Itai Dadon, Global Head of Smart City Product Marketing at Itron, Inc

- Posted on September 19, 2019

Tell us a bit about your background and how you became the Global Head of Smart City Product Marketing at Itron?

Itai Dadon : I have spent most of my career in the semiconductor industry. That has taken me from Israel to France and from France to California. Through my work, mostly in the wireless industry in software and hardware, I have acquired a very good level of understanding of what it means to combine complex platforms together, adding on top of that, the complexity layer of the business environment and the understanding of where the market is going.

I have spent all my career going back and forth in between business development, product management and product marketing roles.

I worked on many different platforms that involved creating new types of devices for either consumers or for the industry. I created the first wearable platform when I was at Broadcom for smartwatches. And before that, at ST Ericsson, I created the first platform for wearable glasses, working in collaboration with Google. Before that, at Texas Instruments, I worked on the platform for over-the-top streaming of content to television.

So, it’s been an evolving process of learning and understanding what it means to create these IoT systems. Over time, my passion really grew more and more towards the industrial side of IoT. Especially as I understood how complicated it is to build a successful solution in industrial IoT. Those experiences brought me into Silver Spring Networks where I was responsible for driving the growth of the IoT Busines. The mission was, “Drive growth to create new businesses for Silver Spring, leveraging assets and technologies outside of the core utility management business.”

As you know, Silver Spring was acquired by Itron who decided to focus more on Smart Cities as a priority.

What challenges did you face in developing products in the industrial IOT area as compared to B2C applications?

There is a different set of complexities. I think the challenge when you develop consumer products, is really the pace and how important the user experience is in the product. I think that the industrial world is much more forgiving in terms of user experience, even though it’s very important as well. It also presents a much slower pace and implies a different set of challenges. Because development cycles are longer, you need a better mechanism to predict where the market is going.

Actually, my experience in semiconductors was very useful, because as you may know, when you develop a complex chip, the development cycles may be up to three years. So, when you start thinking as a marketing person, considering what you want to put in that chip for smartphones for three years from now or even five years from now- it’s a very complicated exercise. And that reflects some of the complexity in the industrial world. At the same time, there is also the complexity of much harsher environments, much longer life cycles and taking into consideration costs that are not necessarily as important in the consumer sector, like installation costs, configuration, maintenance costs that almost don’t exist in the consumer world.

What does a Product Marketing role at a Smart City/Utility solutions provider consist of?

At the high level, I think it is very important to understand that for Itron, looking at Smart Cities is a new market. I mean Itron has been serving municipalities for long periods of time, but, in its core areas of expertise such as water and electricity and gas. My role within Itron is really to incubate a new market and define the strategy, the go-to-market, the portfolio of products and their positioning in the market in a way that fits the strategy of the company. In essence, my role can be likened to creating a playbook for how to go after new markets for the company.

Things work well internally because once you start creating an engagement with customers via the distribution. channel, it generates a dynamic between the product management, the architecture teams, the R&D and sales teams. So basically, we act as that ‘bridge’ if you like, the ‘traffic controller’ in the middle of the intersection.

You describe yourself as an idea-generator with a history of contributing directly to your company growth: can you give us example of some of your own ideas that turned into a company success?

Typically, most of these positive experiences come under this recurring theme- that I am able to identify either core IP or competencies or building blocks that

are already developed and existing in a company. But I bring a slightly different view of how to package them together to create either a new product altogether or a way to adapt those products for new markets and how to position them successfully for those new markets.

One of the things, for example, that I really helped to shape and direct for Silver Spring was the understanding that when you are talking about IoT in general or even just Smart Cities, the amount of applications in use cases are just overwhelming. And there is no single company that takes charge of developing all those applications in a successful way.

With that understanding, I created the concept of the developer program for Silver Spring Networks, and the idea of enabling at scale in a very low touch so that developers from around the world could take these building blocks from Silver Spring Networks and integrate them into their products and enable all these technologies in our portfolio. And this is how today we have solutions in smart parking, in traffic management, and air quality monitoring, gunshot detection, etc… All those solutions are the fruit of our ability to go and engage at a very large scale with multiple partners at the same time via this developer program.

You were part of the Silver Spring Networks’ team who joined Itron after the acquisition end of 2017. Although both of the companies are in the Smart City/Utility & IoT industry what are the main differences between both in terms of value proposition and products & services?

