1992: Kenneth Hedrick, an 18-year-old Maryland firefighter, dies in a burning building after rescuing a 7-year-old boy.
1999: Six firefighters die inside a Worcester, Mass., cold storage building.
2001: Three hundred forty-three firefighters and paramedics are lost on 9/11.
On the fourth floor of the Greenway Center, an unremarkable glass office building in Greenbelt, TRX Systems’ Carol Politi; Carole Teolis, Ph.D.; and their team are improving the survival odds for firefighters, soldiers and miners with TRX NEON, a non-GPS 3-D tracking technology.
What is non-GPS tracking? Simply, it’s the ability to locate, monitor and guide in “GPS-denied” environments.
Your Foursquare App or the recently touted WIFISLAM tracker purchased by Apple requires “infrastructure,” i.e., WiFi or detectable GPS. But WiFi can disappear during a power outage, and natural and man-made structures can block or distort WiFi and GPS signals. And firefighters and soldiers, weighed down with heavy equipment, don’t generally walk around with buildings’ schematics at their fingertips.
TRX NEON doesn’t rely on any of these, and it’s changing the tracking world. Yet seven years ago, today’s TRX Systems was just a name.
Tenacity Leads to ‘Secret Sauce’
Shortly after 9/11, Techno-Sciences Inc. (TSI), a company headed by Gilmer Blankenship, received a $308,000 grant to develop an emergency responder tracking and monitoring system.
Carole Teolis, then vice president of systems engineering at TSI, led the project team. Their goal: Find a way to locate people, guide them through structures (create a map) and receive and provide information in GPS-denied environments.
Firefighters, consulted through the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute and in New York, made it clear that any viable solution not only had to work, but had to be “SWAP-C”: low size, weight, power and cost. That meant under $1,000 per unit for firefighters. They also had to be heat resistant.
Sounds simple? It wasn’t. “There were,” Blankenship noted, “multiple failures.”
Teolis and her team were tenacious. They figured out a “secret sauce” — a software solution that fixed issues related to an approach they had previously discarded: inertial sensor-based technology. (Inertial sensors measure motion and rotation, and a [micro] computer calculates the position, orientation and velocity of the moving object without the need for external references, such as WiFi or GPS.)
The fix meant they could use low-cost MEMS (micro-electro mechanical systems) chips. Today, this “secret sauce” is at the heart of TRX’s NEON product.
TRX Systems Is Born
The solution’s potential was enormous but outside of TSI’s main focus, so it was decided to spin off a new company. Activating a previously registered name, today’s TRX Systems, co-founded by Blankenship and Teolis, was born. A 2007 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant provided the new firm’s seed money.
The chance to head a new company came at an opportune moment for Teolis. At TSI, she’d been involved in multiple projects, from gas turbines to tsunami-related projects.
“I wanted to do something that would actually be finished. This one we could make work,” she said.
With Teolis as its president and Ben Funk, now TRX’s vice president of engineering, as the first employee, the company moved into the University of Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute’s (MTech) Technology Advancement Program (TAP), a business incubator.
Success and accolades came quickly. In July 2008, TRX was named Maryland Incubator Company of the Year in the Homeland Security category. The same year, it won first place in The Global Security Challenge (GSC).
Not only did they defeat competitors from around the world, but with the honor came a $500,000 contract from the Technical Support Working Group (TSWG), a “national interagency research and development program for combating terrorism requirements at home and abroad,” according to its web site.
Noted Teolis, “GSC was a business competition versus an engineering and design project. Saying we had a good business was actually a big thing.”
Shortly thereafter, the company’s CFO left. Teolis was at first reluctant to bring in a businessperson.
Politi Brings New Skills
The company had more than $1.5 million in research grants from agencies like DARPA, but was having difficulty raising venture capital. Research grants can’t pay for the sales and marketing needed to build a business. TRX board members, including Jean-Luc Abaziou, suggested that fire-related tracking was too narrow a market, unlikely to attract significant venture capital.
