Let Wall Street say what it will, at least one area company is expecting to see a big business boost thanks to the newly-passed economic stimulus legislation. Not only that, but Vantage Labs is swimming against the common complaint that New Jersey’s business climate is to be avoided at all costs. The growing software development house, with specialties in the education, Internet search, and VoIP convergence, is moving 150 employees to Ewing by the end of March.
“No, we don’t have any problem with New Jersey,” says Harry Barfoot, vice president of Vantage. “The only problem is that the Scudder Falls bridge is only four-lanes wide, and I understand that they’re working on that.”
Vantage has just leased 50,000 square feet in the I-95 Princeton Corporate Center, former headquarters of Wachovia New Jersey. Located at 370 Scotch Road, the I-95 Princeton Corporate Center is a two-building office park near Trenton-Mercer Airport. Property owner Greyfields Investors LLC purchased the office park in December, 2007. Mercer Oak Realty’s Sab Russo represented Greyfields. Doug Newbert with GVA South Mack represented Vantage.
The company has four major divisions, Vantage Communications, Vantage Learning, Vantage Linguistics, and McCann Associates. It was founded in its present form in 1998 by an engineer who, says Barfoot, has a keen interest in pattern matching. Formerly “one of Sun’s biggest resellers,” the founder sold that business, acquired small businesses, and began building Vantage, which has 240 employees across the United States, and a new office in Australia. The founder cannot be named, says Barfoot, explaining that he “likes to stay out of the papers.” His company is private, and apparently profitable. “There has never been any venture money,” says Barfoot.
Vantage holds “40-plus” patents in linguistics technology for common tasks, including proofreading, spelling and grammar, search technology, and natural language. The company’s clients include Microsoft. “They use our spelling and grammar checker,” says Barfoot. The software giant bought a lifetime license for the checker and has not updated, according to Barfoot, who says that the software is now in its ninth generation. Called Correct English, it is sold to consumers, corporations, and colleges. Its target audience, says Barfoot, is “anyone whose writing needs improvement.” Texting, he points out by the way, “is not writing.”
“IBM used our proofreading software,” says Barfoot. “Intuit uses our iSeek technology in QuickBooks and TurboTax.” The company’s search technology is superior, he says, because it matches context. “It understands linguistically what a sentence means,” he says. “It can send people to page six of a PDF, to page five of a presentation.”
This facility is superior to the keyword search-based technology used by many search engines, says Barfoot. This understanding is essential to many of Vantage’s products and services. The company, for example, grades the writing portions of both the GMAT and MCAT tests that, respectively, assess the verbal potential of graduate school and medical school applicants. Results are so good, he says that they closely match those of humans. When two humans grade an essay, of course, the results will rarely be exactly the same, but they will probably be close. When Vantage matches up with humans, it too is close, generally just about as close as two human scorers will be to agreeing on the proper score.
Going down the educational chain a bit, Vantage has software products for teaching writing to students in kindergarten through high school. This product frees teachers up to be writing coaches, says Barfoot. “Teachers no longer have to grade essays,” he says. “At five minutes a paper, that’s a whole Saturday for a teacher who sees 140 students a week.” But how can that teacher possibly know her students’ strengths and weakness when the grading is done by a computer? He responds that the software not only spots problems, but also works at correcting them. It provides instant feedback and directs students to go back and try again. “Instead of writing once, they write 12 or 15 times,” he says. Teachers can then log on, look at the students’ efforts, which are grouped by problem areas, and can work with the youngsters to improve their writing.
It is products like these that Barfoot sees as valuable to the company under the federal economic stimulus plan, which directs billions of dollars toward improving education. “Right now education is hurting,” he says. “The urban schools are hurting. They’re going to get a boatload of money — $106 billion.” Vantage stands to get a share of the stimulus money directed toward three programs: Title I, for students whose family’s income makes them eligible for a free lunch; the enhancing education through technology initiative; and the IDEA program, which seeks to help students with disabilities. Of this last program, Barfoot says, “even if students have no movement except for their thumbs, they can type online.”
This federal money will be one of the many engines that keeps Vantage growing. The recession has not slowed the company down one bit. “There’s no way that we’re not growing in every way,” says Barfoot. “Yes, we’re hiring,” he adds. “We have full-time recruiters out there.”
Vantage Labs, 110 Terry Drive, Newtown 18940; 267-352-3126. Home page: www.vantage.com.