Jeff Marois

Jeff Marois
© Mark Morelli

Technological neophyte finds his niche in computer engineering

Whether it's borrowing the family car or staying out past curfew, disagreements between parents and their teenagers are nothing new. Jeff Marois, a graduate student in computer science, knows this as well as anyone. As a 17-year-old high school student in France, he wanted a computer. It was something his parents didn't think he needed, something that they didn't completely understand.

"I didn't have a computer until my senior year of high school," says Marois. "My parents were totally against my getting one. They didn't think computers would be what they are today. I didn't know many people who had computers. I just knew that I wanted one."

Marois succeeded in getting his computer and entered Tufts to pursue an undergraduate degree in engineering. He faced some weighty challenges. Since he grew up in France, a country that, at the time, hadn't embraced computers, Marois didn't have the technological expertise of his American counterparts. He had to start from scratch, familiarizing himself with the most rudimentary of computer applications. "I didn't know what the 'e' in e-mail stood for. I had never programmed before, but I had a really strong science background, and I was determined."

A dot-com opportunity
Once Marois familiarized himself with the technology, he was off and running. He completed his undergraduate degree in computer engineering in 1999 and then was contacted by friend and fellow Tufts alumnus, Dave Hassell, who was beginning a start-up company and was looking for a computer expert. Marois, who had been working as a consultant, jumped at the idea and packed his bags for New York to work for AdClip Networks, a company aimed at giving consumers an alternative to the numerous banner ads that populate the Internet.

The company was based on the notion that banners were not the most appropriate way for a company to advertise its services. "We were trying to change the way online advertising was working," Marois says. "Our idea was that banners didn't work, and pop-up ads were even worse. But consumers love coupons, and we thought if we gave them coupons, the response might be better. So, we developed an online 'wallet.' When consumers would click on one of the coupons advertising something like 10 percent off at Staples, our system would store the coupon in the consumer's wallet or in an e-mail folder. Our system was effective because instead of clicking on a banner and going to a web site with something like a shopping cart that would encourage the consumer to shop immediately, those using our system had the option of saving the coupon to use when they wanted to."

At AdClip, Marois worked on web development, database architecture and programming and system administration. Working seven days a week and up to 18 hours a day, Marois immersed himself in technologies with which he was unfamiliar, much like when he first arrived at Tufts. "I learned so many new technologies regarding the best way to build a system," Marois says. "I had to learn a lot of this stuff myself. I was able to become fluent in applications like Oracle by reading books and conducting research. The thing I found out about working for a start-up is it's very self-motivating."

While Marois was part of a large community of those in their early 20s taking the business world by storm, there were parts of the experience that harkened back to his undergraduate days. For starters, like a great many college students, he had no money because the company had yet to generate a profit. He also had several roommates. But there was a unique quality to the early days. Marois and the AdClip team had landlords who cooked their meals and waved goodbye to them as they left for work. "There were five of us in the beginning, and we all lived with Dave's [Hassell's] parents in Clifton, N.J. They were really great, and it definitely helped us. After a few months, we were able to move into apartments."

Another motivating factor was the climate of the time. During his tenure as an AdClip employee (Marois is still with the company, but is not involved in day-to-day operations), many start-ups were failing. The rapid growth of the industry was followed by a rapid decline. This decline was on the mind of Marois and the other AdClip employees as the economy worsened. "We were a little worried," says Marois. "We would talk to people who had been bought out by larger companies and were millionaires, but we would also meet people who would say, 'Man, we're going under.' "

Back to school
AdClip not only survived the fall of the start-ups, but continues to flourish. Now called Endai, the company has expanded its focus and provides online marketing technology and services to a variety of clients, including Cingular and Provident Bank.

Marois stayed with the company until 2001 before he left to tackle another formidable challenge—graduate school. Marois has embarked on his graduate studies with the same drive he did as an employee of AdClip. During the recent Engineering Research Fair, he had a chance to showcase his current research, an innovative health care network. "Prof. Van Toi Vo of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science had the idea to develop a health care network, and I had the computer background to develop this idea," Marois says. "The hope is that this research can improve communication between patients and doctors, making the HMO almost invisible."

The foundation of the research is a small microchip. One half of the chip holds medical information that can be fed, via a "smart card," into a palm pilot that lists the information on screen. This technology could assist EMTs who are treating an injured or sick individual who is unable to communicate. It could also provide doctors with information about a patient while the ambulance is en route to the hospital, saving valuable time.

The other half of the chip includes what Marois describes as a "key," which gives the card owner access to a web site that could link the patient to his or her HMO's database. The site also would allow a patient to research specialists in a given medical field, arrange appointments and take part in video conferencing with the doctor.

Marois is currently working on data formatting issues for the chip and various security measures, which would safeguard the patient if the card is stolen or misplaced.

Marois admits that life as a graduate student differs from that of a co-founder of a start-up. But he finds that the challenges he craves can be found in either setting. "Like working for AdClip, coming to graduate school has given me the opportunity to pursue the problem-solving challenges that I enjoy," Marois says. "And I have had a chance to learn even more technologies."

Electronic parents
Marois isn't the only one who is learning new things. His parents now own two computers. They often contact their son for advice, asking him about everything from web searches to using e-mail. Marois has even gone so far as to set up a web cam in his office so his parents, who live in France, can check up on him. "Most French kids live with their parents until they are 28 or so, and mine were sad to see me leave at such a relatively early age," he says. "The web cam is a way for my parents to keep an eye on me while I'm away."

Like disagreements between parents and teenagers, some things never change.