CarmaLink Retro 2008-2009

This the first post in a retrospective series documenting CarmaLink’s history from 2008-2021. Content written and provided by Kevin Holmes and Chris Suozzo.

2008 - 2009

Founded in 2008 as Carma Systems Inc. by four like-minded entrepreneurs who saw the automotive industry lagging behind the technology industry and wanted to try their hand at building the future of in-car automotive entertainment systems.

The initial business concept was to launch an aftermarket in-car computer that could fit into a double DIN standard slot in a car’s dashboard. The focus was on measuring vehicle performance and providing a rich multimedia experience (think of what CarPlay or Android Auto is now in 2023). We determined that a key differentiator would be the ability of this product to display information collected from the vehicle itself, through a connection to the OBDII port. This port, required on all US vehicles since 1996, made available a wealth of live sensor and diagnostic data that was not normally accessible to the user.

We hired a few senior full-time engineers and recruited several Computer Science interns from RPI in Troy, NY, for the summers, some of whom would later continue to work full-time after they graduated. Most would go on to work in Silicon Valley at various well-known tech companies like Apple, Pure Storage, Twilio, Oracle and Facebook.

Our first product was based on Windows Embedded and .NET 1.0 which was brand-new at the time. An OBDII “dongle” of our own design would provide a data connection to the vehicle wirelessly over Bluetooth. Despite making considerable progress on what was clearly an ambitious goal, the cost and complexity of developing a high-end aftermarket infotainment product that served a relatively small market forced us to reconsider our strategy.

At this point, we knew we needed to pivot, but we didn’t know where to go with what we had built. This involved a lot of soul-searching and reaching out to our networks to see what (if anything!) could use the technology we had been developing for another use case.

A kernel of the original idea remained: it was clear that there was value in the vehicle information locked away within the OBDII port, normally only accessible by bulky scan tools. Being able to surface this information on a device the user already had would be ideal. During the summer of 2009, we worked to move our .NET embedded application onto a Windows phone that could work with our OBDII dongle. Apple’s iPhone was still relatively new, but their recent introduction of the App Store and “Made for iPhone” program gave us the perfect entry point to a new platform with massive potential.

2008 pictures

Pre-incorporation office (Drywall Lane garage that is now a batting cage) circa April 2008 in Voorheesville, NY.

nick sitting at his drywall lane desk before office was furnished

kevin’s desk at drywall lane office next to lonely printer

After buying some used/new furniture from a local office shop so we’d have somewhere to sit.

nick carrying printer afer new desks were delivered

c sharp and linux books in desk cabinet

kevin’s desk with personal effects

The area in the back of this photo was a large garage bay with storage and a small loft.

gang of four founders desks with chairs and personal items

Nick and Kevin went to Boston, MA for a C#/.NET 1.0 bootcamp. Segway engineers attended and we also visited a friend’s music studio. Kevin still wears that SUSE 10 hat from time to time.

kevin taking a break in taylor’s music studio after programming camp

nick enjoying the wall of guitars in taylor’s music studio after programming camp

segway engineers goofing around with 1st gen prototype they brought after a day of programming bootcamp

Drywall lane office after a few more months of being lived-in approx August 2008, complete with whiteboards and a summer employee’s (TJ McNally) desk who helped us with our initial graphic design efforts while being an all-around great friend.

conference area and library at drywall lane

office with clutter, pictures, furniture and nice lighting

Sketching out the original in-dash infotainment product and staffing, along with deliverables for SEMA 2009

whiteboard with product details

whiteboard with product details

whiteboard with product details

whiteboard with sema 2009 deliverables

Matt graduated from college around this time and moved back to the Albany area to join us.

matt looking suave at his desk with long hair

In September of 2008, Nick and Kevin attended the Web 2.0 conference in NYC.

nick in nyc hotel room unwinding

nyc skyline outside hotel room morning of conference

web 2.0 swag bag kevin brought back to hotel after conference

Bunn coffee maker was legendendary and it looks like there was still some left in the pot.

office snack and coffee bar that was our break area

office network and compute closet with some 2U servers, a monitor, network switch and network gateway

Bluetooth modules from several manufacturers were evaluated for use in the dongle, including CSR, Bluegiga and Ezurio.

ezurio board

Early hardware POCs leveraged 3rd party firmware developed by Elm Electronics to support the variety of protocols and interfaces used to implement OBDII.

chris desk at drywall lane with a power supply and the competitions circuitry

modified elmscan

elmscan husks

Though we did have a garage bay, OBDII vehicle emulators that mimicked various sensor output and engine faults made testing much easier!

obd2 emulator

obd2 emulator on bench

At the end of 2008 we wanted something more hip than a small garage in Voorheesville. This resulted in us renting an apartment on Willett Street next to Albany’s Washington Park. This was a Carriage House from 1878 that has since been refinished.

willett house front from street

stairs in willett house up to office

2nd floor of willett house looking down stairs

projector, main window, desk and stairs up to 3rd floor loft in willett house

willett house loft, desk and kitchen in background

willett house loft, desk and kitchen with vaulted ceiling

willett house kitchen

nick cleaning up kitchen in willett house after we moved in

nick setting up projector in willett house

nick playing guitar in willett house

This was THE spot to get lunch. Debbie’s Kitchen!!

