Success Story for Visual Learning Systems Inc.
David Opitz and Stuart Blundell had to tackle a number of questions as they made plans for their venture, Visual Learning Systems (VLS) Inc. Neither had much experience with a product-based business, and their Montana location was far from both traditional high-tech research centers and prospective customers. “We saw the value of the technology, but didn’t appreciate the difficulties of breaking into a global market, especially from a place as remote as Montana,” says Blundell. They found the answers they needed at the Helena, MT, chapter of SCORE.
In 1997, David Opitz and Stuart Blundell teamed up to develop an innovative software system that enables computers to automatically analyze data from high-resolution satellite images. Their idea was right for the times. Remote sensing technology has produced a wealth of valuable data that can be used for a variety of purposes—from tracing population growth to monitoring changes in natural resources. The availability of raw data, however, far exceeds the number of geographic information system (GIS) analysts capable of turning these images into useful information.
Using “machine learning,” by which a computer program improves its own capabilities with experience, Opitz and Blundell’s product can fill that gap and produce the needed results faster than a human analyst. Opitz’s previous machine learning applications had earned several research grants from various federal agencies. A substantial Small Business Innovative Research grant from NASA in 2000 provided the two scientists with the funding needed to launch a software development company.
VLS’s software, Feature Analyst, debuted in late 2001 and quickly garnered industry-wide attention. The software earned first place in the category of Most Innovative Solution in the ArcGIS Challenge Contest, sponsored by ESRI, the world’s leading provider of GIS software. The U.S. Department of Defense also ranked VLS among the top three providers of mapping tools to support the war on terrorism. In addition, several leading GIS companies have expressed interest in forming business partnerships with the young firm. Blundell also says that Feature Analyst is poised to make a big breakthrough among large government agencies.
Opitz and Blundell contacted the Helena, MT, chapter of SCORE and began working with Volunteer Mentor Chick Rolling and Bob Russell. Chick and Bob helped them develop a business plan and organizational structure for VLS. They also put the entrepreneurs in touch with other SCORE members who had specific experience in areas such as international marketing and business partnerships.
Blundell credits his SCORE mentors for much of what VLS has accomplished to date. “Chick and Bob have been more than willing to help with any question, any time,” he says. “We consider them close advisors who have contributed much to our initial success, and will continue to do so in the future.”