What do you get when you combine a feisty Ph.D in Neuroscience from M.I.T. and a battle-hardened ForceRecon Marine Sergeant? The answer is one of the most successful R&D companies in the Mid-Atlantic region.
Meet the two founders of AnthroTronix, Inc., Dr. Cori Lathan and Jack Maxwell Vice who joined forces in July, 1999 to research “advanced human interface solutions”. (To regular folks, that means how people interact with computers.) Although Cori was more interested in making advanced technology available to persons with disabilities, Jack saw the applicability to the field soldier.
Body movements control machines
This new field of work called “Human Gestural Interfaces” uses wearable miniaturized sensors allowing humans to control robots through gestures or body movements. Whether the rehabilitation community or the military complex would be their customers was still uncertain, but with the assurance that comes from entrepreneurial zeal, AnthroTronix was launched.
Their first success was being accepted into the University of Maryland’s incubator Technology Advancement Program (TAP) which included vastly reduced rent and access to all of the University’s resources in exchange for a fractional percentage of stock each year they were in the program. The one recommendation the TAP committee made which Cori immediately took to heart was the need to bring in an experienced CFO/COO to manage the financial and business affairs of this potentially highly successful company. That recommendation allowed both Cori and Jack to focus their formidable talents on research and product development.
The second success was a result of Cori’s extensive networking ability and a contact who knew about Cori’s work with kids and instrumentation. The contact recommended AnthroTronix for a project and they were successful in securing a $100,000 subcontract with Raytheon to work on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Tactical Mobile Robot program.
The company builds an R&D portfolio
Two more contracts quickly followed: A subcontract with iRobot for $250,000 to develop a robotic controller for DARPA and a $100,000 SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) grant from National Science Foundation to develop a robot for rehabilitation purposes. Those two contracts set the foundation for all that would follow: two complimentary human to computer interface development tracks – soldiers in the field and persons, particularly children, with disabilities.
They finished their second year with revenues of $463,000 and 5 people including their new CFO/COO.
With growth comes the need for funding
The new focus on becoming a “real company” with significant growth potential led to the need to find outside funding. With his new business plan in hand, the CFO began poking around the Mid-Atlantic venture capital (VC) community to see where there might be interest for a PPM (private placement memorandum) $750,000 investment. They secured an invitation to make a presentation to a small, private VC group that consisted of a dozen Northern Virginia and Southern Maryland technology “heavy-hitters” who were looking for the next big score. A presentation was set for the evening of September 10, 2001 at Washington DC’s legendary 1789 Restaurant.
One of the worst meetings in my life
Cori minces no words when she describes the experience of making a presentation to this group of self-assured middle-aged-plus men. Two entrepreneurial companies had been invited to make a presentation that evening and AnthroTronix would be last. The setting was the small upstairs private dining room in Georgetown’s 1789 Restaurant. The 7 or 8 private investors would be having dinner while the entrepreneurs made their presentation. While few people remember what they were doing the night of 9/10/01, Cori will never forget “the worst meeting in my professional life”.
First, they were kept waiting on small straight-back chairs in the little hallway outside the dining room for an hour and half. No coffee, water or peanuts. Just sit and wait your turn. When she and her CFO were finally invited into the room she says it was “almost like walking into the middle of a party that is nearly over”. They were told to stand at the end of the table and make their presentation: no A/V, no mic’s, no podium – just talk. The boisterous group had already finished their meal and was well into dessert and after-dinner drinks.
Cori started her presentation but after the first 3 sentences was interrupted by questions and comments. There didn’t seem to be any one person in control but more like a free-for-all. She finally got through most of her bullet points and was told to go back outside to wait. (Still no coffee, water or peanuts!) After 30+ minutes, one member of the group came out to say they didn’t think it fit their investment profile. Thanks and goodbye. Cori and her CFO went downstairs to the bar and had a (much deserved) cocktail! (To be continued)
The absence of alternatives clears the mind