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Ellis: Old firm creates newest startup

New ideas don’t always come out of garages. Often times, established businesses realize a better way to operate by creating their own tools or processes. When this happens, a new startup can emerge within a larger company. That’s exactly what just happened at a seventy year old engineering and consulting company here in Savannah.

Thomas & Hutton (www.thomasandhutton.com) was founded in 1946 and currently employs nearly 300 people. They work on large engineering projects for folks like Volvo, Ikea and Palmetto Bluff. While well established firms such as Thomas & Hutton may not be the first place you’d think to look for a young, exciting tech startup, that’s exactly where the new web application geothinQ (https://geothinq.com) was born.

geothinQ enables real estate professionals and property managers to plot lots of different data sets onto layered maps to quickly make land use decisions. It was created because engineers at Thomas & Hutton found themselves repeating the same tasks over and over. Every project would start with a manual collection of land records that would then be layered onto maps one at a time. It was a time consuming process, and one ripe for automation.

The new platform geothinQ fixes all this. Thomas & Hutton’s engineers, as well as a growing number of users throughout the U.S., are now using this map-based interface to visualize land data. In moments they can answer questions that used to take weeks. The basic version of geothinQ supports a wide variety of commonly used data sets, and an enterprise version adds custom data sets for large clients.

The platform was so successful at streamlining projects within Thomas & Hutton that they quickly realized it had a much broader appeal, not only for engineering firms but also land management, real estate, energy utilities and other related industries. In fact, the conservative market estimate is $50 billion and counting. Yes, you heard me correct: That’s $50 billion plus.

To capture this market, geothinQ is being spun out from Thomas & Hutton as an independent product. “This is a huge market we’re going after,” says product manager Christopher Nichols, “and we have an incredible depth of knowledge and resources at Thomas & Hutton that will give us a leg up on the competition. But we have to reach a larger audience, and to do that will require focus, resources and partnerships outside of our current sphere of relationships.”

The corporate spin-off model of innovation is gaining in popularity as investors tire of the “spray and pray” model of investing in unproven teams. Startups like geothinQ inherit the reputation, infrastructure and credentials of their parent company, which means the usual startup risk factor goes way, way down. They also have a direct channel to large customer prospects and strategic partnerships.

Currently the geothinQ team consists of seven people, mostly developers and data scientists working on the platform and its data sets. But as they roll out the product to additional customers that number is expected to grow quickly to include account managers and a support team. And unlike many startups who need to move to larger markets to be acquired or raise larger amounts of capital, geothinQ has strong ties to Savannah that actually help contribute to their chances for success.

Early indicators point to a bright future for geothinQ. They recently completed ATDC’s Startup Bootcamp and were a crowd favorite at the InnovateSAV pitch event. They’ve also earned a Business Technology Award for Innovation in Utilization and an ACEC Engineering Excellence Award. And, the number of geothinQ users has risen nearly 800 percent since 2016.

If you’re working for an established company, ask yourself this: what tasks are you doing over and over? What would it take to turn this frustrating process into an automated product? You might be sitting on a major innovation and not realize it. Write up your idea, pitch it to a manager, then grab a co-worker and spin up a proof-of-concept.

If all that goes well, share the concept with fellow employees and other prospective customers. Gather feedback, revise your pitch and take it to the corner office (i.e. top management). You may find your current employer is ready to be your lead investor, first customer and biggest advocate.

Blake Ellis is a board member with The Creative Coast, a non-profit organization supporting local innovators which is made possible by the City of Savannah and the Savannah Economic Development Authority. Contact him at https://www.linkedin.com/in/blakeellis.

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