DEI / Software

This Columbia-based company gives deaf people access to NPR

BTS Software Solutions' first product was used on the battlefield in Afghanistan. Now, the company is looking to work across sectors.

David Tohn accepts the Innovator of the Year award at the ChesTech Awards. (Photo courtesy of BTS Software Solutions/Wendy Hickok Photography)
When BTS Software Solutions was founded in 2011, the company formed out of BTS, originally based out of Betamore (where former BTS CEO Sean Lane was also a founder), and focused on making a system that helped soldiers in Afghanistan manage use of cell phones on the battlefield.

Today, the company is based out of Columbia, and sees technology that’s used for NPR as a source of growth over the next year. Three members of the company’s management team recently bought out the company from management. They received a loan from Howard County’s Economic Development Authority, and were named Innovator of the Year by the Chesapeake Regional Tech Council.

While there were ebbs and flows over time, the company sees a thread running through its story: service to community, and others.

“As a service-disabled veteran-owned business, we are proud that we don’t do widgets,” said CEO David Tohn. “We do things that we think matter, and we think are impactful.”

The biggest shift to date at BTS-S2 came about in 2014. Like many changes, it was borne partially of necessity.

Troop drawdowns in Afghanistan and the sequester forced the government to cut back on contracts, and BTS-S2 was among the companies affected.

Tohn, an Army veteran who came onboard as CEO in April 2014, described last summer as a “belt-tightening” period. That meant letting people go, and cutting back on expenses. But for Tohn, cofounder Craig Cummings and COO Dan Cummings — who recently completed a management buyout of the company from its holding company, OSTP (Omni-Science Technical Partnership) — it was also a time to rethink where the company was going. That didn’t just mean adding a nicer kitchen or cornhole on the office floor (though they have both). It meant looking at ways to diversify.

Tohn said the management team used the time “to reframe who the company is, and in the most basic sense, get away from a single stream market.”

Along with government work, BTS-S2 now has a commercial division, and partners with Towson University to run a captioning service for deaf and hard-of-hearing NPR devotees.

In the immediate future, the company sees the caption and transcription service, known as Verb8tm, as having the biggest growth potential. The software was developed at Towson University out of research lead by Dr. Ellyn Sheffield, and BTS-S2 joined TU and NPR as partners in 2013. After a tech transfer was finalized in December, BTS-S2 is now in charge of captioning NPR’s major programs, like All Things Considered and Tell Me More.

The software looks to improve on the efficiency of live captioning, which is typically 83-85 percent accurate. Verb8tm provides 98 percent accuracy with a six-second delay. A same-day transcript of an NPR program is 99.6 accurate, on average, Tohn said.

While the captioning helps people with hearing difficulties, BTS-S2 also wants to provide service by hiring people from underserved communities. As the service grows, the company is looking to hire wounded warriors, homebound handicapped and people leaving prison to use the software for transcription. For now, the Verb8tm-related employees are part-time, but BTS-S2 will be looking to provide more opportunity as they expand the software for other uses, Tohn said.

“The technology is designed so that they can work from home,” Tohn said. “We can provide useful, meaningful work that can move into salaried positions as they get smarter and better, and we grow. … So we see service on both sides.”

The company also has a commercial sector that does both web and software development. Going forward, they are also looking to see interaction between government and commercial work.

The company has eyes on Department of Defense work in missile defense. BTS-S2 won a Phase II Small Business Innovation Research Grant from the DoD’s Missile Defense Agency,  among three selected to develop technology that aims to provide real-time data that shows where missiles are positioned. Though the work is for the military, BTS-S2 retains access to the patent. In the future, Tohn said the company will look to tailor the systems for commercial uses.

Along with service, Tohn sees the ability to cut across sectors and develop solutions that can be used for multiple use cases as key to the company’s growth. The company’s current revenue is about 70 percent government and 30 percent commercial. Tohn said he would like to reverse that split by growing commercial.

The multifaceted approach isn’t only designed to help revenue. Tohn was sure to draw attention to the four PhDs in the company, spread across fields from quantum optics to linguistics, and each name holding multiple patents. Having that kind of team gives the company a capacity for an “enduring innovative capability.”

“If someone comes in with a problem, we can pull in some different perspectives and really come up with the right solution for them,” Tohn said.

He compares the company’s structure to the pitch for Maryland’s innovation ecosystem in general. Elected officials like to say that the state’s value comes from the strong presence of government, academia and commercial sectors, and the interaction between the three.

“We think we’ve got that all collapsed into one company,” Tohn said.

Companies: BTS Software Solutions / Chesapeake Regional Tech Council

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