Above the sidewalk hustle, TerraSpatial Technologies helps utilities better serve their customers

12 Aug

At street level, you can pretty much figure out what the business model is. Wind gear. Books. Lingerie. Useless dust collection objects.

Climb the stairs one floor up from the walk-by world of Hood River, though, and you enter a zone of curiosity and surprise. Dozens of people hang their shingles in walk-up offices, providing everything from massage to counseling to … TerraSpatial.

Huh? Hang with me here. In 2008, a neighbor and friend, Joe McCulloch, did a major career switch (from institutional sales and making investment markets) and bought a company that started in 1969, in The Dalles, as R&R Sy-Tec.

Now known as TerraSpatial Technologies, it’s based in Suite 215 of the Heilbroner Building at 116 Third St., but after two years of knowing that McCulloch was doing something involving telephone poles, the nagging question that drove me through the door one recent morning was …

“What in the hell do you DO?”

Short answer, he and the team at TerraSpatial create digital maps of a utility’s equipment in the field. Here’s how it works.

One such utility, Hood River Electric Co-op, gets a call from a customer about a power outage. The digital map that TerraSpatial has created for the Co-op would show the network of lines and connections immediately upstream from the point of the outage.

“We can query to any location and trace from the meter to the substation and determine the likely source of the failure,” McCulloch says.

Because the map includes information on all component equipment, it helps the utility determine what replacement parts the repair crew should take with it.

The software doesn’t yet have the ability to remotely determine the exact point at which electricity — or water, or sewage — has stopped flowing. But the ability to isolate the problem provides huge value in avoided time and labor costs to small utilities.

TerraSpatial focuses on systems serving from 25,000 to 75,000 customers. The smallest of its 70 utilities has 3,600 customers, the largest 125,000. They’re scattered all over the west — from Alaska Power & Telephone in central Alaska, to UniSource Energy Services in Kingman, Ariz. — and with TerraSpatial‘s software, utilities get the tools to update their maps, file reports with Public Utility Commissions and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

TerraSpatial has three major products. One lets field technicians use a handheld GeoXT device running FieldOps software to gather information wirelessly from utility installations in the field. The data can be transferred later to the desktop for inclusion in the system map.

The WebVu application lets employees scan the utility’s network from a browser. SpatialCad is, as McCulloch describes it, “a graphical work order and management system.”

TerraSpatial finished second in the 2010 Gorge Angel Investment Network funding competition. McCulloch, who handles sales and business development, says the company has two goals. It wants to modernize its products. And it wants to give customers the ability to pick and choose the features included in their mapping solution.

In addition to McCulloch, Dave Scarborough handles operations and marketing, four people work creating maps in the office, five programmers work outside the office, and five people gather data in the field. There’s room for more.

“I’d like to get a full-time sales person,” McCulloch says.

That’s 16 people, making family-wage incomes, serving a widely dispersed customer base — from a small office overlooking Cascade Avenue.

It is, in microcosm, the story of the evolution of the Hood River economy — from farms and retail, through a burst of tourism-driven immigration, to the creation and growth of a bunch of small light industrial and technically savvy service companies.

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