Tim Sylvester (B.S.E.C.E. ’12, E-Scholar ’10) is sharing his entrepreneurial idea founded in Kansas City on a national scale. Sylvester founded Integrated Roadways, a company focused on revising infrastructure through their Smart Pavement™ system, which provides durable, precast concrete sections embedded with digital technology and fiber optic connectivity to transform ordinary roads into smart roads.
Recently, Sylvester was a panelist at South by Southwest’s presentation on Designing Infrastructure for Autonomous Cars.
What was it like to be at SXSW presenting your smart roadways solution next to other inventive entrepreneurs?
While this was my third time at SXSW, it was my first time as a panelist. To actually be on a panel for such a hot topic was really incredible. When we set up the panel last year, we knew how emergent the topic of autonomy, especially in regards to smart cities, would be. But over the past year, the conversation regarding autonomy went from “will it or won’t it” to “it will, so how?” The themes combined nicely with our topic, and I couldn’t have asked for better co-panelists who are all experts in their own fields.
Were there any surprise connections that you made while at SXSW?
I had a really interesting conversation my final night. I was speaking to two attendees; one builds a high resolution localization system that’s not dependent on GPS, and he needs a way to implement it into public infrastructure, and his friend has an electric vehicle company, but needs a localization system built into the infrastructure. I realized that between us, we had the three legs of a stool. That kind of unexpected connection is the point of going to SXSW.
What prompted you to form Integrated Roadways?
I spent a lot of time thinking “what is the best possible thing I could do for society that’s also the best possible thing I could do for myself?” I could see the value of infrastructure to economic development, as well as the disconnect between what was possible and what was available from traditional funding sources. I’ve been convincing people why technology is important since I was a teenager, and with Integrated Roadways, I had a way to explain to people that we need a different and better way to build and pay for roads.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced while launching Integrated Roadways?
The unfortunate part of entrepreneurship is that sometimes, nobody wants to invest until you no longer need their investment. People have a “wait and see” attitude in investing, but to have a significant return, you have to be aggressive, and you have to be a leader.
What challenges are you seeing now?
Funding is of course still an issue, but so is scaling.
Bootstrapping a company is brutally difficult, but bootstrapping to scale? You might as well be trying to jump your way to the moon. If you ask anyone that’s involved in entrepreneurship in Kansas City, they’ll tell you that you need investors willing to take financial risks.
What have been some of your greatest entrepreneurial accomplishments thus far?
Within 6 months of completing E-Scholars, I had an active project with the Kansas Department of Transportation, and according to them, it was the fastest they’d ever employed a new technology.
Also, whenever Mr. Bloch made his donation [to build the Henry W. Bloch Executive Hall for Entrepreneurship and Innovation], Chancellor Morton went to great lengths to ensure we would be able to demo our product as part of that initiative. He said “why are we spending money on a building to support entrepreneurship if we’re not willing to spend money on an action to support entrepreneurship?” That was so impactful, and, had that not happened, we may not be around today.
What is your vision for where Integrated Roadways will be in 10 years?
I want a 200,000 mile network of smart pavement across the United States, from coast to coast. And those 200,000 miles are only 10% of the market need; I want competitors that are actively trying to dethrone us, because improving basic infrastructure in the United States to support next generation mobility is the single biggest economic development opportunity that we have.
What role has UMKC played in your entrepreneurial journey?
UMKC provides so many programs I’ve benefited from, and others need to make use of what’s right in front of them. The advisors, educators and administrators did everything possible to make sure that I could get through my difficult programs. It’s hard to express the feeling when someone puts themselves on the line to help you find success. Luckily, I’ve gotten to thank them, but not nearly as much as they deserve. To support entrepreneurship, you need a culture of paying it forward and betting on what’s to come, which UMKC has done for me several times.
What advice would you give aspiring entrepreneurs?
The world doesn’t need another idea guy; we need people who can do the work. So many entrepreneurs say “I just need a technical founder.” Become the technical founder. Get the education and endure the struggle, because it will be worth it.
It’s like the marshmallow theory; you sit a kid at a table with one marshmallow, and tell them that if it’s still there when you return, they can have two marshmallows. If the kid eats the marshmallow, they should just get a job. We want to teach aspiring entrepreneurs not to eat the marshmallow.