This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
Helper • Christopher Warnock wants to overhaul the way people learn in the digital age, and he wants to do it from an old boarding house off Utah’s Highway 6.
His startup company is called Helper Systems, a name he says reflects not just the Utah town where it’s headquartered but also his desire to lift people out of the morass of information overload.
“We think that information should work differently,” Warnock said.
The company has no product in the market yet, although he says that is coming soon. It has put out a prototype called kOS (pronounced “chaos”) that aims to make it easier and more productive to search troves of documents published in PDF format.
That Warnock should arrive at this point – both in his career and in Helper – shows his dreams for the future are rooted in his family’s past.
The University of Utah graduate was an early entrant to online research more than 20 years ago, starting an electronic book company, ebrary, that made thousands of classical books available online and searchable.
Those books were published in the electronic publishing standard called “Portable Document Format,” or PDF, which Warnock was intimately familiar with as the son of John Warnock, the U. graduate who invented the PDF and is a founder of tech giant Adobe. The younger Warnock had worked for Adobe before launching ebrary.
And the decision to locate both his business and his home in the once-dying town of Helper can be traced to his mother. Marva Mullins Warnock grew up in Helper and her family has deep roots in Carbon County.
Five years ago, he and his wife, Barbara, were living in Los Altos, Calif., and wanting to relocate somewhere in the West. “We were looking everywhere in the Western states, from Hawaii and Alaska to Montana.”
When that journey passed through Carbon County, they did what they had always done, jumping off the highway for a nostalgic drive down Helper’s Main Street.
“I’ve been coming to Helper since I was a baby,” said Warnock, who’s now 55.
Weeks later, they were buying property.
Art, tech and tax base
Helper Mayor Lenise Peterman said the Warnocks have been active partners in the community and supportive of the ongoing renaissance from near-ghost town to thriving arts hub with galleries and restaurants lining the historic Main Street.
“He’s got an artistic side as well. So I think the tech and then the artistic side of him, he kind of can blend these things in Helper. That’s me just guessing,” Peterman said.
Helper Systems is the town’s only tech startup, the mayor said, but she can see it being the start of something bigger. She said the town of 2,112 has fiber-optic broadband and a host of recreational opportunities nearby.
“We do see technology as being an avenue for a place like Helper, where people can come and live and work and play, and do it in a tech environment. … I think it’s a work-life balance that’s to our advantage. We’re sort of the midpoint to the big five [national] parks. And then we have the artist community, which is stellar. I mean, we have nationally known artists on our Main Street. We have emerging artists on our Main Street.”
While coal towns across the country are struggling to find a future, Helper is the exception. Peterman’s grant-writing efforts have brought in $9 million since she took office, which has gone to infrastructure and improving recreational assets. The town’s annual budget has gone from $1.2 million in 2018 to $1.9 million next year, with most of the growth coming in sales taxes from tourism.
Warnock is intent on making the 16-employee Helper Systems a model digital workplace, and employees are scattered from Helper to Salt Lake City to the Bay Area to Ukraine, where the coders live.
He sees Helper Systems’ presence in Helper as more outlier than trendsetter.
“We didn’t come down here with the intent to sort of be the vanguard,” he said. “The reasons why we chose here were very personal to my wife and I.”
But with an international airport less than two hours away, they have been able to gather people for meetings. That has included renting out the historic Lincoln Hotel to put people up.
“It’s a fun place to have everyone come because it’s so far off the beaten path and there’s not a lot of places like this.”
Their Main Street location puts them near the galleries and restaurants, and the Price River flows behind the buildings. Warnock says they have inner tubes for river floats.
His great-grandfather, Franklin Mullins, was a mayor of Helper, and his family lost members in the Scofield Mine disaster of 1900. “We’re sort of joking when I say we’re one of the oldest Mormon families in Utah, because soon as we got here, we got excommunicated.”
Moving beyond the basic PDF
Warnock had been working on the idea behind Helper Systems before he arrived, but he liked the name Helper and what it stood for. Helper is named for the helper engines that would be attached to trains for the long climb over Soldier Summit to supply coal to the Wasatch Front.
Warnock’s son, J.A. Warnock, is the company’s Salt Lake City-based product manager, and he says kOS is aimed at making research more effective. “It has broad potential applications and a lot of additional features in the pipeline. We’ve been calling what’s currently out on the App Store more of a preview. So we’ve talked to people in the medical field, we’ve talked to people in the legal field, we’ve talked to people who are teachers and students and libraries.”
They started with PDFs, but they intend to expand to all media. Christopher Warnock said a vast amount of information in PDFs never get indexed by search engines and therefore remain invisible. What’s more, search results can be superficial. They’ll point to a document but not to the specific pages in the document.
With kOS, a researcher can search and analyze multiple PDFs at once. “We see that there’s a potential that anybody can use this,” he said. “So there’s a consumer component, which will be coming in a couple of weeks. But we recognize that going out and knocking on people’s doors is not a good way to make money. So we have an institutional product where we can license it to universities, we can license it to law firms.”
He also believes kOS allows for more exploration of the data, offering word clouds and suggesting phrases to search on.
Greg Thompson, emeritus associate dean of Special Collections at the U.’s Marriott Library, doesn’t know all the specifics of kOS, but he has known Warnock for 30 years since he volunteered to create a digital library of classical literature and scholarly works. That work led to the creation of ebrary.
“He is amazing,” Thompson said. Creating a searchable online depository of thousands of books was a godsend “for places like the University of Utah, which has never been funded at the level to acquire first edition copies of that work.”
The challenge for academic libraries now is the rate at which information is created, making any information-management tools crucial, Thompson said. “How to gain control of that element of streaming information is daunting for research libraries. If he comes up with a working solution, that would be a major step forward.”
And that step would start in Helper. “We have a sense of loyalty to here,” said J.A. Warnock. “I mean, our family moved out for opportunity. And now moving back here for opportunity is kind of a strange thing that’s happened.”