Directions from Afar

Birmingham start-up flourishes offering remote fix-it help via merged reality

Photos by Art Meripol

Birmingham-based Help Lightning Inc. has seen demand for its remote expertise and merged reality software skyrocket during the COVID-19 pandemic because of lock down and social distancing requirements across the nation and world. The company now is primarily targeting the field service and technical support services markets in addition to its original focus, the health care industry.

Led by successful serial entrepreneur Gary York, Help Lightning already was building momentum for its innovative show-and-tell software for real-time guiding of complex procedures. 

“We had a great 2019, and the first two months of 2020 were strong,” CEO York says. “Then the pandemic created a four-fold increase in users during the first 30 days.”

Cox Communications, the nation’s third-largest cable television provider, signed on with Help Lightning in March. Cox uses the technology to provide customer support for tasks such as installing internet, plugging in a modem or setting up Wi-Fi — tasks that technicians performed in person before the pandemic. “Cox made the decision to no longer send technicians into homes but instead walk customers through installation and problem-solving with Help Lightning,” York says.

Gary York, CEO, Help Lightning Inc.

Other large customers for Help Lightning include Siemens, Boston Scientific, Becton Dickinson and Ricoh USA. The product is now used in 85 countries across the globe. Companies license the product per expert user for a year. “We have some customers with 10 licenses and some with 1,000,” York says.

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With demand for Help Lightning software rapidly increasing, the company is scaling up to meet it. To help it do so, in August the company obtained $8 million in Series A funding led by Resolve Growth Partners. 

 “After evaluating the virtual expertise software market for over a year, our diligence is clear that Help Lightning has built a highly differentiated solution that is valued by its customers,” says Jit Sinha, Resolve’s co-founder and managing director. “Help Lightning has a tremendous opportunity to power the success of this rapidly emerging market. We’re thrilled to be partnering with Gary York and his talented team.”

Help Lightning software allows an expert to demonstrate remotely how to install, use, maintain or repair a user’s piece of equipment or machinery via video chat and merged video streams. The virtual interactive presentation can be viewed on a computer, tablet or cellphone. 

“I am constantly surprised at the new ways our customers find to use Help Lightning,” York says. The company’s website,, features a series of demo videos showing how the technology appears to and functions for experts and users in various applications from HVAC repair to nuclear power plant safety to telemedicine.

Help Lightning’s show-and-tell technology offers multiple benefits, including cost-savings, convenience and rapid response, as well as improved service, mentoring and education. “With Help Lightning you can avoid some in-person service visits, and when visits are determined to be needed, you can send the right person for the job the first time,” York says.

Help Lightning initially focused on tele-surgery, after its founding by neurosurgeon Bart Guthrie, who serves as the director of Computer-Assisted Neurosurgery at UAB. Guthrie, a serial inventor, holds several patents for technology related to image-guided surgery. Through his merged reality technology, Guthrie was able to virtually demonstrate techniques and assist in complex surgeries from 1,000 miles away. 

York served on Help Lightning’s board of directors from the company’s beginning. Then in 2016, after the sale of his team’s Emergency CallWorks’ 9-1-1 software to Motorola, York came on board as Help Lightning’s CEO. 

“Bart is a prolific inventor and I had worked with him on technology development before,” York says.

Help Lightning sales significantly increased after the company began to target the field service and technical support services markets. “Medical use of Help Lightning is continuing for clinical and surgical applications, but we had the idea that it would be in our best interest to target the most compelling use cases,” York says. “Focus on the low hanging fruit where we could have the most impact.”  

The company currently employs 35, primarily in Birmingham, where it is headquartered at Innovation Depot. Help Lightning does have a handful of representatives across the country and internationally. Marketing is primarily being done through emails, over the phone and webinars. 

“We are growing rapidly and anticipate adding employees over the next few years,” York says.

Help Lightning is the latest in a series of entrepreneurial successes guided by York, who grew up in Huntsville, the son of a space program engineer. York received his Ph.D. in electrical engineering and high availability computing from Carnegie-Mellon and served on the university’s research faculty. After volunteering for two years with Food for the Hungry International in Ethiopia, Kenya, Bolivia and Thailand, he returned stateside to work in
Silicon Valley and as a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley.

Then, about 25 years ago, York moved back to Birmingham with his wife and children to be nearer to family. He initially worked with BellSouth as a consultant on software development, before leading a series of companies that supply business-to-business software.

“While Alabama is not a software hotspot, you can develop a software company no matter where you are, and the number of software companies here is growing,” York says. 

He co-founded ComFrame and served as a full-time executive, and then board member, until the company sold in 2010. Another ComFrame co-founder, Marc Guthrie, now serves as Help Lightning’s chief operating officer.

York also helped found Emageon, based on a tool for medical imaging created by UAB neurosurgeon Guthrie and ComFrame and started up Awarix. Both those companies were successfully sold, Awarix to McKesson in 2008 and Emageon to Amicas in 2009. York joined Emergency CallWorks in 2011 and helped it grow and successfully sell in 2016 before he became CEO of Help Lightning.

Currently York plans to continue at the helm of Help Lightning for some time to come. He foresees great expansion in the virtual expertise and merged reality industry over the long term, even post-COVID-19. He is not the only one. Gartner Research recently
predicted that by 2023 more than 60% of all customer service would be delivered via digital and web self-serve platforms, an increase from 23% in 2019.

While the pandemic has helped speed greater use and acceptance of the technology, businesses are finding it invaluable in improving efficiency, customer satisfaction and profitability. 

“There is still a lot of new business potential to be explored with this technology and I want to be a part of that,” York says.

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