Creates software to predict potential equipment failures.
Bonz Hart ignored the naysayers who told him he couldn’t develop a software company in Virginia.
They told him he wouldn’t be able to secure the funding he needed or find the skilled workers he wanted.
But he proved them wrong and created a Roanoke-based company that developed software to make industries more efficient. And ultimately he sold that 500-person company for $495 million to GE Digital.
Forging his own path
Hart started Meridium in the garage at his home in Bedford County. Today, Meridium’s software is used in more than 80 countries to support industrial customers including oil and gas refineries, manufacturing, mining, electric utilities, chemicals and transportation.
The software predicts potential equipment failures but, bottom line, it saves lives, Hart said.
“We’ve had customers tell us that by being able to predict and prevent a failure, they knew the people they were able to save,” he said.
Without the software, not only could workers have been seriously injured or killed, but plants could have experienced system failures that would have damaged the environment and possibly led to closing facilities and eliminating jobs.
Confidentiality agreements prevent Hart from providing specifics, but at a high level, the software identified the probability of a potential failure. For example, forecasting that pressure vessels or piping had internal corrosion (based on ultrasound data and other factors) that could have led to a “loss of containment” of dangerous chemicals, proved critical to fixing a problem before it became a major incident. Spotting the danger meant preventing a leak that could have led to an explosion.
Committed to Virginia
Starting in Roanoke in 1993 was difficult with few other software companies in the region to create a vibrant software culture, Hart said.
“But we had the raw material (students), and over time the local universities changed their curriculum to become more relevant to the software industry,” he said.
One challenge was finding experienced commercial software management. “Some were nervous about coming because they worried they’d have to move again if the job didn’t work out,” Hart said.
But the area’s natural beauty, low cost of living, and multiple options for outdoor activities helped Meridium recruit key talent. “Our region has a great quality of life, and promoting technology is a wonderful way to keep the best and brightest in our area,” he said.
Being outside a software hub also posed some benefits.
“If we would have been in a software hub, we would have had access to more talent,” he said. “But we also would have had greater turnover, which would have impacted our clients by losing key knowledge.”
Using video conferencing and other technology, plus opening locations in Houston, India, Australia, Spain, South Africa, Brazil, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and Singapore, gave Meridium global reach.
Letting the company grow
Creating software isn’t as easy as it might seem, Hart said. While it would appear to be a simple engineering task, creating software is really science and art coming together.
“When you have the right team working on the right problem with the right tools, magic can happen,” Hart said. “If you don’t, then you have to fix the problems/bugs.”
Selling to GE in 2016 provided the opportunity for the company to expand and grow in ways not possible on its own.
When GE announced the purchase, the company said acquiring Meridium would help GE Digital improve its comprehensive application monitoring systems by offering a solution that unifies real-time analytics with reliability-centered maintenance best practices. Meridium customers gained access to GE’s deep domain expertise in real-time data management and advanced industrial analytics.
When you have the right team working on the right problem with the right tools, magic can happen.”
“Our job was to protect people, profits and the planet, and we needed a bigger way to do that and make the product available on a wider basis,” Hart said.
While the sale was the right move for the company, Hart ultimately decided he wasn’t the leader Meridium needed to reach the next level.
Instead, he opted to retire, and Eddie Amos, who joined Meridium in 2012 as the chief technology officer, became the general manager and GE Digital’s vice president for the Predix platform and industrial applications. GE kept Meridium’s headquarters in Roanoke.
Walking away was hard. Hart compares doing that to binge-watching a Netflix show 24/7 for 24 years and then having someone pull the plug.
“What happens next? What happened with this, what happened with that?” he wondered. Six months after leaving the company, he still found himself running cash flow scenarios in his head as he tried to fall asleep.
Hart, 62, is still trying to figure out what he’s going to do next. He’s resisting the urge to start another company, and instead he’s taking time to explore his options, give to charity and travel.
“People usually have time or money,” he said. “I’m fortunate. I have both the opportunity and the resources to try and help others.”