Exploring the future of tech in the Corridor

Panelists Ada Woo, Jens Zalzala, Jim Shaw and Meindert Niemeijer explore the Corridor’s tech scene during a panel discussion at the CBJ’s Future of Technology event, held March 6 in Cedar Rapids. PHOTO GABE HAVEL


By Adam Moore

Iowa may be an ag state, but don’t think that means we’re stuck in the past.

From medical device development and autonomous vehicles to wind power, innovation is now “driving the local economy,” said Marten Roorda, CEO of ACT Inc., in welcoming attendees to the CBJ’s inaugural Future of Technology luncheon on March 6.

The event, which drew nearly 150 tech professionals to Cedar Rapids, offered an opportunity to showcase the wide range of innovation already taking place in the region and get a glimpse at what’s to come.

In Mr. Roorda’s case, he described his company’s own efforts at using machine learning and AI to create personalized education experiences and auto-generate test questions, and highlighted numerous other companies behind “great innovation” in the region, from Clipper Windpower to Integrated DNA Technologies.

Other presenters were given five minutes to offer an insight into their work, including:

  • Ada Woo, senior director of strategy implementation and operations within ACTNext, a unit of ACT Inc., who spoke about the company’s work on adaptive learning and its ACTNext Educational Companion, an adaptive learning tool developed for mobile platforms and designed to offer personalized learning content and open-source educational resources.
  • Jens Zalzala, co-founder of Shaking Earth Digital (West Liberty), who spoke about his company’s work in creating Immersive Development Reality (IDR), a virtual reality program that teaches and enables students to develop their own programs while in VR environments.
  • Jim Shaw, executive vice president of engineering with Crystal Group (Hiawatha), who spoke about his company’s work on the computer hardware and networks that will enable autonomous vehicles. “There’s lot of change coming, and it’s a great time to be involved in Iowa and the Corridor,” he said.
  • Meindert Niemeijer, CTO of IDx LLC, who offered an update on his company’s IDx-DR device, which uses artificial intelligence (AI) to automate detection of diabetic reti­nopathy, a preventable disease causing blindness in some 24,000 Americans each year. The device has received a “breakthrough device” designation from the Food and Drug Administration, which will expedite reviews of its safety and efficacy.


Presenters then partook in a panel discussion, answering questions from the audience and moderator Chris Murphy, a director at RSM US LLP. Topics ranged from the pragmatic (“What challenges do tech companies in the area face?”) to the more fanciful (“What’s the worst thing that could happen with the technology you’re creating?”), but most focused on how we can expect tech to change our homes and workplaces, and what the region needs to do to stay in the pack.

“I think in general, the way technology is evolving, it’s just a natural part of our lives. If you had gone back 20 years and showed people the technology we have right now, they would be flabbergasted. But for us, everything feels totally normal,” Mr. Niemeijer said. “It will be small steps – moving AI to the edge, so that your cell phone, your fridge, your dishwasher, everything will have AI.”

Here, in their own (lightly edited) words, are the panelists’ thoughts on what the future of technology will look like here in the Corridor.

The Future of Technology was presented by ACT Inc., with support from RSM US LLP and Crystal Group.


What are the challenges of starting or running a tech firm in the Corridor, compared to somewhere with a greater density of tech companies?

Jens Zalzala: I think it’s a lot easier to start a company here than people think. There are some challenges, though. I think the biggest struggle we’ve had is workforce and being able to find skilled labor. At this point, we’re basically importing into Iowa from other places, because there’s just not enough people here. Another part is travel – we don’t have direct flights to L.A. It’s easy for us to go visit them [clients], but on the way back we always lose a day. … It’s a lot easier now with videoconferencing and different ways of being in touch, but every now and then it does come up.

Jim Shaw: Sometimes we don’t realize that this is a relatively engineering-rich environment. They just have to be engineers with specific skillsets – electrical, mechanical, software types of engineering. … So, within the Corridor, there’s a rich core of engineering, but finding the exact specific [skillset] is probably a little bit of a challenge.


