Rob Painter speaking

Ohio alumnus revolutionizes national security through technology

Austin Ambrose
March 14, 2017

Thanks to Ohio University alumnus and former Voinovich staff member Rob Painter, scouting dream vacations through Google Earth became possible. Through his work with spatial understanding and technological innovations, Painter continues to revolutionize national security.

Painter applied to Ohio University while serving in the military, planning to enroll after his service. When he received a rejection letter, Painter requested emergency leave to meet with the University registrar. Noticing a picture of a woman at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, Painter asked if it was the man’s daughter. When the registrar said it was, Painter explained that he had enlisted in the U.S. Army to earn money to attend school. The registrar told Painter to get a recommendation letter and send it directly to him. Painter later was admitted to Ohio University.

“To say I am grateful is a bit of an understatement,” Painter said. “It was a lot of being in the right place at the right time that helped me reach the success I have. My time at Ohio University helped guide my future.”

Painter began his academic career as a philosophy major, but later switched to geography. The combination of geography and the analytics of GIS fascinated Painter, which prompted him to pick up a second major in computer science and blend the two disciplines. The combined majors and his military experience shaped his perspective on the future of technology.

“Largely, many companies I’d been involved in as an investor or an operator have been spatial in orientation,” Painter said. “In the military, there was a constant lack of situational awareness and sense of space. There was a level of uncertainty on a map, with little sense of context.”

Through his studies, Painter developed the skills to design and use software that made it easier to understand in spatial awareness. Much of his work began at the Institute for Local Government Administration and Rural Development (ILGARD), now known as the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs.

“I applied for a Program to Aid Career Exploration grant and ended up doing computer mapping for (Voinovich School Chief Financial and Administrative Officer) Mike Finney at ILGARD. I was the first undergraduate student and had the very first office when it was moved to The Ridges,” Painter said.

Painter spent nearly five and a half years at ILGARD, including time after graduation, working as GIS specialist and IT systems manager. He built the GIS lab at The Ridges; he also launched Encompass Technologies Inc., a computer program that brings geography into the classroom. After leaving ILGARD, he worked defense contractors Northrup Grumman and Lockheed Martin before landing at In-Q-Tel, a nonprofit that connects the intelligence community with advancements in commercial technology. While at In-Q-Tel, Painter led investments that created Keyhole and @Last Software, which Google later bought and turned into Google Earth and Google SketchUp, respectively.

Rob Painter

Google offered Painter a position as manager of Google Earth Enterprise’s federal branch. He eventually became chief technologist and senior manager for Google Federal, which entailed working with defense organizations to provide solutions through Google Enterprise. While he enjoyed his experience at Google, Painter’s goals remained elsewhere.

“I never really let go of my desire to apply technology of spatial understanding, to create a more rapid awareness of space and time,” Painter said.

Painter left Google to co-found Razor’s Edge Ventures, a venture capital firm that invests in technology companies focused on national security. A few of these companies include 908 Devices, Mersive Technologies and HawkEye 360. The first fund size was $75 million and the second fund is target to reach $200 million.

“I get to look for people who are creating the next Google Earth,” Painter said. He believes the government should have great options in its market, just like consumers.

Painter also consults directly with Joint Special Operations Command, discussing possible technological developments and their potential to benefit national security.

“I am fortunate to get to spend time with amazing, talented trained personnel. I talk with entrepreneurs, and then have a forward hand with the interaction of the customer, which is the government,” he said. “I can continue to support both sides.”

Painter’s success led him to reconnect with Ohio University and the Voinovich School in October 2016. He came back for a five-day, whirlwind experience of talking to classes, chatting with students, and catching up with former colleagues. It gave him a chance to see how the Voinovich School has grown since his departure, such as the creation of the Center for Entrepreneurship and TechGROWTH Ohio.

“You know the University enjoyed it when less than 24 hours after returning to Virginia I was being asked to host students in my office,” Painter said. “I got a homecoming from Bobcats with more Bobcats.”