The Download: Richard Boyd, Co-Founder and CEO, Tanjo Inc.

Richard Boyd is a serial entrepreneur, tech consultant, celebrated author and sought-after speaker on virtual worlds, computer gaming, machine learning and human/computer interfaces. The Co-Counder and CEO of Carrboro-based artificial intelligence and machine learning company Tanjo Inc.—and the co-founder and CEO of Ultisim Inc., a simulation learning company that utilizes gaming technology and AI—Richard and his team work with a wide variety of industries including energy, healthcare, defense, education and motion pictures.

He has been instrumental in creating several pioneering computer gaming companies including Red Storm Entertainment with author Tom Clancy; iRock Entertainment with Ozzy Osbourne; and Timeline Computer Entertainment with author Michael Crichton. Richard used his expertise in 3D simulation and animation to help movie directors James Cameron, Brian dePalma, Peter Weir and Sydney Pollack.

Prior to co-founding Tanjo and Ultisim, Richard co-founded 3Dsolve—a virtual reality and simulation company which included investments from LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and MIT Media Lab Director Joichi Ito. A few years later, Lockheed Martin acquired 3Dsolve. At Lockheed Martin, Richard created and led a group of innovative engineers and designers across all mission areas called Virtual World Labs.

Richard co-authored a best-selling, industry-leading book on Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) technologies called The Virtus VRML Toolkit. Published by Hayden Books, the book has been distributed and translated into several languages since its publishing.

Richard is also a celebrated children’s book author and is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

1. What is in your pockets?
I’ve got a multi tool that’s got pliers, knives, screwdrivers and all sorts of things that I usually do not have on me and dog treats as I’m training my 10-month-old Belgian Malinois. I don’t have my wallet or phone in my pockets because I am working from home.

2. What exciting thing has happened recently for you or your organization?
Tanjo is a Japanese fighting stick and (martial arts) discipline. Tanjo Inc. was formed by a couple of us who have formed a number of companies here in North Carolina. It is built on the experience we had when we were at Lockheed, where I was running Virtual World Labs. That’s a group inside of Lockheed that was focused on VR, AR, and AI technologies. We actually had over a hundred patents in that five-and-a-half-year period that we were there all in that field.  But machine learning just struck us as new capabilities, very different from AI, gaming and other areas. So that’s why we decided to form the company.

And the idea is to build something that would allow every company to have their own little mini IBM Watson-like capability. One is knowledge management—get your big data turned into actionable intelligence. We’ve done that for RTI. We’ve done it for all 58 North Carolina community colleges, some banks, and now we’re doing it for the government.

And then the last piece is really interesting. It’s the ability to take machine learning, take data from the data itself that comes from people and build simulated synthetic populations of your customers, which you can then put into simulations and test ideas. Those are the things we’re doing. And that last one got us a recognition from The Gartner Group, where Mike McGuire there said that we were basically the Holy Grail of market research.

But what’s happening now is finally the big juggernaut of the government, the largest buyer of goods and services on the planet, deciding that they needed an AI strategy. So that started last year when all of a sudden the flood gates of RFPs started coming out. And the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center was formed. So we are finding ourselves really busy growing and responding to all these sort of big efforts in financial services, education, and now of course in health care.

We have a lot of efforts underway with, how do you apply machine learning to analyze data and do predictive simulation around best intervention efforts around the pandemic? There’s just a big need for our capabilities right now and everything we’ve done leading up to this, which was in computer gaming, our time at Lockheed Martin building big constructive simulations of entire countries, and working with AI and machine learning, all that’s come to this point where we feel like, okay, now we’re prepared to solve all these problems. So it’s a really busy, exciting time.

3. What is your favorite coffee spot?
My wife is from Italy. From a place called Marostica, which is about 40 miles from Venice, and is where a guy named Prospero Alpini brought coffee to Europe for the first time. And his ancestral house is four doors down from my wife’s home in Marostica, so we get coffee sent from there that we make here in my home all the time. But other than that, I like Open Eye Café in Carborro and I like the coffee from Counter Culture Coffee out of Durham.

4. What keeps you up at night?
I think the critical problem of the century is how do we get the right balance of humans and automation to optimize outcomes? I think it’s critical that we figure that out now because of the forces that are shaping everything around us. That increasing complexity, how much digital technology is taking hold and really influencing everything on a global scale. So now, how do you actually harness machine learning? I think every organization needs to look at every activity they’re doing and decide what should we continue to do with human effort and human attention, and what do we need to turn over to automation because that’s how we can speed up the cycles and be more efficient.

From a business perspective, I think it’s helping people get that balance, but also doing it for myself and helping my children make decisions about what should they study in school and what kind of careers are they going to have in the future. I don’t know what kind of jobs there are going to be 10 or 20 years from now, but I know they’re going to be very different from what we have today and that’s going to have deep societal repercussions. And the best way to prepare for it is to make sure you have a good fluency with these very tools that are reshaping the world.

5. What is your favorite restaurant or happy hour?
I’m not much of a happy hour person these days, but my wife loves Italian food. We really like Panciuto in Hillsborough and Pizzeria Toro in Durham.  We’ve got young kids, so we don’t go out quite as much as we used to, but we like Glasshalfull in Carrboro. We also like Provence, which is a French restaurant also in downtown Carrboro that I’m really concerned about because I think this pandemic really had an effect on a lot of the restaurants. I think they may be teetering on the edge right now, so we’re trying to support them every way we can.

6. What is next for you or your organization?
I think we’re just still climbing up the food ladders that we built for ourselves. One in knowledge management, one in process automation for using AI, and the other is this synthetic population-modeling capability that’s really compelling, interesting and exciting. We’re climbing all three ladders, and trying to figure out which one is going to become an elevator that shoots us to the moon. We’re just continuing to ride all three at the moment.

If I think a little bit more broadly, even when I left Lockheed, even with my team, David Smith and I, we thought, “Hey, we’ve climbed up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to this point where we really want to focus on things like education and health care. What can we do in North Carolina?” What else can we do in a transformative way, in those two areas? It’s one of those things, if you’ve ever listened to Peter Diamandis, Ray Kurzweil, or Elon Musk, is there something you can do that has a positive impact on a billion people?

If you start thinking about things like that, you end up ethically getting down to healthcare, education, energy, and space travel. We’re constantly getting together and talking through business models and plans. Okay, we’ve got all this tech that we’ve built over three decades, without a lot of pioneering efforts. We made some money. How can we make a deeper impact? Also, how can we do it in North Carolina?

Those are the sorts of things we’re thinking about, and I’d be happy if it was one of them, or all of the above. I’m interested in every one of them. I’ve got a lot of research and people that I’ve worked with, in all four of those areas, even space travel. I try to collect smart people in all those areas and work with them, and continue to build ideas, and see where it’s all going to lead.

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About Brooks Malone 41 Articles
Brooks Malone is a NC CPA and Partner with Hughes Pittman & Gupton, LLP, and leads the Technology practice group. Brooks is also listed contributor to the National Fast Trac Tech Curriculum that was funded by the Kauffman Foundation. Brooks was named one of the 40 Under 40 in May 2005 by the TBJ, received the Outstanding service to Entrepreneurs Award in 2008 by CED, and named to the Leadership Raleigh Hall of Fame in October 2011. Brooks is a graduate of North Carolina State University and is active at American Underground and HQ Raleigh.