Tech Companies

A Taste of Silicon Valley in the Flint Hills

view from the windows of CivicPlus in Manhattan Kansas

They’re one of the fastest-growing private tech companies in the United States.

Their headquarters look like something you’d find in Silicon Valley rather than the gateway to the Flint Hills of Kansas.

They’re considered an industry leader in providing integrated technology platforms for local government.

Yet when you ask a CivicPlus executive what propelled the Manhattan-based business from humble origins to dizzying heights, the answer may be surprising.

“It comes down to maybe more luck than foresight,” said Sascha Ohler, vice president of research and development.

Recognizing future needs

CivicPlus started more than 20 years ago as Networks Plus, which focused on network and computer equipment management – servers, desktop systems, tech support – for customers around Kansas.

The company began building websites for customers as the new century arrived, “and we very quickly realized that’s where the future growth would come from for us,” Ohler said.

photo of Sascha Ohler VP for R & D at CivicPlus
Sascha Ohler, VP of Research & Development speaks to crowd at Scaling Up Tech

Websites for city and county governments became the company’s focus, and little more than a decade later the company sold off Networks Plus.

Ohler cites luck as a factor because when company officials debated what their target audience for building websites should be, they selected local governments.

“We were fortunate in that we selected a market to go after that is very stable and is very cohesive and so there’s not a lot of variability there,” Ohler said. “Whether you’re a city in California or Kansas or Florida, there’s not that much different” in what they need.

“We didn’t have to be the ones with the latest and the greatest, we just had to be better than the rest of the competition.

Sascha Ohler, VP Research & Devlopment, CivicPlus

Most smaller governments, if they had a city or county website at all, offered basic information on static pages. Residents still had to go to city hall or county offices to pay bills, obtain information or request services.

As CivicPlus built its clientele, Ohler said, “We didn’t have to be the ones with the latest and the greatest, we just had to be better than the rest of the competition.

“It allowed us to open up a market for ourselves that didn’t force us to be a Silicon Valley-type start-up in order to succeed.”

Dramatic changes in local government

But that has changed in recent years.

The general population is getting younger and the expectations of local government are changing as more and more professionals are returning to their hometowns or migrating away from crowded, expensive urban centers in search of a higher quality of life.

Generations of residents now are used to being able to pay bills, go shopping and gather information online whenever it’s convenient. They have higher expectations from local government as well.

“It’s no longer okay to just be open 9 to 4,” Ohler said. “They expect ‘round-the-clock access from their mobile devices.”

In response, CivicPlus began creating more sophisticated websites that allow residents to pay bills, ask questions and look up a wide range of information about city and county services online.

photo of CivicPlus employee working on customer website

“Local government is changing pretty dramatically,” he said. “We’re increasingly less and less patient so we want to have stuff at the tip of our fingers. We’re seeing local government wake up to that.”

Katrina Rubenich, communication and information specialist for the Wichita suburb of Valley Center, has witnessed those changes. The city hired CivicPlus to update its website about four years ago and has seen usage soar.

“They want to be able to go online and take care of everything they need to without having to interact with a real person if they can,” Rubenich said.

It saves time for city staff as well, sparing them from repeatedly fielding calls for information that can easily be found on the website.

Having a strong website is important for cities and counties in the modern era, Rubenich said.

“I know that personally if there’s a company or a city that I want to go to if they don’t have a website, it kind of makes me think, ‘Why not?’ and ‘Are you legit?’” she said.

The city of Louisburg is another CivicPlus client, and communications coordinator Jean Carder said an intense hail storm that struck the region last year showed how valuable it is to have a sophisticated website.

“When the hail storm went through and roofers started showing up, they didn’t necessarily have to come into the office to get their permits,” Carder said. “They could fill it out online and email it to the guy that handles the permit. It makes it easier to do business with the city.”

Business is booming

As local governments recognize the need to offer more on their websites, business is booming for CivicPlus. The company has grown 30 percent a year for the past several years and Ohler said similar growth is anticipated “for the foreseeable future.”

“As our clients are looking at new ways to utilize technology and really figure out how to lead change inside their organizations, it has forced us to become more than just tech experts, but become experts in local government as well.

Sascha Ohler, VP Research & Development, CivicPlus

CivicPlus now has 3,800 clients around the world, including more than 175 in Kansas. The company has grown to 350 “team members,” with 280 of them working in Manhattan.

According to data released earlier this year, more than 60,000 local government employees use CivicPlus software solutions. More than 75 million constituents view the company’s local government websites, registering more than two billion page views.

CivicPlus has been an INC. 5000 fastest-growing company for the past eight years and has made the GovTech 100 list every year since its inception.

But this is no time for CivicPlus to relax, Ohler said.

“Change is kind of a constant in this business,” Ohler said. “As our clients are looking at new ways to utilize technology and really figure out how to lead change inside their organizations, it has forced us to become more than just tech experts, but become experts in local government as well.

“It has definitely forced us as a company to grow both from a number of employees and from a skill set perspective.”

Most of the company’s early growth was organic, but in the last three years, CivicPlus has also undertaken acquisitions.

