Clever start-up firm can even save careers Wireless: That's the magic word at Aether Technologies LLC, where some former A-12 fighter engineers are hoping that information technology is their ticket to the future.

February 19, 1997|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,SUN STAFF

At Westinghouse Electric Corp., David Oros got used to supervising armies of engineers working on glamorous projects. But that was before the Pentagon canceled the A-12 fighter program.

The A-12 cancellation was a decision that forced a few thousand Westinghousers to consider new careers. For the 37-year-old former head of Westinghouse's wireless data systems group, that new career came by breaking out of defense contracting and forming Aether Technologies LLC, a new wireless services company in Owings Mills that he hopes -- and others are betting -- can be just as glamorous as fighter planes.

"I wouldn't put $3 million into a company unless I thought I could make $300 million," said Rahul Prakash, vice president of Arlington, Va.-based Telcom Ventures LLC, which bought a minority stake in Aether earlier this month.

Big words to say about a 15-month-old start-up with annual sales running at about a $3 million clip -- though Oros says Aether should reach $7 million this year -- and not words that are at all certain to come true. But just as defense contracting was the economic boom wave of the 1980s in Maryland, so is information technology in the late 1990s. And that's a wave Aether is beginning to ride.

"We're all old A-12 guys," Oros said. "Mobile data is where the Internet was three-four years ago, or where cellular voice was 10 years ago."

To the blizzard of new tech buzzwords, add this one: CDPD. It stands for Cellular Digital Packet Data, and its future will determine whether Oros' company meets its goal of going public in two years and putting majority owner Oros and co-founder Andy Meister in the ranks of tech entrepreneurs who get rich when their companies launch IPOs.

CDPD is a way of gathering information into compact "packets" that can move very quickly and cheaply over cellular phone frequencies. Aether is based on the bet that CDPD is the ticket to convincing ever more companies -- and some individuals -- that cellular can earn a place in the world of moving data, just as it has carved out a niche in voice communications over the past decade.

"CDPD has had a rough start," said Jane Zweig, an analyst at Herschel Shosteck Associates Ltd., a Wheaton-based telecommunications consulting firm.

"But the market for [cellular] data is beginning to pick up a little bit."

So far, just a little. Zweig said surveys consistently show that about 95 percent of cellular transmissions carry voices. Concerns about efficiency and wiretapping have stopped many users from adopting cellular-based fax machines or electronic mail systems.

She said the problem is that most cellular companies know how to serve consumers, rather than business customers, but businesses are more likely to have communications needs sophisticated and expensive enough to get the cellular data market off the ground. That's where an Aether hopes to come into the picture.

Aether's job is to convince big companies that it can be their guide to the new frontier. Its contribution is systems integration, the job of pulling together hardware and software -- some of which other people make -- to put together coherent ways to solve specific problems.

Oros began developing the CDPD business at Westinghouse, during one of the then-defense oriented giant's initiatives to diversify into civilian-oriented work as the Cold War wound down. But the project was put on a back burner as Westinghouse prepared to sell its Linthicum-based defense contracting unit, and Oros said he left Westinghouse on good terms.

Early on, Aether's business has tracked its founders' experience. Especially, it has attracted shipping companies intrigued by the thought of applying some of the technological prowess of United Parcel Service to make the shipping business more efficient.

Among Aether's handful of key early contracts are deals with TranSettlements Inc., an Atlanta information-systems company serving the trucking industry, which wants Aether to help it give freight haulers the sort of sophisticated wireless package-tracking equipment that UPS has now for letters and small packages. Aether also has a subcontract to work on a similar system for the U.S. Postal Service.

"We liked their work so much we became investors in their company," said TranSettlements board member Jim Pressley. "What's going to take them where they're going is they have a very talented group of engineers."

Getting those engineers isn't easy, Oros said. One group he lured by agreeing to let them, all former IBMers, keep living near the beach in Florida rather than joining the rest of Aether's 32 employees in Maryland. But mostly, Oros says, Aether tries to be cutting-edge enough to seem cool.

"The first step is to get marquee contracts," said Oros.

Pub Date: 2/19/97

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