In the late ‘90s, the CIA wanted to leverage technology from various tech startups across the country, which resulted in the founding of the venture capital firm In-Q-Tel. The firm invested in companies that would provide software, hardware, and other tech-related properties to the agency.
Fast forward to 2017, and the United States Air Force is currently following a similar model with the Techstars Autonomous Technology Accelerator with the US Air Force. The program, which formed in the fall of last year, is focusing on companies developing drone and counter-drone technology for both military and consumer markets.
“The Air Force had two goals in mind,” said Managing Director Warren Katz. “The first goal was to foster access for startup companies to the Department of Defense market as much as they could, and the second was to retrain themselves on how to buy from startup companies without killing them off or turning them into defense contractors.”
Why choose Techstars and Boston?
Techstars is one of the world’s leading startup accelerators, and out of the Boston location, several now-prominent companies have participated in it. Here are just a few: Localytics, Bevi, PillPack, Placester, Neurala, and EverTrue. Based on the success of some of those companies in the area, not to mention the amount of funding the program has given out since its inception, the Air Force’s decision to create a partnership with Techstars may not come as a surprise.
Katz, who was a mentor at Techstars Boston since its inception in 2009, advised the Air Force to locate this new program in Boston based on several factors: an abundance of engineering talent, an active investment community, and a robust but not-overly-crowded tech sector.
“One choice that obviously came up was Washington DC, but Boston has a much better entrepreneurial ecosystem,” Katz told us. “There was also the possibility of the companies becoming defense contractors if they were too close to the Beltway, and the Air Force wanted to avoid that entirely.”
Since many of the companies are still in their early stages, Techstars Autonomous has taken advantage of several other accelerators and firms such as The Engine, DRAPER, MITRE, and Lincoln Labs. The collaboration between the program and those mentioned reflects Techstars’ goal to create a synergistic environment.
Meet Warren Katz
Katz is an active member of the Boston tech scene. Most recently, he has been a mentor at Techstars, and MIT Sloan Center for Entrepreneurship, as well as an angel investor in several startups including Neurala and Bevi.
However, he actually got his start working in tech for the defense contractor BBN Technologies (which was later acquired by Raytheon). During this time, he primarily worked as an engineer on large-scale projects for DARPA. He eventually started his own company, MAK Technologies, that also worked as a defense contractor and vendor of commercial simulation software products.
It was during this time that he learned of the difficulties startups and commercial product companies suffered working with the Department of Defense. Large defense contractors were usually paid by the hour to develop systems, therefore buying a commercial item from a startup company for a much lower price would actually cost the defense contractor revenue and profits. Startups would be killed off as they could never sell the better-faster-cheaper product into large programs. From 1990 to 2006, Katz attempted to reverse these perverse incentive structures through various acquisition reform efforts, in order to help startups that actually made the better mousetrap.
While on a short-term engagement helping scale operations at Neurala, Katz was informed by Techstars that the US Air Force reached out to explore forming an accelerator focused on autonomous technologies and wished to explore mechanisms for purchasing products from startups more intelligently.
After experiencing the problem first-hand earlier in his career, Katz felt a personal incentive to help out Techstars and join the program as Managing Director.
“I helped Techstars negotiate the deal with the Air Force, and then, it was back to my acquisition reform problem that I was trying to solve in the mid-90s.”
The ten companies in the program
When Techstars announced the program, Katz and the accelerator spent an excessive amount of time actively recruiting companies to the program. The companies were asked to provide technology for the counter-drone market, but there was a specific request from Techstars: there was to be no competition between the companies in the program.
“We had a couple hundred applicants,” Katz said. “Every company was bringing something to the table. The real challenge was whittling the list down to ten companies.”
One of the two supply chain startups in the program, 14bis is utilizing the blockchain for tracking aerospace parts. The company has created an API to interface between disparate ERP systems and archive and track parts that are sold and traded between suppliers and customers, reducing inventory levels and protecting against the introduction of counterfeit parts.
Notch was founded by two MIT PhDs. The company is creating an anti-jamming antenna for GPS, wifi, phone, and drones undergoing stealth missions. The antenna is like a mirror that can both reflect jamming beams and focus transmissions to boost range and reduce power consumption.
Graphenest is the only international company (they are based in Portugal) in the cohort. The company has created a low-cost manufacturing technique for graphene which is used in reducing weight and increasing strength of epoxy for composite materials, electromagnetic shielding coatings, oxygen barriers for food packaging, and strengthening plastics.
Since it seems like Amazon might be looking towards a drone delivery future, Robodub is a startup that they might want to pay attention to. Robodub is developing what Katz described as a, “morphing drone,” with rotors that can shift position and orientation to adapt to imbalanced, changing, or unpredictable loads.
SecureMarking is the other supply chain company, with the primary focus is on invisible ink for marking of parts for aerospace and drone manufacturers. Through the blockchain, manufacturers can encode the undetectable serial number for that specific part.
SICDrone’s product is another drone with a specific action in mind: speed. The company’s drone has six rotors instead of the standard four; four of them point up, and the other two are pointed horizontally. While currently in the testing stage, the drone is projected to go upwards of 100 mph. It’s also designed for “precision stationkeeping”, the ability to stand motionless in high winds better than any other drone, for aerial photography applications.
URSA is an Exeter, New Hampshire company that is creating a secure data analytics platform for drones. URSA’s platform utilizes machine learning and can display information on how a drone is performing, as well as whether or not is functioning correctly. Their first market is software to manage drone flight test ranges.
MassChallenge alumni Guardion is further developing their radiation detection shield for cities and nuclear power plants. One aspect of their technology they are adding to their repertoire is the detection of radiation on hospital patients who have gone through an x-ray.
Blind Tiger has an intriguing name, and what they do is equally so; they have created a communications management platform to detect cell phone and drone control traffic. One area they are looking to target is prison systems where incarcerated criminals are smuggling phones into their cells and ordering deliveries of contraband via drone.
OmniPresence’s all-purpose radar system is one that can be used not only for drones, but both ground robots and self-driving cars as well. While the radar is ideal for military and industrial use, OmniPresence also wants to sell their system to drone and robotics hobbyists.
The confidence of Techstars Autonomous
The extensive collaboration between the US Air Force, Techstars, the companies participating in the program, and the various partnerships fulfills one of the main goals the program was looking to accomplish.
“You can see how this one category [drones] branched out into this plethora of companies that are involved in that industry. The Air Force did a great job of keeping that funnel nice and wide,” Katz said. “We’re expecting more applicants for next year’s cohort.”