Crashing in an airplane is a national nightmare. Finding expansion capital is an entrepreneur's dream come true. Yet both intertwine in the theatrical production Charlie Victor Romeo. On-stage, actors perform scenes culled from transcripts of airplanes' black boxes, while off-stage, a $50,000 grant from Absolut Vodka is allowing the theater company to expand into a company that produces educational videos.
Bob Berger, 34, and Justin Davila, 29, are the entrepreneurial creators of New York City-based Charlie Victor Romeo, which produced the play. When the show ran off-Broadway throughout 1999 and 2000, audiences were moved by it-including aviation professionals, who wanted to use the play as a training tool for their flight crews. So Berger, with a master's degree in interactive telecommunications, and Davila, who's completing his master's in artificial intelligence, developed a training video in conjunction with the Air Force. (While watching the "pilots," the user can also see what the airline controls are doing.)
That might have been the end of the story-but one of Davila's friends told him about the Absolut Angel contest. Through the competition, Absolut Vodka promised $50,000 apiece to two entrepreneurial companies able to marry art and technology. The vodka-maker's judges sifted through 700 detailed business plans, and one of the winners was Charlie Victor Romeo.
"This grant really can open up a lot of doors," acknowledges Davila. "Now that we have the funds, we're going to be developing more market research and contacting aviation leaders to determine what the specific market for this [training video] is." Then it can be geared toward the general public, aviation enthusiasts, private pilots, commercial airlines and narrow niche markets: Medical personnel have suggested they might want to use the video to study people's reactions in life-and-death emergencies, and a nuclear power plant's experts have suggested they may want to have similar emergency videos developed for them.
That's good news for Berger and Davila. But developing patents and prototypes for the software won't be a cheap undertaking-and development will eat much of the $50,000. Fortunately, the grant keeps giving: Absolut Vodka's public relations effort, not to mention the military's enthusiasm, has helped shine the media spotlight on the entrepreneurs, a spotlight that investors have noticed. Berger and Davila expect to transform Charlie Victor Romeo into Web-based, Internet, DVD and CD-Rom learning tools soon. A paperback and motion picture based on the play are also being discussed.
Perhaps most important, Davila says, "We're afforded the opportunity by this award to develop our business on our terms, at least in this initial phase." And with the company's expansion, it's no wonder Berger says the project is well on its way to taking over his life. That's show business-and any business.
Geoff Williams is a writer in Cincinnati. Contact him at email@example.com
Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.