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Sensing Success

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  • | 6:00 p.m. June 13, 2008
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Sensing Success

ENTREPRENEURS by Dave Szymanski | Tampa Bay Editor

Alaka'i, an engineering research and development firm, is seeing consistent growth through its bomb-detecting sensors.

Ed Dottery and Guy Ontai were soldiers, then assistant physics professors, then karate team coaches at West Point when they thought about starting a business.

But after teaching, they split up. Dottery, 51, an Army major, took a job in private industry with Lockheed Martin in New Hampshire. Ontai, 52, got elected to the Hawaii state legislature and taught physics in his native Hawaii.

Eventually, the entrepreneurial bug bit Dottery again and he called his old friend about starting a company.

"We had a passion for martial arts, coaching the karate team, and we also had entrepreneurial thoughts," says Dottery, a black belt. "We thought we could pull it off."

Ontai agreed, and in October 2003, the two started Alaka'i (pronounced a-la-kay-ee), an engineering research and development firm in at the Young-Rainey Star Center incubator in Largo. Alaka'i is a Hawaiian word meaning "leader".

"I was in the Army, got a physics education and worked for Lockeed Martin, so I thought I had the defense business down pat," says Dottery, president of Alaka'i. "We wanted to start a small defense company."

That is what they have done. But Alaka'i plans to expand beyond defense contracts and into homeland security and other applications.

Alaka'i specializes in research to discover and invent technology, especially sensors for explosives, for the Department of Defense and entities seeking security, such as ports and airports.

It does research and turns the research into field-testable hardware by building it in Largo. Then it perfects the product.

Dottery came from Amherst, N.H., relocating to Largo, where he could get office space at the Star Center for entrepreneurs.

They came to Florida because of the Star Center, the I-4 technology corridor, the presence of MacDill Air Force Base and its Centcom Headquarters.

Besides Largo, Alaka'i has offices in Missouri and New Hampshire and is planning to open an office in Hawaii in the summer.

Dottery, born in San Francisco, left at 18 and moved around with the Army. He was inspired by his father who attempted to enlist in the Army but couldn't because of a medical shortfall. His dad was later drafted by the Navy and served there until the Navy discovered his medical condition when it wanted to make him an officer.

"I learned the value of service," Dottery says.

Starting out

Alaka'i had no debt and has been profitable since it began in 2003. It had two employees at first, Dottery and Ontai. Eventually, to grow the company, Dottery mortgaged his home to allow it to get more equipment and employees.

Revenues in 2004 were $150,000 and about half a million in 2005. It had hoped to double that in 2006.

But because an Army award was delayed, Alaka'i's revenues remained at $500,000 in 2006. Because of new contracts, it rebounded with revenues of $1.5 million in 2007 and expects to reach $3 million this year.

The company has added new jobs over the years, paying 200% of Pinellas County's average annual wage, enabling Alaka'i to take advantage of Florida's Qualified Target Industry tax refund program. The program is available to new and expanding Florida businesses in targeted, high-growth industries that create at least 10 new, high-paying jobs. The program allows employers to receive substantial tax refunds for every new job created.

The company contracts with the Department of Defense. Its key application areas are protection of combat vehicles, light infantry and key infrastructure from explosives and explosive devices used by insurgents or terrorists.

The primary product Alaka'i makes is a device about the size of two shopping carts that detects bomb residue with a technology called standoff laser spectroscopy.

Simplified, the device, which could go into an armored vehicle, shoots a laser at the trace particles. The laser is able to tell if there are explosive elements. A red light confirms an explosive. A green light indicates the elements are safe.

Alaka'i is also working on a handheld model of the detector, which it hopes to have ready in about a year, Dottery says.

"We have a contract to do a handheld detection device," he says. "It needs more developing, more testing and more refinement."

Looking ahead

In the future, Alaka'i plans to develop security products for ports, airports and other security applications, as well as all of the branches of the military. It now primarily serves the Army.

"The Marines, Navy and Air Force are our next adjacent markets," Dottery says.

Then there's the Department of Homeland Security, border security, the Coast Guard and even crime scene investigation products.

"It leads to quite a lot," Dottery says.

Maybe the biggest breakthrough device will be one it is working on that will detect chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive danger, all with one instrument.

"That's kind of a holy grail," Dottery says. But the search for the grail has begun. Alaka'i has a development agreement with the federal government to explore chemical and biological sensor applications.

Other than starting and running a growing company, Dottery says he likes helping current soldiers. The top of the company's Web site says, "We were soldiers. Our children are soldiers. Our mission is to protect the soldier."

"The thought that we are living up to our motto, helping former colleagues, saving our children, is gratifying," Dottery says. "When we came here, we walked into the office. There were bare walls and not much else. We now have hardware working and infrastructure. We have taken a dream and turned it into something real."

What is the Star Center in Largo?

Alaka'i is headquartered in the Young-Rainey STAR Center in Largo, a home for entrepreneurs. The center is the product of an effort between U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young and former Pinellas County Commissioner Charles Rainey to turn a closing U.S. Department of Energy plant into a home for new companies. As a designated Brownfield area, the center allows companies to use the Brownfield Redevelopment Bonus incentive, through which companies receive a $2,500 tax refund for each new position created.


Company: Alaka'i

Industry: Engineering research and development

Key: Know the needs of the defense and security industries to provide explosive sensor products.


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