Telenor Does Well By Doing Good

By | June 14, 2004 | Feature

The need for 100,000 humanitarian- and reconstruction-aid workers worldwide to manage and communicate information and data quickly from remote parts of the world spurred a former refugee coordinator to start a company that intends to fulfill the mission by using satellites.

Portsmouth, N.H.-based Global Relief Technologies LLC (GRT), formed in March 2003, gained a big boost when Rockville, Md.-based Telenor Satellite Services agreed to invest in the business and to provide global satellite services to the venture. The company also received advice on business and legal issues.

Its board of directors features prominent satellite industry professionals, including John Mattingly, former president of Comsat Satellite Services, and Phillip Spector, managing partner of the Washington office of the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP.

“This is a great idea,” Mattingly said. “This is one of the best ideas I’ve ever seen because of its positive goals. It’s a business created for the right reasons.”

He continued, “The launch of this business is one of the most noble things that the industry could ever do. This is why we started the satellite industry in the beginning: to do these kind of positive things for people all over the world.”

Profitable Passion?

The startup is the brainchild of Michael Gray, a former U.S. Department of State official who once served as a refugee officer in Macedonia and Albania, and who later was an advisor to Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the U.S. Central Forces Command. Mattingly described Gray as the “driving force” behind getting the business funded.

“It really is about meeting the needs of people in the field to get them the support they need, Gray said. “We are a field user-driven company, not a technology company. My personal focus is on making the business succeed for the humanitarian and reconstruction workers that are out there.”

Mattingly, who also has served as a consultant to GRT, spoke glowingly of the venture’s immense potential to support workers in those field workers. Another potential application of the service would be for natural-resources management.

“I believe this business could grow into a company that produces $100 million to $200 million in annual revenues after a number of years of operations,” Mattingly said.

However, the startup is far from a surefire financial success. Its business plan was developed last summer under Mattingly’s direction. “I’ve tried to shape the business strategy and helped him [Gray] bring the product to market,” said Mattingly, who joined the company’s board last October and who served as a consultant for it in forging its relationship with Telenor. Despite Mattingly’s experience as a senior executive, his role currently is limited to providing advice and to serving on the board. He does not take part in the day-to-day running of the business.

GRT, currently employing between 10 and 15 people, is targeting customers that include the U.S. government, the United Nations, the International Red Cross, Catholic relief groups and other non-governmental organizations.

The humanitarian and relief-assistance focus of the company appealed to Spector, who also serves as GRT’s outside counsel; he has a personal investment stake in the business.

“It is also nice to be involved with a company that can do well while doing good,” Spector said. At the same time, he added, GRT would be able to turn a profit for its investors.

Revenue Potential

GRT says it would generation revenue by charging a subscription fee tailored to the number of users [in a group] who need the data services and the amount of customized software required.

“There is a user-requirement process to go through prior to setting a price for a customer,” said Michael Gallagher, GRT’s vice president of sales and marketing. “Each relationship with a customer is unique due to different requirements that cause the price to vary.”

Tom Surface, Telenor’s manager of media and public relations, said his company is both an investor in and a product distributor for GRT. The amount of the Telenor investment was undisclosed but it was described by Surface as being “substantial.” Telenor’s commitment also includes such in-kind support services as cash, marketing, sales and engineering.

“We feel it will be a revenue-generator and profit center targeted on the types of industries that need robust communications in remote locations that lack infrastructure,” Surface said.

Huge Market

“An estimated 100,000 aid workers globally are in the field at all times,” Mattingly said. “The market for this goes beyond the humanitarian uses. We believe this type of technology has many applications, which we have identified in our business plan but have not yet begun to market. We have limited resources at this point in time. As a result, we are focusing the business on the humanitarian market.”

“If we had a small percentage of the communications budgets of the humanitarian missions, we would do very well financially,” Gray added. “An astronomical amount” of waste occurs in handling communications for relief and reconstruction operations, despite the best efforts of the people involved, he believes.

Much of the information now is shared in individual conversations that slow its dissemination and accuracy, Gray said, and the consequences of such inefficiency can be severe.

“If you don’t have a plan or the tools for the reconstruction, you are going to be in a state of perpetually providing emergency humanitarian assistance,” Gray said.

Special PDAs

The service itself could be a seminal change for relief and reconstruction workers who work in the field and who need to send information back to key decision-makers quickly. Those workers would use PDAs embedded with electronic forms that could be filled out on a touch screen. Data transmitted in relief missions include information about water, housing, bridges and health care. The PDAs can be connected to an Inmarsat satellite phone provided by Telenor. The data then would be transmitted from anywhere in the planet into the network to the GRT virtual Internet-enabled network operations center (VNOC) in Portsmouth.

When the data is collected, an entire series of reporting formats are available to input the information. The managers of the field workers then can retrieve the information from the Internet. Another valuable feature of the PDAs includes software that would send alerts to evacuate personnel in dangerous situations.

Telenor will provide a wireless data link to connect people working in the field to a home office, and vice versa, said Gallagher. Maps, photographs and electronic data forms also could be sent each way, he added. The technology would work with either satellite or cellular phones, thus doing away with the current dependence on handwritten notes that can become lost, damaged or otherwise unusable.

The availability of this type of a service also has undisputed life-saving potential. One powerful example of how it could have been used occurred in Afghanistan when the office of the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) was bombed accidentally three times by allied forces, “despite the best of intentions,” due to the receipt of inaccurate positioning coordinates for the facilities, Gray said.

The U.S. Marine Corps has been using the service in Haiti for several months since unrest broke out in that island nation. In addition, the company’s technology is assisting governmental relief workers in aiding the people of Haiti and the Dominican Republic during the recent flooding disaster. Field surveys are underway to collect data about a variety of basic needs that include food, clothing, shelter and medical care. GRT also has deployed its service in Afghanistan to educate local civilians about proper nutrition and health practices.

“This is the most socially responsible business that I have ever worked with in my career,” Mattingly said. “The objective of this business is to make giving aid more effective to the people who need it. It is to give people who manage aid programs and reconstruction programs the ability to deliver their services more effectively than ever before. Literally, the services this company provides will save lives and bring the capability of the military and civilian aid activities together.”

–Paul Dykewicz

(Michael Gallagher, GRT, 240/235-5044; John Mattingly, 703/250-8693; Tom Surface, Telenor, 301/838-7805; Phillip Spector, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP)

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