Automating physical infrastructure analytics
Shaheer Hussam, Anthony Burdi
Infrastructure, Investment, Analytics
Shaheer Hussam has spent the past 15 years working in energy across the US, Latin America, and now the Nordics. Recently, Shaheer and his co-founder, Anthony Burdi (a fellow alum from MIT), started Aetlan, a company to help improve infrastructure analytics, based in Helsinki.
We joined him to ask why.
Hi Shaheer! To start, how would you explain Aetlan?
First off thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure working with you and the Icebreaker team.
Our goal at Aetlan is to improve the analysis behind physical infrastructure planning & investments - all over the world, especially in the places in the coming years that most need it. For the first time, we think we can bring a suite of interesting software tools to the planning & investment analytics - which is rife with unorganized and unwieldy data sets.
Would you have a real-life example?
Both Burdi and I had worked on infrastructure projects in the States and overseas. If you’re outside the sector, especially energy, think of it this way - putting massive machines in the ground, and making sure they work for decades.
We had both worked on renewables projects in various parts of the U.S., and then collaborated on an exciting distributed solar and storage project in Latin America. From the get-go, to figure out the potential to develop this infrastructure across the country, we had to use a range of publicly available data sets - for example on capital cost estimates, operating costs, electricity consumption, and commodity prices.
Collecting and reconciling this was half the work - and the existing sources didn’t serve our needs for accurate, reliable, and benchmarked information. We’ve seen this problem with other colleagues who have been working in infrastructure, especially in emerging markets.
We had of course seen similar analytics problems in the U.S. over the years - but especially as other sectors [retail, finance] caught up to speed, we saw a gap with physical infrastructure.
Why do you want to tackle these problems?
We like to solve problems, and this was an interesting one! One of the core issues was to automate some of the extremely inefficient processes. Repeated work. With unclear or unreliable data sets from a range of sources. In thinking this through, and discussing with our network of advisors, it was clear that there’s significant potential to drive efficiency in the infrastructure planning process, with the right set of minds on the problem.
In our prior work, we would spend ages on the initial data analytics and modeling; issues that in other sectors had been sorted out. We realized more entities needed clear and valid data sets for infrastructure, and the planning & investor tools to go along with it.
When we had chatted before, you touch on the broader implications, but also the simplicity, of this sector.
You’re right. Working in energy and infrastructure, we like to think the end result of our work is straightforward - to quietly help make life easier. For example, in renewables, it’s to provide clean, cheap, and reliable energy for consumers and businesses. And at the same time, as engineering nerds, we were excited to bring unconventional tools to do this job, and build a company with it!
You and Burdi had collaborated together, and on this idea for a bit before as well. What was the context?
Yup! Anthony Burdi. We were both fellow mechanical engineers at MIT, both initially working in energy, while Burdi extended his reach at Stanford and beyond in software and real estate. He's bright and humble. And an intellectually curious guy.
One example he shared once was how on a project for another VC-backed startup in New York, in short order, he took an inefficient and complex analytics platform, and rebuilt nearly all of it, getting into the details and coding it himself. It would fail and take over 30 minutes to generate reports, and he managed to improve the timing to seconds. As in our prior work, he was looking for ways to reduce the maintenance load so that their team could run leaner. I liked it and it’s that sort of approach that we want to nurture.
And you recently got Icebreaker to join you. How did you find us?
Well, first indirectly. I got to know Mikko-Jussi [chair of Icebreaker] just to talk about the firm, and the exciting tech community in the region. My wife is Finnish and we had just moved to Helsinki, so I was psyched to start meeting smart and nice folks here.
And then I joined the Icebreaker prefounder project, which was great. I could see a broader range of what your fund offers. Everyone seemed bright and motivated - and it felt quite entrepreneurial.
Thanks for the positive note.
I also got to know your partner Riku, and the discussions were great. He has strong pattern recognition abilities and understood the value prop. He was efficient and thoughtful throughout as we discussed the company.
You have rather international backgrounds - you’re Bengali-American, and Burdi is Italian-American. How has that affected your work?
Well, we’re just human at the beginning, and end of the day...though really we’re both also from the East Coast U.S. dynamic. And in practice, our clients, colleagues, and friends have come from all over the world -- that’s been crucial in shaping how we think. And as you know to really understand and build infrastructure, a range of local insights always helps!
A final question. Where does the name Aetlan come from?
We wanted a local, Nordic touch, as we are based out of Helsinki. We scoured Old Norse dictionaries, and found that Aetlan means "to plan" or "intend,” which is a core part of our offering. And randomly, we also discovered there was an old bishop named Aetla, who had a bridge named after him! Which was a nice, as we felt as we were also kind of a bridge between the U.S. and the Nordic tech communities.