That’s a good question. I think, first of all, there’s a lot of commonality as you mention. If you look beyond the markets that we served, the culture of the two companies was actually strikingly and surprisingly similar which, I believe, made the integration smoother and easier.

In terms of differences, Silver Spring Networks, was really as the name of the company suggested, centered around the core competency of building networks. The revenue model was really about creating and deploying those networks and then adding more and more devices to those networks. In terms of devices, the only content of Silver Spring Network is a communication module that will allow them to connect to our network. The devices come from a very open and wide ecosystem of meter vendors, typically, your DEA sensors. So the hardware was not really a core piece of the strategy of Silver Spring Networks.

Coming to Itron, even if the DNA of the company is really about selling hardware, they have been working on a very large-scale for many years in the area of electricity, gas and water meters around the world. It’s also a company in transformation. It’s a company that is moving towards having a way of doing business that is much more ‘agnostic’ about which connectivity technologies we provide, enabling all these devices with a variety of networking capabilities and, of course, doing all this with the objective of driving more and more of what we call ‘outcomes’, which are basically value-added services and applications for our customers.

How would you define Itron’ corporate culture How does it compare to Silver Spring Networks that was a smaller and younger company?

I think that other than the obvious difference in size which made the Silver Spring Networks maybe a little bit more agile. Obviously, when you have a company of 8,000 employees like Itron, you’re bound to have a little bit more process and more elements of communication with a larger number of people.

In fact, Itron is a very big company but still manages to act a little bit like a family, in the sense that they offer a lot of help & support. There is a lot of positive energy and people collaborating in between teams in a way that is extremely refreshing. In general, I would say that it is also a company that knows how to effectively drive its messages across internally. People here seem to like straight shooters, which is very good for me as an Israeli! I’m typically also a very straight shooter and have a hard time with ‘people beating around the bush’ too much! So, this corporate culture fits me very well.

It’s obviously a people focused company. I think that we’re also evolving in how we think about our products. As I said, we are way beyond just selling meters now.

For me, it’s definitely learn-it-all. It’s impossible to claim to know everything. For example, looking very actively over the past couple of months on learning more about the EV charging industry and ecosystem and how we can play a role in it in the Smart Cities, and what the tie is between the utilities and the EV charging networks and the municipalities. This is just one example of very complex type of ecosystems.

In fact the company is giving everybody the opportunity to learn and to widen their knowledge and scope of applications.

I am also expected to provide these opportunities. What I learn from a cultural perspective for example, I’m expected to also then teach, if that makes sense!

Where do you see the biggest market potential for smart city and utility market in terms of geographies and verticals?

My global team is built of people here in North America, Asia, and in Europe. Of course, we have distributors and salespeople also in all the other regions as well. I think the answer for Itron is slightly different than for the industry as a whole. Obviously, Itron and Silver Spring had a core presence and still have today in North America that creates a lot of opportunity for us, to build on and to push all the new Smart City products, applications, and services that we’re building. In this way we have very strong potential activity existing in North America. I think we also see similar trends happening in Singapore, Asia Pacific and Australia and New Zealand which are strong markets for us.

The European market is also extremely strong, but growing in a slightly different way and pushed mostly by the municipalities and the cities because of their drive to be more sustainable, more resilient, and fight climate change. They are much more I would say, conscious about environmental issues than here in North America. North America, is mostly driven by operational OPEX-CAPEX type of benefits, while that may not be the same in Europe where they tend to ask themselves the big question of ‘how this impacts our carbon footprint as a city?’

Asia is a combination of both and it’s really harder to say that it’s one monolithic block. There’s a lot of smaller ones. I would say that if you look at the Pacific Rim, there’s a tremendous urbanization process going on. Economic growth is very strong in countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand. We see a lot of growth for us but it is driven mostly by need because of this very, very fast urbanization process.

Australia and New Zealand are more mature markets as well as Singapore, but they seem to be driven by a combination of what we see in North America and Europe. So, they’re more conscious in general than the Americans – more ‘green’. But at the same time, they are extremely careful about business cases. And then there is China, which for us is an area that we’re still trying to figure out. Its demands involve a completely different go-to-market approach where local presence is of course, extremely important. But there’s also a strong drive there for specific connectivity technologies that are mostly 3GPP and cellular-based.

