Most people on the street, as well as business owners, have used the Global Positioning System (GPS) to find a friend’s house for a party, get to a new restaurant or locate a new store.
The space-based radio navigation system, which is owned by the United States government and operated by the United States Air Force, is, first and foremost, a critical factor in locating movements during military operations, as well as a crucial aid for first responders and other emergency personnel. It also encompasses the global navigation satellite system, which provides geolocation and time information to GPS receivers in all weather conditions, anywhere on (or near) the Earth — where there is an unobstructed line of sight to four or more GPS satellites.
But what if something happens inside a convention center? Or in an airport or an indoor sports venue?
That’s where TRX Systems, which was founded at the University of Maryland (UMD) incubator at the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship, comes in. The Greenbelt-based company has received two financial infusions from the Maryland Technology Development Corp. (TEDCO), and has also garnered funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to work toward bringing GPS indoors to negotiate “GPS-denied environments,” said TRX CEO Carol Politi.
‘The Last Mile’
How it works, Politi said, is pretty straightforward.
“The TRX solution typically uses satellites when users are outside,” said Politi, during her company’s recent participation in the Arlington, Va.-based National Science Foundation’s (NSF) “Arc of Science: Research to Results” event, which was held at the Rayburn House Office Building, in Washington, D.C., “but for inside use, the solution switches to inertial sensors, which are embedded in a wearable accessory or a phone device. Our algorithms model human motion and create map data to deliver a 3-D location indoors.”
The technology came about after early-stage research based on tracking first responders who work indoors, such as firefighters. “The first patent was submitted in 1996, and was based on research conducted by TRX team members including CTO Carol Teolis and Vice President of Engineering Benjamin Funk, as well as Board Member Gilmer Blankenship, professor and associate chairman of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UMD.
Leveraging increasingly mature Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (or MEMS) sensor technology, TRX released its first industrial product, NEON Signal Mapper, “used to validate public safety, and radio and cellular coverage,” she said.
More recently, TRX introduced its NEON Personnel Tracker solution to support public safety. “For years, companies have been able to locate personnel indoors using infrastructure-based technology, such as beacons,” Politi said, “but that doesn’t work for first responders who operate in buildings they don’t control. With our NEON technology, which was just used by Houston Police at Super Bowl LI, they can.”
“You need this type of alternative any time you want to track within a building or underground,” she said. “Think of it as the last mile.”
Columbia-based TEDCO made its first investment in TRX in 2006. “We gave them a $75,000 reimbursable grant with the Maryland Technology Transfer Grant (now the Tech Commercialization Fund) seed money,” said John Wasilisin, president and CEO, “after the ‘friends and family’ round.
“We offered very friendly terms because we were trying to help them stand up, as opposed to venture capital or bank investment” that requires a certain return. “We were also impressed with TRX’s leadership,” he said, “which consisted of two women,” Politi and Teolis. The second TEDCO infusion came in 2013 from the Joint Technology Transfer Initiative, a federal grant, also for $75,000.
Wasilisin pointed out that TRX has established partnerships with Motorola and General Dynamics. “If you can get into long-term relationships with a large contractor or a local government, you can get set up for a long time, while you continue to tweak the technology.”
Furthermore, the U.S. Army is still interested in the technology and getting its Small Business Innovation Research awards from NSF, “and that could turn into a lifetime opportunity for TRX,” Wasilisin said. “TRX has developed government contracts that total more than $4 million from the U.S. Army, NSF, the Federal Highway Administration and the Department of Homeland Security, as well as approximately $400,000 in commercial orders.
“Those are all very positive indicators,” Wasilisin said, “but our real payback is that TRX has been operating for more than a decade and employs 16 people, and is continuing to grow with an innovative technology.”
In addition, ample startup funding is available from NSF, said Ben Schrag, its senior program director, small business programs.
Startups can apply to the SBIR (which was founded at NSF) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs, “both of which are Congressionally-mandated,” under NSF’s Industrial Innovation & Partnerships Division, he said. “They totaled about $190 million this fiscal year. We support about 400 companies between them.”
Many of those companies are “high-impact, high-risk technologies,” said Schrag. “We like to check them out before other investors and opt to take that risk. NSF wants to be the first option when the technology is so daunting that no one else wants to fund it.”
Even better, NSF is “always looking for new entrepreneurs. About three-quarters of the new awards that are granted are to first-time companies,” he said. “They’re often not familiar with these programs, and that underscores the need for NSF to reach out to new businesses.”
“There are many applications in TRX’s case,” Schrag said. “The government calls it dual-use technology, because it has a secondary market with the general public.”
So, anyone who’s ready to go for it needs to get on the horn.
And over time, things happen. “Ideally, we’re looking for moonshots,” said Peter Atherton, STTR program director at NSF. “We’ve had some stellar successes over the years, such as Qualcomm, from the SBIR program; and Symantec, the software company” — which are now members of the Fortune 500.
“We’re also trying and pull good ideas out of academia, as well as from good entrepreneurs, and bring new technologies to the commercial market,” he said, noting that NSF’s Innovation (or I-) Corps program is available to expedite that process.
Jay Kerr, managing partner of the Columbia-based High Tor Group, which is based out of the Howard County Economic Development Authority’s (HCEDA) Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship (MCE), can feel TRX’s momentum.
“Our company also offers asset tracking,” Kerr said, noting High Tor’s new pilot program to test its patented Real Time Location System (RTLS), which will use radio frequency identification technology to track equipment within the MCE.
High Tor’s offering “is similar to the TRX technology, but on a smaller scale,” he said. “We’ve been involved in different symposiums where I’ve been asked about GPS technology’s current viability, and I think its gaining traction.
“Our technology is different than what TRX is offering,” he said, “but one day, they’ll [continue to evolve and] meet,” he said. “Without a doubt.”