In 2016, CivicPlus acquired Rec1 in Atlanta, which specializes in parks and recreation management. A year later, the company bought another Atlanta firm, BoardSync, and rebranded it as CivicClerk. Last year, CivicPlus purchased Virtual Towns and Schools, a website business in Foxborough, Mass., that caters to towns with less than 10,000 people.

More acquisitions are likely, Ohler said. To help facilitate the growth, BV Investment Partners of Boston announced a minority investment in CivicPlus. BV is a middle-market private equity firm focused on the business services, software and IT services sectors.

“We went through a careful vetting process to find the right partner who can help us achieve our ambitious goals in the years ahead,” CivicPlus Chief Executive Officer Brian Rempe said in a prepared statement released when the investment was announced.

Rempe called BV “a like-minded partner” and added, “I’m confident that the partnership…will put us in an even stronger position to offer more and more value to our clients and their residents.”


Author Credits | Stan Finger | @StanFinger | Stan is an award-winning journalist who twice earned nominations for the Pulitzer Prize over the course of a distinguished career at the Wichita Eagle. A native Kansan who grew up on a farm in central Kansas, Finger has also written two books: Into the Deep, a look at the deadly flash flood in the Flint Hills in 2003, and the novel Fallen Trees.

Stan is an award-winning journalist who twice earned nominations for the Pulitzer Prize over the course of a distinguished career at the Wichita Eagle. A native Kansan who grew up on a farm in central Kansas, Finger has also written two books: Into the Deep, a look at the deadly flash flood in the Flint Hills in 2003, and the novel Fallen Trees.

Viaanix sets its sights on being ‘the Amazon of IOT’

Viaanix owner Jatin Talreja from Wichita Kansas

Nestled in a small, nondescript brick building in the heart of downtown Wichita, a fledgling business few people have heard of is on its way to subtly changing the world as we know it.

Viaanix, which started several years ago in founder Jatin Talreja’s basement, is emerging as a national leader in the Internet of Things.

“We can make anything smart or wireless,” Talreja said. “Our goal is to make it a billion-dollar company in five years. We have decided to go big or go home.

“We want to be the Amazon of IoT.”

Worldwide technology spending on the Internet of Things is projected to reach $1.2 trillion by 2022, and Viaanix is well-positioned to capture a share of that.

“We want to be the Amazon of IOT.”

Jatin Talreja, Viaanix, Wichita, Kansas

Viaanix is working on sensors for sectors as varied as agriculture, construction, logistics, transportation and Smart Cities.

What helps set Viaanix apart

While smart technology – a network of devices, vehicles and products embedded with sensors that allow them to collect and exchange data – has become commonplace, Viaanix’s engineers have centralized services into one app you can use on your phone.

Currently, Taljreja said, a consumer might have one provider with a service telling them whether their garage door is open and another letting them know if someone is at the door and another monitoring if the lights are off.

“That’s three different apps, three different services you’re working with,” he said.

Viaanix can provide sensors for something as basic as letting you know how much milk is left in the refrigerator, how full your trash cans are and if there’s a leak near the sump pump.

The company has developed universal “plug and play” hardware with software that can be configured to meet a client’s specific needs.

“We’re working with the city of Wichita on a whole ‘smart city’ platform,” Talreja said. “A lot of people think, ‘Oh, you’ve got LED lights in your streetlights – you’re a smart city now,’ but it’s so much more than that.”

‘Helping tech to grow here’

The city is exploring a variety of initiatives using sensors to collect and synthesize data that will ultimately make operations more efficient and thus lower costs, said Mike Mayta, chief information officer for the city of Wichita. At this stage, most are still in the exploratory phase.

“One of the things we’re really interested in is staying local – helping tech to grow here,” Mayta said.

Working with Viaanix is an example of that, he said.

“Some of this could really explode into a large, large venture,” Mayta said. “From an economic development standpoint, we can have an impact there.”

Talreja learned about FlagshipKansas.Tech from city officials and signed up because he saw it as a way to network with other tech companies in the state and also to help increase exposure for Viaanix.

“One of the things we’re really interested in is staying local – helping tech to grow here.”

Mike Mayta, City of Wichita, Kansas

The company’s profile is increasing in other ways as well. Talreja was a panelist for a session on modern cities at a conference in San Diego in mid-September.

Helping cities become more efficient by investing in smart technology is a billion-dollar industry, Talreja said.

Viaanix is currently focusing on corporate clients, but their goal is to eventually expand into consumer products as well.

“The growth is exponential,” Talreja said.

The demand is so great Talreja is looking for investors to help finance the company’s expansion. Up until now, he said, he has paid for everything out of his own pocket.

The company has 14 employees in the U.S. and more than 20 in India, Vietnam and China.

Those numbers will surge as the demand for Viaanix’s products grow. Talreja is working with WSU Tech to provide “some of our tools and gadgets” so students obtain hands-on experience. The hope, he said, is to hire those students once they graduate so Viaanix can continue to grow.

Discussions are under way with the University of Texas at Austin for a similar arrangement, Talreja said.

“What Jay’s doing over there with that company is significant,” said Joe Varrientos, lead faculty in electronics technology at WSU Tech. “We’re just trying to help.”

