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Gene O'Donnell, Founder & CEO, CrowdPixie

Gene O’Donnell is an inventor by trade, an engineer by training and a scientist by nature. During a career spanning many decades he has worked in a variety of disciplines including manufacturing and operations, product development, advanced research, management and intellectual property development. Gene is a named inventor on more than 30 US Patents, and is a registered Patent Agent. The CrowdPixie™ crowd interaction system is his latest invention and is in the early stages of commercialization. The CrowdPixie system was conceived as a way of extending the LED signboards in a stadium out onto the audience. In that way, each and every audience member can become a participant in a game as much as a spectator.

More about Gene:

1. Tell us about your professional background!

I received a BSEE from the University of Louisville in 1982. I joined RCA in Indianapolis after graduation. RCA was a great company, and along with its successor, Thomson, it provided me with many interesting and valuable opportunities. During my time with Thomson/RCA I worked for 5 years in the beautiful island city-state of Singapore and was able to travel and work extensively in Europe and Asia. When I decided to leave Thomson, I knew I wanted to work with start-up companies. I had worked with a few startup companies while I was with Thomson and enjoyed the ‘small boats’ paradigm of freedom and innovation.

I worked for a small company in San Francisco, Zvue Corporation, for about a year, and then came back to Indy to work with Scott Jones at ChaCha Search, Inc. While working at ChaCha I became more specialized in the area of intellectual property development taking and passing the Patent Bar and succeeded in getting many patents issued to the company. Unfortunately, ChaCha was ultimately unsuccessful commercially but the experience and the people I worked with there were truly valuable and will always be fond memories.

After leaving ChaCha, I decided to try building my own company, and I thought CrowdPixie would be the best opportunity to do that.

2. You’re an inventor by nature. What’s your favorite invention that you’ve created?

As readers may know, less than 10% of all inventions (patents) are ever actually practiced, and probably only 5% of them are truly commercially valuable. One of my favorites was a signal processing system which we used for Thomson CRT projection televisions. It involved a novel use of mathematics to overcome a subtle but serious problem. It was used in millions of televisions and helped to make Thomson a leader in the field. I like mathematically based inventions best because they are elegant and generally the most powerful since there are often very few other ways of solving the problem to which they are directed.

3. What is the mission of Crowd Pixie?

CrowdPixie wants to make live events more enjoyable and interactive for the participants. We want to make ‘being there’ at the Super Bowl or the NBA Finals or a Coldplay concert or just about any event a unique experience for each fan which is more fun and exciting than sitting at home and watching on television.

We intend to make the collective experience in a large group more fun and interesting as well. Because we make a map of everyone in the audience, we can help them to interact with each other in unique ways. We help the event sponsor, who is our most important customer, to serve the people who attend an event more effectively and to increase the attendance and revenue for live events such as sporting events and music shows. We plan to provide a communication infrastructure which will let artists, athletes and other creative people innovate in the way that they communicate with their audience before, during and after a performance. I expect that the users will discover and create ways of using our technology which I have never considered.

4. How did you come up with this idea?

When I was working at ChaCha, I did some patent prosecution work for Scott Jones’ company Galaxia Lighting. Galaxia had the idea to create a sort of self-addressing lighting display. The system used a group of synchronized controllers to control large strands or nets of lights. The lights were mapped using a camera and then the entire apparatus could be controlled to produce various interesting visual effects. Unfortunately, the cost of the Galaxia system was such that consumer acceptance was low and the company eventually was shut down. But Galaxia did get a granted US patent for the concept thanks at least in part to my efforts.

One evening while I was attending an Indiana Pacers game with some friends, I noticed that the LED signboards did some really dazzling visual effects, but it was sort of sad that that effect could not be extended out onto the audience. It occurred to me that in fact it was possible to do that. We could just use the LCD display that probably 90% or more of the fans were carrying around in their pockets (i.e., a smart phone). So combining those LCD devices with the mapping capability of Galaxia, I believed it could be done. Of course there were many hours of testing, coding, calculation, experimenting and deeper consideration of how to actually make such a complex system work, but that was the seed from which the idea grew.

