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Admitted 'geek' builds product-development prowess at Priio

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By Larry O'Cull's own admission, his company's northwest-side office is staffed with "a bunch of geeks," including himself. But as clients of product-development firm Priio will attest, it's hip to be geek.

A tour of the office offers a glimpse at a playground for engineering-inclined grown-ups. One of the firm's 12 employees fiddles with the trigger on a paintball gun, while another tinkers with a concept for a propane-tank vending machine. A small machine shop out back helps the firm produce prototypes in-house.

The machine shop is one of the ways in which O'Cull, 46, tries to make Priio a one-stop shop for "intelligent, interactive products," as the company's tag line promises.

About 95 percent of the firm's product-development process, from initial designs to manufacturer-ready prototypes, is done in-house. That allows Priio to better manage the projects and often complete them faster, O'Cull said.

"The thing about Priio that separates them from the pack, aside from offering this full range of design services under one roof, is that when we get a design package to bid on and build, it's usually near 100-percent complete," said Eddy Ballinger, president of North Carolina-based Sytronics Inc., a specialty manufacturer of electronic components. "Everything goes together like it should, and when you plug it in, it works. That's extremely important to us."

Priio is unusual in that it can design projects across a range of the increasingly broad electronic-engineering spectrum, Ballinger said. Many of Priio's competitors are individual design consultants who work on one or two specific types of projects.

Although some projects--like a two-wheel wheelbarrow or a paintball gun--end up on the store shelves of the local superstore, many of its customers turn to Priio to improve high-tech devices like temperature controls for a cooler or monitoring systems for industrial equipment.

To keep its range of offerings relatively broad, Priio tries to hire engineers with diverse backgrounds, O'Cull said.

He said one of his most important interview questions is "What do you do for fun?" The answer to that question helps O'Cull assemble project teams who are more likely to take a personal interest in the task at hand.

That approach helps Priio tackle everyday challenges such as figuring out how to keep the temperature of medical supplies consistent on a trans-Atlantic flight, or how to make a doll that demonstrates the effects of shaking on infants.

Still, Priio's biggest challenge, O'Cull said, had little to do with the complicated products it designs.

About two years ago--after nearly a decade in business--it was time for the company formerly known as Progressive Resources LLC to spread its wings. But managing that growth proved to be more difficult than O'Cull imagined.

The firm had already grown from its origins in his basement. Software engineer Sarah A. Cox, 32, had left her job at Andersen Consulting and joined O'Cull's firm in 1996. Eventually she and another long-time employee, Edward E. Fulton, became co-owners. But in order to make the most of its accumulated expertise, the company needed a bigger presence, O'Cull said.

To accomplish that, Priio looked outside the company for additional expertise. O'Cull hired a board of advisers, made up of local business veterans, for advice on how to successfully make the transition from entrepreneur to small business.

The advice was sometimes painful to hear, O'Cull said, but always valuable.

"Entrepreneurs don't realize they can't do it all at first," O'Cull said, counting himself in that category. "They don't feel like they need to have a system. But once you hit six or eight or 10 people [in a company], you have to teach them a system."

Soon O'Cull and Cox realized their brand itself also needed some work, and turned to Carmel-based 5MetaCom, an advertising and marketing firm for technical and regulated products. The result was the Priio name, which Progressive Resources adopted in 2006, and a slick marketing campaign that includes Web and printed materials.

Most of the company's customers and marketing efforts are in Indiana and neighboring states, but the company accepts projects from anywhere. Priio even has worked on a couple of products from overseas, assisted by e-mail and overnight shipping rather than face-to-face meetings.

O'Cull and Cox say they prefer to be able to meet with their customers, which helps them pick up non-verbal clues about how their design ideas are working. But even when they can't meet in person, Priio doesn't miss the message, said one customer.

"Not being in the same state hasn't hindered the project at all," said Scott Hodgson, director of engineering and applications for La Palma, Calif.-based Progressive Suspension Inc., which makes shock absorbers for motorcycles. Most engineering is done in-house, but when an idea for a new product involving electronics came up, the company looked outside for expertise.

Hodgson said the experience with Priio has been more pleasant than a previous outsourcing experience the company had.

"They've delivered on what they said they could in an extremely professional manner," Hodgson said. "I can't speak highly enough of that organization."

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