The 1930 Union School that once hosted kindergarten-through-high school children from the Saline community doesn’t show its age. It's well-maintained facade and manicured lawns are kept that way by the business now occupying its historic halls.
Inside is a high-tech business that is anything but “old school.” That business, an engineering solutions company called Quantum Signal, was started over ten years ago by a newly-minted PhD, Mitchell Rohde, and professor Bill Williams, both from the University of Michigan.
The old school has about 42,000 square feet of floor space. Most of the old classrooms have been converted to office space but there are also areas like the gym, the kitchen, wide hallways and the garage.
“It’s not an efficient place, but it’s a cool place,” Rohde said.
It’s also a quirky place. The hallways, still lined with lockers, also sport video game posters and arcade games. The old gymnasium is used for employee volleyball games, dodge ball games, group meetings and parties, but it is also used for testing robots. The school is a place that “helps people to think differently,” Rohde said.
This venue not only spurs creativity in the staff, but also lets visiting clients and prospective employees know that this is no ordinary business. The staff has fun, but also works extremely hard.
The business began in Ann Arbor. As the company grew, Rohde and the staff wanted to establish a downtown location, but nothing in Ann Arbor seemed available or affordable. In the meantime, Rohde had moved to Lodi Township and had come to know and love Saline.
Rohde started thinking he would like to do something to help downtown Saline. He discovered the old school was available, but was afraid that his pro-Ann-Arbor staff would not like it.
“But when they saw this facility and they saw how cool downtown Saline is, they were very much about moving down here,” Rohde said.
Since moving into the school in late 2010, employees have patronized the local restaurants and stores. One of their satellite conference areas was across the street at the Drowsy Parrot, a place they are sad to lose.
“We want to be a Saline company,” Rohde said. “We’d like to make a difference for Saline.”
While in school, Rohde’s dream was to work in a small company researching machine-human brain interfaces. Upon graduating he decided a broader mission dealing with image processing would be more economically viable, so he started Quantum Signal.
However, being an entrepreneur had not originally been part of Rohde’s plans. He was an engineer and had to learn new skills like management, accounting, hiring, making budgets, etc. through a “baptism by fire.” Fortunately, Rohde’s wife, who is a director at Ford Motor Company, has an MBA. She was able to help him early in his venture.
Now Rohde is much more comfortable with his role as CEO. He is also enjoying the kinds of problems that the company is currently working on. These include robotics, forensics and simulations.
“I love working with really smart people,” Rohde said.
The company has no signage outside the school except on the door in the back of the building. Also, they don’t advertise. Rohde says that the business is to help clients solve difficult problems and, “they find us somehow.”
The same is true of their employees. Rohde says the company gets resumes, “out of the blue.” Word gets around that this is a fun and challenging place to work.
Besides the engineering solutions related to image processing, the company also develops video games under the name “Reactor Zero.” For example, they made “Red Faction Guerilla” for PC.
Another company project recently highlighted in a press release is the development of autonomous vehicles, i.e., cars that drive themselves. They were the first company to receive manufacturer plates from the state of Michigan for testing these vehicles on public roads.
“Essentially we can control all aspects of the vehicle remotely through a computer, and based on that and some of the sensor data we can do autonomous navigation and autonomous obstacle avoidance,” said Kevin Melloti, a hardware engineer at Quantum Signal.
They do not build cars but they develop control systems, especially those related to signal processing. They develop algorithms that allow the car’s sensors to read traffic signs or to calculate the precise location and distance to obstacles.
They have a Kawasaki Mule that has been modified to be autonomous. Sometimes they test it in the parking lot.
“We’ll probably end up doing some stuff on public roads with this guy [the Mule] in the next six months or so, but rest assured, it’s all with supervision,” Rohde said.
Someday when you see a Mule going down the road in Saline, there will be a licensed driver in the driver’s seat, but he may not be driving.
Below, Chris Showers (left) and Kevin Melotti (right) of Quantum Signal, along with a grad student from U-M, confer about their autonomous Mule.