How civil grad's Pointivo went from idea to disruptive startup

Friday, September 2, 2016

By Péralte C. Paul, Enterprise Innovation Institute

Pointivo co-founder Habib Fathi, who earned his Ph.D. in civil engineering in 2013. The company has been named one of Georgia's most innovative firms by the Technology Association of Georgia.
Pointivo co-founder Dan Ciprari, who earned his master's in materials science and engineering in 2004. The company has been named one of Georgia's most innovative firms by the Technology Association of Georgia.
Pointivo co-founders Habib Fathi, top, who earned his Ph.D. in civil engineering in 2013, and Dan Ciprari, bottom, who graduated in 2004 with his master's in materials science and engineering. The company has been named one of Georgia's most innovative firms by the Technology Association of Georgia.

When Habib Fathi was studying for his Ph.D. in civil engineering from Georgia Tech, 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 3-D computer modeling and building construction.

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 3-D 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 3-D documentation for use in the construction, roofing, insurance, and home improvement industries.

The company, 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, and accolades such as being named a Technology Association of Georgia’s 2016 Top 10 Most Innovative Companies in Georgia and awarded the “Best in Show” at TAG’s annual Technology Summit.

Pointivo, which is part of the Advanced Technology Development Center’s (ATDC) Signature portfolio of companies, also has 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 in the formation of 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), he was really focused on our case and helping us and advising us a lot. He and VentureLab gave us 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 group to help us find the right people with whom to speak. He introduced us to [ATDC Signature graduate] CN2, an augmented reality company, to talk to Margaret Martin, the CEO. She thought it might be interesting to share the technology idea with Blake and that he might be able to help us. We showed him some of our early demos and the relationship grew from that interaction. I was still pursuing my Ph.D. so I decided to continue my studies and finish. At the end of 2013 and 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 3-D 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 is he wasn’t just seeing the existing version of the technology and what we could do as I explained it to him. He had the idea 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 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 from when we were both EIRs at ATDC. When Blake found this really cool idea and was really excited about it and putting together pitch decks, I was helping him think through it and saw that I loved that idea. I knew about it in-depth from then and was excited about it. When I met Habib, we spent a lot of time together; Blake, Habib, and I spent a lot of time together. For me, Pointivo met all my criteria, which was that it had to be truly innovative, something I could get excited about, it had a to have a lot of intellectual property opportunities that we could protect, it had to have a big market opportunity, and the co-founder had to be super intelligent, had to be collaborative. It had all the criteria, which was great.”

Q: What was the early strategy in terms of company vision and direction?

Ciprari: “The first focus was getting it fully functional and focused around the one customer we knew we had in the roofing space. When I came on board, it was proof of concept and seeing if it could work. We had a prototype of it but we had to get it to a point where it was more of a commercially viable product. That was the focus of the first year.”

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 and at ATDC at the time, and it was important to me that we go through the ATDC model in the development of Pointivo as a startup. We sat in a seed space for a time as we grew and developed and then applied to join ATDC Signature. Just knowing where we were headed and my experience in technology, ATDC was super-supportive. There was the community aspect of being here at ATDC and being with other entrepreneurs, but there’s also being close to Georgia Tech and having access to top talent to hire. From a grant standpoint, ATDC, through its SBIR/STTR program and Connie Casteel, we were able to successfully obtain our NSF funding.”

Q: What market opportunities do you see for Pointivo beyond building construction?

Fathi: “Well, just in construction alone there is the building of the information model, but also the updating of it. So with an electrician or plumber, once they finish a room before the walls are installed, they can walk around with their handheld device and capture it and it automatically syncs with the building information model. That can’t be done today because they have to bring in laser scanners and it’s too costly. Along the way as we’re solving that, there are other industries we could go into, like the home remodeling space, windows and doors. Instead of having a contractor go out and measure it, give a quote, and potentially come measure again before installation, the idea of them or the homeowner taking their phone, scanning the front of it and automatically knowing the accurate size of the doors and windows of the structure. Flooring is another industry.”

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 as an investor look for: it has amazing technology, an attractive market opportunity and competitive advantage, and most importantly, great people to build and develop the company.”