By VICKI LEE PARKER, Staff writer
News and Observer, November 20, 2002
You could say that Jim B. Clary saw the handwriting on the wall. Shortly after retiring as the vice president of electronics and systems for the Research Triangle Institute in 1999, Clary and his son, Greg, formed Mi-Co, which produces software that can be used with handwriting-data capture computers, now known as Tablet PCs. They felt certain that the devices would be the next big hit in the technology industry. But the Tablet PC's arrival on the market has taken a little longer than expected.
Mi-Co had to wait three years for Microsoft and other computer-hardware makers to unveil their new Tablet PCs to be able to start marketing their software applications, which include digital forms that can be used with the new computers.
Clary said that this month's official introduction of the Tablet PCs will be a big boost for the 10-employee company based in Research Triangle Park. He expects Mi-Co, which had revenue of $70,000 last year and $300,000 so far this year, to earn its first profit in 2003 and post revenue of at least $1 million. From his office headquarters, Clary, 59, talked with Connect's Vicki Lee Parker about Mi-Co's future.
Q. Mr. Clary, like many of us, you recently watched Bill Gates demonstrate Microsoft's new Tablet PC. Is it fair to say that it has meant a great deal more to Mi-Co, which has been waiting for years for this new technology to hit the market so it could mass-market its digital form, Mi-Forms, that can be used with such equipment?
A. Yes, you are right. We have been in position for three years and had to wait for the hardware vendors.
Q. Why do you think it took so long?
A. The idea to collect handwritten information so that it can be recognized and put into a computer has been around for a long time. Apple [Computer] offered a similar hand-held device about 10 years ago. But the technology wasn't as powerful then, and it was basically a failure. It was ahead of its time. But we believe now with Microsoft demonstrating its ease of use last week and with the emergence of a wide variety of platforms -- including ...Tablet PCs between $2,000 and $3,000 -- the handwriting technology market is going to take off. The time is ripe.
Q. Can you describe exactly what your handwriting-data-capture software does and who is your targeted market?
A. Anybody who fills out paper forms are potential customers. Say, for example, if someone gets stopped by a highway patrolman, that policeman has to fill out a form, and that information has to go into computers. Our technology allows that to happen without retyping the forms. Another example would be a home health nurse. They are not going to want to sit there with a patient and type information on a laptop computer. But they will sit there and fill out forms with a stylus. That data is captured along with the signatures and other handwritten notes. Key fields are recognized and converted into digital data. Nurses then go back to their offices and plug the Tablet PC into a computer, and the information is uploaded without any additional typing. We are also working with restaurant inspectors in the Triangle area. Currently they have to type reports and send them to a Raleigh office. With our software they just upload the data from new Tablet PC and send it via the Internet to Raleigh.
Q. You mentioned that your Mi-Forms software can help improve the quality of the data. What do you mean by that?
A. One of the ways we make quality higher is, we have built in an audio feedback that alerts you if you make an error. Say if the nurse is talking to a male and she accidentally checks that he is pregnant, then the automated voice will say that you are entering invalid data. The nurse can correct it on the spot and not have someone looking at a form two weeks from now trying to figure out what the error is.
Q. Are your digital forms standardized, or do you create customized forms for different customers?
A. Good question. What we have created is a software platform technology that gets you 98 percent down the road to what a customer needs. The other 2 percent is building an electronic reading form that does what the customer does. In that sense it is customized. We either charge a fee for building it or sell the company a software kit that lets it create its own electronic forms.
Q. Can individual consumers buy your software?
A. Originally we started out addressing the consumer market, but you can't show a return on investment. It was clear in order to succeed we had to move into the commercial market.
Q. Which markets do you specifically target?
A. Government, health care and public safety.
Q. Besides developing software, how else have you tried to position your company in this market over the years?
A. We have partnered with some good solid companies and suppliers.
Q. Such as?
A. IBM, Ericsson, Microsoft, Palm, Cross. You can see the entire list ... at www.mi-corporation.com.
Q. I realize that handwriting computers are very new to the market, but have you given any thought to any new uses for your software?
A. Yes, we think about different ways to capture data, such as capturing bar codes images, videos, you name it. Think of a law enforcer at a wreck that has just occurred. He is walking around taking pictures that get attached to an incident report and his notes and uploaded together. Or take the forms that doctors fill out when they view X-rays. Again, we will be able to capture the picture along with his notes.
We are not going to run out of good things to do with data capture, but right now we have to make money. We have to sell what we got, then move forward.