Funneling the UAS flock

Growing number of UAS-related companies use UND Center for Innovation for coaching and collaboration

Bruce Gjovig, Dan Daffinrud and Matt Dunlevy

Longtime UND Center for Innovation Director Bruce Gjovig (left) shows off a UAS platform used by SkySkopes, one of 26 UAS-related businesses that call the Center for Innovation home. Gjovig is joined by SkySkopes CFO Dan Daffinrud (center) and the company’s CEO, Matt Dunlevy. Photo by Tyler Ingham.

In 2014, UND history graduate student Matt Dunlevy was working toward the completion of his thesis.

But even though his academic focus was on the past, his business brain was pulling him to the future—of the commercial drone industry.

“I recognized that this was something I could be passionate about, so I decided to jump in head first. The rest is a short history, but still history,” Dunlevy recalls.

That October, Dunlevy started SkySkopes, an unmanned aerial systems (UAS) company of which he now serves as president and CEO. His initial value proposition was making money by flying small photography drones at weddings.

“We could charge something like $20 a minute of flight time and hand that off to a wedding planner or a groom or bride, making that wedding that much more special,” Dunlevy said. “But the problem is, that’s just scratching the surface of the true value of unmanned aircraft, which we’ve learned day-in and day-out since then.”

Those lessons—which have allowed Dunlevy to take on 10 full-time employees and continually expand his industry-leading inspection and photography services—have come by way of SkySkopes’ inclusion in a band of more than two dozen UAS-related companies connected through UND’s Center for Innovation.

Center Director and Entrepreneur Coach Bruce Gjovig says these ventures are being drawn to Grand Forks because of a perfect mixture of factors, including Grand Forks Air Force Base drone operations, UND’s UAS degree program, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) designation of Grand Forks as a UAS test site for the industry—making it one of seven test sites that will help integrate the commercial applications of UAS into the national airspace.

“Besides the 26 companies we have as a part of the UAS entrepreneur cluster, there are another 18 companies who have shown an interest,” Gjovig said. “Already we have companies from not only around the United States, but also from Finland, Norway, Israel, the Czech Republic and Canada—all interested in being here. But there’s a lot more that will come as the airspace gets opened up.”

The flock of UAS ventures to Grand Forks is also driven by the fact that two major industry users are here in the state—energy and agriculture. UAS is becoming more integral for powerline and pipeline inspection and for checking crops for weeds, insects and disease.

“People are looking to the UAS and drone industry as the most important new industry that’s going to bring new technology and new jobs to North Dakota,” Gjovig said, adding that UAS is essential in diversifying the state’s economy.

Cluster collaboration

With the guidance of SkySkopes CFO Dan Daffinrud, the Center applied for and received a $50,000 Small Business Administration (SBA) Accelerator Award last summer to help form “Autonomous Alley”—the nation’s first UAS entrepreneur cluster.

“It’s taking the services that the Center for Innovation currently offers and tailoring it for the UAS market,” Daffinrud said, adding that those services include entrepreneur coaching and access to capital. “Autonomous Alley recognizes that we have an opportunity here to take an early lead in creating an ecosystem for UAS and recognizing that this is a long-term growth opportunity for Grand Forks and the state.”

Gjovig said many UAS-related companies are startups that are not only looking for venture development assistance, but also a place to share resources and expertise with others in the industry.

“In unmanned aerial systems, the most important word is systems,” he said. “Typically, somebody is very good at something—it could be the platform, it could be flying, it could be the different kind of sensors, data collection or analytics…”

But, as Gjovig continued, people are usually not experts in every area. “They need to be around others who are experts so they can work together and find ways in which they can integrate and work toward a solution for the customer,” he said.

The crew at SkySkopes has seen this ability to collaborate bolster their success as a company, and as a collective.

“We can partner with other participants in this cluster to complete the value chain so that we can go out and be more competitive against the rest of the national and international market,” Daffinrud said. “That’s really helped prop up this cluster and bring a spark of innovation and opportunity, just because we share a hallway.”

Driver of success

The Center for Innovation was recently awarded the 2017 Dinah Adkins Technology Incubator of the Year Award from the International Business Innovation Association, which took special interest in the Center’s UAS cluster.

“This incubator certainly deserves that honor. It goes to show the innovative spirit and the entrepreneurial drive of Bruce Gjovig and his staff,” Dunlevy said.

And that drive is what has propelled SkySkopes and others on their flight plans of growth.

“Because of the man who is responsible for this cluster, and the coaching and the mentorship from the leadership of other UAS companies here, we know more about what’s going on in the industry in general, we know what to expect for the future of UAS and we know where the end users are,” Dunlevy said.