Although video conferencing products and services are commonplace – particularly in an era of slashed corporate travel budgets – Edina-based Renovo Software put a new spin on the technology. Looking to stand out in the crowded market, Renovo developed Video Visitation, a system used by prisons in which inmates can video conference from within their cell block with visitors and lawyers. The software synchs with jail management systems that track inmate information, creating a robust, multi-layered application that’s winning wardens over nationwide.
Developed in 2006, the system is just part of Renovo’s offerings; the video networking firm also provides video scheduling that includes applications for distance learning and telemedicine, as well as consulting through a professional services arm.
“We like to talk to clients about what’s possible, about what they need but haven’t seen before,” says Tim Eickhoff, co-owner and managing partner, who handles the sales, marketing and business development. “We’re constantly trying to understand what could be better, what could be different, what features and functions enhance the video conferencing experience.”
Eickhoff and fellow owner and managing partner, Tim Skaja, started Renovo in 2003 with a small loan from a family member and decided early on that they would target a very specific type of customer rather than trying to be everything to every client.
Both had worked at video conferencing firms in the past, and had seen firsthand the diffusion of energy that comes with a too-broad approach, so they settled on the educational networking market where they felt they could develop deep competencies within that particular niche.
The firm runs the gamut for educational networks, from kindergarten through college, and a prime example of their work lies within BadgerNet, Wisconsin’s converged network, serving 72 counties. Renovo helped connect close to 500 classrooms on the system so that rural communities and larger cities could be on a level educational playing field.
For instance, an AP calculus teacher in Madison could teach students from schools across the state with video systems that allow all the students to see each other for more effective communication and group projects.
It didn’t take long for their work in the education sector to take a serendipitous turn when Skaja and Eickhoff were approached by one of their suppliers who was trying to sell some hardware to the Orange County Corrections Department. The vendor asked if Renovo could set-up a connection between inmates and visitors, and the co-owners saw that it wasn’t that large of a stretch, conceptually. Technologically, however, it proved to be quite different.
“Initially, we did some jerry-rigging of the educational product to work within the corrections market, but it didn’t take long to understand it couldn’t be a long-term solution,” says Eickhoff.
The corrections market is awash in different policies – one prison might allow three visitors per week, for example, while another only grants two – so a system had to be flexible and scalable, rather than a one-size-fits-all solution. “Everyone needs something different, something specific to their facilities,” adds Skaja.
But crafting a custom-made video conferencing and scheduling product for each corrections customer wouldn’t have been either cost-effective or realistic. So, instead, Renovo engineers developed Video Visitation, an application that could be customized in its features, but with functionality common to nearly every facility.
The benefits of the product are formidable, the co-owners believe. Not only does the system allow prisons to keep visitors out of their facilities, which reduces the amount of contraband, but it also creates efficiencies in terms of staffing. A corrections officer doesn’t have to walk a prisoner to the visitation area and then walk them back, taking up hours of time every day. Instead, they can just monitor their “visits” from within the cell block.
Visitors, too, can benefit since Renovo’s system allows them to schedule visits online, and show up at a certain time. For facilities without such a system, most visits are done on a first-come, first-served basis, with some visitors waiting hours while inmates are transferred from across the building. Skaja says that corrections clients have told him about occasional scuffles among visitors, such as when a wife and a girlfriend show up at the same time, for the same inmate. With a laugh, Skaja says, “I’m sure the corrections officers are only too happy to avoid those situations in the future.”
Another advantage of the system is its ability to store and track data that can be integrated with a jail management system so corrections departments create greater staffing efficiency. For example, the Video Visitation system might note that a certain day of the week is particularly busy for visit, and a facility can add officer shifts just for that day in the future.
Renovo is hoping to attract the attention of more public defenders as well, who usually spend a large chunk of time visiting their clients in prison or jail. “Imagine, they’ll only need a five-minute visit from their desks to relay information or ask a question, whereas before it might have taken hours for that same interaction,” says Eickhoff. “This allows public defenders to connect with their clients while saving time and money.”
Not surprisingly, customers for Video Visitation tend to be located where prison populations are largest, such as Florida, Ohio, Texas, Pennsylvania and the Carolinas. Although videoconferencing services began popping up in these places about a dozen years ago, Eickhoff doesn’t believe that Renovo really has much competition.
"Not much is in the market in terms of managed software," he says. "There are some companies that build ‘systems’ that are really just boxes on the wall that they manually connect together."
By focusing on software, and staying hardware-neutral, Renovo is able to put its systems into facilities that might have a competitor’s system already in place, and that’s a big advantage, Skaja adds.
Improving efficiency, reducing labor costs and increasing facility security, all while implementing a system that’s easy to use have proven to be compelling for many corrections customers, and Renovo also saw a nice boost in its education division last year as well.
Most recently, the company developed custom capability for Northeast Texas Distance Learning Consortium, and provided video scheduling for colleges in Milwaukee, Kansas and Nebraska.
The niche-market product and established video scheduling services have led to company growth that both owners expect will continue, especially as marketing efforts and technology development continue to mature.
"One of our favorite things to do is talk to customers about what else they’d like to see in our software," says Skaja. "We have so many ideas about add-ons that will keep us staying ahead, and some of them are a ways out, but we intend to be ahead in this market for a long time."