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CES 2011: Wild Ride for AutoBot Inventors

CES 2011: Wild Ride for AutoBot Inventors Mark Ingram, in high school, with the AutoAttendant, aka AutoBot 1.0. / Credit: Mavizon Technologies.

Mavizon Technologies, maker of the AutoBot car system, was founded on a Hail Mary. What were the chances that the president of Samtec would listen to the business advice one of his company’s interns, let alone financially and technically support a new spin-off corporation?

"Looking back, it seems pretty stupid, doesn't it? I remember thinking 'at the very least, he can't criticize me too much,'" Madison Hamman recalled. Hamman was an intern at Samtec at the time but is now a parnter and marketing developer at Mavizon Technologies, the company he helped start with Autobot inventor Marc Ingram.

In 2009, Ingram, a born inventor who started collecting venture capital interest while still in high school, and Hamman, his business-savvy shield from predatory venture capital contracts, only knew two things about the product at this point: the AutoBot successfully allowed people to warm up their cars using their cell phones, and that investors were willing to pay for it.

A year later, AutoBot is a social networking insurgent ready to challenge the General Motors-backed automotive computing service OnStar. Mavizon Technologies, the company founded by Ingram and Hamman with Samtec's money, recently won the Consumer Electronics Association’s iStage competition, nabbing the company $40,000 and a featured spot at the world’s largest gadget trade event, the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

"[AutoBot] is OnStar in a box. There are no monthly fees, and it’s leveraging the Twitter integration, the Facebook integration, that our generation already asks for," Ingram told TechNewsDaily. "This is the first time you get to see this kind of technology in a consumer electronics device. You've seen Google do it, and Facebook do it, but this is unique."

Heating dad’s car

Today, AutoBot is a small box that attaches to a car's diagnostic port. Once installed, it allows users to track the car's location, receive discounts from local mechanics and decode the mystery of the "check engine" light, all through the user's phone. Additionally, if an accident occurs, AutoBot automatically texts, tweets at and Facebook messages a pre-set contact list of friends, family and emergency services for help, detailing the type and severity of the event.

In 2002, when a 15-year-old Ingram built the first prototype of what would become AutoBot, the device was nothing more than a jumble of cell phone guts that let Ingram’s father warm his car up from afar. After all, the Ingrams had just moved from Texas to Kentucky, and the family had not yet adjusted to the relative chill of their new home.

Despite its rough form factor, the "Wireless Auto-Attendant" was enough to get Ingram noticed by media outlets such as CNN and Fox Business News, as well as by numerous venture capital firms. Ingram didn’t take any money from VC firms, despite offers of up to $2 million, but did work out of a VC company's office while attending the University of Louisville.

While other students hung out with friends, engaged in sports and laughed about the previous night’s episode of "The Office," Ingram holed up in the VC firm's office, refining his invention.

"I only went to three parties my whole college career. That's embarrassing, but when I was watching all my friends go to parties on Friday nights, I was at the office until 3 a.m.," said Ingram. "I worked through the weekends when I wasn't in school. That's all I did. I lived and breathed this venture."

The inside man

One time, while attending class at the University of Louisville, Ingram brought in the latest version of his invention as a class project. Those late nights at the office had greatly enhanced the device's functionality, but had done little for its looks. Hamman approached Ingram and offered to replace the device's scavenged cell phone parts with professional wires and connectors from Samtec, the company Hamman interned at.

As Ingram graduated from school early and started fielding more and more venture capital offers, Hamman became his business adviser. Despite having no real-world investment experience, Hamman could tell that the venture capital offers didn’t treat Ingram fairly.

“I remember getting calls from Marc at pretty ridiculous hours. I’d be at a frat party, and I’d get calls from Marc about VC deals,” said Hamman. “We were young kids, but all the deals sounded pretty bad to me. Maybe that’s normal in VC, but they sounded terrible to me.”

Many of the deals included clauses that said Ingram could be fired from his own project without reason, while others drastically underestimated the value of the AutoBot.

Last November, Hamman took advantage of Samtec’s open door policy, pitched AutoBot to the president of the company and convinced him to support Mavizon as a daughter company.

“It was basically a gentleman’s agreement. A handshake,” said Hamman. “They told us to spend money where we thought we needed it, and they’d scream uncle when we spent too much.”

One year later

The AutoBot today, in it's CEA iStage winning form. Credit: Mavizon Technologies.In less than a year, Mavizon has produced a functional product that not only won first prize in the iStage competition, but also nabbed them the fan favorite award as well. Mavizon did this with only eight employees and no venture capital money (although they did have financial and technical support from Samtec).

Winning iStage garnered Mavizon not only cash, but also something even more valuable — notoriety.

“We look at where we were a year ago, when we thought we had something pretty cool.  In fact, walking the CES show floor last year we thought ‘imagine when we’ll have a booth here.’  Ten months later, one is given to us,” Hamman said. “We thought we were moving fast before iStage. But we didn’t even know what fast was.”

Now, with a featured spot at CES and award-winning product, Ingram and Hamman only have one thing left to do before their company is a certified success: they need to actually start selling AutoBots.