1999: 3D Scanning’s First Dances with Major Industry Vendors
In my previous article (March 2021) within my series on the Early Days of 3D Scanning, I described start-up Cyra Technologies’ significant preparations to try to secure a major, strategic vendor partner in order to take the company’s pioneering 3D scanning technology to the next big step of global commercialization.
In this article, I detail those fateful interactions in 1999 with leading survey instrumentation and AEC software companies. All were big names in the industry – Leica Geosystems, Trimble, Autodesk, Bentley, and Intergraph. (Unbeknownst to them, Topcon and Sokkia were also on Cyra’s “target strategic partner candidate list,” although no actual engagements ever wound up occurring with either.)
As I wrote previously, I thought Trimble was probably the best fit for Cyra based on Trimble’s entrepreneurial, Silicon Valley culture and their resounding success commercializing GPS for surveying and mapping. In addition, I was aware that Trimble was actively interested in broadening its survey product portfolio beyond GPS-only products. I had worked at Trimble for eight years and had a good feel for the company’s keen interest in Cyra at the time I left Trimble in 1998 to join Cyra.
Things don’t always work out the way you think they will, and this was one of those cases.
Eventually, Leica Geosystems won out, partially investing in Cyra in March 2000 and then fully acquiring Cyra in February 2001. That acquisition, which became Leica’s 3D Laser Scanning/HDS/Reality Capture products business, profoundly impacted the then-fledgling 3D scanning industry.
Here’s my behind-the-scenes story of how things turned out the way they did. First, let’s look at Cyra’s engagement with the big software vendors.
1st Stop: Autodesk
Cyra’s CEO, Ben Kacyra, had a knack for being able to access decision makers at big companies. For Autodesk, Kacyra was able to secure a meeting with Autodesk’s then-president, Eric Herr. According to Kacyra, Herr “got it” and was, at a minimum, interested in getting Autodesk to significantly invest in Cyra. Kacyra was excited about the possibility. That enthusiasm was reinforced when Kacyra was specially invited to the grand opening of Autodesk’s new Market Street headquarters in downtown San Francisco. At the glitzy event,
Kacyra’s enthusiasm was further boosted when he was warmly greeted by Autodesk’s then-CEO, Carol Bartz (Bartz would later become CEO of Yahoo!).
Unfortunately, Herr later reported back to Kacyra that Autodesk’s board of directors had shot down the idea of investing in Cyra. But all was not lost – in early 2000 Herr agreed to join Cyra’s board of directors. Adding the president of Autodesk to start-up Cyra’s board of directors was a big plus as Kacyra interacted with other potential, major strategic partners/investors.
Kacyra succeeded in getting an opportunity to pitch the technology and Cyra to Bentley CEO, Greg Bentley, and another senior Bentley brother. According to Kacyra, Greg Bentley also “got it” and was enthusiastic about possibly investing in Cyra. However, there were apparently some corporate activities underway at Bentley that, at the time, prevented such an investment from going forward.
Again, all was not lost here. Greg Bentley did see the significant potential value of 3D laser scan data within the design and related software environment. Over time, Bentley became the first major CAD company to add point cloud processing capability to its product portfolio. I was part of those original discussions between Cyra (which had by then been acquired by Leica) and Bentley about that point cloud addition.
In 2001, Cyra/Leica introduced a powerful point cloud software plug-in called “Leica CloudWorx for MicroStation” that attracted Bentley’s attention. Prior to point cloud plug-ins like CloudWorx, CAD software such as MicroStation simply couldn’t handle large point cloud files. In 2003, Leica and Bentley formally announced that Bentley would exclusively sell CloudWorx for MicroStation; Leica shared in its sales revenue. (In 2011, Bentley upped its commitment in point cloud software capabilities, acquiring Pointools, a UK-based point cloud software company.)
Two of Cyra’s most important strategic beta users/partners – Chevron and Fluor Daniel – kept advising Kacyra to connect with Huntsville, Alabama-based Intergraph. Intergraph was interesting from two aspects. First, they were the leader in 3D plant design software. Second, Intergraph had a photogrammetry software and peripherals business that included aerial solutions for large area mapping and close-range solutions for creating 3D plant as-built models.
Kacyra arranged a presentation and demo at Intergraph’s headquarters. Attending from Intergraph were CEO, Jim Meadlock; Lewis Graham and Ed Peters, from Intergraph’s aerial mapping photogrammetry business; and Keith Denton from the Plant Design Software side of Intergraph’s business. I was part of our small team of attendees from Cyra at the presentation.
Intergraph had spent years developing its close-range photogrammetry solution for plant as-builts. As one exec later told me off-line, “Inside Intergraph, it was always ‘six months away’ from becoming really big.” However, close-range photogrammetry never did become big. That lack of success contributed to Intergraph’s skepticism of any “next big thing” for creating 3D as-built plant models.
On top of that, Kacyra’s ambitious vision of using 3D scanning for far more applications than simply creating 3D plant as-builts for retrofit design – applications like construction QA, fabrication checks, parts mating analysis, site engineering, operations and maintenance, etc. – was seen by Intergraph as too ambitious for such a technology. Skepticism prevailed. So, while the demo of Cyra’s 3D scanning was intriguing to Intergraph attendees, it wasn’t compelling enough to generate an offer to significantly invest in Cyra.
A huge irony here is that Intergraph and Cyra did eventually come together. Hexagon AB acquired both companies: Leica Geosystems in 2006 and Intergraph in 2010. Intergraph’s plant design software business and Leica Geosystems’ 3D Scanning Products business remain cooperative sister businesses within Hexagon to this day.
Moreover, all those visionary applications that Kacyra touted in that Intergraph pitch in Huntsville in 1999? Well, as Intergraph’s Denton would point out to me many years later when we were both under the Hexagon umbrella: “Geoff, remember all those applications that Ben Kacyra talked about when he pitched us Cyra’s 3D laser scanning technology? Well, there was a lot of skepticism at Intergraph about that, but they all panned out after all.”
Ya’ just never know.
Now, let’s look at the two major survey instrument vendors that Cyra engaged.
Cyra CEO’s (Ben Kacyra) frequent meetings with me from 1996 to 1998, while I was still at Trimble, had already triggered solid discussions between Cyra and Trimble. However, not long after I left Trimble to join Cyra in 1998, Trimble underwent a significant organizational change.
In March 1999, Steve Berglund, former CEO of Spectra Precision, became CEO of Trimble, replacing founder Charlie Trimble. In 2000, that top management change facilitated Trimble’s acquisition of Spectra. Those were big, impactful industry changes.
With Trimble’s acquisition of Spectra, Trimble had broadened its product offering from a GPS-only company to a full spectrum of GPS and traditional EDM-based surveying instruments. When I was still at Trimble, one of the appeals of Cyra’s 3D laser scanning technology to Trimble was its potential to broaden Trimble’s product offerings to the survey market. Trimble’s acquisition of Spectra had checked that box, so some of Cyra’s potential appeal to Trimble had diminished.
Nevertheless, in 1999 Cyra made a full-on presentation to Berglund and other senior Trimble staff, some of whom were colleagues when I worked at Trimble. I was part of that presentation, going over Cyra’s ambitious market sizing, penetration, and growth estimates.
I recall that some of Berglund’s questions and comments were in the context of a robotic total station, which was one of Spectra’s premier products. To me, those initial comments indicated that he was not necessarily seeing the technology’s full picture and potential. In separate subsequent discussions between Trimble and Kacyra, according to Kacyra, Trimble expressed an investment interest in Cyra that Kacyra felt was largely based on Cyra’s current financials rather than its significant potential. Basing an investment analysis on a company’s current financials is a common acquisition analysis approach, but not one that was in line with Kacyra’s ambitious vision. So, Kacyra never moved forward with Trimble. (In 2003, Trimble acquired another 3D laser scanning pioneering company, Mensi, to formally enter the 3D laser scanning products business, becoming the second major survey instrument vendor to offer 3D scanning products.)
It was at the ACSM Show in Portland, Oregon, in March 1999, that a fateful event took place for the fledgling 3D laser scanning industry. It’s where Cyra’s engagement with Leica Geosystems began.
At one time, the American Congress of Surveying and Mapping (ACSM, which merged into the National Society of Professional Surveyors in 2012), held a large, annual trade show and conference – the U.S. version of Intergeo, Germany’s big, annual survey industry exhibition. In its hey-day, the ACSM show attracted up to 10,000 attendees. (Over time, ACSM Show attendance dwindled and it was eventually replaced by state shows and their attractive CEU programs.)
Cyra exhibited at the 1999 ACSM show. I was there with Cyra’s Ron Aarts. At one point I stopped by the Leica Geosystems booth, where I recognized two senior Leica Geosystems staff whom I’d met at a FIG conference in Melbourne, Australia, in 1994 when I worked for Trimble. Five years later, those same guys were at the Leica booth in Portland.
I explained to the Leica guys that I’d left Trimble in 1998 to join a start-up that had some new survey technology. I encouraged them to come by our booth to look at it. I explained that they might look at it and not think much of it, but, in my opinion, it was at least worth their stopping by to check it out.
Which they did.
Three Leica Geosystems senior staff came by the Cyra booth together: Johannes Schwarz (aka “Blackie”), Martin Nix, and Neil Vancans. All were based in Europe. I’d met Schwarz and Nix at the FIG conference in Australia. Our scanning demo for them in Portland consisted of what we typically did. Aarts scanned the exhibition’s ceiling area – filled with piping and ducting – high above our booth.
As the ceiling space was being scanned, points started to be displayed on the laptop that drove the Cyrax 2400 scanner. When enough points were displayed to clearly discern what was being scanned, Aarts rotated the image in 3D. Blackie’s jaw literally dropped when he saw that. The others’ eyes grew big. Aarts then went through the rest of the demo, finishing the scan, taking measurements, modeling some scan points into cylinders, the ceiling into a plane, exporting
to CAD, etc.
To say that the Leica guys were impressed is a huge understatement. They were instantly interested in the technology and Cyra. They would go back to Europe and enthusiastically brief Leica Geosystems CEO, Hans Hess. The next month, April 1999, a feature story on Cyra’s 3D laser scanning technology splashed onto the front cover of Professional Surveyor (now xyHt) magazine. Shortly after, Hess asked to meet Kacyra at a travel stopover in a San Francisco airport lounge to discuss the technology and Cyra.
According to Kacyra, “Hess, who showed up with a box of Swiss chocolates in hand, was very complimentary of the technology. He quickly saw its value and potential.” A key aspect of that San Francisco airport meeting was the instantly great chemistry between the two CEOs. Hess told Kacyra that he was keenly interested to take Leica’s evaluation of Cyra and 3D laser scanning to the next level – a visit with he and his staff to Cyra’s office in Oakland, California.
A Hidden Agenda
Unbeknownst to Kacyra at the time, part of Hess’s interest was based on some pending, big company changes at Leica Geosystems. Just as Trimble was undergoing major corporate changes during that time period, so was Leica Geosystems. The types of changes were different for each company, but both changes were major – and they were ones that would dramatically impact the fledgling 3D laser scanning industry.
At that point, Leica Geosystems was in the process of planning to take the company public … again. In 1998, Leica Geosystems, a public company, had been acquired by a private investment bank, Bahrain-based Investcorp, and “taken private.” Hess (Leica Geosystems CEO since 1996) had led the company through Investcorp’s buyout. However, Hess’ goal was to ultimately take the company public again on the Swiss Stock Exchange, which he wound up doing in July 2000. So, in 1999, unbeknownst to Kacyra, me, or anyone else at Cyra, Leica’s assessment of Cyra was being done within the context of Leica’s bigger-picture interest in taking Leica Geosystems public again. So, a key question for Leica Geosystems at that time was, “How much help would investing in Cyra/3D scanning be to Leica Geosystems’ efforts to go public with a new stock offering?”
It turned out that it was huge … but more on that story in my next article.
In my next article, I’ll complete my insider’s story of Leica Geosystems’ acquisition of start-up Cyra Technologies and the impact that had on the fledgling 3D scanning industry. The technology – its scanners and software – was still in its awkward infancy, but it was about to go big-time.