling?

John: Now we’re at about 32 people. By the end of this year, we’ll be at about 65 people. We need more people. We have more work than we can fulfill. That’s the hard part when you’re transitioning from a company that finds product market fit to a company that’s rapidly scaling; it’s a difficult transition.

TechWire: What is your annual growth rate?

John: We can’t comment on revenue as a private company, but our rate of growth rate is triple digits.

TechWire: And clients?

John: We launched with a lot of high-profile partners like Cyxtera, which recently went public as a data center company, and companies like IT Renew, which is a leader in sustainable circular economy solutions for IT infrastructure. Organizations like the Autonomy Institute have been fervent supporters of EDJX.

TechWire: Tell me about your recent partnership with Autonomy Institute.

John: The Autonomy Institute centers on how to deliver a scalable industry 4.0 infrastructure for our country. Industry 4.0 infrastructure means all of the sensors, devices, communications equipment and edge computing hardware necessary to develop and deploy the autonomous systems that will transform our economy. We call this infrastructure Public Infrastructure Network Nodes, or ‘PINN’s’ for short. The EDJX operating system is an important component to making the PINNs connected and distributed in a way that helps make it easy for developers to create new and innovative solutions. EDJX is the way that you utilize that infrastructure.

TechWire: Surely there are other companies doing what you’re doing. How has EDJX risen to the top?

John: When everybody went left, we were the only ones who went right. Almost every competitor or early-stage company that is trying to take cloud computing, and copy and paste it at the edge – that explicitly will not work at scale. What EDJX did is very different. We deviated from that and built an entirely decentralized distributed model. We broke away from the traditional monolithic cloud-computing application stack by building a serverless framework where WebAssembly is the core technology.

TechWire: So do you think you could follow in the steps of Pendo (another Raleigh startup that hit $1-billion value in 2019)?

John: We could far exceed Pendo! It’s not hyperbole; I think we can be even bigger! It’s not a stretch to see EDJX crest $1 billion of enterprise value within the next 12 to 18 months.

TechWire: How can you explain such a quick ascent?

John: Timing. We made the right investment on the right market at the right time. That’s really what it comes down to.

TechWire: How much have you been involved in RIoT?

John: We have been very involved with RIoT – it is another one of Raleigh’s best kept secrets! EDJX customers are developers building applications in the Internet of Things (IoT) vertical. About two years ago, we serendipitously learned about RIoT from a colleague, and we were surprised to know that there was such a thriving IoT group right here in Raleigh! We were busy building stuff, not really looking out in the market in any way at that point. But what we discovered in fact is that one of the most robust developer ecosystems in IoT is right here. For EDJX, that’s a group that we want to support. We’ve sponsored several RIot events already, with more coming in 2022. Anything we can do to tell the world that the Triangle is the center of gravity for IoT, we’re going to do.

TechWire: Do you think the Triangle could be an Edge Computing/IoT hub?

John: We’re going to make that happen. We’ve got timing, cost, and focus. IoT development is uncharted territory. To lay claim to something like the future of the internet, you have to be early and that’s what groups like RIoT represent. They’ve got an amazing nucleus. If we start bringing in live innovation labs, and creating that gravitational pull for talent, research money, and all those things that make markets, the Triangle will be the Edge Computing/IoT hub.

 

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