Silicon bog: Volo company’s software goes global

NOTE: This entry was first published in the Aug. 20 issue of the Daily Herald Business Ledger.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel may be touting his emerging downtown tech center, but the small Lake County village of Volo can lay claim to its own up-and-coming international technology hub.
Nestled in a former country school building not far from the famed Volo Bog is Atom AMPD, a small company that is finding international success with an all-in-one operating system designed for small to medium sized businesses.
The heart of the company’s business is the Atom OS, a Linux-based operating platform that combines key business software such as firewall, anti-virus, spam filter, access control and VoIP capabilities. The advantage of the system is that, where other companies may require thousands of dollars worth of servers and other hardware, the Atom OS is contained in a 2 gigabyte USB “Kwick Key” that can be plugged into existing hardware and become operational in a little as 15 minutes.
Atom AMPD CEO Dan Field sees his product as an economical and “green” alternative to the “big box” companies that sell similar business applications. (Field would not name names, but think Silicon Valley to get an idea who the big box companies are.)
Field, an entrepreneur who, in addition to Atom AMPD, is chairman of three other companies, noted the idea for Atom OS came from what he saw as a wasteful practice from other companies selling hardware and software to clients that needed to be replaced every few years.
“One thing I don’t like about the big box companies is that they sell shares,” he said. “When you buy shares, you need to buy the hardware too. Then when you need to upgrade, you need to buy the new hardware, too. Usually it’s on a 2 to 3 year cycle.”
When the hardware is replaced, then the company has to deal with either reselling or recycling the old equipment.
“By having a USB key, people have a choice. They can use their existing servers or get a new box,” he said. “Once they buy the license to the key, they own it. When we update the process, you just pay for the updates.”
Since the system is primarily software, Field said businesses can see a total cost of ownership savings of as much as 70 percent, as the need for additional hardware, IT support and additional licensing is reduced. That, he added, has made Atom OS attractive to governments and school districts who are operating on limited or reduced budgets.
Christopher Beyne, director of business development, said in addition to the cost savings, Kwick Key’s portability and ease of use has gotten attention from a wide array of businesses that traditionally network among a number of offices or remote locations, from medical facilities to insurance and real estate agencies.
But the company scored a major victory in June, when it entered into a licensing agreement with SunFAS in China. Under this agreement, SunFAS will use Atom OS in a product it will market in China under the name Sky OA3. Although the deal is expected to be finalized in September, Field said the system is already being implemented in a network of 600 driving schools in that country.
Field said the China deal was reached with help from Atom AMPD Chairman Tim Williams, who had developed a relationship with companies in Asia during his tenure with Motorola in the 1990s. Field also had established a global business network as well, and he believes it was the trust the two developed during their careers were vital in getting their small company to establish such a big deal.
“We’ve dealt a lot with trust and working on a handshake,” he said. “And in this case, both sides have come up to the plate very well.”
Field sees the China deal opening more doors in the region to Atom AMPD, possibly expanding the company into Vietnam and Singapore.
“The government is trying to build out infrastructure and they’re looking for the right solution to the problems. That’s where we’re stepping up,” he said. “We’re looking to be the edge device that some of the other projects will work through to get information back to the various companies, offices and government.”
Asia isn’t the only area where Atom AMPD has extended to. In addition to dealings in Canada and Europe (the Atom OS firewall was successfully tested at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, and played a role in the 2012 London games), they’ve established a similar licensing deal in Latin America, where their operating system is being sold through a reseller.
Having Atom OS sold under a different name doesn’t bother Field, joking that Atom AMPD will become “one of those big companies you never hear of.”
“We don’t mind being the Oz behind the curtain,” he said. “The nice part is that we’re working with companies that can get some great ideas back to us that will help us build out our product platform.”
Feedback from their clients is key to improving their product, Field and Beyne stress. Atom AMPD has its own test lab where system and updates are run through the paces before shipping, so repairs are minimal at best.
“We don’t believe in the big box methods of letting your clients test out your product and telling you what the problems are,” Field said. “Quirks happen, but we have a system where we can fix it before the client gets it.”
What they have developed, they say, is less of a product and more of a disruptive technology.
“IT people do not like us,” Beyne said. “They see us as attack on their budget. They don’t need as much money to run their network or have the equipment in there, so their budgets will be reduced.
“Our approach is to go to the business officials as say “here is what you can save,’” he added.
Field simply notes: “It does a lot for not much money.”

