Meet The Disruptors: Sung Vivathana Of SpotOn Fence On The Five Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry
An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
Don’t be afraid to open yourself up to criticism or questioning. Part of learning and growing is questioning what you think is best and having others do the same. You’re not always right.
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sung Vivathana.
Sung Vivathana is Vice President of Engineering at SpotOn Fence, where he not only leads all technical aspects of engineering, product, and app development, but also invented GPS fencing technology itself. Sung’s experience developing extremely complex electronic systems ranges from commercial power supplies to life-saving electronic equipment used by the U.S. military. His unique perspective of making precision devices that must perform in any and every circumstance drives the accuracy and reliability for which SpotOn GPS Fence is known.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I began my career, upon graduating from Widener University, as an electrical engineer. In 2007, I started working at InSight Technology with Ken Solinsky, developing and manufacturing advanced night vision and electro-optical systems for the U.S. military.
In 2010, InSight Technology was acquired by L3 Technologies and I stayed on until 2013, when I accepted a position with Optics 1, an electro-optical systems company in the defense industry.
Ken approached me with an idea: a truly wireless pet containment system. In 2015, I became SpotOn Fence’s first employee.
It was the first time I had ever developed a consumer product. My first working prototype was a series of boards and chips on a lunch-tray-sized piece of plywood.
For months, I’d stitched together printed circuit boards and developed custom software to process GPS signals. Imagine us carrying these big trays outside, creating virtual fences, and testing boundaries — in both summer humidity and winter snow. We’d let dogs roam and put down tape measures to collect statistical data and gauge accuracy.
Problems cropped up, like getting it to work under a tree canopy, where the signals were weaker, designing the collar so that the GPS antenna always faced up, and miniaturizing the technology so that it would work on smaller dogs. It was a lot of trial and error.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
Before SpotOn, the concept of keeping pets contained in a virtual fence had never been successfully executed and there was no product that both kept your pet contained and let you know if it escaped. We’ve invented a multi-patented technology and applied it to the invisible fence — a system that had not been changed or upgraded in 40 years.
The SpotOn system is more accurate than the GPS on your smartphone or watch. By using a relatively large active antenna with high sensitivity to improve signal strength, and inertial navigation micro-electromechanical system (MEMS) components, such as three-axis accelerometers, magnetometers and gyroscopes, it provides additional movement information and corrects for possible satellite position errors. Most smartphones and watches use GPS only and non-active chip antennas for compact size.
This augmented GPS had never been used before in the consumer tech space, in which the only development had been pet trackers that use GPS and cell service. These devices aren’t very accurate and don’t update location frequently.
Our device is the first to have accuracy within 10 feet and update location every six seconds by using GPS data and triangulating with information from the European Galileo system, the Chinese BeiDou and the Russian GLONASS.
With this accuracy, SpotOn allows for greater flexibility than any other fence. Since you walk the boundary line, you can make the fence wherever you need it — even through water.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In our early development stages, I quickly learned that we should not be testing outside in hilly areas in the middle of winter. Once, we built a fence on a hillside with snow and ice. While testing, I slipped and the board flew up in the air, crash-landed and broke. That board took me months to make and was gone in an instant.
Another lesson was not to perform prototype testing in busy public areas. You get a lot of funny looks and questions when you’re holding a lunch tray full of electronics on your head.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
John Mason from Sunrise Labs was a good sounding board during development. We would talk through all the innovative things we needed to make this technology work and spent a year and a half directly developing concepts together that are now patented. He was knowledgeable and personable, and we worked very well together to create a solution that has the potential for a great market.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
It’s always good to positively impact people’s lives, but there can be unintended, ‘not so positive’ consequences. Electric vehicles and solar panels are an example of this. While providing an alternative to combustible energy, a lot of the processes of developing and manufacturing “green” technology can have the unintended consequence of contributing to other environmental issues.
As we developed SpotOn to offer users flexibility, portability and customization of a fence, something that was always fixed and inflexible, we took extra steps to minimize any unintended consequences. For example, we conducted Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) testing of the product, something required for humans, but not dogs.
We also sourced and manufactured in the U.S., where possible, to create jobs, have better control of our supply chain, and be less dependent on offshore components.
Can you share five of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
For me, there are three that really stand out.
- Never give up. When inventing a product, there can be so many “worst of times” moments and external dependencies that you can’t control. Being an inventor and running a startup can be so overwhelming that it becomes easy to focus on the things that go wrong. Instead, try to focus on the little victories, on what you can control, and never stop trying.
- Surround yourself with positive people. If you are feeling down or low, surround yourself with others who can pick you up. Optimism helps to get through the worst days. When you feel like you will never meet your goals, a good team can really help flip your outlook.
- Don’t be afraid to open yourself up to criticism or questioning. Part of learning and growing is questioning what you think is best and having others do the same. You’re not always right.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
I am going to continue to develop products that improve the lives of our pets. We want to be disruptors through and through and continue to push the envelope of technology when it comes to pets. We have plenty of ideas in the hopper, but that’s all I can say.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
I don’t at this time. I would love to explore more, but right now, I’m busy raising three boys who are generally very curious about how things work. They’ve adapted a problem-solving attitude to their interests. I usually spend my free time helping them tinker with electronics, code, or design and build things.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Treat others as you want to be treated.” I try to take this approach every day to the people around me. Whether with family or colleagues, it helps drive collaboration and respect. I grew up in an urban area that was a little rough, where kids often didn’t treat one another with respect. I’ve always made sure not to repeat that behavior.
When I was starting out, I had some bosses that I think failed me in their leadership — creating what felt like more of a dictatorship than a learning environment. There was one instance when I saw a senior engineer look at work and call it ‘crap.’ I made a promise to myself that I would never do that to anyone.
At SpotOn, we’ve implemented a culture of respect for and confidence in your coworkers, so that we can do great things as a team. It’s how we got where we are today.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would make mental health just as important as physical health. In our society, mental health isn’t looked at the same way other illnesses are; there aren’t enough people paying attention to it.
Mental health issues affect not only the individual, but also the people around them, and have great consequences on society. I think of how we could use technology to develop systems that better read brain activity and get ahead of these issues.
Mental health deserves the same education and support that we give to cancer research and other physical ailments, and we should provide education to help society better understand mental health issues without judgment.
How can our readers follow you online?
Follow us at @spotonfence.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Meet The Disruptors: Sung Vivathana Of SpotOn Fence On The Five Things You Need To Shake Up Your… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.