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Largo startup creating device to detect bombs, save soldiers' lives

Chris Stefano of Alaka’i Consulting & Engineering demonstrates the laser-detection system at the company’s headquarters in Largo. Alaka’i has a 
$3-million contract with the Army to design and test the system.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Chris Stefano of Alaka’i Consulting & Engineering demonstrates the laser-detection system at the company’s headquarters in Largo. Alaka’i has a $3-million contract with the Army to design and test the system.

LARGO — Guy Ontai and Ed Dottery are creating a device to detect the roadside bombs that have killed so many American soldiers in Iraq. They hope the Army will eventually pay to put their laser-based system into the field. But to these entrepreneurs, the business is more than a startup with financial potential.

Ontai and Dottery are both retired Army majors, both West Point graduates — and one more thing: Ontai has a son in the Army, deployed in Iraq.

"The phrase I use is, we've got blood in this fight," said Ontai, 52, vice president and chief engineer of Alaka'i Consulting & Engineering. "My son's there; Ed and I have had classmates wounded and killed in Iraq."

"It's about saving soldiers' lives, and right now what's killing soldiers' lives is explosives," said Dottery, 51, company president.

Alaka'i has spent two years in a business incubator program at the Young Rainey STAR Center in Largo, and now is moving into a 3,000-square-foot office space there.

The company, which has seven employees, has a $3-million contract with the Army to design and test the system. It hopes that with more development, the Army will decide to buy the laser system so it can be put into production.

The system consists of a device that, for now, resembles a telescope that could be mounted on a military vehicle.

Using a joystick, a soldier would aim the device at a suspicious object, using a video monitor as a guide. The device would shine a laser on the object, and could determine whether it contained explosives based on the light that reflects back.

Eventually, the men would like to develop a system that could also detect biological or nuclear materials. Dottery declined to be more specific about the technology, saying the Army insists on secrecy for security reasons.

The company also is developing a smaller backpack version of the technology under contract with SRI St. Petersburg, which is working on a port security system for the Navy.

Ontai and Dottery met at West Point when they were both stationed there teaching physics.

They later formed their company with small offices in Hawaii and New Hampshire, but decided to move it to Florida for many reasons: proximity to MacDill Air Force Base; the opportunity to locate in the STAR Center; and encouragement from the office of Bill Young, the longtime Republican congressman and Appropriations Committee member who has steered many military-related contracts toward the Tampa Bay area. Ontai lives in Hawaii and Dottery lives in the Tampa Bay area.

Ontai said he wants this venture to succeed, not only for the business, but for his friends in the military and his son, a sergeant in military intelligence.

"I'm taking this fight personally," he said.

Curtis Krueger can be reached at ckrueger@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8232.

About Alaka'i Consulting & Engineering

Its name: Means "leader"

in Hawaiian.

Location: Young Rainey

STAR Center in Largo.

Employees: 7 locally.

Mission: Developing a device to detect roadside bombs for the military under a $3-million government contract.

Largo startup creating device to detect bombs, save soldiers' lives 10/25/08 [Last modified: Saturday, October 25, 2008 4:31am]
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