Connecting the Dots—An Interview with Tom Greaves

A 2.209Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

At a commencement speech at Stanford University in 2005, Steve Jobs told the students, "… you can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards." He was referring to the fact that he had dropped out of college, but had learned about the beauty of typography in a calligraphy class he took after he dropped out. Ten years later, when designing the first Macintosh computer, the first proportional font spacing was introduced. Jobs went on to advise the graduates to have the confidence that their future dots would connect in ways that would "make all the difference."

Tom Greaves agrees. Born in Ontario, Canada in 1958 to a math teacher and a medical lab technician, Tom is the oldest of three. Tom recalls learning about prime numbers at a very early age. In the late 1960s his father brought home an enormous four-function calculator; an early Wang 300. The device stimulated Tom’s interest in math and technology. His high school let him mix courses from the honors program with vo-tech courses including drafting and machine shop. His interest in electronics and communications led him to obtain a ham radio license, which he keeps current. After graduating he spent a gap year working as a cook in the oil fields of northern Alberta.

From there he enrolled at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and in 1982 graduated with a degree in physics. He interviewed with oil industry giant Schlumberger, and laughingly recalls one of the interview questions: "Do you have a problem with working in remote areas?" Who knew that spending eight months in the Alberta muskeg would prove valuable? Shortly thereafter he was sent to Abu Dhabi as a field engineer, logging the mechanical and electrical properties of newly drilled oil and gas wells as well as perforating production wells with high explosives. Because some of the wells contained dangerous "sour gas," i.e. hydrogen sulfide, Tom stayed clean-shaven so safety masks would fit properly if needed! "Wireline engineering taught me a lot of lessons about being a 3D measurement professional" says Tom, "chief among these was , get it right the first time."

In the middle of his five-year stint with Schlumberger, Tom took an 18-month sabbatical to attend the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, where he gained a masters in physics. There he built an an interferometer, one of the career "dots" that would help him later with his understanding of optical metrology. He also pursued his love of acoustics, and wrote his thesis on experimental acoustics. This field is still researched for such applications as manipulating molten materials in the micro-gravity of outer space.

Following his employment with Schlumberger, Tom returned to Vancouver where he ran a small R&D lab for a packaging equipment manufacturer. He enjoyed the hands-on manufacturing environment; and the customers ranged from Proctor & Gamble to McDonalds to Scott Paper. At that time the company was transitioning from drafting boards to designing with 2D CAD. Academia tugged once more, and he enrolled at MIT Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Based on his experience in Vancouver, he gave a lot of thought to the emerging CAD market, and in 1990 received another master’s degree, this time in the management of technology. His thesis was about a small company, Autodesk, which had seized the 2D drafting market, and the effect this was having on the design industry. While at MIT, he had begun working part time for Charles Foundyller, the founder of Daratech, a successful boutique CAD market research firm. "I learned the analyst/conference business first hand from Foundyller, everything from selling to execution" says Tom. After serving as an analyst, he went on to run sales and marketing and also met his future business partner, Bruce Jenkins. Both Tom and Bruce had an itch to run their own business, so in 2003, they left and founded Spar Point Research. Another dot.

Tom and Bruce liked the Gartner and Forrester Research Business model (publications, conferences and long form research reports). They spent several months haunting Starbucks locations on Boston’s North Shore, making and sorting lists of technology markets they felt were under-served. They decided that the 3D laser scanning market offered the most opportunity.

"Our filter criteria were threefold," says Tom. "One, could we understand the technology ourselves? Two, was the market under-served by existing information services? Three, was the technology a world beater? It is a very special and rare time when you get to decide whom you’d like to serve."

"Bruce brought his best game to this effort, too. He is a remarkable guy with an amazing memory–he can reach inside and find an apt stanza from Wallace Stevens on demand–he is blessed or cursed with near total recall. He studied under Harold Bloom at Yale; Bruce’s standards for business prose are very high. We found some great support in Japan, too. Not long after we started, I met up with Koji Kawamura who had just retired from Asahi Chemical. Kawamura-san created SPAR Japan and translated our newsletter–he is a delightful man."

When it came to naming their company Tom says, "We were swinging for the fences with this one. From the beginning we wanted to create a fresh brand with a reach around the world. The name Spar gurgled up from a spring of inspiration we found on a little island off the coast of Maine. My wife and I had lunch one afternoon at the Spar Cove Restaurant on Long Island, near Portland, and it was there we decided to take the plunge and go ahead and launch the business. Spar also connotes a supporting element, a beam or rigging element which I liked. There is also a pugilistic element: stick up your dukes, which I think all entrepreneurs have and need. Launching a new business says you’re dissatisfied with the way things are and things need to change. Sometimes, this means some knees and elbows."