What kinds of cybersecurity and privacy issues are you facing in your work?

Jim Shaw: Security is a huge issue for autonomous vehicles. We’ve been asked by our customers to make sure there aren’t any ports available that you could get a virus in. … All processes are AES-encrypted, and so security is a big deal with respect to making sure data doesn’t get out, or you don’t get a virus within the system that takes over the car. This is part of the safety issues that OEMs, the auto manufacturers are very concerned about. So they’re taking steps to make sure that those kinds of security breaches don’t occur.


What’s the difference between machine learning and artificial intelligence?

Meindert Niemeijer: Machine learning has been around for a long time – the kind of techniques that we are using right now were developed in the 1950s. I think what has really changed is, the fact that we use NVIDIA [supercomputing systems] to train these super deep neural networks, and that just wasn’t possible until now. When you ask me about AI, I think about general reasoning. And I’m not going to sit here and claim that our device does general reasoning about anything – it just knows that for a very specific application … how to find specific patterns in the data. But I think that is the difference between true AI and machine learning.

Jim Shaw: I would say machine learning is the predecessor to AI in terms of complexity. The way AI works now is it’s a neutral networking type of structure, where the outcomes are weighted, and the program gets rewarded or penalized for getting the right answer. And it’s through these series of cycles of going through all the possibilities, it looks for … where did I maximize this? That’s essentially the way neutral networks create AI.


In terms of skillsets, what are you looking for? Do you need a Ph.D. for heavy math work with all the technical libraries existing these days?

Ada Woo: As far as whether a Ph.D. is necessary, because it’s me, I’m biased – I think having a Ph.D. is great, but it might not be necessary. I mean, in the technical field, I’m working with people with master’s degrees or even bachelor’s degrees. With the experience they have, they’re excellent in what they do. So I think with the right background and experience, maybe a Ph.D. isn’t necessary. And there’s a lot of degree diagnostic credentialing that one can get without going back to school for it, so that might be another option.

Jens Zalzala: My feeling has always been my cleverness will do me better than a degree, so generally, that’s what I look for – someone who’s clever and can solve problems on their own. For me, a degree doesn’t matter that much.


What’s a cool new technology we’ll experience in the next five years?

Jens Zalzala: What we’re seeing or working towards is essentially a screenless environment – really just one screen, in your eye, and everything else is digital. … Really, what I’m hoping for in next few years is, I put on the glasses in the morning and I don’t have a computer sitting at my desk, I don’t have a TV at home – I just have one screen that’s displaying what I want, when I want, where I want. It’s just going to change how we interact and how we interface with things.

Ada Woo: Right now we are using machine learning to give a set of parameters, and the computer program can generate a number of test questions within this content area within some level of item difficulty. So that is already being used, but I think we can do even better. In the future, we’ll have content generation on the fly. When you sit in front of the computer and take the test, the computer doesn’t even know what it’s going to ask you until you answer a question. It finds out a little more about you, and it generates a question on the fly and asks you a question on your level.


If you could change one thing in the Corridor besides workforce availability to improve your company, what would it be?

Meindert Niemeijer: My answer is both difficult and easy. The easy part of my answer is, the more tech companies we build here, the more people will come, and it will be better for everybody. How exactly to do that is above my pay grade.

Ada Woo: When I told all of my friends in Chicago that I was picking up and moving to Iowa City, so many people said, “Iowa? Are you crazy?” Having been here, I think this is a very diverse community, and the tech background is great – there is so much talent in the area and so many cool things people are doing. I think we just need to do a better job of marketing ourselves. This is a technology hub, this is not a bad place to be.

Jens Zalzala: It actually wasn’t the people in L.A. who thought I was crazy most of the time, it was actually the people in Iowa. That’s a bad thing, because it means the people who are here think they’re missing out, and they’re not. So I think the perception of the people here needs to change a bit. You’re not missing out on anything – this is a great place. And from a client perspective, we have clients in L.A. and Pennsylvania and Qatar, and none of them have any issues with us being here. … So I think it’s really the perception here that needs to change.