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Thomas “Tom” Marnane '80

Co-Founder and President of MADTECH

The Alumni Office recently chatted with Thomas Marnane ‘80 to learn more about his time as a student at St. Stephen’s School and what he has been up to since. Tom is currently the Co-Founder and President of MADTECH, short for Marnane Agricultural Drone Technologies, which began as a company using data from their house-made drones to help farmers boost yields and save money. What started as a passion shared between father and son has grown into so much more! 

How did Tom get started in the agriculture business? What was he up to before MADTECH? 
Tom spent sixth through tenth grade at St. Stephen’s School. At St. Stephen’s, he received an education, which he claims, “set the foundation for everything!”. Though his time at SSS was short, Tom spoke highly of the academic skills he accrued and how valuable SSS was to his young mind and was the reason he made the same investments in education for his son and daughter. After his family moved to Washington state his junior year of high school, Tom ended up completing his senior year of high school at a junior college in order to take more advanced classes like physics, calculus, engineering, and typing! 

Tom continued his education at the Naval Academy where he received a general engineering degree, with a mechanical and electrical engineering concentration. He took his talents to the Marine Corp, where he spent four years serving in the Caribbean, Central and South America as the self-proclaimed “tech-guy”. After a leg injury, Tom was honorably discharged and moved to Richmond, Virginia to test his talents in industrial sales and engineering for paper mills and power plants. 

Then he moved to Los Angeles and worked on projects like the World Trade Center in LA, and hospital engineering with Honeywell and Siemens in the 90s. After time spent retrofitting hospitals, industrial plants, colleges and four Pharmas including US, Mexico, and Puerto Rico, Tom thought…”If I can do it for them [other companies], I can do it for myself [my own company]!”. And just like that, Tom started his own company called “Targeted Solutions”.

Targeted Solutions was unique in its cutting edge technology in both controls and industrial steam applications. Some of Tom’s customers included Princeton University, Howard University, Johnson & Johnson, and Colgate. 

But this was all just the beginning…Tom tells us how his son, Zach, also had a passion for engineering and helped his Dad expand Targeted Solutions into so much more!
Earlier in Tom’s career, he would take his son, Zach, to work with him. Zach got to work with his dad on fascinating engineering projects like in the Museum of Modern Art’s basement pipes and on the top floors of skyscrapers, which helped sparked Zach’s interest in engineering. Years later, Zach found a passion for building drones and decided he wanted to take his talents to start a new company with dad to help farmers by filling a gap they both saw in the agriculture industry. 

Learn more about MADTech and what inspired the use of drones for agriculture. Are the customized drones built at MADTECH?
In Mid-2010s, Tom decided to sell Targeted Solutions and said to his son, let’s invest in starting a company. MADTECH was founded in 2017 and began as a company to help farmers increase their crop yields by using two types of fixed-wing drones to capture data from above. Their original drones were able to cover up to 400 acres in one hour, which allowed them to survey the entire property in a single day. This sure beat hiring four to five people with tripods taking stationary images and surveys on a month-long period!

Tom and Zach were determined to find a way to customize drones beyond basic videography and specifically for agriculture. They began customizing the sensor package the drones should carry and created AI software that integrates imagery both seen and unseen by using special sensors and cameras. They fine tuned their software so intricately that it can tell if a bug bites a leaf, what color it will change!

MADTECH also utilizes lab testing to provide detailed advice to farmers. After gathering the data from the drones, MADTECH offers recommendations to improve crop yields by increasing efficiency. Recommendations might include a more optimized way to use farm equipment or ways to identify potential problems within certain crops. … and the best part is, all of that data is put on a single flash drive. The data on the flash drive includes a report that gives them the condition of every plant. 

A typical start to finish project would begin with MADTECH flying farmer’s land at the beginning of the season to help them get their drainage right. Then, after the farmer seeds the field, MADTECH can tell the farmer in the early stage if there is a problem. For example, if their seeder is jammed and they have 20% of the field that didn’t get seeded! As they go through the season, MADTECH would give advice - where fertilizer is needed, when to harvest, what to harvest first, etc. They show farmers how to fertilize with a whole map from the drone and it turns out it’s usually about 30% less fertilizer than farmers think! 

