27 Sep Global information firm reaches diverse markets
Madison, Wis. – Dan Rooney knows soil. He also knows how to build a viable business. And seven years after starting his Madison-based company, his ideas about turning landscape data into packaged products have gone global.
“There is information about location everywhere,” said Rooney, founder and president of Earth Information Technologies, Corp.
Combining that information with the growing power of digital communications, he explained, creates opportunities in a variety of markets.
Rooney, who holds a bachelor of science degree in ecology and a master of science degree in soil physics from Texas A&M University and a Ph.D. in environmental monitoring from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, created his company with colleague Marek Dudka in 1999.
Without any outside investments, Rooney and Dudka were able to grow the company each year by developing solutions for the likes of John Deere, the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, New World Archeological Foundation, and many other organizations, achieving triple-digit growth in the past three years.
“We never borrowed a dime. I also didn’t make any money for four years,” Rooney said. “Sometimes you have to be willing to do that. To have four zeros on your social security statement is sort of bizarre, but it’s not like that anymore.”
Today, Earth IT employs 25 full time scientists, engineers, designers and programmers who develop interactive web products, database-driven applications, statistical tools, and information systems for healthcare, asset tracking, food supply, transportation, and environmental industries.
After graduation, Rooney was hired to work in the Vermont offices of Albuquerque-based Applied Research Associates, Inc. to develop large sensors that were pushed into the subsurface for engineering applications. There he saw an opportunity to take advantage of recent advances in geographic information systems (GIS) and global positioning technology.
“I kept thinking: there’s so much data that we collect, why not miniaturize everything and map the near-surface features?” Rooney said. “Turns out no one had done that.”
So he began building the first tools his company would commercialize. The Soil Information System (SIS) was created in 2000 and received its first patent in 2003. By 2006, Earth IT’s soil-based products had spun off into a separate company, Soil and Topography Information, LLC (STI).
John Deere purchased the SIS for worldwide marketing and deployment in agriculture and turf applications, while STI maintains exclusive rights in many use areas and will provide the services associated with the technology.
“That has been a big part of our success,” Rooney said of the deal to license the SIS, a device that produces digital, three-dimensional soil and water maps. “We’ve grown every year. It’s been a straight shot up.”
The SIS is now used in over 20 states, Europe, and North Africa. In 2007, it will deployed in China, India, Australia, and possibly South America.
Rooney explained that EarthIT now specializes in IT related to basic infrastructure like food, water, shelter, and energy. “It’s good to be able to manage those resources,” Rooney said.
Jim O’Brien, director of business development for Earth IT, explained why the company is getting into health information systems, real estate analysis, and battlefield mapping.
“What’s unique about our company is we have scientists and engineers who are also programmers,” O’Brien said. “That enables us to take a product further down the chain of development. We can go from conception through commercialization, and we don’t have to stop at the database, interface, or analysis stages.”
The DOD was interested in the SIS to map and model battlefield areas. The goal was to gather terrain data in a quick and minimally invasive way to understand routes for moving troops and supplies.
Rooney said the trial phases of the project provided the unique experience of mapping Tombstone, Ariz.’s desert in the middle of the night, using his instruments to integrate data from secret military satellites. The company continues to collaborate with the DOD, but Rooney said he could not elaborate at this time.
Earth IT also develops software for radio frequency identification (RFID) and global positioning system (GPS) tools for vehicle and asset tracking. In a recent project for a major crop seed company, Earth IT developed a web-based software tool that tracks bags of seed from their origin to the field. Managers can track the location and timing of when the seed is planted in real-time.
“There has been a boom in RFID and other asset tracking systems globally,” Rooney said.
Earth IT has also partnered with the Wausau-based MyInnerView, a management intelligence firm serving the healthcare industry. Earth IT takes survey data from thousands of U.S. nursing homes linked to MyInnerView and develops web tools that process the data to create real-time forms for statistical analysis.
By paying a monthly fee, nursing home companies and consumers of nursing home services access this information to evaluate the quality of their own sites or that of their competitors.
Clients can see how different homes compare by looking at hundreds of indicators such as the number of bed sores reported by residents and whether they approve of the food and the nursing staff.
Today, the greatest challenge facing Earth IT is that potential customers often are not aware of what can be done for them until they understand and are comfortable with the new technology.
“We work with clients who use the products we create to make decisions that are critical to their success,” Rooney said. “It is imperative to be able to communicate in plain language how an information product will provide them value.
“No value, no business. We wouldn’t want it any other way”.
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