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The Big Apple is the center of the East Coast innovation corridor, which stretches north to Boston and Canada and south to Washington, D.C., and North Carolina’s Research Triangle. On Nov. 8, more than 200 leaders within the drone, robotics, and artificial intelligence ecosystem gathered at the Drones & Robotics AI Summit 2023 in New York to network, ideate, and demonstrate innovative technologies.
The plenum of speakers also included numerous government officials promoting innovation and technology investments. The summit, put on by ff Venture Capital and Genius New York, proved once and for all that mechatronics has a home in the Empire State, rivaling even California’s Silicon Valley.
Inaugurating the summit, my partner and ffVC founder John Frankel reminded the audience that there is really nothing new under the sun, as the ancient Greeks created an automate therapaenis, a robotic servant in the 3rd century BCE.
NYPD demonstrates public safety drones
The Drones & Robotics AI Summit program quickly accelerated into the 21st century with Capt. Michael Gulinello of the New York City Police Department’s Drones & Robotics unit. He showcased more than 20 use cases of uncrewed aerial systems (UASes) recently deployed against active shooters, shark attacks, and crowd control.
Gulinello’s team also parked a UAS command vehicle outside the event, enabling attendees to witness live demonstrations in the heart of Times Square. The captain said he looks forward to the day when robots will be ubiquitous in policing, with the public having confidence in its ability to protect their privacy and safety.
The NYPD’s strategic command center that operates drone fleets falls under the oversight of New York City’s chief technology officer, Matthew Fraser. At the summit, I had an opportunity to sit down and speak with Fraser about his new initiatives to partner with startups and private capital.
New York seeks innovative solutions to urban problems
The CTO and civil servant has spent more than 17 years leading information technologies across city agencies, including the Department of Buildings, the Department of Environmental Protection, and the NYPD. Fraser said his experiences informed him as he launched the SmartCities Testbed for startups looking to apply their inventions to urban problems, such as using drones for building exterior inspections or computer vision for traffic monitoring.
Fraser encouraged the more than 100 startups gathered to apply. His approach to inviting entrepreneurs to shake up established agencies is also present in the new AI Action Plan, which that lays out a clear path to integrating machine learning technologies into the fabric of the nation’s largest metropolitan area.
In Fraser’s words, AI could augment social services by providing a safety net to the most vulnerable citizens, ensuring that no one falls through the cracks and that they can access the full benefits that they are entitled to receive. This thinking follows the recent statements by his boss, Mayor Eric Adams.
“Artificial intelligence is one of the most impactful technological advances of our time,” stated the mayor. “While AI has the potential to improve services and processes across our government, we must also be mindful of its associated risks. With the release of our AI Action Plan, the first-of-its-kind for a major U.S. city, we are cementing our commitment to this emerging technology’s responsible use and ensuring that we are deploying the right tools in the right ways.”
According to the report, the findings used information gathered by 18 city agencies with the goal of harnessing “the power of AI for good.”
Public sector looks for private partners
Attendees of the Drones & Robotics AI Summit also heard from the federal government — specifically, the U.S. Department of Defense through its partner, the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN). The panel included:
- Alice Globus, chief financial officer of Nanotronics
- Shane Skopak, vice president of business development at DZYNE Technologies
- Bhargav Patel, senior technologist at the Department of Homeland Security
- Grant Fox, director for the Mid-Atlantic Region at NSIN and moderator
Their session deconstructed the types of opportunities for startups from federal law enforcement and military agencies, especially in light of the new CHIPS Act and the Build America Buy America initiative. The panel also examined the grants available for public/private partnerships and defense missions.
These opportunities were especially evident in NSIN’s newsletter after the summit. It promoted the 2024 X-Force Fellowship program, 2023 NSIN Foundry and Forge cohorts, and the NSIN Emerge accelerator. It also spotlighted the Defense Acceleration Ecosystem (INDUS-X) challenges and the xTech Good Vibrations Challenge.
In addition, the Department of Homeland Security has its own Urban Security Technology Laboratory (NUSTL) to test drone and other hardware innovations. Dual use was probably best exemplified on the panel by Nanotronics, which offers numerous AI products for the aerospace industry, as well as the career path of Shane Skopak, former Navy test pilot and current business development lead for DZYNE Industries.
