A Military Veteran-Turned-Entrepreneur Continues to Focus on Serving
Marvin Avilez is the founder of the start-up VisualOps, a tenant at the pilot Veteran Future Lab, which is part of NYU Tandon’s extensive entrepreneurial network. The Veteran Future Lab supports early-stage ventures launched specifically by military veterans through access to mentors and industry leaders, community events and other entrepreneurship-specific services, such as legal, technical, and design work.
Avilez recently took home top honors at a hackathon mounted by MD5, a Department of Defense initiative to connect with universities and outside technologists to speed up the development of technologies that address national security. The three-day event, held at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, drew more than 100 participants who were charged with developing products to address the challenge of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in cities. Avilez’s “hack” was to use a Raspberry Pi-powered system to supply real-time communication to first-responder teams when communication and power systems are down. The win brought with it a cash prize of $15,000 and a chance to collaborate with the U.S. Army Strategic Studies Group and the New York Fire Department.
Before becoming an entrepreneur, Avilez served in the U.S. Marines for 14 years. At the age of 18, he joined as a reservist in the field of metrology. His work consisted of calibrating aviation precision measurement equipment, and he subsequently took on jobs at such iconic tech companies as Apple, Macromedia, and Oracle. Even after returning to civilian life, his impulse to help and protect others remained strong. When Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, he joined the nonprofit Team Rubicon, which deploys volunteer veterans to areas where their special skills can be used. He began establishing “jump teams” that quickly moved from location to location depending on where the need was greatest — from housing centers with residents requiring medications and food to debris-clogged streets that had to be cleared. With his military experience under his belt, Avilez, who worked in counterintelligence and interrogation, had the skills to do both the front-line work — starting stalled generators and comforting upset evacuees at a senior center — and the organizational chops to form, motivate, and lead teams.
After retiring from active service that found him in Iraq and other global hotspots, he conceived of a way to combine his passion for technology with a burgeoning interest in organizational behavior. He launched his own consulting firm, helping start-ups act as cohesive teams and navigate the path to success.
“I had been a part of several Marine Corps. teams and realized that there were discernable patterns in how successful teams operated,” Avilez says. “I began really studying what makes a team ‘tight.’ Team members who really understand why they are being asked to do what they are doing – who have the mission framed properly for them – work effectively together. Laying out clear, measurable objectives is important too.” When he realized that he could codify his system of team management, making it easy for businesses and organizations to implement, VisualOps was born.
As a tenant of The Veteran Future Lab, Avilez is excited about the prospect of connecting to organizational behavior experts throughout the university community, such as those in Tandon’s Department of Technology Management and Innovation. “Developing my philosophy, thinking of ways to visualize it, and building the software have been interesting processes,” he says. “And getting the insight of academic mentors would be invaluable.”
The MD5 hackathon also presented a milestone for him. “It was great to get feedback directly from the New York City firefighters at the event,” Avilez says. “As in the military, they’re thrust into dangerous situations where communications can easily break down. It’s gratifying to help provide them with a viable solution that ensures that they learn what they need to know as soon as they need to know it.”
FDNY Chief of Department James Leonard, who served on the panel of judges, found the experience equally worthy. “As someone who oversees and coordinates emergency services for a city of nearly 10 million people, he told a reporter, “I can see these solutions playing a vital role in our own assistance and rescue operations for the years ahead.”