Animated startup foresees big growth in life sciences: Company produces 3-D graphics with young talent

July 10, 2006

Harlon Wilson and Kurtis Rush originally intended their Indianapolis-based upstart business to provide 3-D animation for use in court cases.

But if they had stuck to that business plan, Medical Animatics Inc. could not have produced the video to the hilarious "Urine Stream," a song parody of Abba's "Dancing Queen."

Here's a sample of the chorus:

So when you get the chance,

undo your pants ...

And make a urine stream, gold and clean, oh it's such a dream.

Urine stream, feels so good that you'll want to scream (Oh yeah!)

While the lyrics seem as though they're better suited for a Bob and Tom bit, they do contribute to a worthy cause. Medical Animatics made the video-it did not pen the words-for Noblesville-based Interactive Digital Solutions LLC. Its GrossologyLive series of interactive video programs educates children about the science of the human body.

Although just 18 months old, Medical Animatics is emerging as an animator capable of creating Hollywood-level work. With a focus on producing animation and video for the science, medical and education fields, Wilson envisions the company as the Pixar or Dreamworks of those segments.

The video for the parody took about six months to make, including planning, executing and post-production. 3-D characters are sculpted from software that lets developers model them like a sculptor would a block of clay, said Stephany Shankel, lead animator for Medical Animatics. The skin is bound to the skeletal system, known as a rig, which drives the animation.

Wilson and Russell, and the four colleagues they employ, learned the art of animation while attending the IUPUI School of Informatics.

"The talent of the student body was unbelievable there," said Wilson, 37, who took the untraditional route to obtaining a degree. "The more I saw, the more I wanted to create real-world opportunities for them."

Wilson is about to add 15 more jobs to keep pace with Medical Animatics' growth. The company also is seeking a chief operations officer to help manage affairs and soon will occupy 3,000 square feet, 1,800 more than it does now, in office space in the 1300 block of North Meridian Street.

Without divulging specifics, Wilson said company revenue this year has already doubled sales that topped six figures in 2005.

Focus on youth

Like most entrepreneurs, however, Wilson and Rush, 24, say they are sacrificing for the company's well-being. Both decline to draw a salary and are living on reserves while investing much of the profit back into the operation. Their offices are quite mundane and even feature a conference table cobbled together from two door panels.

They so far have declined outside invest- ment, instead choosing to retain all facets of ownership. That could change soon, as they are seeking additional funding.

Wilson, president and CEO of Medical Animatics, enrolled at IUPUI in 2001 following a layoff resulting from 9/11. He had spent 14 years in the medical software industry, specializing in electronic medical claims.

Wilson said his years in the fast-paced, demanding corporate world gave him a good idea of how he wanted to run his own company.

"We want to put quality of life first," Wilson said. "That sounds like a Hallmark moment, but it's true."

He graduated in May 2005, earning a master's degree in new media arts and science from the School of Informatics while launching the company earlier that year.

In the meantime, Rush, vice president of design and development, worked at United Parcel Service for about eight months until the operation found its stride. They designed Web pages in the beginning to supplement income.

The two started the business, with a few others who are no longer involved, despite Wilson's contempt for Rush because he generated better projects in college, Wilson jokingly said.

When providing 3-D animation for litigation purposes failed to gain traction, they turned to the sectors they're currently serving.

Besides providing jobs for young graduates, the company is reaching out to students as well. It was a recipient of the IUPUI Solution Center Venture Fund grant, which enabled the company to employ three interns from the school for a year. Wilson again is applying for the funds, in hopes of providing even more opportunities for college kids, to encourage them to stay in Indiana following graduation.

'Creative energy'

The job for IDSolutions' GrossologyLive series came about after it, in conjunction with the National Association of Health Education Centers, received a $1.6 million grant early last year from the National Science Foundation. The collaboration transforms content from the Grossology traveling exhibit into a series of distance-learning programs.

Tim Barshinger, director of educational programming at IDSolutions, knew Wilson from previous engagements and said he was impressed with his firm's quality of work.

"When I mentioned we had secured the grant, he showed me some of the things they were working on," Barshinger said. "There was obviously a sense of creative energy."

That enthusiasm will further be put to the test for the video of another song parody, "We Will Pump You," a takeoff of Queen's "We Will Rock You" that explains human blood flow.

Another large but separate project involves the production of an interactive computer program for locally based Price Vision Group, led by Dr. Francis Price, a laser-eye surgeon.

Much like informed consent documents, the program alerts patients to the risks and benefits of the surgery. The interactive slide show educates patients about the procedure and includes a quiz, which developers think could further protect eye surgeons from potential malpractice claims. It also frees technicians from time spent poring over the information with patients.

Price Vision Group is on the cusp of marketing the program nationally that features animation from Medical Animatics.

"They did a great job editing all the clips and coming up with the original animation for the eye surgeries," said Tony Sterrett, practice administrator for Price. "It's really a slick program. They're a sharp group of guys."

Medical Animatics has even dipped its toes into the world of sports. The company has developed a portable training tool that can be viewed on an iPod for members of the locally based USA Diving team.

The video allows divers to view their previous dives to mentally prepare-known as performance enhancement in the sport-during competitions. The dives are set to music and are produced like a video.

Olympic hopefuls for the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, including 2005 national champion Thomas Finchum, have embraced the technology.

The efforts are all part of Wilson's plan to contribute to central Indiana's life sciences and biotech initiatives.

A solid showing in this year's Purdue University Life Sciences Business Plan Competition, in which winners will be selected in September, could provide an additional boost to his objective.
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