It is commonly agreed that the lack of business case is a major factor that limits the Smart City market growth. Is creating and proving the business case one of the main challenges of your role as head of product marketing? How do you tackle this challenge? Can you share with us some success stories?

That’s a great question. I don’t think technology is the limiting factor in the growth of Smart Cities today. All the necessary technology exists and products are there in more or less mature states. But while technology is there, the money is not. So, it’s not just the business case, it’s also the business model that is extremely important in order to enable this transformation.

Let me explain. Since cities have typically high constraints in budget, and one would assume they would be extremely risk-averse. As a result of these constraints, cities will try to be sure to understand the technology and try to make sure that their investment is the right one. One would assume that they cannot afford to make mistakes as there’s a huge cost of opportunity, because there are not a lot of projects. So for instance, if they have $X to spend, they need to consider the best place to spend it. On traffic? On lighting or on air quality monitoring? On education maybe, or on public WiFi ? These are the kind of choices that they’re facing.

And business cases could be one argument, even though it is not the only one they need to consider. What might be the right choice for one city may not be the right choice for another one.

At the same time, enabling these projects often means bringing money in from the outside either in a PPP model or in an ESCO model or in a variety of other types of investments – it could maybe be bonds, etc. But as soon as you bring money in from the outside, you basically create an investing opportunity for someone. And to convince that someone to invest in that opportunity, you need to be able to enunciate a very clear business case, answering these questions : What are your exact requirements? What is the cash flow that you need to put in? When will the return on investment take place? And what kind of return will it give you in the following years?

So, it then becomes a financial exercise. And that’s why building these business cases and business models in a coherent and simple way that is understood by all the parties that you bring to the table is extremely critical. This means that this part of my role not only involves building what I just mentioned, but I also have to meet banks, I have to meet the investment bodies, private partnerships and ‘holding companies’ that invest in these kinds of areas to create strategic partnerships with them, so that when I have investment opportunities for them, I can bring them to the table.

Typically, you cannot wait for an opportunity to come and then look for the partner. You have to have a whole ‘deck already in your bag’ to be ready to respond when the opportunity comes.

What can you share about Itron’s global growth strategy and how it impacts the Smart City product roadmap for the coming years?

One of the main things we are doing is positioning Itron as, not just the leader in the Smart streetlight industry, but taking it to a much wider Smart City leadership context where, through the ecosystem that we’re building (that I touched on before), through the developer program – we now have a growing portfolio of applications that we can provide as one package and one front to municipalities, cities, and utilities. Those can come under four categories or ‘themes’ if you like. The first one is of course, based around energy and sustainability and the infrastructure of the city in general. That’s where we find streetlights, water, sewage, maybe flood sensors, air quality monitoring and things like that.

The second theme is public safety and security where you will find gunshot detection, the methane gas leak detection sensors and other applications that have direct impact on improving public safety.

The next theme concerns smart transportation. This is a very big focus in North America today. There’s a common understanding that there is a need to move to a multi-modal transportation system. We are obviously not in the business of autonomous cars or anything like that. But the infrastructure that we create really helps because it allows for better urban planning and a better understanding of where the ‘pain points’ are in terms of transportation. In this way, we bring in more intelligence to intersections and we gather real-time data of what’s happening and can monitor and control all of the elements of the traffic infrastructure.

The last theme is digital services, which is really about how we bring back all the data from all these sensors and systems and then close the loop of delivering information at the right time and at the right place to the consumers – who are city citizen or visitors of the city.

For example, I talked about gunshot detection before. If there is a gunshot alert, how do we alert the people around that event in a way that helps keep them safe and avoids an escalation of that event and, at the same time, helps control the traffic system to bring emergency crews such as police and ambulances to the scene as fast as possible? Unfortunately, this is a very relevant topic of discussion in the US.

But it doesn’t have to be that dramatic. It can also be as basic as finding a parking spot in a much easier way using displays and sensors. A lot of people would just resort to saying, “Okay. I’ll push the information into an app on my phone.” But folks are driving, many are not going to want to look in an app. They have to be able to look up in the city and easily get directions to where the best place for them to park is, without having to consult their phones. So, these are the kind of things that we are thinking about.

