When he worked as a nuclear physicist at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, Ashok Dhar worked to "unravel the mysteries of the universe."
Now, as the president and CEO of ExpenseAnywhere in Monroeville, he's working to unravel a universe all its own: the expense account.
ExpenseAnywhere is a technology company that specializes in automating the business expense process -- a process long characterized by paper reports and stapled receipts.
When starting up the company in 2004, Dr. Dhar wanted to maintain the intellectual drive of his university days. Instead of building a consultancy, he designed a company centered on creating actual products.
The company's applications specialize in automating business expenses -- either in-house or on the road. Users can log in and track expenses, while also getting metrics on how and where the money is being spent.
For example, a hotel room charge by a traveling salesman can be uploaded that night and processed the next day by logging onto the ExpenseAnywhere system. No more need for shoeboxes filled with receipts or the delayed reimbursement. ExpenseAnywhere applications sync up with credit card providers to automatically upload business expenses to the system.
Receipts can be faxed in and matched up with the transactions. Once receipts are received, employees can log in and check on the reimbursement status: whether it's been submitted, approved, processed or paid.
And managers can set limits on per diem spending so the system allows only certain quotas to be processed. Overall expenses are meticulously tracked and visible, so that extra shrimp cocktail on the company dime doesn't just disappear.
It's a long way from Dr. Dhar's start in academia, where he was able to set his own hours as a professor and researcher. The shift to the corporate world took some adjusting. A researcher might be able to think about heavy-ion particles whenever he wants, but in the corporate world, a deadline's a deadline.
The former professor at McGill University came to the corporate side after he began working on nuclear power plant simulators for a company called CAE in Canada. The next career step found him at Westinghouse offices in Western Pennsylvania as a senior consultant.
Dr. Dhar said research practices helped him survey the market and find a new way to solve an old problem. He had worked through the early days of the Internet and weathered the dot-com boom and bust. And he sensed a growing importance in computing that's accessible anywhere through Web-based systems.
That's why with ExpenseAnywhere, users can upload expenses from anywhere with a Web connection and not wait until they're back in the office on the company server.
Rather than keep all company files in-house, the strategy of "cloud computing," as it's called, allows access from anywhere with a Web connection.
Dr. Dhar said he still sees skepticism toward "cloud" products that take company information and store it in a remote server.
An August 2009 survey by Proofpoint Inc. asked information technology officials if they thought their CEO could correctly define the term. Only 24 percent said "yes." And 50 percent thought moving data to a cloud network raised the risk of a security breach.
To help quell the concerns, ExpenseAnywhere backs up its information every hour.
The downturn could help the company's business, as employers keep an extra eye on spending and look for positions to eliminate. Dr. Dhar said one client, the New York Department of Transportation, trimmed its expense-tracking staff from 20 scattered full-time workers to two part-time centralized employees using the ExpenseAnywhere programs.
The company has created three iterations of its product: Lite, Enterprise and Gov.
The Gov version has government per diem rates and regulations already built in, while the Enterprise edition caters to large-scale companies. It can retail for anywhere from $10,000 to $70,000 for initial setup costs and then $2 to $12 per report after that.
The Lite version is designed for small businesses and can cost about $1,000 in setup fees and then about $7 per report after that.
From his office in the Jonnet Building in Monroeville, Dr. Dhar sees his main competition as Concur Technologies, a public company in Redmond, Wash., that has more than 10,000 clients.
ExpenseAnywhere has turned a profit since 2005 -- when it had only four employees -- and is "constantly hiring" as the company expands, said Dr. Dhar. The company now has about 25 employees.
Dr. Dhar expects to have more than 100 clients within the next quarter. The current client breakdown includes 20 midsize companies, 45 large companies and 15 state agencies.
ExpenseAnywhere is developing mobile applications for the BlackBerry and iPhone. But not all of the company's future plans focus on the latest and greatest gadgets. In fact, Dr. Dhar has his sights on something not so new at all.
He wants to update the purchase order.
Erich Schwartzel: eschwartzel @post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455.