Inventors Hope Investors Give Them Room to Grow Written 15 June 2016

An MQ-4 Predator controlled by the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron stands on the tarmac at Balad Air Base, north of Baghdad, Iraq, June 21, 2007. | Associated Press–©

Panelists: Moderator John Langford, chairman and CEO, Aurora Flight Sciences Corp.; Joe Burns, CEO, Sensurion Aerospace; Jonathan Evans, CEO, Skyward; Ben Marcus, co-founder and CEO, AirMap; Jason Rigoli, partner, Enlightenment Capital; Richard Whittle, author, “Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution”

by David HodesAerospace America contributing writer

Building the next generation of unmanned aerial systems requires educating investors and convincing them to make the leap into the industry, experts on the panel “Invention, Entrepreneurship and Unmanned Systems” said June 15 at the 2016 AIAA Demand for Unmanned Symposium in Washington, D.C.

Richard Whittle, author of the book “Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution,” said drone development kicked into gear in the early part of the century as the Predator drone transitioned from a surveillance vehicle to an armed offensive weapon shooting Hellfire missiles during the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

Today, as the UAS industry hits its stride, investors are beginning to understand and court UAS businesses, said Jason Rigoli, partner at Enlightenment Capital, adding that trusting the intellectual capital inside of the industry is a big part of that growing confidence.

“The investing game is really about backing the jockey instead of the horse,” Rigoli said.

And the evolution of the UAS industry is happening fast.

“We as a business community are providing solutions ahead of problems,” said Jonathan Evans, CEO of Skyward. “There is a lot of work being done, and we need to keep giving developers the tools to do it. Democratized technology is in the hands of the end user, and we must evolve.”

Raising money is the next challenge, noted John Langford, chairman and CEO of Aurora Flight Sciences Corp. Fortunately, the unmanned space is now seeing more angel investors and other investment groups engaging with businesses, he said.

Rigoli agreed, adding, “But having a full ecosystem of development doesn’t mean capital is easy to access. It’s still hard to find an investor. When you do, it’s a marriage, and you’re stuck.”

Joe Burns, CEO of Sensurion Aerospace, said he is ready to take a meeting with every venture capitalist he can.

“We’re at a hockey-stick moment now, where you have to either make it big or have to cash out,” he said.

Burns said it’s important to focus on fundamentals — such as the business plan.

“You have to demonstrate to investors that you can sell the product,” he said.

In regards to whether small startup companies could expect to compete with Google, Facebook or Amazon, Evans said: “I think that those companies are sensitive to anti-trust issues. They seem to have the attitude of ‘Let’s let this startup eco system grow first.’”


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