5. What’s the biggest challenge for your company?

Our biggest single challenge is bootstrapping to larger crowds. There is only so much that can be done in the laboratory and the only real way to test and prove the system is with groups of tens, then hundreds and then thousands of participants. But naturally event sponsors with thousands of fans are rather shy about trying something that has not actually been proven to work at the scale they are expecting. So getting in front of major customers is a difficult task. Being able to find a willing and fault-tolerant audience is still a challenge. But we have gotten a lot of help from friends like the good people at the Indy Python Group and the SportTechie meetup to help us get to the level we have so far. We continue to seek organizations and partners that can help us access groups of 500, 1000, or 5000 participants. Schools, churches, clubs and sports teams are the types of groups we are approaching.

The technology is a challenge mainly because it is hard to simulate and evaluate large groups of devices without that large-scale tolerant audience. It takes a lot of time and careful investigation to analyze the data and find out what went wrong when things are not perfect. But mainly due to the modern miracles of cloud computing such as AWS our systems can scale up pretty readily without having to invest major capital in infrastructure. We are learning as we go but that is a part of the adventure.

6. You spent a lot of your career focused on patents. What does every founder need to know about patents?

Founders should understand that patents do not make a company successful. Patents will help to protect and grow a good business, but it is unrealistic to believe that if you patent an idea investors will flock to your door to license your technology. You must build a successful business on the technology so that there is something of value to protect. The cost of patenting your ideas is usually worthwhile, but don’t believe that you will ever make a fortune collecting royalty checks. It just doesn’t work that way. Many companies regret not protecting the technology and the brands the company creates when it is too late.

7. Who would be your dream rock star to use Crowd Pixie?

I would love to see someone who is really creative like Bruno Mars or Pink or Beyonce do a fabulous audience effect with CrowdPixie. As I told my wife, I will know we have succeeded when CrowdPixie does the SuperBowl halftime show.

8. How can political marches utilize the app?

In the case of political marches, the gathering is pretty spontaneous so nobody has an assigned seat. Along with that, it is often hard to get contact information for people who just decide to show up. It is difficult to actually count the number of participants since there are no really reliable ways of doing that. Communicating with a large group effectively can be very challenging, especially when things change.

The CrowdPixie system overcomes all of those issues. Participants are individually identified based on the app ID, so based on the map which the system creates it is possible to give people information based on their location even though the organizer has no particular contact information for any given participant. Likewise, it is possible to get a precise count of participants because each participant is unique and doesn’t get counted twice. The system lets organizers contact the participants through the app in order to keep them informed of future plans and breaking news during the event. CrowdPixie can also provide a level of security information since a location is associated with any communication from a user. For example if someone is making trouble or a participant needs help, the responders can find them quickly and can avoid misinformation.

9. Which female founder most inspires you and why?

My favorite female founder is not the founder of a company. She is the leader of the Cassini Saturn mission project for NASA, Carolyn Porco. Carolyn has done fantastic work with a very diverse team. Her achievements have made it obvious that even in the “man’s world” at NASA talent, guts and persistence can change the way we see the universe and our place in it.

Here in Indy one of my favorite female founders is my friend Danielle Stealy McDowell, who now runs the SpeakEasy. Danielle did a great job with her first company and I hope that she will be willing to take the plunge on another startup in the future. At a time when many other friends thought I was crazy to start CrowdPixie, Danielle offered support and encouragement.

10. How have The Startup Ladies helped you grow?

The Startup Ladies does some of the best and most practical seminars for startup companies. The talks by people like Don Aquilano, Kim and Todd Saxton and Michael Cloran, and Joanna Milliken and Katherine Segal are learning opportunities that I would not have had through any other organization. I don’t think there is any other organization that focuses on the nuts and bolts of issues like funding, and the basics of building and scaling a business like The Startup Ladies does. Kristen does a great job with getting excellent people to share their talent and expertise. I would love to find female executives that could help build CrowdPixie. A perspective orthogonal to my “old, bald, techie, white guy” coordinate system would likely accelerate things quite a lot.

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