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7/1/2004

On chad patrol

By Tony Kindelspire
The Daily Times-Call

BOULDER — Coast to coast, controversy surrounds the issue of electronic voting machines. But the hot-button issue could prove to be a financial boon to a small Boulder company.

Percept Technology Labs has formed a “strategic alliance” with SysTest Labs of Denver, which is a federally approved Independent Test Authority.

Acting in tandem, SysTest and Percept will form the only lab in the nation certified to test both hardware and software for electronic voting machines.

There is one other lab in the country that acts as an ITA for software only, as does SysTest, and one other that acts as an ITA for hardware only, like Percept.

“We just felt if we were a one-stop shop, it would be beneficial,” said Carolyn Coggins, director of ITA operations for SysTest. “We felt it would be a competitive advantage.”

For Percept, a company founded and bootstrapped by Brian Cleveland, the relationship with SysTest could spur growth.

“(The percentage of company revenue from testing voting machines) could be significant,” Cleveland said. “It wouldn’t dominate us, but it could be significant. The main factor is, there’s just not a lot of companies doing it.”

He said his company was audited by the government before being authorized to act as a contractor for SysTest.

“The machines have to be tested to meet certain environmental requirements,” Cleveland said, including fragility, vibration, temperature, electromagnetic sensitivity and other factors.

Coggins’ company has been testing voting machines since 2001. A previous arrangement with another hardware-testing company didn’t work out, which, Coggins said, is just as well.

“We find that there is a great synergy between (Percept and SysTest),” she said. “We have a similar way of doing things.”

But the way the two companies found each other was rather unusual, Cleveland said: “My neighbor across the street was familiar with what we do, and she was familiar with SysTest,” he said. “She got us a lunch.”

The Help America Vote Act of 2002 authorized billions in federal dollars to help states replace old punch-card voting systems. That’s been very good for business, Coggins said.

“It’s a small market — there are not that many voting systems out there,” she said. “There are more people getting into it since the HAVA money.”

SysTest, located in a high-rise in downtown Denver, has always exclusively done software testing, so hooking up with Percept and its hardware-testing capabilities was perfect, she said.

But for both companies, testing voting machines is different than what they typically do.

“It’s different than software testing, (where) you’re just looking for bugs ...,” Coggins said. “Here, you’re testing to a standard. If you don’t meet the standard, you don’t pass.”

Coggins, who said voting machine testing was a “significant” part of SysTest’s business, said it was worth noting that ITA certification means only that a machine has met minimum federal standards.

Some states have their own standards and do their own testing, which is sometimes more intensive than the minimum federal standard.

Coggins, an ex-officio member of the National Association of State Election Directors, testified before Congress last week, explaining the testing procedures her company uses. She said she’s uncomfortable commenting on the controversies surrounding the electronic machines, but she did tell lawmakers that local jurisdictions have to play their part in keeping elections fair.

For SysTest and Percept, she said, “It’s that understanding that you are providing a customer service, but you’re also holding the clients’ feet to the fire.”

A veteran of Storage Technology Corp. and several start-ups, including one based in Longmont, Cleveland said testing products wasn’t a focus when he launched his company in his basement in 1996. But he quickly saw a market niche that wasn’t being filled and altered his business plan accordingly.

“Testing is always talked about but seldom done effectively, and I thought we could provide a quality service testing technology products at a reasonable cost,” Cleveland said.

Last year, Percept tested products for 34 companies, including locals Conduant, Copan and Cornice — along with a much larger outfit based out of Redmond, Wash.

“(Microsoft) needed an independent lab,” Cleveland said. “They needed independent verification” for the company’s IntelliMouse, which Microsoft claimed had three times the battery life of other mouse devices.

After testing 130 mouses, Percept found that Microsoft was right, and now the claim is blasted across every IntelliMouse box sold, along with Percept’s name verifying the claim. Not bad publicity for an 11-person company.

Cleveland said no voting machines have arrived at his company’s headquarters yet, but he expects it won’t be long.

In the meantime, Percept’s lab space sees plenty of activity testing products for other clients, more than half of them data-storage companies.

“You want to do this (testing) on the front end so you don’t spend a lot of money to fix something,” Cleveland said. “There’s an old saying: It takes a penny to fix a problem in engineering, a dime in production and a dollar in the field.”

Tony Kindelspire can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 291, or by e-mail at tkindelspire@times-call.com.