Now is the time to invest in robotics, say VCs
To many founders, investors look like a homogenous group of executives with checkbooks capitalizing on their ideas. However, this view could cause them to miss finding the right partner for launching their businesses.
The deployment of capital in the private markets is driven by various factors, ranging from governments seeking to bolster jobs to venture capitalists driving returns and corporate partners looking for a strategic business fit. The Drones & Robotics AI Summit enabled founders to “speed date” and meet a wide variety of investors.
They included fellow panelists Peter Finn at investment bank BGL, Sasha Jostrom-Reiser of early-stage VC firm Cybernetix, Besty Mulé of later-stage VC F-Prime, and Jason Hong of corporate VC Micron Ventures. We discussed the implications of large language models (LLMs) on robotics and why now is a good time to invest.
As Hong noted, increased memory and computing power enable the development of AI at a scale that could make robots even more impactful than previously thought. Jostrom-Reiser added that this trend has lowered costs and increased adoption, “driving interest from businesses to invest in AI applications.
Mulé commented further that the convergence of AI and declining sensor costs have improved mechatronic performance so much that it has opened the door for new upstarts to capitalize on unforeseen opportunities. Finn suggested this will lead to more M&A exits and even IPOs.
All of us agreed that the macro trends of labor shortages, aging populations, and declining startup costs set up investment returns to dramatically climb in the next five years. In summary, it’s a great time to invest.
Drones & Robotics AI Summit looks at deliveries
Before breaking for lunch, we discussed fast-food drone delivery with Bobby Healy of Manna, an ffVC portfolio company. He shared on-screen examples of his current pilots throughout the Irish coast, especially the Dublin suburb of Balbriggan.
Healy started the keynote with a cellphone video of a child excitedly watching a drone dropping off a shopping bag. Today, the town is used to the buzzing quadcopters. Services continue without fanfare; it’s now just part of life.
“In Balbriggan, 40% of the population uses our service 1.6 times a month, and we are confident that this number will continue to grow as word of mouth contributes to popularizing the service,” said Healy.
Today, the repeat usage percentage has grown considerably. Ironically, one of the most-requested items is a hot cup of coffee, Healy noted.
The Irish entrepreneur illustrated how his fleet is moving at remarkable speed against terrestrial (driving) options and at a fraction of the cost. He even calculated that Manna is improving sustainability in terms of saving trees. This past Halloween, Manna made news in the U.S. with candy deliveries.
“After over four years of operations and over 150,000 flights logged in Europe, we are excited to be touching down in the United States to offer the residents of Dallas/Fort Worth a lightning-quick and sustainable home delivery service,” said Andrew Patton, head of U.S. for Manna Drone Delivery. “We are taking Halloween to new heights, with a fun new way for kids to trick or treat – especially when the weather isn’t very Halloween-compatible!”
This is only the beginning of their global expansion with more flights, more restaurants, and more trees that all of us need. Another speaker at the Drones & Robotics AI Summit was Rishap Malhotra of Drone Up, a Virginia Beach, Va.-based last-mile delivery operation.
Update on ‘Roadmap for U.S. Robotics’
Henrik Christensen then led a discussion on the state of the robotics industry in 2023. The University of California San Diego (UCSD) professor is the author of “A Roadmap for U.S. Robotics,” which is now researching its fifth edition.
The roadmap sets the congressional funding priorities for the U.S. in science and technology. Christensen has been traveling across the country setting up workshops with academics, industry leaders, and inventors discussing the most pressing issues in moving robotics forward.
I participated in one workshop at the University of Pennsylvania in September debating the opportunities for automation in infrastructure and technical hurdles in perception and manipulation. This endeavor is on top of Christensen’s teaching and lab responsibilities at UCSD, executive obligations at Robust.ai, and his own investment activities, formerly at RoboGlobal.
One of the most startling statistics that Christensen presented is that 81% of people between the ages of 18 to 29 play video games for over 10 hours a week. While many would bemoan this figure, he sees it as an opportunity for leveraging their active thumbs in controlling machines across factories, warehouses, farms, and construction sites.
As our population continues to age, these skills will become more vital in creating robotic devices to aid seniors with the most basic living skills in their homes and healthcare facilities. Christensen pointed to the lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic as a guide to enabling the U.S. to lead the world toward an automated future.
