Seeking success, entrepreneurs venture among capitalists Inventor hopes 'networking' lures investors for his '3-D digitizer'

November 04, 1990|By Leslie Cauley

It was Monday morning, and Ian Gilchrist was patiently trying to explain to a visitor how his space-age invention works and why anybody would want to buy one.

The invention, a "3-D space digitizer," is a futuristic contraption that can translate the strokes of a cursor or stylus into images in a computer. The process uses a complex mathematical algorithm worked out by Mr. Gilchrist to translate points on paper into a computerized image, much as conventional two-dimensional digitizers already do.

But unlike conventional digitizers, the Gilchrist invention can track points in space.

"Ultrasonic emissions are read by sensors on the array, which uses complex calculations to convert the speed of sound into what you see here," explained Mr. Gilchrist, waving an electrode-loaded stylus in the air in a free-form pattern that instantly shows up on a nearby computer screen.

"It's what makes the 3-D digitizer different from anything else on the market," said Mr. Gilchrist, president of Baltimore-based Cyber-Scientific, an 8-month-old company whose only product is the 3-D digitizer.

An engineer by training, Mr. Gilchrist came up with the idea of a 3-D digitizer in the course of his work for several defense contractors. Mr. Gilchrist decided to create a digitizer when he found that existing equipment was lacking.

At the moment, there is no market for 3-D digitizers. A few are on the market, but none has become a commercial success. That includes Mr. Gilchrist's invention, a product with four patents pending.

The company has $500,000 in start-up funding, but still needs an additional $2 million to get off the ground.

But no matter. The way Mr. Gilchrist and his backers see it, the 3-D digitizer represents a better mousetrap, and they are hoping the world will beat a path to their door once word of Mr. Gilchrist's invention gets out.

"The world needed this," said Mr. Gilchrist, repeating a marketing pitch that he would wind up making often throughout Baltimore's first High Technology Week.

Staged by the Greater Baltimore Committee, a coalition of business, academic and government leaders in Baltimore, the week provided an opportunity for Mr. Gilchrist and other entrepreneurs to rub shoulders and exchange business cards with potential investors.

For Mr. Gilchrist, the week marked a "coming out" of sorts, a chance for the engineer-turned entrepreneur to debut his invention and garner some name recognition for Cyber-Scientific in the process.

"When you're putting together a business plan you have to go out and beat the bushes," said Mr. Gilchrist. "You have to go out and say 'hi' to a lot of people."

High Technology Week in Baltimore provided Mr. Gilchrist and his backers with ample opportunity to do just that. The backers are Phil English of Broventure, a Baltimore-based venture capital fund; Patrick Hervy, an independent investor affiliated with Broventure; and two other local venture capitalists.

There was a string of networking opportunities throughout the week: a kickoff dinner at the Hyatt Inner Harbor hotel, luncheon meetings with a Who's Who of Baltimore venture capitalists and afternoon cocktail parties attended by a cross-section of Baltimore's business elite.

"Venture Fair '90" on Tuesday and Wednesday featured back-to-back presentations by emerging high-tech companies, including Cyber-Scientific, to a target audience of venture capitalists.

Since Mr. Gilchrist's turn at the podium didn't come until Wednesday morning, he spent Tuesday fine-tuning his presentation.

At an afternoon meeting, Mr. Gilchrist and his chief executive officer, Mr. Hervy, got some good news and bad news from two consultants hired by the company to gauge market potential for the 3-D digitizer.

The good news: There are viable uses for the Gilchrist invention in many markets, including desktop publishing, graphic design and bioengineering.

The bad news: The company is going to have to grow the 3-D market from the ground up, and it won't be easy to do.

Benjamin B. Newsom Jr., manager of the computer engineering program at the University of Maryland, offered a design tip.

"Get rid of the cord that connects the stylus to the computer," said Mr. Newsom. "Make it more like a pencil."

The reason: He believes the 3-D digitizer will eventually be competing with the computerized "touch screen," a computer without a keyboard. As the name suggests, touch-screen computers allow users to touch the screen at various points -- with instructions offering help -- to send commands to the central processing unit. It is part of a trend toward making computers easier to use, a trend that is expected to do away with the keyboard.

According to Mr. Newsom, getting rid of the cord is a minor design point but one that should make the 3-D digitizer more competitive in the future.

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