Austin 3-D imaging firm looks for bigger things

Jun 9, 2014
Austin American Statesman

Although it was founded 18 years ago and has built groundbreaking technology, Zebra Imaging is still in startup mode. But with a new CEO, a shift in business strategy and a fresh infusion of $5 million from investors, the Austin hologram developer says it’s on a path toward sustainable growth

The company began as research work by three students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab in the mid 1980s. As students, Mark Holzback, Alex Ferdman and Michael Klug were attracted to the relatively small field of holography because they felt it had the power to turn ordinary photographic images into a rich experience.

In 1996, Holzbach and Ferdman were running a multimedia shop in Houston and Klug was still doing research at MIT. They decided the time was right to put their hologram research to work and launched Zebra. Austin was chosen for the company’s headquarters because it was the one city they could all agree on

Zebra initially focused on big-dollar projects for advertising. Among its early customers was Ford Motor Co., which paid $100,000 to create a 40-square-foot holographic image of its P2000 Prodigy sedan for international auto shows. The automaker also made a $1.5 million investment in the company

Over the years, Zebra raised $30 million from investors including Sierra Ventures of Menlo Park, Calif., Voyager Capital in Seattle and Stanford University. In the mid 2000s, it shifted from advertising to pursue repeat-customers rather than large scale one-off projects, and signed customers including Chevron, Honda and BAE Systems

The company also has secured more than $30 million in government research grants, the bulk of that from DARPA. And in recent years, its the U.S. defense department has been its top customer. The Army and Air Force use Zebra’s technology to view three-dimensional landscape maps that give battle planners a better idea of heights and distances and let them analyze mountainous and urban terrain

Now, Zebra is looking beyond the military. The company in September hired Chuck Scullion as CEO. Scullion is a former managing partner at Seattle-based Stoneledge Partners, which advises startups

“The funding provided Zebra with the luxury of quietly developing its technology while focusing 95 percent of its business serving the Department of Defense, while the rest of the industry caught up in terms of 3-D data availability and familiarity with holograms,” he says. “Now there’s been a breakout as 3-D content has become more mainstream. There’s a ton of interest and a lot more demand in the commercial space. The timing is right, and that’s a perfect expansion for us.”

This year, the company closed on $5 million from investors including Voyager Capital to expand its customer base to architecture, engineering, healthcare and oil and gas sectors. Clients upload their data — of an offshore drill platform, an MRI or an architectural model — and Zebra creates a hologram. A traditional architectural model that would cost $25,000 to create costs about $1,500 for a color 24-inch by 36-inch hologram

In April, Zebra signed a partnership with the Reprographics Services Association, which represents 80 independent firms that provide blueprints, renderings and other services to architectural, engineering and construction industries

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