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Sixth Sense: Creating a better world by connecting scaling start-ups and world-class companies

Hexagon is dedicated to creating a future where data is fully and autonomously leveraged so that business, industry and humanity can sustainability thrive. This is an ambitious goal — one that requires collaboration between innovative companies.

That’s where Sixth Sense comes in. This open innovation platform will bring together start-ups and industry-leading companies to create transformative solutions that benefit everyone. By allowing the sharing of data, resources and ideas, small start-ups can leverage the power of established companies to bring their ideas to market faster and more effectively. This, in turn, can address some of humanity’s greatest challenges, such as the journey to net zero.

Join this episode of HxGN Radio to learn more about Sixth Sense from Milan Kocic, senior director.

BK: Hello, everyone. Thank you for tuning in to this episode of HxGN Radio. I’m your host, Beth Keener. Hexagon is dedicated to creating a future where data is fully and autonomously leveraged so that business, industry, and humanity can sustainably thrive. This is an ambitious goal, one that requires collaboration between innovative companies. That’s where Milan Kocic comes in. An experienced engineer and product developer who is passionate about leading disruptive innovation and digital transformation, Milan had the idea to develop a platform that would connect small startups with established companies to bring their ideas to market faster and more effectively. This platform is named Sixth Sense. Today, Milan is serving as the senior director of Sixth Sense for Hexagon’s Manufacturing Intelligence Division.

Milan, that is a lot. Well, thank you for joining us. You are quite the captivating human being. I’ve read up on you, but I want you to tell our audience a little bit about your background.

MK: Sure, thank you for having me. That’s the first thing. And then just a quick background. I’m a Hexagon lifer. I’m part of the original acquisition of Brown and Sharp way back in 2000. So, my life at Hexagon has been in technical side of things. I’ve done commercial side of things where I sold software. Then I skipped out for a couple of years to some other company, which shall remain nameless. And then I returned back, and probably for the last 13 years I’ve done everything from product management, programme development, innovation. I think I have about 16 patents to my name, all done during my time at Hexagon. And then — most recently — I launched a couple of service subscription, digital transformation kind of things. And then of course, Sixth Sense, which I’ve spent most of my time for the last year or so doing.

BK: So basically, you’re saying you’re relatively lazy. You don’t like to get your hands into many things.

MK: That’s right. I figured, you know, I’ll just take an easy road and just do the things as they go. There’s a good question there because I mentor a couple of younger colleagues in the organisation, and I said kind of nobody ever gives you a job. You have to kind of create a job that you want. And I think I’ve stuck to that, at least for the last 20 years, because most of the positions I’ve held did not exist before I had them. So, I kind of figured—

BK: I’ve noticed that.

MK: Yeah.

BK: I have noticed that.

MK: Yeah, so.

BK: Well, you have created the track record for sure, especially within Hexagon, and now you’ve moved on to Sixth Sense. This is really an interesting concept, not only because the focus is innovation, also sustainability long term, and a number of different facets. But can you tell us what prompted the idea for you to start Sixth Sense?

MK: Sure. You know, everybody had an awesome time during COVID, so you kind of sit there and you think, what’s next? And I figured, you know, I’ve done a lot of different things while I was there. So, I was always kind of, well, how do you plan out the next 15 years? Because I just turned 50 last year, so you kind of got a little bit of time before retirement. And we looked at where might be the weaknesses, not necessarily just in manufacturing intelligence, but across the board. And not that Hexagon is not an innovative company. It’s how innovation comes to fruition in most organisations.

And there’s two parts really to it. One is the obvious question around brand recognition and brand equity and what could we do to increase the exposure amongst, you know, the global recognition for Hexagon brand? If we do a programme like this and we get identified by startups as being one of the companies that has a way of working with startups, values innovation and is really interested where the innovation goes, I think ultimately it creates a different buzz around the brand, which is also been done through a lot of slightly more innovative ways. We’ve done PR and marketing. So that’s one part of it.

The other part of it is, if you look at us across the board, we didn’t have really a facility or a way and an organised way to talk to startups. We have been talking to startups for many, many years as Hexagon, but those conversations usually don’t have an outcome, they don’t have a result, or they tend to be kind of lingering for a long time while we miss the opportunity to get on a ground floor with a startup or help them scale and grow.

So those kinds of two things drove us to look at what is a better way to execute those kinds of relationships. So, help startups, but also help Hexagon kind of get in on the ground floor of some really cool, innovative ideas.

BK: Well, the pipeline is really what you’re talking about, I guess, about a streamlined course from start to finish of connecting and then developing. What would the objective be as you guys are working alongside these startups? What’s the major objective of this programme?

MK: Sure. If you look at how we’re structured, one would say, well, it’s like every typical accelerator. And for listeners who don’t know what an accelerator is, it’s a typical organisation that puts together, let’s say, help classes, connections, networking for startups in order for them to accelerate their development so they can scale their business. In some ways, that’s what Sixth Sense is. But what Sixth Sense isn’t, it is not kind of like, let’s say, a wholesale solution for every single startup. We keep the focus of the areas where Hexagon tends to focus on.

So, being a corporate programme, we call it an open innovation programme rather than an accelerator. And what we mean by that is that we invite startups to pitch us an idea around a theme or a challenge. A challenge for this first cohort that is currently running was around artificial intelligence for process improvement in advanced manufacturing. Very exciting. But we also had a similar open challenge, which is anybody who does anything in advanced manufacturing should apply. And when they apply, we give them some parameters of what are we looking for, which is typically a pre-series, a series, a company, maybe some early stage. And what we’re really offering to them is Hexagon’s breadth, first the technology, and the second one is the reach. We are in almost every country in the world. We can pretty much sell anything to anybody, anywhere. And what a lot of startups tend to miss and the stage where they’re at is not funding, it’s not money — it’s the access to customers and access to markets.

We as an organisation do two things, which is help look at innovation, get them to hone their message, see if there is a fit with an existing Hexagon project or with a customer itself. And then at the end try to see what’s the ideal solution for them. So, the companies that applied, on March 16 we had an event, out of 13 companies that pitched, we picked seven. And those seven companies are now working with us to figure out what their future beyond Sixth Sense could look like with Hexagon, with Hexagon customers or beyond. The solutions are not set typically in, like, oh, let’s come to the programme, we’ll give you some funding, then you go live. Depending on the situation, we look at a variety of outcomes, depending on what happens with the actual organisation. So that’s how this whole thing tends to work. And then rinse and repeat and repeat and repeat and repeat and go from there.

BK: That’s very clarifying because I think a lot of people out there like myself, would be wondering, okay, is this acquisition, is this collaboration, or is this a mentoring or a mentorship type of programme? And you’re basically saying it could be any or all of those things potentially?

MK: Correct. I’ll give you just a basic anecdote, which is all seven companies that are currently part of the programme, they all, to a certain extent, are very great technology companies with a lot of technologists. But if you try to pin them down to tell you why they’re different, what is different they do, how they market their product, there is a lot of weaknesses in that particular approach, which is where they need help. And that help is provided either by internal experts.
We also have a whole slew of external coaches and mentors who have either started companies, sold companies and bunch of other things in there. And then we do workshops with them, which is we poignantly and very honestly ask them, you know, certain questions, and we try to pressure them to tell us those kinds of things, because one thing we found out is some of these companies have never pitched to an investor because they get a grant through grants, either bootstrapped and other things, which means how you message things, how do you actually tried to scale the organisation is really dependent on who you are. We are believers that there’s not one all solution for all these companies. They all require a slightly different way of attending to them.

BK: It’s like kids.

MK: Exactly. It’s like…

BK: Well, you recently kicked off the first cohort, as you mentioned, and I know you touched on this a little bit, but what is the process like when you’re selecting? You said it was 13 that came to you, seven you chose. Can you walk us through the inaugural group?

