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Encouraging Innovation
June 01, 2016
education, entrepreneur, innovation
Karen Schexnayder
A Q&A with Peter von Dyck, CEO of Fernandina Beach-based e-Zassi, a software-as-a-service company.  Their cloud-based software offers enterprises such as Campbell’s Soup, WD40 and Vista Outdoor to digitally crowd-source for ideas. 

NCEDB: Tell me a little about yourself and how your career got started.

PVD: I was born in Miami, but grew up in a medical device space in New Jersey as my family was involved in a small medical manufacturing organization there.  While attending the local community college, I worked in the machine shop cleaning and started doing basic tool and die.  Engineers would bring me blueprints and I could not understand what they wanted me to do or what I was supposed to build.  When I actually figured it out, it was like a moment of eureka.  That moment opened a whole new world.  It happened on my own and then I went nuts reading medical books. 

About a year and a half later, after reading medical journals where physicians were publishing their latest and greatest innovations, I saw an evolutionary level.  I saw where they were trying to go.  The next thing you know, at age 19, I had my first medical device invention.  That spark turned into something more – it was a view into a new way of thinking – of innovating.  I was fortunate in that I was exposed to business - things like strategy and processes - at a young age. 

von Dyck’s career took off upon his initial invention at the age of 19.  After taking his invention to the company’s management team, they put him in front of the top doctors in the world and he was eventually thrown into the world of product design, engineering and development and attributes this to his success.

“Being around engineers and those who had experience forced me to swim.  They brought me up to their level and got me thinking like them,” he added.
The New Jersey company’s portfolio and von Dyck were acquired by a company in St. Louis.  During his sophomore year of college, he moved to St. Louis where he spent the next few years developing five new medical device products. 

NCEDB:  What lead you to create your own company?

PVD: I realized I was not cut out to live the corporate life and felt if I was going to continue to invent, I was going to do it for myself.  I had a relationship with the folks at Tacy Medical here on Amelia Island and at one point they had told me that when I was ready to venture on my own, they would help me.  After five years in St. Louis I decided to create Zassi Medical Evolutions, which was born on Amelia Island in 1996, which was eventually sold off in 2006.  My current company, e-Zassi, allows businesses to digitally crowdsource for ideas.  The real shift in the world is that most companies to date have done R&D internally, often with big teams in some cases.  Companies have realized they can’t keep up with the demand of what consumers want and in this day of social networking they’ve learned that they can ask their customers to ideate and give them ideas – reversing the flow of traffic.  Our software manages the thousands of ideas that come into their website using machine intelligence to capture, rate, rank, score, filter, triage and move the ideas into work flows so winning ideas can be moved into product management and development. 
NCEDB:  How do we translate innovative thinking to the children of Nassau County?

PVD: As a parent of two, ages 16 and 13, I translate innovative thinking to my children by cultivating a business mindset.  I get them to think about the marketing messages they’re seeing…I want them to see how the message works.  How does that marketer want them to react?  Why does a company need to sell inventory? 

We have to think about what makes a child want to learn.  We need to immerse our children in various thought processes.  Your mind is completely open at a young age and we can make that spark happen if the people around our children help make that happen.  It’s really just immersion.

NCEDB:  How can the local business community instill that spirit of innovation or entrepreneurism with our children? 

PVD:  First off it starts with some exposure and recognition.  It’s very fosterable.  It doesn’t mean it happens to every kid at the same age.  We have enough great businesses that have enough local, regional and international issues and even a very small business has economic, marketing, financial, banking issues.  We need to get our children exposed to these things while they’re young.  It’s sad enough that we have thirty and forty year olds who cannot balance a checkbook.  That is something they should understand at age 12 and be caring about.  We should not shelter them from business instead we should be saying this is the funnest, coolest world in which to be.  Imagine if you could find something you like to do, and not just make money from it, but a lot of money, create jobs with your friends, travel the world because it’s such a cool job and it allows you to do it.  Does that not sound awesome?  But we don’t really do that.  It really starts by rewarding entrepreneurship.  The ‘nerds’, those entrepreneurs, in Silicon Valley are worshipped like NBA stars.  I don’t see that around here.  I don’t see that in Northeast Florida.  We should recognize entrepreneurs and the teams around them.  We force the younger ones to get involved with internships or maybe we get into the classroom with case studies and give them real world scenarios.  Start them young, like second grade with some basic stuff.  Kids understand how important money is, they just don’t understand how to make it.  They want a great quality of life, but they don’t know how to fuse the two together.  I think they’ll welcome that message.  Only one percent can be an NBA star so that’s even more of a pipe dream than being an entrepreneur.  We just need to give them the inspiration. 

