When Habib Fathi was studying for his Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, he was at a professional crossroads, debating which path to take.
One obvious path: go the route of academia to continue his research and teach. The other path — arguably more risky — meant venturing out as an entrepreneur and forming a company based on his years of work and study of computer vision and 3D computer aided design.
Dr. Fathi, who earned his Ph.D. in 2013, took the latter route and went on to co-found Pointivo, where he is chief technology officer. The Atlanta-based startup captures dimensionally accurate 3D models and measurements of any scene or structure using just a smartphone or tablet video camera. Its cloud-based solution simplifies tasks that require accurate measurements or 3D documentation for use in the construction, roofing, insurance, and home improvement industries.
Pointivo, co-founded by Dan Ciprari (MS MSE 2004), who serves as chief executive officer, has garnered a lot of attention, including funding grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The company has also received accolades such as being named a Technology Association of Georgia’s (TAG) “2016 Top 10 Most Innovative Companies in Georgia” and awarded the “Best in Show” at TAG’s annual Technology Summit.
Pointivo is part of the Advanced Technology Development Center’s (ATDC) Signature portfolio of companies and has also received significant funding from key investors, including Blake Patton (ISYE 1993) of Tech Square Ventures, and Jon Hallett of Hallett Capital.
“We often talk about this living, vibrant ecosystem we have here in Tech Square and how entities such as ATDC help to make those cross connections,” Patton said. “You have a brilliant researcher from Georgia Tech taking his findings and turning them into a company by going through Tech’s VentureLab program and now being a part of Tech’s ATDC incubator.
“If it wasn’t for ATDC, I wouldn’t have met Habib, nor would I have met Dan and been able to connect them to found the company. Pointivo’s success reflects the unique ecosystem here.”
Fathi, Ciprari, and Patton recently spoke with ATDC to explain the company’s evolution and startup journey.
Q. How did Pointivo go from idea to company?
Fathi. “It all goes back to the NSF I-Corps program and what I was doing at VentureLab. Paul Freet (VentureLab principal) was really focused on helping us and provided great advice to bring the idea to market. He and VentureLab provided tremendous support in the I-Corps program.”
Q. How did you connect with Blake and Tech Square Ventures, which is one of your lead investors?
Fathi. I have to thank Paul Freet for making that connection because he worked with our I-Corp group to help us find the right people and make those introductions. He introduced us to Margaret Martin, the CEO of ATDC Signature graduate CN2, an augmented reality company. She thought it might be interesting to share the idea with Blake and that he might be able to help us. We showed Blake some of our early demos and the relationship grew from there. I was still pursuing my Ph.D. so I decided to finish my program. I graduated at the end of 2013 and by early 2014, I was ready to really focus on the startup potential for the technology.
Q. Blake and Habib, how was that initial experience from your perspectives?
Patton. “I was enamored with the technology from day one. Habib was starting to think about his future and what was the best way to commercialize this technology. So we had a lot of conversations about that. I had not yet decided to start what is now Tech Square Ventures, but pretty much from day one I was captivated. I saw the huge disruptive potential from more and more data and more captures – we live in a 3D world – right away I saw the potential for lots of commercial applications. Habib was this quiet, brilliant guy. I wanted to see him turn this into a company.”
Fathi: “What I liked about Blake was that he didn’t just see the existing version of the technology. He had the vision of what this could do and how we could move it forward in three years, five years, and 10 years from now. That forward-thinking vision was a key point in my decision to go with him.”
Q. So how did Dan become involved?
Patton. “We were looking for someone who could be excited by building something from scratch, someone who could get a product to market and make it successful. That person also had to be pretty technical due to the nature of what we are doing in computer vision and machine learning. I had worked with Dan in my role as general manager at ATDC, and Dan had been an entrepreneur-in-residence (EIR) there. In exploring the potential for what would become Pointivo, Dan was one of my key sounding boards so he was pretty up to speed on it. When we asked him to join, he took those pieces that we had loosely identified – along with Habib – and Pointivo was formed. We did a seed round that was Tech Square Ventures-led and we were off to the races.”
Q. Dan, what was it that attracted you to Pointivo?
Ciprari. “I knew Blake when we were both EIRs at ATDC. He approached me with this innovative idea when he was putting together the pitch deck. He was really excited about it and after helping him think through it, I recognized its potential and loved the idea. Blake introduced me to Habib, and we spent a lot of time together discussing the technology and potential applications. For me, Pointivo met all my criteria. It had to be something truly innovative that I could get excited about; it had to have significant intellectual property opportunities that we could protect; it had to have huge market potential; and the co-founder had to be super intelligent, humble, and collaborative. It met all the criteria, which was great.”
Q. What was the early strategy in terms of company vision and direction?
Ciprari. “The early strategy was to get the technology fully functional and focused on the one customer we knew we had in the roofing space. When I came on board, we had a proof of concept and prototype system proving it could work. But we had to get it to where it was a commercially viable product. That was the focus early on.”
Q. The company started out preformation in VentureLab and later joined ATDC. What were you looking for from the ATDC relationship?
Ciprari. “I was an EIR at ATDC at the time and it was important to me that we take advantage of ATDC’s incubator program and resources in the development of Pointivo. We sat in a seed space for a time as we grew and developed, then joined ATDC as a Signature company. ATDC is super-supportive; there is the community aspect of being here with other entrepreneurs. It’s also very valuable being so close to Georgia Tech and having access to top talent to hire, which ATDC helps facilitate. And, from a grant standpoint, ATDC, through its SBIR/STTR program and Connie Casteel, we were able to successfully obtain NSF Phase I and Phase II funding. Needless to say, ATDC provided the support we needed to get us where we are today.”
Q. What market opportunities do you see for Pointivo beyond building construction?
Fathi. “Well, in construction there is the building of the information model, which needs to be created, but there is also a need to update it. So imagine an electrician or plumber, once they finish a room and before the walls are installed, they can walk around with their smartphone, capture their work, and it automatically syncs with the building information model. This can’t be done today because it requires expensive laser scanners and length human intervention. As we’re building this technology, there are other markets we could enter, like the home remodeling, flooring, doors and windows, and insurance Instead of having a contractor come out to measure a job, give a quote, and potentially come back to measure again before installation, the idea of them or the homeowner using their phone to capture the scene and automatically know the accurate size everything is a game-changer.”
Q. How does Pointivo fit the Tech Square Ventures’ portfolio strategy?
Patton: “We do seed and early stage investing, which means everything from founding commercialization projects like this to early-stage investments in companies with traction. We invest in three types of companies: information technology, Internet of Things, and university spinouts. I like meeting the inventor or entrepreneur even before it’s a company or as it is becoming a company. It takes a lot of work but once you get to that point, it shows why we love this method. It’s why we could attract an experienced successful entrepreneur and leader like Dan to build Pointivo. We want to do more of these and also do more traditional seed and early-stage investments across the Southeast.”
Q. What made this an exciting opportunity for you, Blake?
Patton: “What I loved since day one is the power of all the potential disruptive applications that could come out of this innovation. Habib came into this from the building construction viewpoint and it’s easy to see the efficiency that it provides. But, as you get out and talk to people in the space you realize they have even bigger visions. When they’re constructing a building, they want to be able to see through the walls, they want to be able to capture that progress and information in different ways. There’s no reason that we have to use a tape measure when we have this powerful tool right at our fingertips. What made me really want to move forward was that when I looked at it, Pointivo has all the things that I look for as an investor: it has amazing technology, an attractive market opportunity and competitive advantage, and most importantly, great people to build and develop the company.”