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January 2001
Palm Readers
By Nethea Fortney-Rhinehardt

      If it seems as though every businessperson you meet has a Palm Pilot (or the newer Palm Organizer), a pager or a cell phone these days, you’re probably right. Analysts anticipate that within three years, there will be over 300 million users.
     That suits Ryan Walcott just fine. As CEO of Charlotte-based SoDeog Technologies (pronounced so-DAY-oag), Walcott, along with co-founder Paul Crimm, have developed a technology that allows different brands of hand-held computers to communicate wirelessly.
     And he's betting that mobile device users want and need to trade information regardless of the brand or operating system they use. So far, the digital and investment communities have been inclined to agree.
     SoDeog has already partnered with industry heavyweights Aether Software, Casio, Clarion, Ericsson, Microsoft, 3Com's Palm Computing, Psion and Symbian. They have also garnered nearly $6 million dollars in financial backing from well-known venture capitalists and assorted angel investors. Clearly, Walcott and Crimm are onto something big. “The market saturation rates are increasing dramatically for handsets and PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants),” points out Walcott. “Just about everybody carries at least one today. The more people who adopt these devices, the bigger the issue. What we're building is very compelling.”
     SoDeog Technologies creates software that allows mobile devices such as PDAs, smart phones and pagers, to wirelessly exchange information regardless of device type, operating system or network coverage. The software, SyncTalk Professional, is a patent-pending, universal platform for device-to-device transfer of contacts, appointments, text documents and more across different operating systems.
     “We don’t really think any one operating system will win out over the others like Microsoft Windows has on desktop PCs,” Walcott explains. “So there needs to be one common language so these different devices can speak to each other. We built SyncTalk to make that happen.”
     For those of you still clinging to a tattered appointment book, consider that electronic organizers do more than just organize. PDAs are portable devices that help you take charge of your busy life. You can transfer information to and from your desktop computer, updating the information on either the PDA or the computer. A prioritized to-do list helps you focus on important activities. Alarms alert you prior to appointments. An always up-to-date contact list saves time spent searching for phone numbers. Personal finance software helps track your expenses.
     You can make use of time spent commuting or sitting in waiting rooms to edit proposals, read manuscripts, or even play a game. And if your PDA is wireless, you can sit in the park and check your e-mail. You can look up a phone number or jot a note in a moment.
     PDAs are small and light enough to take anywhere. Many are shirt-pocket size; though others fit more comfortably in a jacket pocket or even a briefcase. They typically include an appointment calendar, a to-do list, a phone/address directory and a basic memo editor. At a bare minimum, a PDA must be able to communicate by wire with a personal computer for file transfer and backup. Many PDAs support an optional modem for access to e-mail and even web browsing. Some offer wireless connectivity or are integrated into digital cellular phones.
     But one thing a Palm Pilot couldn’t do, at least until Walcott and Crimm came along, was transfer information to another handheld platform. As with PCs, manufacturers use different operating systems for their handheld devices including Palm OS, Windows CE, Symbian’s EPOC32, Auto PC and Pocket PC. But while PC-based Windows can communicate with Macintosh and UNIX, Palm Pilots could only communicate with other Palm devices; Windows CE with other Window CE devices; EPOC with only other EPOC devices. Almost every project or management team can count on a “mixed-device” environment. Walcott had experienced this firsthand.
     “I had a Palm device; Paul had a Windows CE-based device and there was no way for us to share data,” he says. “I could send information to all my colleagues who had Palm devices, but I couldn’t sent anything to him. It was ridiculous.”
     Walcott had a very real need to send information to Crimm. Not only were they lifelong friends, growing up together in Fort Mill, S.C., they were also employees at Metasys, an enterprise management software start-up, acquired by Optum in 1998. With a computer science degree from the University of South Carolina, Walcott headed up a group of techno-savvy employees as director of research while only in his early 20s. As director, he was charged with applying new technologies and software development methodologies to build and commercialize Optum’s flagship products.
     Paul Crimm took an alternative route to hone his technical skills. Following an Air Force tour of duty, he received an appointment to the National Security Agency as a telecommunications and cryptology specialist, where he received the Joint Service Commendation Medal and the Joint Service Achievement Medal. After a stint at the White House, he was eager to return to the Carolinas. Walcott recruited him to Optum.
     During his four-year post, Walcott not only demonstrated technical excellence, but a strong affinity for management. “It was a start-up,” he says. “I saw the company grow to over 300 employees. I was very close to the executive management team, close to the heartbeat of the company.” This start-up exposure as a manager was an omen of good things to come.
     “Four years at Metasys was like 40 years at another company,” he comments. “And it’s really prepared me for this. I can take the knowledge from there and apply it here.”
     Walcott’s projects at Optum planted the seeds for SoDeog’s SyncTalk product.
     Optum specializes in supply chain software-logistics, warehouse management and order fulfillment products that must integrate with a clients’ Enterprise Resource Planning systems like People Soft or SAP. Enterprise Resource Planning (or ERP as it is commonly known) software is a vital manufacturing and planning tool that allows businesses to automate and coordinate business activities.
     “It’s a huge problem — application integration,” Walcott explains. “But the same problem exists in the device space itself. You have applications on these devices that need to talk to each other.”

