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High tech comes to Alaska.

From energy efficiency to mapping -- you'll never believe the power of software built in the Last Frontier.

Think of Alaska business, and what typically comes to mind? Oil, of course. And tourism, fishing and forest products. Then there are the support industries, telecommunications, retailers and a host of others.

But think of young companies researching and producing innovative products and services, and you're more likely to think of Silicon Valley than the Last Frontier -- a perception a handful of Alaska entrepreneurs and a public corporation may change just a little.

The public corporation is the Alaska Science and Technology Foundation (ASTF), established by the state Legislature in 1988. Operating within the Alaska Department of Revenue, the foundation's board of directors awards competitive grants to applicants working in applied and basic research. Part of the agency's broad-based goal is to enhance the state's long-term economic development and technological innovation.

There may be at least one more good reason to spend state money on such projects: to slow what some skilled technicians and researchers perceive as the "brain drain" from Alaska for lack of more local high-tech business opportunities.

Since its inception, ASTF has funded 83 major projects, awarded 26 small grants and provided technical assistance to 50 teachers statewide. In its portfolio, the foundation highlights some major projects it regards as having high-tech business potential.

Power Programs

One of those projects is Arctic Pak Developments, spawned by LLR Technologies of Anchorage. LLR received a $130,000 grant to further develop and test an energy management device that charges a car's battery and controls engine block heaters and interior heaters used extensively in winter. The unit monitors air temperature and manages power to its multiple AC power outlets, turning devices on and off as necessary to save power.

What forces brought three Anchorage residents together -- a former computer store owner, a university electronics teacher and a computer management specialist -- to create Arctic Pak?

"We sat down and started looking through some 20 years worth of research projects, as well as current technology developments, looking for a gap that we could fill," explains Rex Plunkett, one of LLR's founders. "Our goal was to survive and to make a profit. Along that path, we wanted to use and hire Alaskan talent, to help stop the exodus of the best Alaska high school students."

Today, the Arctic Pak device is undergoing continued testing and evaluation while LLR awaits processing of its federal patent application. Without patent protection, the developers are hesitant to work closely with domestic and foreign component suppliers to bring projected manufacturing costs down to more competitive levels.

Meanwhile, research done for the Arctic Pak has yielded a spin-off company and what may be an even more promising product for LLR: Wave Energy Corp. will soon begin marketing its Computer Power Saver.

Looking much like a typical surge protector/power outlet box, the Computer Power Saver capitalizes on the same power-saving approach as the engine block heater device -- it automatically turns equipment on and off. Computer peripherals such as the monitor, printer and scanner are plugged into the device which, like a familiar screen-saver program, detects when equipment is not in use. The unused equipment is powered down until required.

LLR estimates that the average office computer printer would be deactivated about seven hours per day, and the average monitor would save about three hours of electricity every day, given a typical operator's lunch break, trips to the coffee pot, answering phone calls and chatting with fellow workers.

Mighty Macro Mapping

Across town at Anchorage's Merrill Field is another company working with computers. Since 1987, DAT/EM Systems International has been, as company literature proclaims, " ... a guiding force behind the development of digital photogrammetic hardware and software."

For the uninitiated, that's the progressively high-tech world of aerial photography and mapping. And the company of some 17 full- and part-time employees appears to be flying high among a handful of competing companies worldwide. In May, DAT/EM received the Governor's Exporter of the Year award -- the first time the award has been given to a company not in resource development.

Now a division of aerial mapping and photography firm AeroMap U.S., also based at Merrill Field, DAT/EM was created in 1984 by three mapping firms to build a computer-aided mapping system based on the popular Auto CAD engineering and drafting software. A $180,000 grant from ASTF in 1991 sped development of the company's hardware and software packages, which range from complete digital mapping systems and workstations to customized batch editing programs and foreign language mapping packages. The company also develops products marketed by other hardware manufacturers under its own label.

"We're gung-ho Alaskans," proclaims Jim Cucurull, DAT/EM's marketing specialist. "We're interested in showing the world that this can be a center for high-tech."

They are also showing how to run an apparently successful company. Sales in the United States and abroad have grown about 80 percent from the last couple years -- mostly in the export market -- to nearly $1.2 million. "We're on the brink of a couple of major contracts that could double sales within a year," beams Cucurull.

Up in Fairbanks, a small, uniquely-Alaska-named company, Tundra Vole Software, is developing and selling another kind of mapping software called RangeMapper. Ask owner Kenelm Philip who needs his Macintosh-based program, and he'll tell you it was designed specifically for the field or museum biologist wanting to easily produce species range maps for various organisms.

Fact is, it appears anybody wanting to plot information on maps covering anywhere in the world may find the program useful. The latest version includes substantial world mapping files. Philip, apparently from memory, can happily tell you that among his orders to date are five copies of the software for the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, one to a graphic artist, one to a volcanologist, one to a meteorologist, four to the university's Institute of Marine Science, three to the Bureau of Land Management, and two to the Navy.

A Technology Treasure Trove

Software development seems to have captured much of the attention of the ASTF. In 1991, the agency awarded a $124,000 grant to Finite Technologies of Anchorage to aid in the development of an accounting software package that can be used on a variety of computer systems, from IBM-based PCs to Macintosh systems.

Scott Henderson, president and founder of the firm, says most of the grant money was used to purchase computer equipment, allowing ongoing development of their accounting software, which is now about 80 percent complete.

Two other software packages -- one for doing building energy analysis and the other for water and drain system engineering -- developed by Henderson and his three full-time and two part-time employees -- are already on the market and selling outside Alaska.

"We sell our software packages all over the world," says Henderson, an engineer and former Boeing employee. "But we have never sold a package in Alaska. I think there is a perception within Alaska that if a product is made in Alaska, it's not any good. That's just not true. Some of the best programmers anywhere are right here in Alaska."

Fortunately, this anti-Alaskan bias is not shared by people Outside or internationally, says Henderson. He points to his busy fax machine and orders from abroad as testimony to the quality of Alaska products.

"There are too many people in Alaska who think we have to chop down trees or dig holes in the earth to be a viable business up here," Henderson laments.

Maybe the ongoing work of Alaska's backyard computer screen visionaries will help change that image.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Reid, Sean
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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