Talreja is on an advisory team at WSU Tech and “he directly influences the kinds of training we provide for students,” Varrientos said.

“There’s no doubt that this technology…is of tremendous interest to a significant number of employers and industry leaders across the globe,” he said.

Why Wichita?

Viaanix is based in Wichita because this has become his family’s home, Talreja said. He was recruited to work at Hawker Beechcraft 12 years ago.

“Once the family was here, the home was here, we knew a lot of people here,” it was natural to stay, he said.

But “there are a lot of obstacles” in his efforts to build the business in Wichita, he said. Skilled workers have to be recruited from elsewhere because there isn’t a local talent pool in IoT. That challenge is also why he is working with WSU Tech and the University of Texas.

He’s confident any other obstacles that emerge can be overcome as well.

“Our goal is to make it a billion-dollar company in five years. We have decided to go big or go home. “

JATIN TALREJA, VIAANIX, WICHITA, KANSAS

He started his own company, Viaan, in 2012, providing engineering design for other companies as a contract engineer.

As he was creating smart software solutions for businesses, he said, he recognized limitations – and saw universal hardware as the best way to overcome them. Viaanix launched about a year ago.

The company has signed partnerships with Sprint, Comcast and Tektelic, with more partnerships with “very big company names” to be announced soon, he said.

How ‘smart’ impacts your life

Smart technology can bring efficiencies to just about any industry and even in your homes, Talreja said.

Hospitals can use them for something as basic as keeping track of meals being served to patients. Sensors can sound alarms if a meal is accidentally taken to the wrong room, so the hospital can avoid serving something that the patient is allergic to, he said.

Auto dealerships can use sensors to keep track of not just every vehicle on their lot but every key, he said. While GPS has been in use for many years now, it typically only works when the vehicles are outdoors.

Farmers can use sensors to check moisture content and pH levels of their soils so they can maintain the best growing conditions possible and maximize yields.

Viaanix has developed a wireless temperature and humidity sensor for freezers. Hospitals, restaurants and grocery stores are just some of the places temperatures have to be monitored and logged regularly to make sure they’re at proper levels.

“Currently, everything is done manually” to chart those figures, Talreja said.

The new sensor logs the temperature, creates a report and sends it where it needs to go automatically.

Smart technology will be transforming our bathrooms, too.

Viaanix has developed sensors that keep track of how much toilet paper, hand soap and paper towels are left in a particular bathroom and send alerts to maintenance crews when more is needed.

“You don’t know what kind of usage is going to happen at the airport,” Talreja said. “These analytics will allow them to be…more efficient.”

Instead of waiting to check every bathroom first thing in the morning, he said, maintenance crews can go directly to the bathrooms needing replenishment as needed at any time during their shift.

Developing a global presence

Liquidynamics, a Wichita-based company that sells lubricant and diesel exhausts fuel equipment, has worked with Viaanix and its predecessor for years.

Talreja’s business has developed tracking sensors for fuel management systems.

An estimated 15 percent of fuel oil and other lubricants is unaccounted for at any given time, said Frank Russold, president of Liquidynamics.

“That is a lot of fluid lost,” Russold said.

The sensors developed by Talreja’s company “allow the owners to keep track of every drop of oil that is being dispensed,” he said.

Liquidynamics has expanded fluid management to incorporate tank monitoring, Russold said. By being able to track how full tanks are, oil distributors can plan their routes “so they don’t have to make special calls to fill one tank.”

“Everyone wins,” Russold said. “The consumer wins in the long term” because the greater efficiencies help keep the price at the pump down.

While other companies offer tank monitoring systems, he said, they’re tied to desktop computer systems that can be rendered useless by platform upgrades. Liquidynamics relies on its own system within its mini-computer and it can be accessed on a client’s smart device.

“Viaanix has done a great job for us,” Russold said.

“We will be a corporation that has a global presence. Our software, our devices will be everywhere. People may just not notice it.”

jatin Talreja, viaanix, wichita, kansas

When Varrientos hears his friend talk about Viaanix becoming a billion-dollar company in five years, he doesn’t blink – even though that level represents a substantial increase from where Viaanix is now. He’s known him long enough to recognize that when Talreja sets a goal, it’s realistic.

Talreja insists his goal is no pipe dream.

“We have leads, we have letters of intent from very large corporations to work with us and customize solutions for them,” he said.

“We will be a corporation that has a global presence. Our software, our devices will be everywhere. People may just not notice it.”

Just like most don’t notice the unassuming brick building in the heart of downtown.


2:02 pm CST | December 18, 2019

Author Credits | Stan Finger | @StanFinger | Stan is an award-winning journalist who twice earned nominations for the Pulitzer Prize over the course of a distinguished career at the Wichita Eagle. A native Kansan who grew up on a farm in central Kansas, Finger has also written two books: Into the Deep, a look at the deadly flash flood in the Flint Hills in 2003, and the novel Fallen Trees.

Image Credits | Fernando Salazar | @fsalazar58 Amazing photojournalist. Okay, we said that because he’s so humble, but seriously, look at his incredible work!

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