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One-on-One with Jim Spadaccini

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Unsure exactly which way to go after graduating from college in New York, Jim Spadaccini made his way to California.

Not for Hollywood glamour or the beach lifestyle.

Spadaccini, who grew up just outside New York City on Connecticut’s Gold Coast, went to teach special education in some of the Golden State’s most underserved areas. He worked in what he calls the “pretty rough” parts of Los Angeles and San Francisco on campuses populated largely by students who had been booted from regular public schools. Often, those kids had learning disabilities or severe emotional disturbances.

“It was the hardest job I’ve ever had,” he says.

He did it for several years before a career pivot. Spadaccini ultimately took a job as director of interactive media at the Exploratorium in San Francisco.

But Spadaccini is still an educator of sorts. Every day, across the world, people learn something by using one of the multitouch tables built in New Mexico by his Corrales-based technology company, Ideum. The company has shipped tables to places such as Vietnam, Croatia and Ecuador. Many are built as museum exhibits; Ideum recently completed an interactive exhibit for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Spadaccini traveled to Peru to take the photographs used for the project.

“That doesn’t happen every day,” he says, “but that’s the kind of project you dream about.”

The tables represent much of Ideum’s business these days, though the company has seen a surge in demand for its software development services, too, with a client list that includes the computer giant HP.

Q: Describe yourself as a teenager.

A: Oh, boy. I played in a punk band as a teenager, so that’s probably description enough.

Q: Were you any good?

A: No, and I had really poor judgment. I kicked Moby (the electronic music superstar) out of my band. But we’re still friends.

Q: What was your first job?

A: My first job was working with a plumber in Darien, Conn. I would work during the winter over Christmas break when all the pipes would freeze. We’d put these, like, electrical clippers on the pipe and you’d thaw them out and you’d just sit there and wait, and hope they didn’t burst. Maybe every other time they’d burst, so you’d thaw out these pipes and (makes gushing sound). The water would pour out, and you’d go and fix them. It was a great job.

Q: Was teaching your goal when you were in college?

A: No. I got out of college with a BA in liberal arts, so the choices were clear: What kind of graduate program was I going to go into? And in the end, after taking the LSATs and the GREs, and thinking about all of that, I got into teaching and found that I liked it. (I) did that for a while and wound up at The Exploratorium and pretty much after that ditched my plans for graduate school.

Q: How did you end up teaching in California?

A: Basically, in California, they were so short of teachers they would give you an emergency teaching credential. But where you would use that emergency teaching credential tended to be underserved communities. So I taught at non-public schools, which were basically schools where they would take all the students who were essentially kicked out from the public school system and they would kind of put them all together.

Q: How did the Exploratorium job come about?

A: They had just created this new digital studio called the Learning Studio. This was 1995, and they were looking for someone who would come in and work with teachers. And I had some experience running a computer lab in the Hunters Point section of San Francisco, so I applied for the job and was lucky enough to get it. They had a small part in that description about creating Web resources for teachers. … These were early days on the Web, and there were people at the Exploratorium who were smart enough to understand that this new digital space on the Web was like floor space – that you could create things that were more experiential. So I started getting involved in doing that and that really took off. We had a great run; we won three Webby awards for best science site three years in a row in the ’90s and, when I left, we had 10,000 pages on the Web. It was kind of crazy. It was a lot of development.

Q: Did you start developing touch tables like Ideum’s current output when you were working there?

A: We didn’t get into hardware until (much later with Ideum). I left the Exploratorium at the end of 1999 and started a firm that basically did Web design. We did some media gathering, photography, video and some software for exhibits, but we didn’t do any hardware. And, in fact, (Ideum) didn’t start doing hardware in any kind of serious sense until 2008. And when we got into it, it was because nobody else was doing what we wanted to play with. Nobody was building it. This was early days of multitouch and large displays, but nothing was hardened and it was incredibly expensive. We realized the best way to get involved in it was to prototype it and do it ourselves, and build our own. (We) made tons and tons of mistakes in doing it, but we also learned a lot and basically started a hardware business that, in some ways, until last year, started to eclipse (Ideum’s) software business. But now we’re trying to find the right balance where we can do both because we think they’re both really symbiotic.

Q: Where in Albuquerque would somebody see one of Ideum’s tables?

A: We have a couple of older models, one at the Maxwell Museum, which is on UNM’s campus. We also have one at Natural History; we have one at the Nuclear Museum, which is a little newer. We have projects up and coming with the BioPark and the Balloon Museum. We love to work locally, so we’re excited about that.

Q: What led you to move your company from California to New Mexico in 2005?

A: We were doing a project at Chaco Canyon and I think we had two trips budgeted. On the fifth trip (laughs), I said to my wife, who is also my business partner, “Could you see yourself living in New Mexico?” (At the time the company) had a couple of open positions. We were small back then, and we also had two people who had given notice; there was always turnover in the Bay Area – just (due to all) the opportunities. Also the cost of living, even then, (was high), so we felt like if we were ever going to (move), let’s do it now. We started over. We offered a few people if they wanted to come join us and no one took us up on it, so we basically started from scratch (in New Mexico), kind of restarted the company at that point.

Q: What about New Mexico won you over?

A: I think it was a lot of things. It was the people, it was the landscape, it was just the whole kind of vibe, if you will, (that) we just liked. It was a challenge: Can we run a fast-paced business in – I don’t want to say a slow-paced state, but there is kind of a relaxed kind of thing here that I like, so that when we want to turn off and not work, we can. I think it has all of those essential ingredients. We were concerned about finding people, but we’ve been able to find great people and we have an amazing staff here, so we feel really lucky.

Q: Why did you get involved with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty as a board member?

A: I got involved with them because they’re fierce. They make things happen. I was looking for a group that was highly effective in making change and getting serious about social justice, and that’s what really drew me to that organization. … I’ve only been a board member for a few months. I’m their newest board member and I’m one of the only folks who’s an entrepreneur. … I feel like it’s important that the business community starts to look at and try to tackle issues concerning education and poverty in the state of New Mexico. Besides it being a moral imperative, it’s holding back all of the dreams of development that people have for the state. You’re never going to get the traction you want if you’re 49th in important things like childhood poverty and education.

Q: If you weren’t doing this, what else could you see yourself doing?

A: Teaching history. I think that’s the only other thing I’ve been interested in my whole life is history.

Q: What do you like to do outside of work?

A: Well, I love to garden. We’re growing grapes, so I have 125 vines and we’re finally getting enough grapes to make a serious amount of wine this year, which is nice after four years of struggle. I also think that teaches you humility after you have hailstorms and freezes, and things like that that are completely out of your control. I like that, spending time with the kids, travel. Love travel.

Q: What are your pet peeves?

A: (Laughs) I came across this article about stretched fonts – you know fonts that get stretched out. Stretched fonts would be a pet peeve. … I think I’m kind of a neat freak, too. I like things organized.

Q: What would you do with an extra hour every day?

A: Ride my bike more.


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