Sunday, May 04, 2014

TENNESSEE: Clarksville military contractor explores Nashville move

Joseph Calabrace spent 12 years flying helicopters for the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, known as the "Night Stalkers," with covert missions in Beirut, Grenada and the Persian Gulf.

When he moved to the unit's research and development team, he saw a great need for better navigation systems to help protect U.S. pilots.

In 2004, 20 miles from Fort Campbell, he founded ForceX, a company that provides mapping software for the U.S. military. Ten years after launching, his three-person team has grown to more than 125 people generating $30 million in annual revenue and creating technology that helps save the lives of men and women serving the nation.

Calabrace, now retired, handed the CEO position to his wife, Tracy Guarino, this year after the company added 55 employees in 2013. Guarino anticipates hiring 35 more people this year. As a result of its growth, ForceX is exploring relocating its headquarters from Clarksville to Nashville to tap into a larger talent base.

Part of the fast growth stems from constraints on the Defense Department's budget. Instead of having to buy expensive new aircraft, the department has often chosen to invest in ForceX software that is less costly but still advances the department's abilities. On one project, ForceX's software helped reduce the size of a crew to four from 13 people, Calabrace said.

"They are looking to do more with what they've got," said Luke Savoie, who leads ForceX's business development. "We enable them to do more."

Calabrace, a Pittsburgh native, has firsthand experience with the shortcoming of previous mapping systems, which planned missions largely on paper. Pilots would rely on contour maps in which a thick pen stroke could cover a line and prevent them from anticipating a sudden change in topography. For those flying high-risk missions at night, resources fell short, lives were lost and efficiency was lacking.

"For every hour that we flew, it took us 10 hours of paper (and) planning," Calabrace said.

Video into maps

While laptop computers emerging in the early 1990s offered more capabilities, digital mapping demanded most of their processing power and their potential was limited. 
Calabrace eventually developed a way to use graphics software that was meant for gaming to help process complex maps. Seeing the potential for further innovation, he left his job as a civilian contractor with the special operations unit, mortgaged his home to launch his company and began with a $60,000 government contract in 2004.

ForceX's current technology converts real-time video into maps, allowing those in flight to share exact locations of targets with those on the ground. They can track their own location and destination and see an up-close video of the destination all at the same time. The company also has created software that can track equipment, which can help gather intelligence or even self-destruct, if necessary.

While the company has proved financially successful, Calabrace said his motivation came from wanting to benefit those still in the cockpit.

"I still had a lot of friends who were doing this," he said. "What I was doing would really help them. It would save lives."

Guarino says she expects ForceX to enter commercial markets eventually, but in the meantime, it is focused on government contracts. Most recently, the company has created a new function in its software that can be used to better protect government personnel in other countries through tracking and locating capabilities.

ForceX is made up largely of software engineers and, as with many corporations in Nashville and nationwide, finding software talent is a challenge and a top priority.

The company opened a satellite office in Brentwood in 2012 to aid recruiting, and Guarino sees a potential Nashville move as a way to further enhance its ability to attract talent. ForceX recently hired Chris McPherson, co-founder of software firm Firefly Logic, as development vice president.

The ForceX mission works in its favor. Instead of creating new consumer apps, it is building software that is used in real operations and serves to protect U.S. military members.

"We really play on the world stage," said Courtney Smith, vice president of operations and legal counsel, who joined in 2012 from law firm Baker Donelson. "When you hear of events in the news and things all over CNN and crises breaking out all over the world, we have a part to play. It draws people to us and that kind of talent we are banking on taking us to the next level."

Story and photos:

Mason Salzwedel, functional test engineering leader for ForceX, works with a pilot’s helmet as he develops mapping software for a government client Friday on the company’s campus in Clarksville, Tenn.