You are born in Israel and studied and worked in France before moving to the US? How can you compare the tech scene and more particularly the smart city & IoT scene in France, US and Israel?

The Israeli tech scene is very unique. It’s very special. It’s a condensation of a lot of very creative minds being educated to think “out of the box”. Everybody in Israel has to go through a military service – boys and girls. And in that context, there’s a really strong drive within the military to educate and enable folks to be very creative in terms of finding solutions.

In addition, the military spends a lot of resources in educating (boys and girls) in technology and cyber and networking and communication to push the limits on what is possible to create competitive advantage. These factors combined with the general culture of Israel, that is very aggressive; but not in a negative way. This aggressivity which should be seen in the sense of never giving up, and being very committed to drive results, creates a tech scene that is extremely ambitious and therefore fosters a lot of entrepreneurship, startups and great ideas. What we are not always so good at though, is taking those ideas and transforming them into unicorn companies.

If you look at the US, it’s almost the opposite, but not the complete opposite though. Of course, there’s a huge amount of talent in the US. It’s a very, very big country with the best schools in the world. So, there is a lot of innovation happening here. But the American culture brings in the discipline and marketing know-how of how to take new technology and really transform it into a large enterprise success story. I still think the engineers in France are the best I have seen in my life. The ones I saw at Texas Instruments in the site where I worked for many years in South of France, really defined the wireless and cellular market in the world, and have driven that for many years- over more than a decade actually. The level of technical and system-level understanding and expertise in architecture especially, is impressive in France, as is their understanding of the importance of standards, which I would say is almost non-existent in Israel. It’s an understanding in France, that in order to get very big, you have to create standards. And that creates things like the GSM standard. Of course, now we have strong successes in Europe with technologies like Lora etc… There are many examples of things that have been invented and driven by France. And today, interestingly enough, it is fascinating to see the revival of the startup scene in France and in hot topics like AI, machine learning, and blockchain.

Is there a region (Europe, US, Israel or other) in which you believe a Smart City & IoT professional should absolutely have an experience?

I would say that if you have to have an experience somewhere, I would suggest it should be here in the US. I think the discipline and understanding of business cases and the necessity to implement solutions that would work on a very large scale are of tremendous benefit to experience. At the same time, I think that there is an aspect of velocity and agility in the Asian market that is pretty much lacking in the corporate America environment (and is worth experiencing too). So, if someone could experience those two it would be amazing.

And I think that the ecosystem of the financial, the city, the private sectors and the utilities is quite unique here in the US.

As a team leader, what key skillset are you looking for when hiring a new member of your team?

What I look for in my team is ensuring that we have a combination of very good technical understanding of what we’re doing and what our competition is doing. We need to know where technical trends are evolving to and what the core strengths of Itron are. All this is from a technical perspective. At the same time, we need to bring in a very strong business acumen to add to that understanding of how to take those assets and package them in a way that is competitive in the market. And we also need to consider in what ways we can create a skill or mechanism that will not just create one success story, but a sustainable and repeatable process that we can scale all across the world and in different regions, and to different types of customers.

Any lessons learned from your different job experiences so far that you would like to share with the members of the Talent Club?

One of the best training experiences I had, was at a media training session that I did when I was at Texas Instrument. One of the first things they insisted on, was that in interview scenarios when they ask you “Is there anything to add?” at the end, that even if you feel you have said everything you have to say, you must never say “No” !

I think what really matters is finding the right balance between being extremely aggressive and innovative, and at the same time being credible in what you sell, and gaining the trust of customers over the long run. These are relationships that you create for years. It’s not about completing a transaction and then disappearing. It’s important to create a level of transparency in where you are with the business, where you are with the product, where you are with the technology, and build the right level of expectation from the customer, as you drive something new into the market. Especially creating something new with a brand that already has a level of recognition like Itron. In essence, I am playing with a lot of new technologies and I’m bringing a lot of new things to it. I’m bringing a lot of third-party technology that sometimes comes from a five people startup. I always need to consider how I do that, using the Itron name and not putting that brand and recognition and trust that the company has built with its customer for years at risk. At the same time, I have to keep on pushing the envelope on innovating and being the first to the market. This is a balance that is very interesting and I’m still learning here.

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