High on Drive But Low on Capital

A shoestring Springfield, Va., firm is looking for investment to enter its satellite-based product in the growing auto security market

The story is familiar: A thief backs his tow truck up to a shiny new BMW and drives away with a $50,000 prize. This part isn't so familiar: The thief -- let's put him in the D.C. metro area -- has unwittingly triggered the vehicle's alarm system, which has already begun tracking the car's every move using satellites 22,000 miles high.

At a control station in Springfield, Va., monitors watch the car's location light up on a large screen and call the police. The nearest officer is dispatched, the owner of the vehicle is telephoned 40 minutes later, and told her investment in a security system has paid off.

So goes vehicle security in the high-tech era. NavTrac Technologies President Willie Armstrong, hoping to get a piece of that market, says his firm's vehicle security system jumps into high gear before the owner even knows the vehicle has been stolen.

Armstrong's system, which is not available yet, tracks the vehicle's path as soon as the car is tampered with -- either broken into, towed away or if an emergency button is pushed. Armstrong will have a few road blocks to hurdle before he gets his system on the market.

Gaithersburg, Md.-based Engineering Services Group helped Armstrong develop a prototype for his system, which takes advantage of the Global Positioning System of satellites, the 24-satellite locational network the Pentagon developed and makes available for free. "We've proven the concept will work. Now we are trying to go beyond the prototype into production," said Armstrong.

But that will take about $700,000, which Armstrong says he doesn't have. He has been trying to get venture capital, even considered going public. However, he's in a Catch-22: "The company we're talking with wants to see more than a prototype. They want to see a product in the marketplace first."

NavTrac's president has also tried to get government aid through the Small Business Administration, but he said there was just too much federal red tape to struggle through. NavTrac announced it had begun development in early 1993 and had anticipated having a product on the market that same year but funding problems and the departure of the company's lead engineer hamstrung the process.

Installation of the NavTrac system will cost about $600, the same as alarm systems like LoJack, but will also carry a $20 monthly service charge. In addition, NavTrac users will need to have a cellular or other mobile phone in their vehicle, since that's how the system communicates with the monitoring center.

NavTrac will cost more than other alarms, Armstrong admits, but says it also offers the car owner more protection. NavTrac's system can be used to summon road side assistance or emergency services by pushing, literally, the panic button. Armstrong sees his primary competitor as Boston-based LoJack, which sprang into the Washington, D.C., market a couple years ago offering a police-endorsed car security system. NavTrac's product is better than LoJack, said Armstrong, because it activates itself instead of waiting for someone to report their car stolen and then depending on the police to activate the transponder in the car. That time difference would give NavTrac the advantage of being able to stop criminals while they are still in the surveillance range, he said.

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