As an Air Force intelligence officer, Sean Lane saw firsthand the communications challenges facing soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Civilians in the United States had better, faster access to data on their smartphones and 3G networks than soldiers did in these dusty, foreign lands, he found.
So Lane decided to do something about it. He designed a portable, tactical cellular system that soldiers can use anywhere, without erecting towers and other expensive infrastructure. With only a business plan and a pitch to Pentagon officials, he sold the idea to the Defense Department and kickstarted a new company.
That was three years ago. Since then, Lane and his three partners have grown the Columbia-based company to more than 70 employees. And the firm, Battlefield Telecommunications Solutions LLC, or BTS, this past week opened a 6,600-square-foot office in Locust Point, where it will start with 10 employees and expectations of quick growth over the next two years.
Lane, 31, is an Ohio native who came to Maryland because he was stationed at Fort Meade in 2005. He and his wife decided to stay in Maryland when he left the Air Force in 2007, after serving three tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. They lived for a time in Locust Point, and Lane was very familiar with the old foundry building on Fort Avenue where the company opened its new office.
Lane describes himself as a booster of Baltimore's technology sector. This year, he started the Digital Harbor Foundation, a nonprofit geared toward expanding opportunities for students and technology workers in Baltimore.
Lane recently spoke with The Baltimore Sun about his entrepreneurial activities, the growth of his company and his views on the future of defense contracting.
Did you get the idea to start a company focused on improving battlefield communication from your experience in war zones? Did you get the entrepreneurial itch while you served?
I was an intelligence officer. I collected a lot of technical intelligence data that was used for targeting, to find bad guys. I spent a lot of time dealing with technology. All of our communications were Vietnam-era when I was over there. We didn't have the amount of data we had in the states. The intelligence data wasn't passed around the battlefield with the speed that we're used to in the states. Right there, I saw a challenge, a need, and an impetus for starting the company. I had the entrepreneurial itch, for sure.
What early steps did you take as an entrepreneur?
It was bootstrapped. I joined a consulting company. I created a business plan, a business model on my own. I had sold a product idea before I ever had to get funding. That was the tactical cellular product, a cellular network in a box. I got a purchase order [from the government], and used the money to hire and build the product.
What are your annual revenues?
We don't make public our revenues. I can tell you we've gone from our first year, under $1 million, to this year where we're closer to 100 million than zero.
And you've done it without raising investment capital and diluting your ownership?
We've done it without taking investment. There's four of us [partners]. We own 100 percent.
You seem to have an interest in adapting commercial technology for the battlefield, whereas a lot of big defense contractors try to build and sell customized systems to the government. What's your philosophy in this approach?
There's plenty of great innovation that's occurring in commercial technologies. We need to spend our time adapting that technology and securing that technology. If we do that, we'll be more successful in the long run and we'll match the pace of consumer innovation, which has far outpaced government innovation. That's a lot of what is at our core, to make sure we leverage commercial technology for defense and national security.
Do soldiers really have a need to use smartphones and iPads? Or is that gimmicky? Are these devices really useful in war zones?
Oh yeah. It is asinine to think that the soldier on the battlefield does not need data at the volume and velocity that we have access to right now. Don't withhold the data for the soldier. We shouldn't be naive or arrogant to think we're going to decide for the war fighter what technology they will have in their hand. They'll decide whether to take into certain battles.
So what is the technology?
We've built a tactical cellular network that you can set up anywhere in the world. You don't need a big cell tower or data rooms. We took a bunch of different software solutions and some hardware solutions, and then we wrote a software application that ties everything together. That's our intellectual property. Since then, that particular technology has been purchased by the government. It's owned by them. We are servicing it [the contract].
The Pentagon is huge. How did you find the right people inside to listen to your product ideas?
We had a reputation from when we served in the military that allowed us to at least be heard. We had done some good things. When we asked for a meeting, they didn't think we were some crazy person. ... It's more about selling other defense contractors and companies. They have a contract with the government. If the solution that you have helps them fulfill their requirement, it's an easier route for them to take. It's more about finding someone who's already been tasked to do something revolutionary and partnering with them to do it.
The military budget is supposed to be contracting in the coming years? Are you concerned?
The government has a certain amount of resources to build this technology for the war fighters. As these big programs get canceled, that frees up resources for companies like mine to create these better-value solutions. For me, it's actually a very good thing. The people who provide the best solutions now have a freer amount of resources that can be allocated.
This past week, you opened a 6,600-square-foot office in Baltimore. Why choose to open in this city, as opposed to some place closer to the Pentagon, in Northern Virginia or the Washington suburbs?
We're all in on Baltimore. My wife and I, when we met, we lived in Columbia. We used to live in Locust Point. We fell in love with this area. We decided we were here to stay. I like its roots in blue collar, which means people work for a living. ...
I also think people here are crafty enough, smart enough, to be leaders in technology. You can get a lot of talent here. An entrepreneur's dream is to go into a place that has great potential. When you go in to D.C. or Northern Virginia, a lot of it is already baked. It's too baked to figure out where you fit in.
On top of starting up a company, you've also launched your own nonprofit called Digital Harbor Foundation? Why?
We're giving a percentage of profits to charity. We were throwing lots of money into nonprofits in Northern Virginia and D.C., and I couldn't see what they were doing with the money. I decided to start my own nonprofit focused in Baltimore, that's focused on bringing technology talent up in Baltimore. ... We're going to give scholarships and [train] kids. We're going to incentivize companies to come to Baltimore.
See more business leaders interviewed by The Baltimore Sun