Just one year into their MADTECH adventure (2018), Tom and Zach won Best Technology in Agriculture Award from the Farm Credit (picture above).

But this isn’t even their main business/area of focus now at MADTECH! 

Tom and Zach started expanding their range of services when an executive at an industrial plant embraced this magnificent technology to help prove his company was not polluting. The MADTECH team used their software to figure out what was happening, like what was going on with the drainage. Tom and his team helped this company prove that their runoff was not polluting and help them stay compliant and stay in business.

The executive was so thrilled with the results, he asked Tom, “can you do this on the inside of our plants?” Up until now it was just one direction/dimension on the outside land. 

This was the impetus for the SLAM Technology scanner. Combined with the AI software they had already created for their agriculture drones, the next result was the MADTECH MATRIX where someone in Tokyo or Berlin can put on a virtual reality (VR) set, plug into computer, put hand controls on and walk together in this company’s plant on the other side of the world. 

MADTECH can scan the inside of the plant in a week, create a digital plan and build the virtual worksite (VW) in days! With this new technology, companies can do engineering work with less than 1/10 inch of accuracy and can build up to ½ million square feet. The VW simulations help companies make engineering decisions like will this new piece fit? Will this new equipment work? MADTECH’s exact recreation of the factory or plant allows for more project walkthroughs with contractors all over the world, saving time and money. 

One of the most fascinating aspects of this technology is that when a company wants to change something within their plant, MADTECH just has to scan that specific area in question and make changes to fit right in the original model, so updates are easy and you do not have to completely rebuild the VW. 

MADTECH’s MATRIX gives farmers, engineers, contractors, etc. the ability to imagine and create and change things without investing too much money and time. With the success of the virtual worksite, MADTECH is working solely with industrial customers now and putting a hold on farming. Most recently, Tom and team have expanded their services and developed cutting edge technology to clean the air in plants. For example, they have found a way to protect employees from PAA, a chemical that is used to make sure there is no salmonella or other bacteria in the meat. 

What are some of the biggest challenges they have faced with starting their own company?
From the beginning, Tom decided to keep the company 100% under his ownership - he put all his money into it and decided to not have investors. So, capital was a challenge in the beginning, but they own 100% of the company now. 

Getting people to believe it before it existed was also a challenge. Obtaining people’s recognition and acceptance of the change that their technology brings was difficult. Tom says, “disruptive tech is hard for people to accept sometimes,” Some farmers can be resistant to change, but Tom said “we've just got to put our prospective clients in the VR goggles from the beginning”. This helped clients understand the technology immediately with hands on demos which proved that the technology is indeed very easy to use!

How has climate change/global warming influenced their business and/or how do their drones operate?
Tom explained how the core of what he has spent the last 20 years on has been environmentally friendly. MADTECH’s findings have a payback in energy reduction, reduced contamination of the environment, efficiency with less material use/waste, like less fuel or less fertilizer - everything is optimized! They can also model any rain event for a water treatment facility, and this helps facilities adjust for the coming weather, especially the unpredictable nature of global warming weather! 

What advice would Tom give to a Saints alum interested in starting their own business?
Tom had some incredible advice to share with our Saints with big dreams: “Go at it 100% - do not just assume that people will want your services or your product. It is important to imagine who your customers will be and then go talk to at least 100 of them before you spend a dime. Ask them: Would you buy it? What would you pay for it? 95% of your business is sales - make sure you have the marketplace before you create a product - don’t create the service or the product before you determine the customer base….”

“Be professional - wear a shirt with your logo on it, be on time, don’t be a slacker, people want to see you sharp!”

To be a good leader means to understand what your strengths AND your weaknesses are...great leaders find the help they need when they need it. Tom says, “Ask for help early! Get good help and be willing to pay for good’s worth it!” 

He attributes his academic chops to his four years at SSS - Tom says to parents “[at the least] spend the money at SSSAS when they’re young”... to help them develop in the most formative years. 

Tom shares the most rewarding part of his job:
“I am a creator who has created opportunities to do things that no one ever thought was possible, and have created thousands of jobs as a result.” Tom was eager to share how much it excites him that his son is a leader and creator too right there with them - his life purpose is to create possibilities that no one has seen before and give as many other people the same opportunities.

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