Innovation/Application: Digital Radiance

Ron Phillips, president and CEO of Digital Radiance, Inc., answers questions about the company, its work and HudsonAlpha.

Q: When and where did Digital Radiance begin?
I started Digital Radiance at home in Madison, Alabama in 1994 doing part-time 3D software development and animation.  I went full-time in 1997 and began growing the company towards my lifelong dream of using interactive simulation technologies to accelerate learning.  Until the technology and market caught up with the vision, we did related consulting work to constantly learn new software tools and experiment with production and business models.  All the pieces fell into place in 2008.

Q: What does Digital Radiance do?
We use powerful, Web-based video game technology to help people learn more quickly, safely, and cheaply.  One of our markets is education.  For example, everyone knows that science education should include more hands-on activities and less rote memorization, but full-featured science experiments are an expensive, time-consuming and potentially dangerous proposition for most schools.  We bypass these problems by creating exciting virtual lab experiences that look and feel like realistic 3D video games, yet they run in a Web browser on typical school computers.  It’s incredibly cost effective and engaging.  After years of false starts, the education market has recently reached a tipping point for empowering students and teachers with the true potential of computers in the classroom.

Q: Why did you move to HudsonAlpha?
Because the people at HudsonAlpha completely blew my mind: a creative blend of world-class research, business and education professionals, all sharing an intense drive to solve some of humanity’s oldest and most devastating problems.  The spirit here is results-oriented, social and out-of-the-box.  My kind of place.

Q: Has Digital Radiance always focused around science and technology? If not, what made you decide to focus your business around science and technology?
We’ve always had a strong focus on science education.  I loved math and science in school, but also art, music and writing.  As a kid, I was hooked on the original Star Wars movies, the BBC series Connections and on creating video games.  You could say my passion is literally to combine these three influences into experiences that energize science education for students at all grade levels and learning abilities.  Digital Radiance has worked over the past fifteen years with dozens of clients from Hollywood to Manhattan creating state-of-the-art products that either help teach science or help visualize complex scientific and technical concepts.

Q: You have several teachers in your family. How has this influenced your business?
It’s meant everything.  Teaching is certainly in my genes, and I particularly enjoy teaching high school and college students. The greatest gift my parents gave me is a love of learning.  I owe everything to them.  Now I just pass it on, most importantly to my daughter.  To me, business is the most exciting school there is.  I make it clear to every new employee from day one that we’re all intensely focused students here, learning better ways to live, work and play.  That’s how Digital Radiance provides authentic, innovative, lasting value to our customers.

Q: Your business has a unique way of staying current with students’ needs. Can you explain?
Seven of our twelve employees are part-time high school or college interns.  There is no better way to provide educational products to students than to have students themselves creating the products in the first place.  The Huntsville/Madison area is, without question, a key part of our competitive advantage.  We attract exceptionally talented young people and we offer them the level of freedom and responsibility they deserve.  We pride ourselves on offering a real-world, first-time job experience that prepares young people for careers in dynamic, team-based, high-salary, creative industries.  I encourage students, parents and teachers to stop by anytime and see.

Q: What advice would you give to students wanting to enter the science and technology fields?
Same advice I give to every student: follow your passion.  This is particularly true in science and technology because these fields change so rapidly.  You’ve got to truly love it if you want to keep up.  My degree is in electrical engineering, so I’ve had a front-row seat to the power of rapid progress.  I view these careers as one of the highest callings possible.  But science and technology can be double-edged swords.  Very few people see the profound technological change that’s accelerating towards us over the next few decades, so scientists and engineers must help clearly communicate and humanely integrate that change into daily life.  That’s why it’s critical to let young people know how much creativity and sheer artistry there is in science and engineering.  Teaching otherwise, even if unintentional, is tragically turning away the imaginative thinkers, visionaries, and leaders in science and engineering that our world so desperately needs.  It affects us all.

Q: Has the relationship between Digital Radiance and HudsonAlpha been as successful as you anticipated?
It’s been astoundingly successful, far more so than I could have imagined at the outset.  Jim Hudson’s and Lonnie McMillian’s joint vision for education as a core part of the institute’s mission is what initially attracted me, but the team they’ve built is what continues to amaze me.  I started working with Dr. Neil Lamb, HudsonAlpha’s director of educational outreach, shortly after he joined HudsonAlpha in 2006.  Neil sets a very high bar and his passionate leadership brings out the best in everyone around him.  His support made our work here possible.  Then Dr. Rick Myers brought in Dr. O’Neal Smitherman as executive vice-president, and Neil brought in Dr. Adam Hott as coordinator of education outreach.  Adam and O’Neal bring a deep understanding and enthusiasm for game and simulation technology in education.  I still can’t believe the environment here.  Digital Radiance succeeds at HudsonAlpha because of the inspiring and supportive friends I get to work with at all levels of the organization.

Q: What’s next for Digital Radiance?
Since cellular biology is so challenging to teach, we’ve focused our first virtual labs and teaching tools in that area.  Next are virtual labs and activities in other areas of junior high, high school, and college science.  Underneath the hood, we’re developing an amazing new capability for our products that will revolutionize distance learning for science teachers and students without requiring schools to buy any more equipment.  I can’t wait to get it into the classrooms!