Abaziou urged them to bring in someone with the experience and knowledge not only to secure funding, but to grow and develop new business opportunities. He suggested Teolis meet Carol Politi, with whom he had previously worked.
“You’ll like her,” Teolis recalled him saying.
She did. Teolis and Politi and the rest of the close-knit team hit it off. Politi joined the company in 2010, the same year TRX sold its first product — to NIST: The National Institute of Standards and Technology.
Politi brought with her strong marketing, product development and entrepreneurial credentials. Her career included building and selling a company (Megisto Systems), and working in international marketing and in mobile technologies and communications in the U.S., Europe and Asia.
Why was she interested in TRX? Politi explained, “As a company, a combination of the large market opportunity and the innovative technology addressing it was really compelling … indoor location is going to be a very large market, and TRX was the first to have solved the really hard technology challenge of delivering 3-D location indoors without infrastructure.”
Noted Abaziou, “Carol is a fast learner and can grasp a new technical area and become knowledgeable about it in a record time. … She can extract what is critical to the business.”
New Markets, Products, Funding
With Politi on board as president, (Teolis became chairman and chief technology officer), the company reassessed and expanded its product focus.
Today the company, with Teolis taking the technology development lead, has multiple patents pending, 15 full-time and four part-time employees, and business relationships in Southeast Asia; and is a partner in a new Wearable Advanced Sensor Platform (WASP) project spearheaded by Globe Manufacturing Co.
Rather than hire more staff, they’re relying on experienced consultants for everything from marketing to finance. Politi, Teolis and a management team meet weekly to review and assess current projects and opportunities.
“It never ceases to amaze me with the ideas they have that we can put out to market,” Politi said.
Politi herself already has made a significant financial difference, raising close to $2 million in new capital funding in the past year alone. This includes $475,000 from New Dominion Angels, and $150,000 from the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, through the Maryland Venture Fund, its second TRX investment.
In November 2012, Motorola Solutions Venture Capital announced it had invested in the company.
Teolis and her team, with product development input from Politi, are creating a company that continues to be on the leading edge of this fast-moving field. TRX NEON, the company’s signature product, which it continues to refine, is reaching into public safety, homeland security and commercial markets.
A young man walks out of the office door with a cell phone in hand. Teolis turns on a computer, and on its screen a blue line starts zig-zagging down virtual hallways. The two are testing a new product — embedding the company’s signature TRX NEON tracking process into cell phones, a development that will significantly broaden its commercial and security applications.
TRX Systems is not only developing breakthrough products, but is a pioneer in its own right — both top officers are women with degrees in electrical engineering, an area too frequently dominated by men. Both hold patents. Both are driven, focused people intent not only on developing innovative technologies, but on bringing their company’s products successfully to market.
They are passionate about what they’re doing, and about the team of people with whom they work, from engineers on staff to firefighters in the field. They are committed not only because they want to create a profitable business, but because what they do can save lives.
The business community is taking notice. In May 2012, the company received a Tibbets Award from the SBA Small Business Innovation Research program, which recognizes Technical Innovation, Business Impact, and Broader Societal and Economic Benefit.
Carol Politi was recognized in July 2012 with a Brava! Award from SmartCEO magazine. The awards “celebrate women business leaders who combine their irrepressible entrepreneurial spirit with a passion for giving back to the community.”
In March 2013, Carole Teolis received the Woman in Tech Award from the Chesapeake Regional Tech Council (CRTC). The award recognizes “an individual who best exemplifies the outstanding contributions made by women in advancing technology in industry, business and society.”
The future? Acquisition is certainly a possibility. Right now, for Teolis and Politi, TRX Systems is an all-consuming effort, leaving little time for outside interests aside from their families (both are married with two sons). “This is my life,” noted Teolis.
The work they are doing will help ensure that the Ken Hedricks, Worcester Sixes, 9/11 first responders, plus soldiers, miners and others who venture into dangerous environments are never again lost because they were injured or became disoriented in burning, smoky, debris-filled environments and couldn’t be found until it was too late.
Right now, keeping tracking on track is what it’s all about.