You can say this about Bob Dowling: You see the guy coming.
On a recent weekday, he expertly steers a jet-black Hummer--the civilian version of the military's all-purpose combat vehicle--through crowded downtown streets, garnering stares and pointed fingers along the way. With a toll-free phone number and a Web address, www.epn.com, splashed on the top and side, it's a mobile marketing machine.
Dowling's got a novel concept for cashing in on the information revolution: Turn the Hummer into a mobile command post, equipped with satellite dishes, 50-inch flat-panel computer screens, high-speed Internet access and 360-degree cameras. Add an instant, inflatable shelter pulled as a trailer and sell the bundle to government agencies and corporations. He's calling it the S.P.O.C. (pronounced "spock") for Special Purpose Operations Center.
Basically, it's for chaos control. "Any place you have a lot of people could be a critical event," says Dowling--a war, a plane crash, a concert.
Dowling is one of the hordes of former government workers running with commercial technology ideas. He's got a more colorful background than most, however: He's a former special agent at the Pentagon. He's been a temporary bodyguard for Yitzhak Rabin, President Clinton and Princess Diana; he says he came up with this particular idea while guarding Oliver North from a low-tech recreational vehicle.
While he was Adm. Jeremy Boorda's bodyguard, he met Boorda's daughter Anna, whom he later married. His last title before leaving public service about a year ago was the intriguing "director of counterintelligence" for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Dowling runs a small company, EPN Inc., out of Alexandria, has a stash of computer servers in Fairfax and plans to find warehouse space for the Hummers--just as soon as he gets his first buyer.
Never mind that it's not at all clear there's really a commercial market for portable command and control centers. It stands to reason, of course, that any government agency can put this stuff together itself without a middleman. But Dowling says that because of deals he's struck with Hummer manufacturer AM General Corp. of South Bend, Ind., and shelter maker DHS Systems of Orangeburg, N.Y., he can offer the best possible price on the whole package.
The price climbs as you add more technologies a la carte, but Dowling says an average package will cost around $250,000.
"Everything you see is the best of the best," Dowling proudly declares.
Dowling's next goal is to show the S.P.O.C. off at 150 federal agencies this summer. All he's got to do is persuade those folks to talk to him.
"Now it's show and tell," he says.
Check off another area company dreamed up by people below legal drinking age that's achieved a measure of respectability. And, it hopes, attractiveness for buyers.
Frank Wood, now 24, chief executive of ToFish Inc. of Washington, proudly shows off the amenities of the K Street executive suites he's renting: a rooftop deck, a high-tech coffee machine and a secretary who pleasantly answers the phone. Gone are the days of operating out of his basement apartment in Adams-Morgan.
ToFish, put simply, is a search engine that "fishes" through the Internet by image rather than keyword. Artificial intelligence classifies photos and other images on the Web to allow you to search for them. Wood, who worked for a while at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, and partner Greg Pass, also 24, came up with the idea as undergraduates at Cornell University. The two hadn't seen each other for some time when last year--in the ultimate GenX cliche--they ran into each other at Ikea in Potomac Mills, and decided to start a company.
When it was time to move it from Wood's apartment, he says, there was no way he was going out to the suburbs. "I'm a city person," Wood says. "Do you like driving out there? Do you like eating out there? I think they're [suburbanites] all missing something."
ToFish has so far been funded by Steve Walker & Associates of Glenwood, Md., though Wood won't say how much. Fran Witzel of the Morino Institute in Reston introduced them, he says. "I'd lay myself down in front of a taxicab for that man," Wood says about Witzel.
Wood isn't shy about declaring that the company is for sale and says there are very few pesky things such as leases or a complicated ownership structure to hold back a purchaser. "We're super clean," he says. "Any company can buy us or buy the product."
High-profile and high-tech public relations firm Waggener Edstrom, best known for being Microsoft Corp.'s "agency of record," is planning to open its first East Coast office in the Washington area in fall or early winter.
"We've been intrigued with the D.C. market for a number of months," says the firm's vice president of strategic initiatives, Doug Stamm. The agency is trying to decide whether to choose downtown or Northern Virginia, or both.
Waggener Edstrom is coming here because it wants to be where technology policy decisions are made and because Washington has become a commercial technology center in its own right, says Stamm. The firm's other offices are in Portland, Ore., Bellevue, Wash., Santa Clara, Calif., and Germany.
The size of the staff here will depend on how many good people the company can hire, but he calls the number "substantial." Watch out, local PR firms: They're looking to poach people who know the local tech market.
Send tips and tales of the digital capital's local people, deals and events to Shannon Henry at firstname.lastname@example.org.
TechThursday columnist Shannon Henry will host a live Web chat today at 1 p.m. with Ari Jacoby, chief executive of Newsletters.com. The subject: how to surround a new company with big-name backers. To participate, go to www.washingtonpost.com.
CAPTION: Bob Dowling in a converted Hummer, which he hopes to sell to government agencies and companies as a high-tech command center.