As a world-class academic and researcher in the fields of engineering, machine intelligence, and large-scale visual recognition, Professor Winston Hsu wears many hats. On top of his day job as a professor at the Department of Computer Science and Information Engineering at National Taiwan University (NTU), he also works very closely with business leaders in the industry to co-found startups and lead high-performance teams to build the next generation of AI applications.
Hsu received his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Columbia University and was the founder of the NVIDIA AI Lab project and a founding engineer at CyberLink. Earlier this month, MobileDrive, a subsidiary of FIH Mobile and a member of Foxconn (Hon Hai Technology Group) announced Hsu as its chief technology officer.
We sat down with Hsu to learn more about one of the startups he co-founded — thingnario, an AI-powered SaaS solution that is now the biggest solar monitoring solution in Taiwan in terms of market share.
This fast-growing startup has reported year-over-year growth of 110% for the past two consecutive years, and its AI solution is also now being leveraged by Taipower’s DREAMS (Distributed Renewable Energy Advanced Management System) to help improve the overall reliability of the electricity system across Taiwan.
An AIoT startup
“It all started when Cardy Huang invited me to go for a run,” Hsu recalls about the very beginning of thingnario. “Cardy and I are both part of the NTU alumni network; he's in the younger cohort, of course, but that's how we connected. We trained for marathons together and after running for a while, that’s when we started to talk about starting something together.”
The duo first formed an idea about combining the power of AI and IoT in late 2015 and went on to launch thingnario in 2017. Speaking about why he took the plunge into this business venture, Hsu says it’s because he has known Cardy for a long time and trusts him: “There’s already a lot of business trust between us, and he is a professional in everything he does.”
The name “thingnario” comes from the combination of “internet of things” and “scenario,” meaning its AIoT solutions can be used in different scenarios and applications. Its mission is “to mitigate the IT technology gap in the physical industry with software innovations.”
When we asked why he chose to focus on the renewable energy sector, he said initially they didn’t know which industry to focus on — it was a process of trial and error. “We tried applying our solutions in many different industries, such as healthcare, finance and banking and even plastic manufacturing. But we quickly learned those weren’t suitable areas for us to apply our solutions, as it was hard to be scalable in those sectors. So we turned to renewable energy, as we predicted that it was soon going to experience rapid growth and demand for scalable AI solutions to optimize energy efficiency. And we wanted our startup to capitalize on the potential growth and development of this sector.”
Fast-forwarding to 2021, there is now a burgeoning market demand for renewable energy as countries around the world push for an energy transition to a low-carbon future. In the span of five years, thingnario now manages over 2,000 solar farms around the world with a total capacity of more than 1GW. It is also growing rapidly in many different international markets like Thailand, Malaysia, Chile, and Mexico. With over 800 clients worldwide, thingnario has an impressive client retention rate of 99.6%.
“It’s a flexible plug-and-play system that can be deployed anywhere and withstand extreme temperatures at remote solar farms,” says Professor Hsu. (thingnario photo)
AI and solar energy efficiency
thingnario combines Taiwan’s expertise in hardware manufacturing to make deployment of its software solutions very easy for customers. “It’s a flexible plug-and-play system that can be deployed anywhere and withstand extreme temperatures at remote solar farms,” says Hsu.
Its scalable solutions use AI/ML and computer vision technology to analyze huge amounts of data to establish and predict solar production models and patterns. This provides businesses with real-time insights and actionable data via instant mobile notifications that help enable faster and better decision-making.
Thingnario’s advanced AI technology also has the capability to differentiate between many types of faults in real-time. For example, when a tree is blocking a solar panel, the system will understand this issue and alert the client so they can take action immediately to prevent service disruptions. Customers who use thingnario have reported a 12-20% boost in energy production profit.
Thingnario combines Taiwan’s expertise in hardware manufacturing to make deployment of its software solutions very easy. (陳映璇 photo)
“Efficiency, reliability, and scalability are what we offer for businesses,” says Hsu. “As a company that manages critical energy data and analytics, accountability is very important, so it is a top priority for us to ensure our services are reliable and cyber-secure.”
Thingnario was recently named one of the winners of this year’s prestigious Business Startup Awards, which are held annually by the Ministry of Economic Affairs' Small and Medium Enterprise Administration to recognize and celebrate the best startups in Taiwan.
The award-winning startup has now gone from a growth stage of 1-10, and it has brought aboard new hires, such as Chief Operating Officer William Kao, to help accelerate the company’s growth and expansion into new markets.
The Southeast Asia market will be a key focus in 2022. Thingnario is also making strategic plans to enter Japan, a country whose government recently announced a plan to raise its renewable energy target to 36-38% by 2030.
Hsu says he hopes this is just a prelude to more software startups in Taiwan. “I hope Taiwan can have its own Paypal Mafia. Not only do I want thingnario to be a success, I also hope we can inspire our employees to go on and launch their own spin-offs so that together, we can expand Taiwan’s tech ecosystem and ultimately bolster its global position as a software leader.”