debbies kitchen down the street from willett house

tess’ lark tavern sign from street

rear entrance to willett house from lark taven parking lot

At some point in 2008 we realized doing a “dark launch” was silly and needed a web presence for the company.

carmalink homepage mockup

2009 pictures

We made a point of having a robust Internship program to help build our engineering resource pipeline (thanks Joel on Software!) Every year, Kevin and others would attend RPI to recruit students who were interested in working at Carma. We always made a point of trying to stand out from the rest of the mega-corps in an effort to attract like-minded individuals. You may remember that “Is This Good for the COMPANY?” sign from the movie Office Space.

nick and kevin at rpi job fair

We had a prototype app called Doctor Auto for diagnosing and sharing commmon CEL issues that included a social component.

dr auto mockup

Our first hardware was a POC of the Bluetooth OBDII dongle with a 3d printed case (codename ‘Sword’). While the ELM327 helped jumpstart development, we ultimately decided to bring the entire firmware stack in-house.

sword board bottom

sword board top

sword case front

sword case top

sword case inner bottom

sword inner parts

sword inner top

We were outgrowing the Voorheesville garage and the Willett Carriage House by this time. So the hunt for a more permanent location began in the winter of 2009. We ended up initially subletting part of a house/office off Delaware Ave in Delmar, NY. Within a few months we had taken over the entire building and the other tenants moved down the street towards Delaware Plaza. These pictures are from various locations we decided not to lease.

dark and outdated open concept office in cohoes

chris and a realtor look at potential office location

chris, matt and nick touring potential office location

chris and nick talk with realtors in potential office location

chris, matt and realtors tour a gross property

Once we finalized the Delaware Ave location, Kevin wired up the building with some help from his brother Andy for gigabit ethernet connectivity. This was before fast 802.11 wireless was affordable. We spent about a week preparing the building and getting it cleaned up before everyone moved in and we officially consolidated the Voorheesville and Albany locations once and for all. This is when things really started to take off for us.

delaware ave conference room with low voltage wiring supplies and tools

L to R on moving day: Miranda Sehl, Kevin Holmes, Chris Suozzo, Nick Cosimano, Matt Suozzo, Steven Cosimano and Richard Sehl

moving day with miranda, kevin, chris, nick, matt steve and rich

Matt Suozzo, Nick Cosimano, and Jeff Frey with our .NET/Windows mobile prototypes from July 2009. We had managed to obtain all of the standard OBDII data, including Check Engine Light codes, and built out a nice interface providing some gauges.

matt and jeff in audi with prototype

matt and nick outside car with obd2 bluetooth dongle and windows phone

jeff with prototype outside car holding umbrella

jeff and matt with prototype having discussion

prototype demo with team

FT engineering team that summer, L to R: Matt Suozzo, Nick Cosimano, Kurt Mattis, Chris Suozzo, Kevin Holmes, Miranda Sehl

shot of engineering team L to R: matt suozzo, nick cosimano, kurt mattis, chris suozzo, kevin holmes, miranda sehl

front of delaware ave office looking out to street with Jeff and fire trucks at friendly’s resturant

nick and miranda talking in office

Around the Fall of 2009 we started the “Fun Friday” tradition where we would make an effort to get out and enjoy ourselves as a team. These kinds of activities ranged from going on hikes, to seeing movies, carving pumpkins or ordering lunch and watching the IT Crowd. This was also around the time when Jesse Hutton joined the engineering team.

miranda, matt, jesse at overlook

chris, miranda,kevin, matt at overlook

chris, matt kevin, miranda, jesse on hike

jesse checking out the gourds

carmalink pumpkin

smiling pumpkin

Cotton the cat joined our team around December of ‘09. She was living behind Nick’s mechanic’s shop and was being evicted so the office agreed to take her in and promote her to Head Cat at Carma.

cotton in carrier going to new home

Bernie our Office Manager and manufacturing guru was also a well-known band/venue photographer and he took some good pictures of our office party that year. This was at a bar called Red Square that was then rebranded a few times and is now Loch and Quay.

tom sinopoli, kevin holmes, miranda sehl at table

red square decorations for holidays

L to R: Matt Suozzo, Chris Suozzo, Jesse Hutton, Nick Cosimano, Miranda Sehl, Ellen Sinopoli, Tom Sinopoli, Kevin Holmes, Peter Olsen

matt suozzo, chris suozzo, jesse hutton, nick cosimano, miranda sehl, ellen sinopoli, tom sinopoli, kevin holmes, peter olsen

red square decorations for holidays with xmas ornament tree

peter olsen, matt suozzo, tom sinopoli, kevin holmes holding wine/gifts

nick cosimano, miranda sehl, kevin holmes looking at wine

nick cosimano and tom sinopoli with leftovers and wine gifts

Prototype VehLink .NET App screenshots

screenshot of main screen navigation icons in VehLink

screenshot of selectable vehicle data gauges in VehLink

screenshot of selected vehicle data gauges in VehLink

screenshot of g meter in VehLink

screenshot of g meter only in VehLink