Ken Sills, CEO and co-founder of Preteckt
Ken Sills grew up around heavy-duty vehicles in Windsor, Canada. His father started his career as a diesel mechanic before ultimately becoming an award-winning fleet maintenance manager and running his own company. “I would have followed in his footsteps,” Sills says. “But he told me and my brother ‘get out of this, it’s not a great life,’ and forced us to go get an education.” So Sills completed Master’s Degrees in both Computational Astrophysics and Electrical and Computer Engineering, spending much of his career prior to Preteckt in and out of academia and industry.
Sills began prototyping for the company that would become Preteckt in 2014. Preteckt’s technology utilizes machine learning and continuous data collection to predict vehicle breakdowns. The big data architecture was originally intended for passenger vehicles. However, when Sills and Preteckt were recruited to Memphis by Start Co., the company pivoted to heavy-duty vehicles and trucks.
“When we came down here, it was to grow a company here. It was never intended to be a temporary thing,” Sills says of relocating Preteckt from Canada to Memphis. Memphis’ culture of welcoming entrepreneurs was surprising to Sills and his co-founder. “We were able to walk up to buildings, knock on the door and say ‘can I talk to your CEO?’ In Toronto, that would have gotten you an escort out of the building,” he says. “But here, the fact that we moved from Canada to build a company here immediately got doors opened, and people would listen to us and give us feedback.”
Since being in Memphis, Preteckt has hired nine full-time employees, and recently released job postings for seven more. They’re working with original equipment manufacturers to empower them with data for creating vehicle health management practices in passenger vehicles. They have customers across the country in hybrid vehicles, passenger vehicles, truck fleets, and municipal vehicles. And with every new customer, their technology gets smarter, faster, more adept at predicting breakdowns, and, therefore, better at saving companies money.
Recently, Preteckt secured a partnership with the Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA). In the beginning, Sills wasn’t sure the technology would be applicable to buses. “We had no idea how it was going to work,” he says. “Turns out there’s so much overlap in our models that within a week of installing, we were predicting breakdowns. We were able to start saving money for them immediately.” Preteckt is now installed on every MATA bus in service.
Sills says that Gary Rosenfeld, MATA’s Chief Executive Officer, was critical in connecting Preteckt to the Transit Tech Lab, an accelerator program that allows companies to test and pilot technologies on the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). Preteckt is one of six companies selected for the inaugural Transit Tech Lab, during which MTA will evaluate technologies for potential future use on subways and buses. These companies have the unique opportunity to customize their products for the largest transit authority in the United States. In Preteckt’s case, their technology will be tested and utilized to predict subway breakdowns. At the end of the eight-week program, MTA will move forward with one-year pilots of the technologies offering the best solutions.
Preteckt is poised to be one of Memphis’ premier entrepreneurial success stories. “It’s important to the ecosystem that we win. There are times where our company should have failed,” Sills says. “But the ecosystem basically picked us up, dusted us off, and said ‘no, keep going.’ We’re not allowed to fail trivially.”
Preteckt has benefited from being part of Memphis’ startup ecosystem, and intends to keep pouring back into Memphis’ budding entrepreneurial movement. “What the ecosystem needs is time. We’ve taken a lot of the ecosystem’s learning and built it into ours. We need to be nurturing this environment,” he says. “We are forging a path ahead of younger companies. It matters that we stay connected to them, to show them what’s on the other side of four years.”
Sills is confident running a company differently than what is expected in Silicon Valley. He has focused on investing in his staff and building long-term relationships. He prefers to build slow and steady as opposed to “intentionally moving too fast.” He calls himself relatively conservative for a tech co-founder, structuring Preteckt on what he knows they can accomplish. “A lot of investors are surprised to see a startup give them a business plan that looks like it’s achievable,” he says.
Preteckt is on the way to being a wildly successful company. And still, between major municipal announcements and fundraising on the coast, Sills reflects on moments of serendipity. While Preteckt was installing technology on its very first truck in Memphis, Sills noticed the garage he was working in looked just like his dad’s in Windsor. He pulled out his phone, took a picture, and sent it to his dad with a text that read “how did I end up back here?”
“Back when I was 18, I was working in a garage just like that one and my dad told me to get out. And I honestly did,” he says. “But I’m back. My dad and I still chuckle about how things come full circle.”