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Company doesn't hit and run

Tucson firm aided big trial

By Mike Fimea
Arizona Business Gazette
Oct. 11, 2001

When federal prosecutors in Birmingham, Ala., prepared for the trial of Thomas Blanton earlier this year, they were dealing with a veritable mountain of evidence.

Building a case against Blanton, accused of killing four Black girls in a 1963 church bombing, meant trying to make sense out of 11,000 pieces of evidence. They found the solution in a software created by a Tucson company, Vision 7 Software.

Vision 7 developed the software, known as El Cid, through a partnership with winForce Technologies of Scottsdale.

The financial arrangement, in which Vision 7 is paid royalties from sales of El Cid, is an example of the business model preferred by Vision 7 CEO Steve Minor.

"We wanted to develop long-term relationships instead of the one-shot projects that are typical of software development," Minor said.

"It's a different mindset. It allows us to grow with our partners and share in their success."

Minor uses the term "venture technology'' to describe his business model. Much like a venture-capital firm invests money, Vision 7 uses the software it creates as an investment tool.

Companies bring an idea to Minor and his 12-person staff. If they think the idea has merit, a relationship is proposed where software is developed at a reduced cost - generally enough for Vision 7 to break even.

That's how Jimmy Wood, president and CEO of winForce Technologies, approached Vision 7 with the concept of an electronic index for court cases.

Wood's business partner, John Stevens, is a former U.S. Attorney. Stevens wanted a more efficient way of organizing evidence - everything from audio and video evidence to paper documents and photographs. Finding no software that met his needs, Stevens cobbled together a basic database.

"We wanted to bring it into a more top-of-the-line version and we liked Vision 7's experience," Wood said.

Vision 7 used the database as the foundation for El Cid, which can track evidence in whatever form it is generated, including digitized audio and video. It can also create links to digitized images, organize them into eight categories and allow an unlimited number of people to work on the same case simultaneously.

"It makes it easier to pull a case together, especially a complicated one," Minor said.

The value of El Cid was borne out during the Blanton trial. Bill Smith, litigation support specialist for the U.S. attorney in northern Alabama, said the software made it possible for prosecutors to quickly sort through all the evidence. Blanton was ultimately found guilty of the church bombing.

"I can't imagine how you would have done (the searching) manually," Smith said.

Although Wood claims El Cid "does more than any other software of this kind", Minor acknowledges that sales have lagged.

"It's been sold to some private defense firms but the sales cycle in the federal government is long," he said.

Wood, who declined to reveal sales figures, said winForce is negotiating a licensing agreement with the executive office of the U.S. Attorney. If the negotiations are successful, El Cid will be distributed to all federal prosecutors.

Vision 7 took a different approach in its financial relationship with Tucson-based Online Self-Storage. In return for creating a Web-based software product, it owns 15 percent of the self-storage firm.

Online Self-Storage grew from the concept of a Web-based reservation and payment system for self-storage units. There are more than 30,000 storage facilities nationwide, each of which average more than 200 individual units.

Ten percent of the units change owners every month, which means 600,000 new reservations and rent payments have to be taken each month.

"Just finding the right people to write the application would have probably taken two years," said Online Self-Storage President Rick McGee. "We got the first version (of the software) in about a year."

Vision 7 wrote the software in ASP - the computer language used to write applications on the Internet - and runs on the SQL platform that is part of Microsoft's office software product.

Web-surfers can search for a storage unit by location, size and features at www.onlineselfstorage.com. Once they make a choice, the reservation and payment is transmitted to the facility where the unit is rented.

The Web site has been up since February, and McGee says a more customer-friendly design was introduced in late September. But only about 250 self-storage facilities nationwide are using the service.

"They've been slow to adapt," McGee said. "A lot of the facilities are mom-and-pop operations and most of the technology inside their offices is old. But the ones who are up to speed love what the system can do."
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