Seikowave is a Lexington-based technology company focused on three-dimensional scanning. The company is a working example of the University of Kentucky's efforts to commercialize research that takes place on campus in Lexington. Matt Bellis is Seikowave's founder and CEO.
Tom Martin: Give us some background on how Seikowave came about.
Matt Bellis: I've been involved in a number of high-tech startups, and several years ago I was exploring the 3D marketplace; not just 3D scanning which is what we do, but also 3D displays, 3D content generation. And, those markets looked like they were going to be very explosive and we can see this today with 3D videos and 3D movies, with 3D printing.
3D scanning looked like the best place for a small startup to make a significant impact in the market. I began to look at a number of universities around the world because that's generally where cutting edge technology begins — the University in Tokyo where I was living at a time, also the University of Iowa that has an excellent program in 3D imaging. But most of the cutting edge research was at the Center for Visualization at the University of Kentucky.
I began to focus more of my efforts on understanding the technology that was being developed there and how that technology could be applied to a number of different markets. And after working with the University of Kentucky for many months and working with the Center for Visualization and ASTeCC (UK's Advanced Science & Technology Commercialization Center), it became clear that this was going to be a great home for a 3D imaging company, and that's when we set up Seikowave.
Martin: Was the Von Allmen Center for Entrepreneurship a part of that?
Bellis: Yes. The team there, Dean Harvey and Warren Nash, were critical in not only helping us set up the company here in Kentucky, but making introductions to the local business community and the local venture community to raise a significant amount of capital right here in the state of Kentucky to start the venture.
Martin: What makes Seikowave competitive?
Bellis: There were a couple of elements of the 3D imaging technology ... developed at the University of Kentucky that were very attractive. Probably the most important one is the ability to take 3D images of objects that are in motion. The second most attractive aspect of the technology developed here was the ability to do this in a very inexpensive computing platform. You could literally just take an ordinary laptop and use that to do all of the calculations necessary to reconstruct a complete 3D object.
Those attributes led us to look at the medical market, the dental market, and then the oil and gas or infrastructure testing market because in all three cases, you have the need to make a measurement very quickly, you may have an object that's moving, and you will need a low-cost mobile platform to allow you to do all of this work, and that's how we ended up focusing on those areas.
To date, all three of those have proven to be very attractive markets for us, though the oil and gas space has been the market that we have penetrated the quickest and the earliest.
Martin: And in that application, it's used inside pipelines?
Bellis: In the oil and gas space, the main market is the imaging of dents and corrosion on pipeline infrastructure. There are a number of pipelines that run right through the state of Kentucky and these are high-pressure transmission lines carrying natural gas.
If you look at the infrastructure in the country, there are millions of miles of pipelines that are carrying natural gas and liquids all over North America, and if you extend that to the world, you get many, many millions of miles of pipelines. All of these pipelines are subject to some type of damage over the course of their life whether it's corrosion or dents or cracks or gouges.
We have applied the 3D imaging technology to the analysis of those defects. So today, you can literally take one of our scanners, walk up to a pipeline, take a picture, and in a matter of seconds be able to determine whether or not the pipeline can continue to safely operate with its current flow rate and pressure of what's inside.
Martin: Were you engaged in the initial development of this particular technology at UK?
Bellis: I was not part of the initial development. Once I set up Seikowave and moved over to Lexington, I became intimately involved ...
Martin: Where did you move from?
Bellis: I moved from Yokohama, Japan. I became intimately involved in steering the technology to those applications where I felt it could be best applied and where I could see that the economic return would be substantial.
Martin: Is this what attracted you back to the states from Yokohama?
Bellis: The talent here at the University of Kentucky for doing 3D imaging is world-class, and what really brought me back here was recognizing that this was not a technology that we would want to try to move from where it was developed. We wanted to keep the key people engaged, and to date most of the key people that were involved in the initial development of this technology are still actively involved with Seikowave.
Martin: And how many people is that? How many people are employed in the company?
Bellis: Today we've got about 13 people that are employed and of those — of that group of 13, seven of them are affiliated with UK, either faculty members or students or former students.
Martin: This involves manufacturing some sort of gadget or gizmo that has to be put together and taken to the field?
Bellis: All of the work within Seikowave is in design and development. The manufacturing is done right here in Lexington; we've outsourced that to a local company, Bluegrass Manufacturing. They've been in Lexington, oh, I think probably for 30 or 40 years now. They're doing an excellent job of manufacturing these products for us. They've got a very dedicated team that is responsible for the assembly and test. And because they're right here in town, we can collaborate with them quite closely as we make design changes and improvements in the product.
Martin: What are your potential growth areas?
Bellis: We have made a version of the 3D scanning system that can go under water. We had a great opportunity earlier this year to test it out at Laurel Lake just outside of London, Ky., and it performed remarkably well. We took it down to the bottom of the lake, took all kinds of 3D images. The next step will be out in West Palm Beach, Fla., where Lockheed Martin will take it down to the bottom of the ocean and start imaging infrastructure. We see that as an exciting growth opportunity for us and it fills an important need. I think most people are probably familiar with the catastrophe that took place in the Gulf of Mexico a number of years ago where a BP offshore rig basically failed and leaked tremendous amounts of oil. The type of failure that was caused there is the kind of thing that we would go down with our tool and image well in advance and be able to detect and in some cases perhaps even predict the fitness for service and the reliability of the infrastructure.
Tom Martin's Q&A appears every two weeks in the Herald-Leader's Business Monday section. This is an edited version of the interview. To listen to the interview, find the podcast on Kentucky.com. The interview also will air on WEKU-88.9 FM on Mondays at 7:35 a.m. during Morning Edition and at 5:45 p.m. during All Things Considered.