New York State to expand startup opportunities
While Christensen provided a national view, we were privileged to host Commissioner Hope Knight of New York’s Empire State Development Corporation (ESD) to share the state’s perspective. ffVC has partnered with the ESD to fund innovations born in the Excelsior State since 2014.
Most recently, ffVC opened an office in Syracuse’s TechGarden, the incubator space shared with Genius NY. It will mentor and finance startups in the drones and robotics space.
At the Drones & Robotics AI Summit, Knight outlined the opportunities for founders within the automation space in New York, such as accelerators throughout the state and startup tax incentives. They are intended to expand opportunities for small businesses throughout the region, especially in growing technology fields that can provide jobs to populations ignored by traditional corporations, she said.
As a venture investor, I left Knight’s keynote enthusiastic about New York State leading the nation in recruiting a fresh crop of diverse founders within the UAS space, bringing with them unique experiences and solutions to previously unaddressed problems.
Startups show the way to industry change
The Drones & Robotics AI Summit then flowed right into a lightning round of demonstrations by Genius NY’s current and previous cohorts. The audience had the chance to see the full spectrum of uncrewed systems, including mission-planning software, quadcopter blades, and complete mechanical systems.
The presenting startups included Aloft, Vermeer, Geopipe, Vermeer, Votix, TruWeather Solutions, Greenjets, Voltela, Dronehub, ArchAngel, and Blueflite, the 2023 Grand Prize Winner. Blueflite co-founder Frank Noppel shared his appreciation for the Genius NY program and the Upstate region.
“In Syracuse, we’ve discovered a unique ecosystem perfectly suited for Blueflite’s ambitions,” he said. “Firstly, we’ve found the opportunity to collaborate with top-tier manufacturing facilities for batch production using advanced 3D-printing technology while adhering to the most stringent aerospace standards.”
“Secondly, Syracuse provides access to the world’s most advanced drone test facility, which is required for our ongoing drone production and R&D efforts,” said Noppel. “Lastly, the city’s thriving community of drone tech companies that we can integrate into our drone platform makes it one of the most competitive drone solutions out there. Together, these elements make Syracuse the ideal fit for Blueflite.”
Kara Jones, executive director of Genius NY, echoed his sentiments. “From autonomous flights for travel to improving how we transport goods, to improving processes around data collection and inspections, to health care, defense, and more – UAS is transforming how we live and work,” she said.
“These GENIUS NY teams are at the leading edge of their technologies and have demonstrated their strong potential for growth and success,” said Jones. “As market demands evolve and technology advances, these and other UAS companies have access to the most robust concentration of firms, infrastructure, and investments anywhere in the country, here in New York.”
ffVC provides portfolio insights
The Drones & Robotics AI Summit concluded with a deep dive into ffVC’s portfolio led by our head of platform, Charlotte Japp. The companies gathered represented the full spectrum of automation sector, with Christian Sanz of SkyCatch (drones), Miika Satori of Cambrian Vision (collaborative robots), and Jesse Canella of TensorFlight (artificial intelligence).
Sanz shared tips on how to close deals with investors and key customer accounts by showing up at their headquarters uninvited ready to work. While some would say this is borderline stalking, SkyCatch’s revenues prove otherwise.
Japp pressed the group for more founder tips, with Satori voicing the importance of strategic partners to forge multi-faceted relationships to encompass reselling, R&D, as well as capital investments. Cambrian is on the heels of announcing the closing of its next round with a corporate venture supporting its global sales effort in Europe, Japan, and the U.S.
Canella added his own thoughts on working with market leaders to create feedback loops to proactively grow its customer lifetime value.
As my colleague, Charlotte Japp, reflected on the session, “Portfolio companies shared best practices on fundraising and corporate relationships. The early stage founders in the audience got a kick out of the unconventional practices suggested, from watching the same TV show as a prospective customer to boarding a plane for an IRL meeting that an investor hasn’t asked for.”
The summit already helped to keep New York innovation local. “I came to this event as someone who has a novice interest in the drone tech industry, looking to enter and acquire experience by potentially joining a drone company,” said one young entrepreneur. “I found that there are a lot more New York-based companies in this industry than I previously thought. This was very helpful, as I assumed that I would need to relocate elsewhere in order to join a drone tech company.”
Frank Sinatra would be proud — “Start spreading the news….”