Publication:Colo Spgs Gazette;Date:Dec 26, 2005;Section:Business;Page Number:49
GPS engineer guides NAVSYS to success
By JIM BAINBRIDGE THE GAZETTE
Alison Brown’s skills as a negotiator were evident long before she used federal grants to turn Colorado Springs-based NAVSYS Corp. into one of the world leaders in Global Positioning System technology.
Getting money out of the government, after all, is nothing compared with convincing a protective father that you ought to go into a college engineering program.
Growing up in the United Kingdom of the 1970s, Brown was faced with an academic climate that wasn’t exactly friendly to female engineering candidates.
Brown’s father, Ken, a distinguished engineer himself, “was dead-set against it,” she said, because he knew how hard it would be for his daughter to break into the field.
“So he cut a deal with me,” Brown said. “He said if I could get a scholarship to university as an engineering student he would support my decision.”
That was all Brown needed to hear. She scoured the bulletin boards at Cambridge University until she found a likely scholarship offer from Courtaulds Engineering.
Global positioning is an apt field for Brown. She’s always been good at knowing where she
After Cambridge, there was a master’s degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, followed by a Ph.D. from UCLA, five patents in GPS technology, more than 100 published papers and a lifetime of innovation.
At 48, Brown is founder, president, CEO and majority owner of NAVSYS Corp. The company had more than $10 million in sales this year, has more than 50 employees and is about to double its office space for a second time to more than 50,000 square feet with a design by Elizabeth Wright Ingraham, granddaughter of Frank Lloyd Wright.
With its succession of grants from Small Business Innovative Research, a federal program designed to stimulate technological innovation, about 90 percent of NAVSYS’s business is government contracts.
Of that number, about 65 percent are for the Department of Defense, the other 35 percent for NASA and intelligence agencies.
NAVSYS created the technology for the GPS tracking of emergency 911 calls.
It developed the Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS), a network of satellites and ground stations that provide GPS signal corrections, making it five times more accurate than the previous standard.
And it is about to launch technology that will protect military GPS programs from being jammed in Iraq and other war theaters. “It tells you that you are being jammed,” Brown said, “and how it is being done.”
There is a certain balancing act required to get funding for research and development while also creating working partnerships with other technology companies and keeping priorities straight.
Brown is at the center of all of that.
“Alison is amazing in her ability to multitask,” said Bob Todd, the company’s chief financial officer and chief operating officer.
“She stays at the forefront of discovery in respect to GPS navigation and associated technologies. At the same time she oversees and has the ability to direct and monitor 25 active research and development programs within our company, each of which is worthy of a doctoral dissertation on its own.”
Among the projects on the workbenches at NAVSYS are sonobuoys used to detect submarines, the JPALS Shipboard Integrity Monitor to increase efficiency of aircraft carrier landings and the GI-Eye, a photo imagery program in which, Brown says, “every pixel is a coordinate. It’s not just a picture, but a pixelated version of a coordinate.”
Then there is the Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV) program, which is being done in cooperation with the Air Force Academy.
These miniaturized planes have a 9½ pound technology payload onboard that could — among many applications — be used to facilitate border patrols and scan roads in war zones to designate even slight variations in terrain that might indicate land mines.
“I’m a systems engineer, in a nutshell,” Brown said, “someone who brings the pieces together. That’s always the way I tackle a problem — first of all to determine whether you can divide the problem into individual components, figure out a way to create the components that don’t exist yet.”
Todd said, “What’s unique about her is that she’s a real visionary, thinks strategically, out of the box. She’s very nimble in that regard.”
With the advantage of hindsight, it all seems of one piece, a seamlessly run business with funding, purpose and leadership.
Brown, however, remembers starting NAVSYS largely as a consulting operation, just her and secretary Karen Barworth (still with NAVSYS after nearly 20 years), getting by with a contract from Litton Guidance and Control plus teaching.
Brown remembers how winning an SBIR grant in her first try almost put her out of business.
“I came in as an engineer,” Brown said, “and most companies start with a management team. That (SBIR experience) put me on notice immediately that there are some pretty important things about running a business other than engineering.”
Facing the challenge headon, Brown took business courses at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs — “It was kind of like trade school for me” — to get the underpinnings she needed to sustain her business. “I guess you could say I was a self-taught business manager,” Brown said.
When the company grew to 30 people, Brown began to seek a full management team. Having done all the jobs in the business, she had an appreciation of what she liked to do, what she had to do and what she would rather not do. In building her management team, she tried to find people “to complement my skills and strengths.”
The next stage is to widen out the company’s partnerships, even serve as a sort of technology incubator with its enlarged space on Woodcarver Road near Monument.
“Actually, the next stage for the company evolution is to get the company where it can operate as well without me,” Brown said.
“My metric for this is to make myself obsolete. We have some incredibly talented young people here and I’m not saying that I wouldn’t have a role, just that my becoming obsolete would put the company on another level and allow me the freedom to do more innovation.”
CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0126 or
WHO SHE IS
Occupation: President and CEO of NAVSYS, a leading developer of Global Positioning Systems technology since 1986.
Hometown: Edinburgh, Scotland
Education: Bachelor’s degree in engineering from Cambridge University, England; master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Ph.D. in mechanics and aerospace from UCLA.
Previous jobs: GPS Systems Engineer, Litton Aero Products, California, (1984-86); Systems Engineer, Litton Guidance and Control, California, (1981-84); Draper Fellow, Charles Stark Draper Lab, Massachusetts (1981).
Quote: (On when she got hooked on GPS technology) “Sitting out in the freezing cold on the roof of a building at Cambridge, tracking satellites.”
Accomplishments: Holds five patents related to GPS technology, has been chairwoman of numerous conferences and technical sessions on GPS and published more than 100 papers. Named Colorado’s Entrepreneur of the Year for 2005 by Celebrate Technology and the 2002 Businesswoman of the Year by the National Republican Congressional Commitee. The company has been named among the state’s Technology Fast 50 the past two years.
Hobbies: Horseback riding, skiing, camping, traveling and geocaching (a sort of GPS-based treasure hunt). “I (geocache) wherever I go,” Brown said. “When I’m on the road and have a few hours to kill I can get on the Web phone and find a geocache somewhere near where I am. It’s actually great because it will take me somewhere I’d never have seen otherwise.”
Web site: www.navsys.com
DAVID BITTON, THE GAZETTE - Alison Brown, 48, is founder, president, CEO and majority owner of NAVSYS Corp.