MK: Sure. I will give you the grade actually. Let’s go back a little bit more, which is when we opened up the programme. We basically invited companies to apply. We had roughly 120 companies across the globe apply. It was 24 countries. Average size of the companies, about 20 people. And there were roughly of a pre-saeed, a saeed stage for most of the companies.

BK: That’s great.

MK: Out of that, out of that big group, through several factors, we had the relationship with some of the companies. We had to fit into a particular thing for the other companies. There was about a 20% of companies that came with Gmail address, which is a great giveaway that it’s not really a company. Out of all that, we filtered it down to about 13 companies. And then what we did is we had an event on March 16. There was a virtual event where all 13 companies had a 3- to 5-minute pitch to us to tell us who they are, how they make money, what is their “it” thing. And we had a panel of six judges, of which four were external to Hexagon. They were venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, who would then essentially vote and pick the class of seven.

Why seven? We were going to do six, but there was one company that kind of fit and was of interest to most people, and then we picked seven companies.

After we picked them, the process they go through is really a three-stage process. We go through a first process which is getting to know the tech — getting to understand what is it exactly do, how does the technology work? And from our end, we look at where does this fit? Is there a customer project that fits? Is there a product within Hexagon MI that fits that particular scenario? Could we leverage those two technologies together to create something that’s bigger and better?

Then we have a second stage of the process, which is getting to know the business, which is how do they make money? How could they make more money? You know, is there a model within Hexagon they could use to expand their business? What are the other options that are exist there?

And then last two weeks is really getting them ready for the pitch. There is a secondary pitch that all seven companies will do. And I’ll get to mentioning which companies and what they do actually in a second. But on May 25 in London, there is a hybrid event. There’ll be about 100, 150 people at the actual event, and then we’ll have virtually streaming what we’re doing. And those seven companies will then present, what have we figured out that they actually do, how they can leverage Hexagon’s ecosystem to scale their business, or how they can leverage a certain customer that they met during this process in order to increase their business and what do they think the future could be? And out of that seven, we’ll pick one, two, maybe three, that then we continue an actual engagement with a project that we think, you know, as the future.

It doesn’t mean that the other companies that we don’t pick, we suddenly go, ‘okay, bye’; we don’t talk to you. It’s just that it takes a different intensity of relationship depending if they win, if they don’t win. So that’s the kind of how the whole thing works. And then we would announce on May 25 the next challenge and then recruit more companies and take it from there.

BK: Wow. It’s like a very specific shark tank.

MK: It’s a very specific shark tank. And because it is a corporate programme, it’s slightly different than typical accelerator programmes because you have at end of the day, it’s a 50/50% relationship between Hexagon and the startup, because obviously Hexagon does this because it’s interested in looking at opportunities that we might otherwise miss that would help us either innovate or get into businesses that we don’t necessarily exist in today. So, there’s, you know, obviously it’s opportunistic in certain ways.

BK: Well, speaking of innovation, Hexagon’s goal is to deliver an autonomous future. And this is certainly a goal that supported through your initiative, Sixth Sense, and your programme. Can you touch on what this looks like and why it matters?

MK: I’m a believer, and maybe I’ll slightly go off a little bit here, which is I think that the future is collaborative future, that there is certain autonomy to it. I think there’s a misnomer in some of the things that are presented sometimes about the future and especially manufacturing intelligence. You know, you see a lot of illustrations and animations where there’s a factory and there’s a bunch of robots and there’s no humans. We at Sixth Sense don’t think that’s necessarily how it’s going to look like. We think that automation and autonomy is more about helping people do value-added tasks and not do the stuff that doesn’t matter, things like robots can do, that doesn’t necessarily need human intervention.

BK: More mundane.

MK: More mundane, yeah. So, we believe that the future that’s autonomous is not what we would typically imagine. Like, oh, we just sip cocktails on the beach and everybody else does the work. I think it’s part of a future where we have the autonomy to focus on things that tend to matter and not focus on things that, in a bigger scheme of things, are routine jobs that don’t necessarily require our attention. And I think companies that we tend to pick and if you want, I can kind of give a little a little synopsis of the seven companies that we picked, they all have a little bit of stuff that fits and pursues that kind of autonomy question. I think it’s a good way to kind of carry on from here.

BK: Yeah. Would you like to touch on the autonomous features of each company and what you find or what maybe what you’ve learnt while working with them?

MK: Sure. So, the seven companies, they come from a few places: Canada, U.S., Brazil, Germany and Spain. And I’ll kind of go not necessarily in the order of preference so that if they listen, it doesn’t mean I prefer one or the other.

The first company is a company called Primo out of Toronto, Canada, which does essentially AI for predictive behaviour. They have a plug-in that plugs into just about any software that they can think of, looks at the unstructured data, and can basically point out anomalies and predict behaviour in the future with very little data, very quickly, and very fast. And if you look at the two angles, why is that autonomy? Well, it means that you no longer need humans to make certain decisions, especially the humans don’t have the attention span of AI in order to be able to catch them. That’s one part of it. And the other part also talks about the other part that’s important to us, which is sustainability, which you mentioned at the beginning, which is technically speaking, if we do processes more efficiently, that also means we are more sustainable. So that’s kind of how that plays in that order.

Another company does very similar work. It’s called IconPro. They’re out of Germany, often a university in Germany. They do very similar work. The initial work started in predicting quality. They’ve now expanded their AI engine to do similar work that Primo does. It’s a little bit more focused on using the statistical data and some of the other A.I. tools to predict behaviour. So, both Primo and IconPro kind of coexist in a similar word, which is process improvement in order to do things more efficiently. The autonomy there is an obvious one, which is humans don’t make decisions; AI makes decisions and then improves the process in the bigger scheme of things.

A third one is a company called Ricoh out of Aachen, Germany, also, which Aachen is a very good speed for a lot of interesting companies in northwestern Germany. So, two of the companies come out of there. And Ricoh does some really cool stuff. They’re actually in a process of working with us, actually with Geosystems with a BLK scanners and using the scanners to scan a factory floor. And what their AI engine does is automatically separates the objects from the scan so they can tell a CNC machine, a robot, a door, a window and other things they can do, so segmentation essentially is done by artificial intelligence. And what they’re trying to do essentially is speed up factory planning process so that somebody can go basically put a scanner, go around the factory, scan it, then doing the second time things have changed, things have moved. They know exactly where things are moved and improve the process planning.

And I think most factories, to the best of our knowledge, tend to do this like once or twice a year. They tend to move things around just to make it more efficient. So, from their perspective, autonomy is the fact that digitising the data, which also plays into another concept which we’ve been mentioning, which is metaverse. The idea that we can create a digital reality of just about everything that’s around us. So that’s three so far.

Number four is a company out of Brazil called iFlow. And what they do is they essentially use cameras or any form of visual data in order to create where A.I. gets trained to recognise patterns and differences between different objects or processes. And their kind of “it” thing is they can use off the shelf cameras and they can adapt their A.I. to many different processes in the manufacturing process. So, if you think about it, autonomy comes from the automation of the full process and they can essentially just read the video and pictures, train the AI to look for certain things as they happened. They’re right now rolling out a huge installation and a big plan for a company called VinFast in Vietnam. They’ve been working with us for about a year or so. And now we’re focusing on what other tools can they use and expand what they do.

It went down to four, so let me just think. Five would be a company out of Madison, Wisconsin, called SmartUQ. To be honest with you, what they do is so advanced that even I don’t understand some of the things they do. But a lot of people around Hexagon might tell me that it’s really, really cool what they do. We’re helping them actually do some marketing and PR so they can explain. But essentially what they do is they can run simulations, discrete simulation of real objects ten times faster than typical software can. They basically provide plug ins for designing simulation, part of manufacturing intelligence where certain simulations can be executed significantly faster than they can otherwise. And why is that good? Well, it’s obvious. Typical simulations can run hours. And if you can execute it in an hour and 30 minutes means you can run multiple simulations, which means the outcomes for what you’re looking for can be generated faster. So, the idea here is that you can do stuff faster and more efficiently. You obviously can plan better and do other things.

