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Spotlight on student entrepreneurs:
At 22, Anthony Levandowski is already a veteran businessman

Anthony Levandowski shows off the Worktop, a portable blueprint reader and updater for construction sites.
– Berkeley graduate student Anthony Levandowski has that rare combination of engineering brains and business acumen that once upon a time would have had venture capitalists speed-dialing his cell phone. And even now, after the dot-com crash, Levandowski and his business partner, Randy Miller, are this close to raising $600,000 in private financing for their nascent company, Construction Control Systems.

Hard to believe, but if it gets off the ground, it will be the 22-year-old Levandowski's second successful business. At 16 he started building a Web site for Marin's Tamalpais High School, complete with a virtual tour, so that his mother - who works in Belgium for the European Union - could get glimpses of his life. He used that experience to design a few more Web sites for money before realizing that "there was no barrier to entry there, so I'd better think of something more specialized."

La Raison d'Ítre

In 1997 he taught himself about databases and private extranets and founded his first company, La Raison ("The Reason"). It administers centralized databases that let businesses like Central Garden and Pet Company (a large, publicly traded corporation) upload product photos, descriptions, and prices to their Web sites or to private extranets, which their clients can access securely. In addition to installation charges, Levandowski collects monthly subscription fees for services.

By 1998 Levandowski was a freshman at UC Berkeley, majoring in industrial engineering and operations research (IEOR), and a dedicated part-time businessman. He was spending roughly four hours per day working on debugging and troubleshooting La Raison's offerings, but it didn't cut into his school responsibilities much. "I've never done much homework," he shrugs. "I think it's pointless. No wait, don't write that down!"

'I pretty much learn as I go - I bring computer manuals on vacation with me. I know that makes me sound geeky, but I like learning new things.'
That aversion to homework apparently never harmed his academic performance: Levandowski received the IEOR Department Citation in 2001 as a junior, and invented the winning project for the Java Technology Lego MindStorms Challenge, a Sun Microsystems-sponsored contest. Levandowski used 300 Lego pieces to build the BillSortBot, a bug-eyed simple robot that can sort Monopoly money. And he was easily accepted to the Berkeley IEOR master's program, where he just became the first student in the faculty's memory to take the comprehensive exam at the end of his first semester of study. He passed, which means all he needs to do is complete the required coursework for his degree.

Wanted: quiet roommate, C++ a plus

The lanky, 6'6" Levandowski admits that he's never had much trouble achieving whatever he sets out to do. But don't mistake his abundant confidence for arrogance: he's more like an athlete who knows to the millisecond how fast he can run and isn't going to slow down to make his competitors feel better.

La Raison was profitable within a year after its inception, enabling Levandowski to do something many Bay Area professionals can only dream about: become a homeowner. In 1996, with some help from his father and stepmother, he bought a three-bedroom house in Albany with the profits from the company. Ever practical, he's always shared the house, which he hopes to pay off this year. While others might pick their housemates based on cooking ability or similar musical tastes, Levandowski chose people "who were good at programming what I needed help in, like security administration, databases, Java and Unix."

La Raison's Web site describes the company as comprising "a core of IT professionals with extensive Internet experience encompassing consulting, systems development, and computer operations." Even at its peak, that core actually consisted of Levandowski managing three full-time contract programmers and a couple of fellow students working as part-time salespeople. Other than a LISP class at the community college while still a freshman in high school and CS 9F, a self-paced Java course at Berkeley, he has taught himself whatever programming languages and tricks he needed.

"I pretty much learn as I go," he says. "I bring computer manuals on vacation with me. I know that makes me sound geeky, but I like learning new things."

Blueprint for success

Now about to turn 23, Levandowski has put La Raison on the back burner. "Last year I looked around and saw how many 800-pound gorillas there are that were doing the same thing I was," he says. "I figured the only way to distinguish what I did was through pricing and providing personal contact, but I don't want to be someone just providing a commodity at a low price." He continues to maintain the clients he has, but isn't looking for more.

Instead, he's collaborating on Construction Control Systems with his former crew teammate, Randy Miller, who studied civil engineering at Berkeley and is now a construction engineering grad student at Stanford. Together they're seeking to solve a problem that plagues the fast-track construction industry: when the architect makes a change to a project's AutoCAD files, even in the fastest scenario it can take as long as two days before the printer can deliver an updated set of blueprints to the job site. And once there, the crew usually just pencils in the changes onto the many copies of the plans, which often add costly errors to the time lost.

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Giving laptops with updated plans to all the workers could solve this problem, but dusty, chaotic building sites are not laptop-friendly, and standard laptop displays don't have high enough resolution to display the detail that blueprints require. Levandowski and Miller spent time visiting numerous job sites - helpfully, Miller's dad is a construction executive - interviewing the foremen about what they needed and how it should work.

The two grad students have turned their research into the Worktop, a functional prototype they assembled from scratch for less than $15,000. They took a laptop shell and mounted two 22-inch high-resolution IBM screens (2,500 by 3,200 pixels, or three times the clarity of most computer LCDs) where the original screen and keyboard tray were. It's basically a big, portable hinged monitor. There's a computer running the display, but no keyboard: with a few clicks of the mouse, construction workers can zoom in to read details of the plans and flip through the various versions for electrical work or heating and ventilation. Everything is well sealed to keep out water and dust, and the two used solid-state memory so that the Worktop could survive being knocked around or dropped.

The idea is that when the architect makes a change to the plans, she or he then uploads the new CAD files to the Web (already standard operating procedure). But instead of going to the blueprint printer, a program notifies a wireless Internet hub at the job site that a change has been made, and the hub then wirelessly broadcasts the new plans to all the construction crews' Worktops. No more delays, no more errors.

Getting to Worktop

Given the cost of the super-high-resolution screens, Levandowski and Miller don't expect much of a profit margin from the Worktops themselves. As Levandowski learned with La Raison, the real cash is on the service side - the database they can offer that will manage and distribute the up-to-date versions of the plans. Thanks to introductions through one of Miller's Stanford professors, they've met with several private investors who are considering anteing up the $600,000 they need to build ten Worktops and the wireless network that will allow them to test the system fully.

"Yeah, they look at us funny when they first meet us," says Levandowski of his meetings in Palo Alto. "But then Randy starts talking, and he's been learning the construction business practically from birth, and I can explain why the technology will work. Then they seem to forget that we're young."

As if his plate weren't full enough with Construction Control Systems and researching the automation of robot design and manufacturing for his master's, Levandowski is also noodling around with another business idea with a French graduate student: next-generation toys for kids. But like any cautious entrepreneur, he doesn't want to say too much about that one just yet before it gets off the ground.

Unlike most college students, Levandowski has never feared he'll end up a cubicle drone. "I have a hard time getting motivated to do work for other people," he says. "I like to figure out how to solve problems with technology. That's just what's fun for me."

And so far, lucrative as well.

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