PART 1: Bob Wilson describes RDI Technologies growth as “crazy good”

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first article in a two-part series examining the rapid growth in a Knoxville-based start-up that launched not quite four years ago.)

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

“It’s crazy good,” Bob Wilson, President of RDI Technologies Inc., says of the growth the company has experienced since its “official” launch about three years ago.

For the well-known player in the Knoxville entrepreneurial community, that description might even be an understatement even for “Mr. Optimism.” After all, RDI Technologies captured the annual “Traction Award,” presented by the UT Federal Credit Union, during Knoxville’s fifth annual “Start-up Day” competition in 2017.

Just a few months later, the company moved into new quarters, occupying 13,000 square feet of space just off Pellissippi Parkway. The hockey stick like growth that RDI Technologies has experienced means it has already outgrown those quarters and will be looking to expand, within the existing building or in a location nearby.

What’s fueling that level of growth? We sat down with Wilson and Jenna Johns, Chief Operating Officer, to get an answer. The two of them joined with Jeff Hay, Chief Executive Officer (CEO), to take the latter’s invention to market. The company is based on a license executed with the University of Louisville in 2013, but Wilson and Johns came on full-time in March 2015.

Clearly, the technology that the Hay developed is foundational to the rapid scaling of RDI Technologies. It is disruptive, to say the least, but the discussion with Johns and Wilson also showcased a number of other areas of emphasis that are almost textbook in terms of what entrepreneurs should do to succeed. We’ll cover those in part two of this article. For now, let’s focus on the evolution of the technology.

As noted in some of our earlier teknovation.biz stories about the start-up including the first one from September 2015, there were multiple opportunities where RDI Technologies could focus. The patented technology that Hay developed measures deflection, displacement, movement, and vibration not visible to the naked eye.

How does it do that? It uses video camera technology in conjunction with RDI Technologies’ proprietary software and processing algorithms to extract meaningful data. The technology turns every pixel in the camera’s view into a sensor capable of measuring vibration or motion.

Early ideas for application of the technology ranged from inspections of plant machinery and infrastructure like bridges to human usage that detected respiration which is critical in monitoring babies, identifying sleep apnea, and monitoring vital signs in patients.

The area that took-off the fastest was the first one – inspection of machinery – and that’s where RDI Technologies’ rapid growth has occurred. A key reason is the constant evolution of the core product, called the IRIS MTM, in conjunction with additional technology.

For example, using the motion amplification video system, Wilson says the company “can go into a vibration spectrum and pinpoint a specific peak and visualize the real motion associated with the problem, thus easier communications with asset owners. Seeing is believing.  It’s been revolutionary for the industry.”

Johns added that technology improvements are at the heart of its growth strategy. Three major updates to the IRIS MTM product were released this past year, a clear reflection that RDI Technologies is not resting on its laurels, but continuing to be the technology leader.

The company also launched two new products in 2018. One was the CableView™ Tension Meter, a revolutionary cable tension measurement tool. The system is completely non-contact, utilizing a camera to measure the tension of guy wires. The other was the IRIS MXTM, a two-camera system that opens-up the world of motion amplification to high speed applications.

“The IRIS MXTM opens-up other parts of the plant to us,” Wilson says. Those areas include packaging, process lines, quality control areas.  “It will take us from a focus on plant machinery or maintenance to engineering, production and quality control. It’s a natural evolution for us.”

Johns said that the original technology that was the basis of the company is not used in every new product. “It helped us get started, but we have developed eight additional patents, three of which have been issued, since starting the company that are now the backbone of all of our products.”

NEXT: Technology evolution is just one part of the company’s success formula.

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