Hannah Olson, Leah Breuer, and Sydney Smith from CFI sat down with Joe Vacek, the COO of Safety Spect, one of CFI’s tenants. Joe Vacek is also an associate professor of Aviation at UND where he teaches various aviation related courses. Below, Joe Vacek answered a series of questions related to Safety Spect itself, as well as the relationship between CFI and Safety Spect.
Who are you, what is Safety Spect, and how did you get started at Safety Spect?
“My name is Joe Vacek and I’m the COO at Safety Spect. I’m the CEO’s right-hand man. Our CEO is Kenneth Barton, a very intelligent and well connected guy. My background consists of unmanned sensors and artificial intelligence.
Safety Spect uses advanced optical sensing technology to test surface hygiene and food qualities. When I first met the team at Safety Spect, they shared their story about creating technology that would kill germs using sensors and AI. It triggered a lightbulb moment for me and I realized that my background in sensors, AI, and other similar knowledge would fit in well with the company. We hit it off right away and Ken hired me as a consultant on an aviation related part.”
As a professor yourself and working in this company, do you see the benefit of bringing research to life and making it into a business?
“It’s really rewarding. Working in academics is rewarding on its own because you come up with new ideas. Many of the projects I have worked on in my academic career, I come up with this idea and it’s similar to planting a seed that doesn’t germinate. It’s a cool idea that maybe someone will see at some point and run with. My work at Safety Spect is by far the most exciting part of creating an idea because it has immediate application. The commercialization side for me is new, I’m learning. It’s easy for me to retreat to my more comfortable academic zone, but now the emphasis is more we need to get this into someone’s hands and sell it to a market.”
What kind of characteristics of a team do you have to have in order to take that academia research or idea to an end product
“In order to make commercialization work, we need a space like CFI where we can talk and act like business people. We need a business side to the academia research we have discovered. For example, we need a budget. We have accountants hired, IP lawyers, and to understand the risks of starting a business. We also need people who are smart, practical business people.
We’ve hired various people from UND. For example, our employees that came out of UND’s College of Engineering and Mines, we have an intern who focuses on the marketing side, and more. UND has given us the talent pool that we need to start this business.”
Prior to Safety Spect coming to CFI, where were you located?
“The company started in Los Angeles, California. However, they realized very quickly that the business environment there was too difficult to navigate. One of the thing’s being LA has a much bigger talent pool. Our team has 17 total people in Safety Spect with 8-10 of them being here in Grand Forks. The reason we are located here in North Dakota is due to a really good business climate, the academic horsepower, and a U.S. manufacturing facility. All of the ingredients that we need are most efficiently available here in North Dakota. Also, it’s cliché, but people who live here have a reputation outside of the state for getting things done and being hard workers. I hear it all of the time from my California colleagues. We have access to political support that we would not have in a more populated state. Everyone knows each other too, so if you need something, it is easy to just ask.”
If you had to describe CFI in a few words, what words would you use?
“CFI is like a newly plowed field. It’s ready, there are no weeds growing in it, it’s a good spot to germinate and grow stuff. There’s a lot of areas that do not have good dirt for various reasons, but the Red River Valley area does. Both the Red River Valley and CFI have the right mix of fertilizers and organic minerals. No matter the type of seed (or business) that is planted, it will grow.”
Do you want to share the importance of partnerships between businesses like Safety Spect and an entity like CFI.
“For early stage companies like Safety Spect, to go along with the analogy of dirt, it’s like a garden. You can’t take a baby plant or even a seed and put it out in a field and expect it to grow. You have to take care of it. You have to water it a lot and shelter it, and those things are there by design in a place like this, an incubator space. Sure, you can just go and rent an office space somewhere, but the incubator does for business what early greenhousing does for a plant.
It’s also nice to be able to rub shoulders with our neighboring tenants. For example, when we need engineering help we are able to turn to Microbeam and of course the university connection is immensely helpful because we have a large pool of graduate students looking for experience.”