For Tom, the most satisfying elements of launching the business was working shoulder-to-shoulder with both the creators and inventors of the technology, as well as with the innovators in the field who struggled to make it work in the beginning. "The technology had been around for a few years of course, but it needed a conference and a voice. Our SPAR conferences in Houston and Kawasaki as well as our SPARView newsletter were our answers. We got to work with some amazing people like Eric Hoffman, Christoph Froelich, Mark Klusza, Allan Carswell, Ben Kacyra, Bernd Becker, Shaun Lamont, Tristan Grimbert, Brent Gelhar, Ted Knaak on the scanner side, and some very inspiring and encouraging users of the technology, including Dennis Hirota, Mike Frecks, Kirk Knorr, Greg Lawes, Tad Fry, Don Bowen, Matt Craig, and Carl Adrian. There were many others of course; all of them great innovators and champions of ours. These entrepreneurs are the real creators of economic value in our world–for themselves in many cases, but also for the whole of humankind. I bow to them. They’re all in the business of faster, better, cheaper and safer."

Predicting the arc of technology adoption is not easy and a measure of humility is called for says Tom. "I’m with Nassim Taleb ­ technology innovations are really black swans. Simple-minded s-curve adoption models don’t capture the discontinuities introduced by a disruptive technology. Normalized z variables for modeling human behavior is scary. "

Tom says one of their proudest moments was midwifing the birth of th
e mobile mapping market. Bruce was onsite for the DARPA Grand Challenge in November 2007; the following spring we had Chris Urmson, the technical director of the winning team keynote SPAR 2008 and the next year we had three mobile mapping vehicles featured prominently outside the exhibit floor. We had solid editorial coverage of this market from the get-go.

"My wife Denise deserves a lot of credit for SPAR’s success" says Tom. "I don’t know how she juggled the schedules of three school-age children, 800 conference attendees, 40 exhibitors, 6 employees and me, but she did it." It welded us together too. We also had some great help from Linda McLaughlin and Cheryl Pugh.

After nine successful and profitable SPAR Conferences, and a worldwide reputation as a champion of 3D imaging, in December of 2009, Spar Point Research was sold to Diversified Business Communications, a mediumsized trade show company headquartered in Portland, Maine. When it came to selling, however, Tom was upfront in our interview. "Very little I’d learned along the way prepared me for the experience. My business degree from Sloan helped me sort out the accounting but there are some lessons you may only learn by doing."

He went on to say, "If you have aspirations to stay longer than the time you are obligated to stay, it is essential that you identify the individual or individuals who have career capital invested your ongoing success. Often that’s a different person or team than the business development team that acquires your company. As they say in Maine, you’re one of the `people from away’ and guess what, when you’re acquired, you’re not in charge of very much anymore."

In January of this year, Tom took the position of CEO at CyArk, the worldwide heritage preservation organization founded by Ben Kacyra. "I met Ben at a Leica HDS conference six or seven years ago, and was impressed by the fact that he didn’t want to just take the proceeds from the sale of Cyra to Leica Geosystems and retire. He wanted to do good works." Tom lauds Ben and his wife Barbara for their inspirational qualities and entrepreneurial enthusiasm. Looking to the future, Tom believes in CyArk’s mission, which is to capture and disseminate information about cultural heritage sites around the world. He understands that not every structure and artifact can be saved physically, but also firmly believes that mankind needs a record of where we came from. Tom says, "We owe this to our children and the generations that come after us. Without this record we’re just amnesiacs. Laser scanning and other 3D imaging tools deliver an order of magnitude improvement in the ability to quickly, and at low cost, gather a digital record."

CyArk, a 10-12 person non-profit company headquartered in Oakland is a spin off from the Kacyra Family Foundation. Already, 70 projects–some of them donated–have been added to the CyArk 500, a number Ben came up with as a good place to start. Tom says a current project–scanning the Missions of California–began with small team of angels. "We’re structured just like a technology start-up when it comes to planning and obtaining funding. The entire team–including the angels–shares a common goal, that of preserving history and heritage."

By interviewing Ben Kacyra in 1999, I like to think I had a hand in introducing laser scanning to surveyors in our country. Likewise, Spar Point Research played a key role in taking laser scanning to the next level. All in all, when it comes to connecting the dots, it seems only natural that the environment and technology of laser scanning has provided a perfect place for Tom Greaves to land.

Marc Cheves is the editor of magazine.

Along the way, Tom and Bruce learned that their customers and readers needed to know five things:
• How does the technology work? You need to be able to explain it to your supervisor, or your customer, or your team in plain english.
• What is the business case for using it? Inevitably, this distills to a cost, schedule, quality or safety justification. Laser scanning is a risk management tool.
• What is your competition up to? where do you stand in the pack?
• What does your company need to change internally to take advantage of the new tools? experience has taught me that bringing new technology to an organization that resists change is a challenge. You can have the best tool, a killer value proposition and still lose–you run into buzz saws of entrenched interests who are invested in what they think they know. this can get ugly; I know. I was once frog marched from cloud computing back to client-server–not pretty, not fun.
• Where to buy it? whom can you trust? who is partnered with whom? who is investing in r&D? A conference is ideal for finding this out. much of what you need to know is never documented; you need to dig it out face-to-face.

A 2.209Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE