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Pavia Takes Expressway to Market

Most drivers don’t give a nanosecond’s thought to the asphalt under their tires, at least not until they dodge a pothole or slow to pass a hard-hat crew repaving an adjacent lane. We tend to take our highways and byways for granted, but the lifeblood of our economy passes through this four-million-mile arterial network. Besides moving people to jobs and other destinations, the network transports more than $8 trillion dollars worth of goods annually.

A UW startup company, Pavia Systems is emerging as a big player with growing impact on the roadway industry, nationally and abroad. Pavia is blazing the way in developing Web-based training courses that contractors, government agencies, and equipment manufacturers use to keep employees current on evolving technology and industry best practices to improve roadway construction and safety.

Over the last three years, Pavia’s revenues have grown 53 percent — impressive given how hard the economic recession hit the construction sector.

Pavia emerged from decades of UW research by Joe Mahoney, professor of civil and environmental engineering and one of the nation’s top authorities on paving materials and methods. Colleague Steve Muench, CEE associate professor and paving specialist, contributed his expertise in self-directed learning through multimedia materials.

In 2002 several state transportation departments sought permission to use award-winning online training materials developed by Mahoney, Muench, and George White, a UW engineering graduate and research engineering working in Mahoney’s lab. The UW Center for Commercialization (C4C) assisted them with intellectual property protection and licensing agreements. These early experiences generated a sense of the potential for a more commercial venture down the road.

Full Speed Ahead

George White periodically talked about entrepreneurship visions with Si Katara, a friend and UW computer science and engineering graduate with Silicon Valley experience in software architecture and project management.

“In early 2005 George and Si sat down with me and said the time was right to commercialize our body of expertise by establishing a company to develop a broader array of online training programs for the paving industry,” Mahoney said.

The team turned to Gail Dykstra, a C4C technology manager, for assistance in exploring goals and options and in developing a business plan. The four partners—Mahoney, Muench, White and Katara—founded Pavia Systems in September 2005 and, with Dykstra’s assistance, in 2006 secured a flexible agreement for licensing UW intellectual property that has enabled the company to prosper even in a challenging economic climate.

“Gail was phenomenal and brought many insights to the table,” White said. “She was critical in showing us the steps and urging us to form a company. Her encouragement gave us the confidence to take that leap on our own.”

Bridging Traditional Industry and High Technology

Mahoney suggested the company name Pavia (pronounced Pah-VEE-uh), which has roots in an ancient Roman outpost with a strategic roadway and bridge crossing the Ticino River.

“Pavia is a great name because we have created a unique space where we are a bridge to online technology for a very traditional industry,” White said. “By providing our customers the ability to train their workforce more efficiently than traditional methods, we can push the boundaries of how training is delivered and consumed within their organization.”

The National Asphalt Paving Association (NAPA), an industry trade group, partnered with Pavia to be its exclusive provider of online training. In collaboration with NAPA, Steve Muench developed a computer-based learning tool designed to teach managers, engineers, and technicians about a specific process called Superpave to design asphalt paving mixes and test them. With C4C assistance, UW retained the copyright to the online-training version, known as Virtual Superpave Lab. The latest collaboration with NAPA is a RoadReady Operator series Pavia offers to companies for online training of new employees on job safety, best practices, and compliance. All 10 hours of training fulfill NAPA’s Diamond Paving Commendation, which recognizes firms that adhere to best practices for product quality, safety, and training.

Reducing Tensions between Road Builders and Public Agencies

“The road building industry is traditionally a late adopter of new technologies that can help their operations run more efficiently,” Katara said. “Through consistency and transparency, Pavia can help reduce the inherent tensions between contractors that build or repair roadways and need to make a profit, and public agencies that own the roads, set design or repair specifications, and inspect the work to determine final payments.”

The problem is that public agencies and contractors have been using different approaches for training employees and testing to assess compliance with standards. Pavia recently completed a pilot project for CalTrans that put agency employees and contractor employees from the private sector through an online-training pilot for materials testing in California. Results from the post-course survey of participants rated the experience highly and expressed interest in further integration of online training in California.

“When both sides work from the same playbook, tensions between agencies and industry will decrease and the quality of the California highway system will go up,” Katara said.

Thriving Despite an Industry Downturn

The current economic climate is placing tremendous pressure on public agency and industry budgets. By adding an online training component to their workforce development strategies, organizations enjoy large cost savings and increased measurement and accountability benefits that become increasingly critical in lean times. This becomes especially important when that savings includes significant taxpayer dollars in reduced travel and training costs.

Pavia developed online training programs in English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese for US-based environmental unit of Lafarge, a Paris-based construction materials supplier with a presence in 78 countries more than 70,000 employees worldwide. Previously the company would fly trainers to worksites to get employees up to speed on new practices. With Pavia’s scalable system, the Lafarge can efficiently and more economically offer training to tens of thousands of workers anywhere at any time.

Pavia now has 120 clients and locally works with Washington State DOT and Lakeside Industries, headquartered in Issaquah and a highly respected leader in asphalt paving in the Northwest. Over the last three years, Pavia’s revenues have grown 53 percent — impressive given how hard the economic recession hit the construction sector. Katara and White plan to consult with C4C entrepreneurs in residence for advice on identifying and pursuing new market opportunities and on the best approaches for scaling up their business operations.

“We are poised to grow even more rapidly when the industry rebounds,” White said. “We have built a reputation as a thought leader and technology leader, and our major customers are already asking for online training products in other aspects of infrastructure construction.”

Read this article on the University of Washington’s Center for Commercialization website.

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