Suburban partnership makes big commitment to tiny technology


NOTE: This column first appeared in the Aug. 6 edition of the Daily Herald Business Ledger

There’s been some big things happening in the suburbs regarding a technology with a very, very small focus.
A new partnership forged in the northern suburbs by local government, business and education groups will bring a nanotechnology education program to college and high school students in the area. The Nanotechnology Employment, Education, and Economic Development Initiative — or NE3I for short — is comprised of the village of Skokie, Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, the Illinois Science + Technology Park in Skokie and NSERVE, a consortium of nine local high schools representing approximately 24,000 students.
Nanotechnology is development of things that are no larger than one billionth of a meter in size.
At first devoted to computer processors, the technology has expanded into every day applications, from medicine delivery systems to the stuff that keeps stains from settling on your clothes and carpets. The industry’s fast growth has already resulted in a shortage of skilled workers, and it’s been projected that up to 6 million new nanotech jobs will be created by 2020,
Oakton will be the focal point for the NE3I program, according to Bob Sompolski, Oakton’s dean of mathematics and technologies. The program will utilize Internet conference technology and a hands-on laboratory that will allow classes to be taught remotely as well as in a lab setting.
Last month, the initiative chose the Nanoscience Education Program from Skokie-based NanoProfessor to be cornerstone of the initiative.
The NanoProfessor program includes a textbook written by nanotechnology experts and covering the topics of nanotechnology basics, nanophysics, nanochemistry, nanobiology, and environmental, health, and safety perspectives on nanotechnology.
In addition, the company provides equipment, including its NanoInk NLP 2000 Desktop NanoFabrication System, to create the hands-on lab environment.
Sompolski said the goal is to create a curriculum that provides a full lab experience, as well as link teachers and students to the lab remotely from a classroom.
“It provides us the opportunity for the faculty to have the lecture on nanotech at a high school with support at the lab,” Sompolski said. “Then once every two weeks they can hop a bus to the lab to get their hands-on training.”
“We get the opportunity to introduce real-time nano experiments into not only the high school classrooms but also Oakton,” he added. “We’re using Internet resources to distribute the classes remotely. But on the other hand, on the nano level, nobody is using the naked eye. All input and output is too small to see. What you see remotely is the same computer image you see in the lab.”
The lab will be located at the Illinois Science + Technology Park in Skokie, a few blocks from Oakton’s satellite campus and where NanoProfessor’s facilities are located.
It’s no coincidence that the lab will be located at a site that already has a number of related industries next door.
In addition to having experts available to help the NE3I program get off the ground, it’s also a great opportunity for NanoProfessor to continue to test and improve its education curriculum, according to Dean Hart, Chief Commercial Officer at NanoInk, the parent company of NanoProfessor.
“I’m excited to have this program in our backyard to test our product,” Hart said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for nanotechnology to move it more from research to commercialization.”
Sompolski noted the collaboration and support from the government, businesses is important in the success of the initiative.
“We are not a research facility like the major colleges around here,’ he said.
“So if we can get people with the interest, credentials and ability to work with us, we don’t have to devote as many resources.”
And that, he adds, benefits the college and area high schools that want to provide the training and skills, but do not have the funding to develop their own program.
“With this, the high schools can bypass the need to purchase very expensive equipment and have the opportunity to expose nanotechnology to their students,” Sompolski said.
The program is just beginning to gear up with the goal is to have it ready for Oakton students by Spring 2013. Sompolski said it will likely start as a career certificate program, combining a number of classes with internship opportunities.
“We are looking to develop it into technician level position, providing entry to intermediate level skills, with goal to eventually move to AAS degree,” he added.
Once the college course is in place, Sompolski said, they plan to expand it to the high school level, which will be offered to the NSERVE group of districts that feed into Oakton.
Oakton obtained the startup funding through a $250,000 grant from the Searle Funds at The Chicago Community Trust, and that grant was matched by the village of Skokie using funds from the village’s Downtown Science + Technology Park Tax Increment Finance district.
Hart noted that the collaboration between government, education and business to get NE3I off the ground will likely be the way of the future as cash-strapped educational institutions seek to bring nanotechnology education to their students.
“Municipalities like Skokie, the state, the country and the world are starting to see and understand that this is the next big thing,” Hart said. “It just speaks to what is going on in the world of nanotechnology.”