Leap of Faith
     Convinced that others shared their frustration and aware of the surprising dearth of alternatives, they took of leap of faith out on their own in July 1999. Walcott and Crimm quit their day jobs and set up shop in Crimm’s back bedroom. They had no guarantee that their product would work, but an angel investor saw promise and bankrolled the duo — to the tune of $100,000. They coined the company name, SoDeog, as an abbreviation for the Latin, Soli Deo Gloria. (“To only God be the glory.”)
     Despite staggering technical challenges and the intellectual property risks, failure never entered Walcott’s mind. Using XML technology, the two were committed to overcoming constraints—limited bandwidth, limited memory, and limited CPUs and more. Tinkering, testing and building prototypes, the team met with success early on. 
   
“We set out from the beginning to build a product that worked and to get it onto the market quickly,” says Walcott. “We just knew we could find a solution.”
    By March 2000, they had done just that. 
    Although they had no booth, no presentation and only three employees (including themselves), Walcott and Crimm arrived at the COMDEX Fall 1999 conference in Las Vegas. COMDEX is a business-to-business trade show for technology in the new economy. They visited booths and demonstrated their prototype to industry leaders, buyers and sellers. Walcott recalls, “People kept telling us, ‘It’s about time someone tackled this problem.’ We were really encouraged.” Gathering feedback and suggestions, they returned to Charlotte to modify and tailor SyncTalk for its release.
     Since its initial funding, SoDeog had raised an additional $500,000 from other angel investors along the way. Then, in May 2000, the company raised $5 million in a first round of venture capital money from the Wakefield Group of Charlotte and Atlanta-based Noro-Moseley Partners. George Mackie, an Entrepreneur-In-Residence at Wakefield Group, was appointed chairman of the board.
      By the time Walcott and Crimm returned to COMDEX in November 2000, they not only had a booth, but were already selling SyncTalk over the Internet for $30 a copy. In that short span, they had acquired over 50,000 users worldwide. While Walcott is pleased with individual usage, he stresses that device manufacturers are the company’s primary audience.

Future Strategy
    “In the future, we’re selling the software directly to the manufacturer,” he says. “You buy the device, take it out of the box and SyncTalk is already loaded onto it. We want SyncTalk on every device that is shipping in the industry.”
     In fact, SoDeog just announced a worldwide partnership agreement with Ericsson, the world’s second largest phone manufacturer. As an Ericsson partner, SoDeog will develop SyncTalk solutions that support existing and future Ericsson technologies.
     SoDeog also recently signed a strategic agreement with Casio in Germany. Under the agreement, Casio will bundle SyncTalk software on its installation CDs for Casio’s successful Cassiopeia line of PDAs.
     Today Walcott is at the helm of a 50+ person operation with corporate offices in Ballantyne. Crimm, chief pioneer, is the lead engineer behind SoDeog’s impressive product innovations. Somehow the two have managed their business’ explosive growth despite young marriages and growing families. Looking back on their whirlwind eighteen months, Walcott is grateful for his years at Optum. “At lot of what we did at Optum prepared us for what we’re doing now.”
    SoDeog also boasts an impressive management team. With over 23 years of  executive and senior management experience, George Mackie adds depth, commercial expertise and a wealth of relationships to help SoDeog move forward.
     Brian Shepherd is vice president of marketing. He is a former McKinsey consultant with a Harvard MBA and over ten years of strategy, management and business development experience.
     Leonard Philemon, vice president of sales, has 23 years’ experience in technology and sales management. with such companies as Tandem Computers and most recently, Telxon Company.
    Peter Gifford is managing director of SoDeog Europe. He most recently was general manager for Greenwich Instruments in the U.K., where he led all sales and marketing efforts for their handheld and peripheral products.
     SoDeog Technologies is a member of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group. Bluetooth, comprised of industry leaders like 3Com, Ericsson, IBM, Intel, Lucent, Microsoft, Motorola, Nokia and Toshiba, is driving development of wireless technology and bringing it to market.
     It is a common misconception that Bluetooth is a SyncTalk competitor. (Bluetooth protocol uses radio waves to transport information between devices.) Bluetooth actually enhances the SyncTalk software, which currently utilizes infrared technology as a means of transfer between devices. The software has been designed scale with advancements in wireless technology, such as the introduction of the Bluetooth protocol. SyncTalk will use this mode of transport, much as it does infrared today, to facilitate the exchange of information between mobile devices.
     SoDeog Technologies has multiple products in development to capitalize on the promising future of Bluetooth technology. According to the company, there are no other products currently positioned to compete with SyncTalk. Walcott is confident about the future.
     “Nobody is doing what we’re doing the way we do it. It’s a whole new space out there that other people have ignored. We knew from the beginning this was going to be big.”

Nethea Fortney-Rhinehardt is a Charlotte based freelance writer.
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