Stennis Space Center — Employees of NVision Solutions Inc., a geospatial technology firm, had a lot of home damage from Hurricane Katrina.
“For the first few days after the storm, we were like everyone else just trying to cut our way out of houses and get back here to the office to see what was here,” said Craig Harvey, chief information officer for NVisions Solutions. “Like so many other businesses on the Coast, about 30% of my staff lost their homes. When the hurricane came, we made a decision as a corporate citizen there was something we had to do to help. Where we plugged in first was Hancock County. We volunteered close to $60,000 in labor in the first two-and-a-half weeks. We did that because it was the right thing to do. Hancock County is our home. For us to remain successful, we need Hancock County to get back on its feet as quickly as possible.”
All the staff and equipment including computers, printers, plotters and other equipment moved from offices at Stennis to the Hancock County Emergency Operations Center (EOC). The Hancock County EOC in Waveland was destroyed by Katrina, and temporary offices were established at the Hancock County High School located near Stennis International Airport.
“Some bigger companies have asked us how we could afford to move our entire staff there,” Harvey said. “How could we afford not to? That is part of the difference between small companies and big companies. As a small company we could make a unilateral decision we were going to do this unfunded. Other companies have to answer to supervisors higher up who may not even be in the state.”
NVisions Solutions employees worked long days and nights to provide maps to help with search and rescue, emergency medical services, and other recovery efforts. The maps were particular important because most street signs and landmarks were missing. That made it difficult even for locals to find their way. And with so many police and emergency workers in the area from out of state, the maps were critical in recovery efforts.
The oldest employees on staff at NVisions are 30, and the mean age is 24. Harvey worried about the impact it would have on his staff working 12 hours per day, seven days per week, for months under stressful working conditions. But employees are so involved in the work that it was difficult to get them to go home.
“You can’t pry them out of the EOC at night,” Harvey said. “They just won’t walk away when there is someone standing in front of them who needs help. Every one of the people who work with me has their heart in the right place. Their focus is to do the right thing. They are able to contribute to the recovery. We feel good about what we are doing. We have been fortunate in doing the right thing, and we have been financially okay.”
Solving the problem
After volunteering the first two-and-a-half weeks, NVision Solutions received a FEMA contract to continue the work providing geographical information support to Hancock County. FEMA also hired the company to provide similar assistance to the Advanced Field Office for FEMA.
“For us, our technology often comes down to selling a potential customer that your technology can solve their problem because it is relatively new technology,” Harvey said. “In this case, we were offered opportunity to come in and help. We didn’t have to sell the technology. It was just a case of coming in and performing.”
Since September 6 when NVisions got its shop online, the company has produced just under 100,000 hard copy maps and distributed them in Hancock County, “We were told the maps have been significant help,” Harvey said. “We also updated the Hancock County Web site for information about services and coordinated efforts.”
The company has 13 permanent employees, and currently has three additional temporary employees who were displaced from the storm and are waiting to go back to their former jobs.
“I can’t say enough good about our staff,” Harvey said. “We have been extremely fortunate. I count my blessings every day. We focus entirely on our mission and what we do.
“Part of the benefit of working in the EOC is that every day you see a parade of people who have it a lot worse than you. You don’t get into conversations at the EOC where you ask people, ‘How did you do?’ The fact they are there means you know they didn’t do well.”
The Hancock County EOC has been moved to the Enunciation Parish Hall in Kiln. And now, four months after the storm, Harvey has gone back to work in the Stennis office of the company.
“I am back at Stennis now to put some more effort into our regular business model,” Harvey said. “We have some extremely good partners working with us on a number of different projects such as Radiant Technologies, 3001 and ESRI. The reason why we are out here at Stennis Space Center is because of NASA and the work we do for them in partnership with other companies. On a routine basis, what is good for NVision is good for the geospatial cluster, and what is good for the cluster is good for NVision.”
Right place, right time, right tools
There has been much concern about businesses on the Coast that are struggling post-Katrina, having a hard time making ends meet. Many businesses — like homes — received flood damage not covered by insurance. And labor shortages have been a plague as many employees who lost everything left the area. But technology companies, including those that played a big role in the recovery effort, have been able to stay successful.
“It is a good story that there are some companies down here in the technology sector, in particular, who are flourishing in post-Katrina,” Harvey said. “Part of it is luck, and part is being the in the right place in the right time with right tools.”
On December 6, 2005, NVision Solutions announced the acquisition of PixSell Inc., which will be operated as a wholly owned subsidiary specializing in tracking and real-time data management. In the transaction, NVision received stock, assets and existing contracts from PixSell, formerly PixSell Data Brokers.
Harvey said PixSell will act as the commercialization agent supporting NVision’s proprietary tracking and data transmittal systems. Some of the potential applications for this technology include fleet tracking, vehicle anti-theft, personal tracking and real-time sensor array deployment.
“Tracking is expected to be a multi-billion-dollar market over the next 10 years,” Harvey said. “PixSell is well placed to capture its share of that market with technologies developed right here in Mississippi. PixSell assets combined with NVision’s software greatly strengthens our ability to respond to this emerging market in a timely manner.”
PixSell plans to launch three new tracking solutions and two different software solutions over the next three months. The acquisition could lead to more high-tech jobs for the Gulf Coast in the year ahead.
“What we plan to do is manufacture these tracking devices here in Hancock County at a factory likely to be located at the new Stennis Technology Park later this year,” Harvey said. “As we move forward, we anticipate this project will create more high-tech jobs right here at home.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.