Then we have a company called SmartParts out of New York City. And SmartParts does something really cool. They have a small additive that they add to additive manufacturing, which is a material that responds to different wavelengths of light. What ends up happening is they can essentially start tracking the provenance of material that’s being used in additive manufacturing. And they can also, in the future do provenance of any kind of material that’s used in manufacturing, which means you have this little scanner. The scanner scans the part and knows exactly where the part came from, what it does, what is its future, where is it passed? Ideally, if you add blockchain and other things to it, which means you have a digital fingerprint for the parts all the way from birth to shipment, which is kind of the holy grail of some of the manufacturing.

BK: That’s what you could do with children. I feel like if we could do that with children, you know where they come from, you know where you’re sending them, until they go off to college, and we could just plan it out with blockchain.

MK: Exactly. But the cool thing I learnt about SmartParts, I didn’t know this, that material that they’re using right at the manufacturing is actually used in Lycra and it’s used for counterfeiting purposes. A lot of clothing that we might have, people can scan with this particular scanners and tell if the product is counterfeit. It is also used in U.S. Mint when they print money. A lot of this stuff is invisible to us. We can’t see it, but it’s contained within the material.

How does that relate to autonomy? It relates from the fact that essentially, rather than using pencil and paper to track what’s happening in a manufacturing process, or your children, we can now automatically kind of have a traceability factor as to what actually happens.

And then the last company under the cohort is a company called SmartPM out of Bilbao, Spain, and they do some really cool stuff in automating processes in the factory. So basically, they build cells that can be self-contained and those cells themselves can execute to different parts of either quantity, production process. And they have a very cool tool that works on the cloud that essentially gives you the status of stuff that’s happening. And the nice thing about it, it’s a pretty open tool. It’s pretty adaptable. And obviously, the autonomy comes from automating a full process that happens in the factory and kind of goes towards, you know, let’s call it, you know, the deal lights out solution that everybody’s seeking out at some point.

So that’s the basic class of seven that’s currently in the cohort.

BK: Very cool. And working with them, you have learnt anything specific?

MK: What have we learnt? The companies range from super early stage, pre-revenue, which is kind of something like SmartParts, to companies that have a good pipeline of customers and are doing interesting things like SmartUQ and Ricoh. And the idea is that they all have slightly different needs. Kind of the thing we touched on at the beginning, it is always hard to put like a programme that’s a box when not all these companies fit into that box. Part of that is conscious choice. Part of that is it’s a first cohort. So, there is obviously nobody knows who we are and nobody knows what we do as far as this programme goes. So, we have to be slightly less selective on how we adapt to what we do.

But I can tell you in general in common, most of them need some help with marketing and PR and exposure. Most of them need a little bit of help on pitching and how to hone their message or what they’re trying to do. And ultimately, most of them need help in accessing customers and telling the right story, whoever they have to tell it to, which is ultimately customers wanting to buy their products. I think kind of a generic problem is across the board. But they also offer that thing we touched on earlier, which is they also have some cool stuff and interesting things which will help us at Hexagon to maybe speed up some development of some of the things we’ve been working on, and combined with what they offer, we could get to market faster rather than trying to invent everything ourselves.

BK: Now, Milan, this name of the initiative that you’ve developed is really fascinating, and we all know what a sixth sense is. But I am very interested in how you came up with the name and how it ties into what you’re doing with innovation, autonomy, and your goals here with this project.