Education is important and real techies want to know what is happening in K-12.  They want their kids to be instilled with that.   And yeah, they want great sports, but they don’t care as much about that as what we’re talking about.  They want their kids to be exceptional, globally-thinking, thinkers.  They want interactions between K-12 and local colleges.  There definitely needs to be an emphasis on innovative thinking. 
NCEDB:  What would you say to someone who has just graduated high school and is about to start college? 

PVD:  I would counsel on a skillset that is repurposable – finance, economics, business, accounting, marketing or entrepreneurism – they go anywhere.  I think there’s some risk to go down a very specialized path.  Evolution is such that every vertical will change in 10-20 years. 
NCEDB:  Small businesses make up over 90 percent of the businesses in Nassau County.  How do we encourage them to innovate?  

PVD:  If we look at the small businesses within our community, we have businesses that want to grow, but don’t know how.  They’re fighting to stay afloat with a regional business/customer.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but what if we went to them and said, “let’s add an ecommerce dimension or we target one more market that is somewhat risk adverse, but a growth platform for you.”  I don’t think that happens a lot here.  I think people come here, they set up shop and they just kind of hang on to it and that’s a lot of work by itself.  If we could take people with different skillsets and allow them to partner with the local businesses to strategize and contemplate or entertain the idea of  “If I were to grow what direction is it?  Is it online sales? Is it another shop or one in another market?  Is it a sister company, is it a spinout?  What is it?”  It can be anything.  It’s another way we can grow this community.  That is happening a lot more in other communities around the country where it’s actively taught. There are classes and conversations.  It stimulates thinking for the older generation to grow and that fosters a different mindset within the community, which then becomes a growth oriented-strategic thinking climate. 
NCEDB:  How do we bring together small businesses and those who can help support their growth? 

PVD:  There are entrepreneurs here who want to grow, but they don’t know where to go or who to go to.  They’re too busy to fish around for the information.  More than likely they would join a community group if they knew it would affect their bottom line.  People are too busy for meetings, so make the entrepreneurial community digital
NCEDB:  One aspect of our job at the NCEDB is to recruit businesses to Nassau County, what kind of businesses would you like to see us attract? 

PVD:  This is biased, obviously, but let’s call them tech, or clean, or software or modern or ones that are higher tech and have a manufacturing element to it.  We have a great mix of relatively inexpensive land, places to develop and manufacture, the physical resources – train, port, airport, etc.  I’d like to see us move into more modern, cleaner businesses.  I’ve done it twice here so I know it can be done.  That would create a higher tax base because those jobs typically pay more.  If we could get a few headquarters, even if they’re smaller companies, who bring in C-Suite type people who raise the tax base and hire a lot of people - that and maybe some kind of incubator that would foster the creation and/or start-up side - I think, would be transformational here.  We need any kind of support system for entrepreneurship and creation.  My first thought is to look for companies that are already going, but they’re still transportable.  They’re not entrenched in a community.  I think we could lure them here.  Those businesses are the ones the get international attention.  There are enough local resources between here and Jacksonville. 

One of the things I’m most proud of over the past 15 years is that when all of the clinical studies were published in the peer review journals and it would say, ‘Zassi Medical Evolutions studied with University of Pennsylvania’.  It would say Fernandina Beach.  If you go to Campbell’s it says ‘powered by e-Zassi, Fernandina Beach’.  We can get it on the map with technology.  Technology by definition doesn’t have a local market, it has a global market.  I travel the world for my job and it seems as though wherever I go, someone has heard of Amelia Island.

NCEDB:  If you could sit down with a CEO who is looking to move his/her business to Nassau County, what would you say to them?

PVD:  It depends on the size and scope of the company, but it would be a balanced message.  You have to be open and honest about the good and the bad, but that is in every market.  On the good side, you can build quite the camaraderie and have a very longevity-focused team here based on the quality of life – great schools, etc.  If they’re involved in or require physical logistics, that’s a positive thing.  It is fairly inexpensive it is to be here, generally speaking.  Companies will need to leverage Jacksonville and that is not a bad thing. 

The NCEDB exists because of the generous support of the Nassau County Board of Commissioners, our local municipalities and economic development partners.
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