Ornicept: Bringing Big Data to Natural Resource Management
Russell Conard, co-founder of the Ann Arbor-based startup Ornicept, likes to describe himself as a computer scientist with a birding habit. Conard hooked up with Ornicept’s other co-founder, Justin Otani, who is the son of a wildlife biologist, while they were both attending Indiana University. The two wanted to know how scientists and researchers collect data about natural resources because they had a hunch that the methods were ripe for disruption.
Ornicept has come up with a cloud computing-based tablet platform that the company believes can replace a backpack full of the current, outdated tools in use. Before Ornicept developed its product, Conard and Otani spent some time at the Lake Erie Metropark near Gibraltar, MI, which Conard calls one of the most amazing migratory bottlenecks for raptors in North America. More than 100,000 birds of prey stop at the metropark during the fall migration, and the pair watched how scientists collected data.
One wildlife biologist proudly showed Otani and Conard a clicker-type contraption that he was using to track the birds. Every hour, he would record the number of clicks. “The federal government was paying him to sit there eight or ten hours a day,” Conard explains. “And at the end of the day, he’d type the data into a computer.”
Surely, Otani and Conard thought, this old-fashioned way of data collection must be an anomaly. They started talking with representatives from state and federal government, companies, consultants, universities, and they found that across all sectors, the pen and paper method of data collection was still the industry standard.
“The natural resource world is very data-driven, but it’s like they didn’t realize there was this whole other co-existing world called the programming world,” Otani adds. “It’s not an effective use of statisticians’ time to be dropping rows into spread sheets.”
Ornicept develops the data fields depending on what kind of natural resources are being monitored, and then push surveys to the tablets belonging to researchers in the field. As the data is entered in, it syncs to the cloud where it can then be accessed by log-in from back in the home office or anywhere else in the world.
Working from the Ann Arbor SPARK office, Ornicept is in the midst of an end-to-end study of how users might engage with its platform and talking to government and other stakeholders to see what their needs might be.
“Our timing is great,” Conard points out. “All of a sudden, there’s access to secure cloud space, and we can work with rugged Android tablets that just came out a few months ago. A lot of this technology is brand new.”
Ornicept already has at least one high-profile booster: Congressman John Dingell, the longest-serving politician in Washington and the author of the Endangered Species Act of 1973. His office is working with the Ornicept team on ways the federal government might save taxpayers money while preserving the country’s natural resources.
Otani says Ornicept has just begun raising a seed round and has signed a “very forward thinking” out-of-state utility company as its first client. Ornicept will complete its pilot projects over the summer and plans a big commercial rollout for fall.
“There’s a dual benefit to using Ornicept technology,” Conard notes. “Agencies are being asked to do more with less, so they can have [employees] do more field work than clerical work. People can also work together even though they’re located in different places across the nation. This will increase collaboration in a way that hasn’t been done before.”