MK: Sure. It’s an interesting story, and it has nothing about seeing dead people. Some people know what that reference is. But when we started we really wanted to create a sub identity to Hexagon that kind of reinforces the coolness of the brand and other things that we’re trying to do. So we saw something that’s a little bit more modern. And we worked with a great agency out of London called Seven Hills, which has since done a bunch of work for Hexagon for other initiatives. But Michael Heyman, there, does this real cool workshop where he basically probes the depth of your soul to ask you about a lot of things. And then in turn, the team kind of extracts some options. So, what they did is they talked to us. We talked about a mission. What are we trying to do? And then they went away and came back with some suggestions. And the thing that—it was a funny thing is that during the initial workshop, Sixth Sense was a name that just popped up, and we just kind of clung onto it because it kind of identifies what we’re trying to do, because the whole point of Sixth Sense is this ability to see something that’s not there yet. So, if you look at that we’re trying to be this entity that sees the future and sees where things are going and how we can actually either benefit humanity or create autonomous future and other things, Sixth Sense is something that tells you what is that that is going to be the “it” thing. I also called it sometimes in the past informed intuition, which is you have to kind of have some knowledge, but ultimately it has to come from the gut, which is where the sixth sense tends to sometimes come from. And I think that was what drove us to the idea, and the name that — as far as we can tell — has resonated really well with people and kind of gets them to understand right off the bat as to what are we trying to do.

BK: Absolutely.

Now, what advice would you give startups who would like to participate or are interested in applying for Sixth Sense?

MK: Sixth Sense website is sixthsense.hexagon.com, and there’s a little bit of more detail about what does the programme entail. There’s a great FAQ section, which tells you kind of who are we looking for, what are we looking for? And right on there, if you scroll through the pages, there’s about six places that says “Apply.” And when we don’t have an active challenge, what that means is just apply, tell us who you are, and we will add you to our database of companies that we monitor as a general pretence of what we’re trying to do.

Twice a year right now — maybe more in the future, we don’t know yet — we will actually post a particular challenge. And then if you think you’re a right fit for that challenge, we would encourage you either to remind us that you applied already or to apply to the programme itself. We’ll announce a new challenge on May 25. We will open up the applications probably sometime at the end of the June, and we run the application process for roughly a couple of months.

There’s another big show for industry coming September, which is IMTS in Chicago, and around that time in Chicago we’ll announce the companies we have picked to do a first pitch to us, probably sometime end of September, and then go from there.

But I think anybody who’s interested can either apply or they can email us. The email address is also on the web page, and they can ask us any questions that they want to. We have a small team. There’s only four of us. But kind of small and mighty, I guess, is the best way to put it, so.

BK: I love that. Well, with—just to kind of piggyback on that question, when these startups are applying, just from what you’ve learnt from this first cohort, is there anything that stands out to you in applications that is of interest or that anyone could do to garner attention from this team at Sixth Sense, and what would that look like for anyone who would be applying?

MK: I think a message to any startup should always be, be as specific about what you do and be as specific what makes you you, and why are you different. In other words, why would I like your product and why would I buy it from you? So don’t focus — a lot of times we have gotten information that’s super technical in nature. While that’s really cool and interesting for us to read, it doesn’t tell us much as to what the value of the business is. So as long as the startups are able to articulate what makes them valuable and why the stuff they do is really interesting to the customer, and specifically not necessarily to Hexagon, is what ends up attracting us to those kinds of solutions because we can then imagine how does this all fit in a bigger scheme of things. But as long as they can articulate what makes them unique and special is what really ultimately makes us pay attention to them.

BK: Love that. It’s knowing your audience. Who is your audience and how can you serve them?

MK: Exactly.

BK: That was a great, great answer.

Now, lastly, I want you to repeat that website one more time, where they can learn more about Sixth Sense.

MK: Sure. It’s sixthsense—one word—.hexagon.com. And go there and you’ll see a lot of apply buttons. So just click on one of them.

BK: Awesome. Well, thank you, Milan. It has been such a pleasure talking to you. And thank you all for joining us for this special episode of HxGN Radio.

You can learn more about Sixth Sense by visiting sixthsense.hexagon.com, just as Milan has said. And to listen to additional episodes, please visit hxgnspotlight.com or you can also find us on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. Thank you all for tuning in. And thank you again, Milan.