by Mark Carter
Posted 10/26/2015 12:00 am
Tom Jakobs gets a kick out of telling people that he’s operated a “failing business model since 1988.” The important part of that phrase, of course, remains “business model,” as in still in business and going strong despite books that don’t necessarily bleed black.
Jakobs’ InvoTek, a research-and-development firm in Alma that develops technology for people with disabilities, doesn’t focus on profit but on the people it serves and the projects that help deliver that technology.
Jakobs and his team of engineers operate mostly on Small Business Innovation Research grants from the U.S. Small Business Administration that keep them going year-to-year and from project to project, but operate on they do, to the benefit of those with severe disabilities.
Jakobs employs a full-time staff of three engineers (including his son) and a part-time cadre of specialists and advisers (including his wife), who lend their expertise to the cause. They represent highly trained, educated professionals with degrees in fields like physics and electrical engineering who had other high-paying options.
But they’re attracted to the mission at InvoTek, where the real compensation comes in the work it does: providing accessible technology for those who no longer can operate a computer, a TV or even a light switch.
“One business expert after another has told us that this will never work,” Jakobs said. “But it works because of incredible focus and doggedness of our team to help the people we’re trying to serve.”
Many people are devoted to those InvoTek was built to serve, and they include caregivers, family and friends. But the harsh reality is this: once individuals suffer a debilitating injury or disease or are born into the world with one, the bullet train we call society races on whether they can keep up or not.
InvoTek attempts to make sure its clients have the opportunity to hop the train, if even for just one stop. Many InvoTek clients are paralyzed from the neck down and rely on caregivers for virtually everything. InvoTek’s technology, which covers both hardware and software, enables them to do simple yet ultimately liberating things on their own — operate a laptop, change a TV channel, adjust the thermostat.
The gadgets that make these things possible include speech recognition systems, word prediction software and head tracking systems with lasers that enable users to move a cursor with the movement of their heads.
Jakobs said that something as simple as turning on a TV can be life-changing for someone bound to a wheelchair and a caregiver. His team values the ability to afford someone that freedom more than the potential market value afforded by its members’ advanced degrees.
“As a country, when we focus completely on the stockholder and forget about why it’s important for us to be there, we lose something critical,” he said.
Like many a family living from paycheck to paycheck, Jakobs said sometimes it feels like InvoTek exists from grant to grant. The firm has received “20-something” federal grants for specific projects in its 27 years.
“Sometimes I feel like I can’t promise employees anything beyond a year,” he said. “But the guys are here because they want to be. Those are the guys I want. It can be a stressful environment, working with people who live under depressing circumstances, but ultimately it’s very motivating. If we weren’t struggling, would we be as good?”
InvoTek’s products don’t come cheap; the technology it offers is sophisticated and can be expensive to employ. Prices range from $5,495 for a head tracking system down to $25 for a replacement dot cluster worn on the forehead that enables users to control a cursor. But the firm offers financial assistance, and many of its clients are helped through state and federal programs.
And Jakobs co-founded a nonprofit program based in Fort Smith called Be Extraordinary to help place InvoTek technology in the hands of those who need it. Through the program, clients use InvoTek products and services to achieve a life goal and give back to the community.
Again, the focus remains on the clients, and Jakobs remains content to ride his “failing business model.”
“You don’t quit because of the people we’re supposed to serve,” he said.