Frederick-based tech startup looks to solve math problems

Paige Jones//April 11, 2016

Frederick-based tech startup looks to solve math problems

By The Frederick-News Post

//Paige Jones

//April 11, 2016

FREDERICK — Have you ever tried to count how many jelly beans are in a jar for a contest? How would you solve it?

Maybe you would guess a number. Others might try to visually count the jelly beans they see. An even smaller percentage would probably try to mathematically calculate the answer to this classic problem.

Today, contest participants can easily solve this question with a well-educated guess as to the jar’s dimensions and a smartphone or computer to plug those numbers into an equation published on the vCalc website.

VCalc is a free website designed to help people find and compute solutions to everyday math and science problems.

It allows users to access equations and online calculators in one place so they can solve complex problems, like how to build a house, as well as simpler ones, such as the number of jelly beans in a jar.

“We’re sparing them from entering big, ugly equations . (and) big, ugly numbers (into a physical calculator),” said Kurt Heckman, president and founder of vCalc, referring to the website as a one-stop shop.

Heckman founded vCalc LLC, which is headquartered in downtown Frederick, about 2 1/2 years ago. It began as an online forum where people like Heckman, who understood math, could post equations, calculators and constants they found helpful for others to use, he said.

At first, the website was geared more toward engineering, science and math with posts about how to determine the speed of an aircraft or convert measurements from nanometers to inches, Heckman said.

Today, the website has evolved into a more open and varied learning space where anyone can post and use tools for all kinds of everyday problems, ranging from construction to chemistry, he said.

“It’s kind of like a Wikipedia model in that people who understand a topic can come in and add this and make it free to the public,” Heckman said. There is a process to review and verify published content.

The idea for vCalc stemmed from Heckman’s experience working as an aerospace engineer. He noticed that careless arithmetic could lead to inaccurate results, a problem easily resolved by creating an online platform where users could input numbers and receive answers without computing, he said.

“I was constantly building mathematical tools for people doing their day jobs,” he said. “Sometimes it was crazy high tech like flying a satellite and sometimes it was literally adding up numbers on a balance sheet for a bank.”

Today, Heckman is looking to expand the website’s content to reach a broader audience, including students, he said.

Heckman and the roughly half dozen vCalc employees in Frederick will work with students and professors from St. Mary’s College this summer to develop college-level math formulas and data for the website. As of mid-March, the website had more than 8,000 equations published, according to Heckman.

This project is funded by a $97,000 grant from the Maryland Industrial Partnerships Program (MIPS), the second time vCalc has worked with a college on the website using a grant from this program.

In 2014, vCalc partnered with computer science faculty and students from Frostburg University to build equations and sets of constants for the website’s calculator application through a MIPS grant.

Heckman said the firm will continue to search and apply for grants, but vCalc is largely funded by his personal investment and those of others. Several million dollars have already been invested, he said.

“We think we have this distinct possibility to be a multi-billion-dollar industry,” Heckman said. “I mean, we’re being found all over the world right now without really trying very hard.”

The website receives a large amount of traffic each month, including visitors from more than 100 countries, according to Heckman.

“And just like you don’t go search the Internet (but) you go Google things, we want to become a verb,” he said. “We hope five years from now, people, if they’re rubbing two numbers together, they say, ‘Go vCalc.’ And the market’s there. Math is in everything.”

Heckman said he believes vCalc will grow significantly in the next year. The company already has employees in Kenya and Estonia who manage and develop the website and provide tech support.

Dina Yagodich, an associate professor of mathematics at Frederick Community College, said vCalc could be a useful educational tool, particularly for students looking to check their homework.

“Tools like this, if used well by students, can actually enhance their learning,” Yagodich said.

VCalc could be detrimental for students learning basic algebra and computation, but for advanced students, Yagodich said this helps them check their work and prepare for quizzes and tests.

It also allows them to seek help from another source, instead of from her, Yagodich said. Now when students approach her for help, she said it’s typically for the more complicated, abstract questions.

“That’s what I’d rather have them ask for help on,” she said. “It’s the best use of their time and my time.”



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