Hey, We’re Hiring!

Joshua Riedy, Founder and CEO of Airtonomy is our guest on this episode of From Idea to Done. Airtonomy enables almost anyone to utilize drones, especially those working in the energy and utility industry. Josh shares how Airtonomy came to be as well as the twists and turns faced while growing a business. We also discuss the 2021 Genius NY Accelerator Competition and the hard work that Airtonomy put in to win.

Learn more about Airtonomy here: https://www.airtonomy.ai/

VO: Let's get geared up for startup success. Join Josh as he interviews knowledgeable guests from all corners of the entrepreneurial world and gets the answers to the questions you've been asking, get ready to learn something new on this episode of, from idea to done.

Josh Christy: Hey everyone, on this episode, I'd like to welcome our new guest, Josh Riedy. He's the founder and CEO of Airtonomy. Welcome Josh.

Joshua Riedy: Hey, thank you Josh, always nice to have another Josh.

Josh Christy: Yes. Um, tell us a little bit about what Airtonomy is and, and really what problem does it solve

Joshua Riedy: Happy to do? So Airtonomy is a North Dakota company that, uh, is in grand forks. And my co-founders and I have had a tremendous amount of experience with the drone industry, believing that there was a way to make drone use, especially in enterprise scenario, in our case energy, more acceptable and more usable by the masses. So what their autonomy does, that's very unique is we enable practically anyone to use drones with the push of a button focusing specifically in the energy and utility industries. So if you think of lineman or technicians or even security guards, enabling them to use drones as just another tool, 21st century tool that they would carry around in their service vehicle, not only with the push of a button, can they operate the drones, Josh, but I think what makes it really unique is the rules that we create to operate drones, autonomously. You can actually apply to the analysis of the data as well. So not only did these individuals fly the drone, but with another push of the button, they're uploading the results and using artificial intelligence to extract more from that data and to push that to, uh, organizations like operations or engineering or management, so that it is an entire workflow that's automated.

Josh Christy: So dumb it down for somebody like me. If we're, if I'm inspecting a, um, a wind turbine, for instance, what sort of data can I get out of that? What's the value for me as the company or the linesman?

Joshua Riedy: Yeah. So in the case of wind turbines, we generally use just RGB imagery or, or normal imagery, um, in the case of oil things, you'd use infrared. And in addition to that, uh, so we really work with any sensor. What we're really focused on is understanding health of assets. And the reason this is gold to companies is because now they're not constrained to third-party service providers coming to do this. Once a year, they deploy their own staff with a modern tool to identify problems that exist right now and re based upon the asset type and the nature of the asset. We will outfit the drone with any type of sensor that's relevant that could be infrared, that could be near infrared. That could be RGB. Uh, we also make extensive use of lidars as well.

Josh Christy: Yeah. So really as a I can better control, like if something is going out of, out of whack or out of control quicker versus, you know, whatever the regulatory agency says is that once per year check-in

Joshua Riedy: Yes, if you think of mechanical or environmental issues, so I'll take wind turbines. As an example, lightning strikes are a cause that you should inspect immediately to make sure that the lightning protection system hasn't been disabled or there's structural damage. Um, you don't want to wait another year, you know, and we've literally had the case that we've done an inspection and days later there's a lightning strike with our solution versus the industry. Those technicians can go back out and have another inspection and they can compare that with the first to understand what there may have been in terms of damage or, you know, hopefully that there's nothing wrong whatsoever.

Josh Christy: Cool. So how, how did you find this was a problem? Like give us a little, a little journey. Um, I find a lot of teachers will jump in and want to start building something and we find out that the problem they thought it was, it was not really there. So help me understand, um, how you, how you came to process.

Joshua Riedy: Yeah. You know, that's a great question, Josh. And I think there's a lesson that we've learned and other entrepreneurs can learn is that from day one, we were fortunate enough to partner with Xcel Energy. So we listened to the industry and we listened to those with the problem. And in their case that the value proposition was straightforward. Um, if you think of Carfax for your automobile, they wanted to have a record of, of maintenance for assets. And if you think of the energy industry, you know, we're talking many, many millions to billions of dollars worth of assets, and they simply wanted to take best care of their assets. So we understood what that was, how you could apply drone technology to it. And quite frankly, Josh, what the standard was for the energy industry to inspect their assets, the frequency of it, what they're actually looking for and a piece that was very apparent to us as they want to do, enable their own employees to use drones. And, and to this day I applaud that that was our big, hairy, audacious goal, but we have been able to enable anyone to fly drones with the push of a button. And that is a huge differentiator. And I give all the credit in the world to the industry.

Josh Christy: It does feel like, um, you know, up in grand forks and, uh, it gives some context. That's the Northern Northern end of, uh, kind of North Dakota has really been instrumental in a lot of drones. I've seen a lot of drone companies, a lot of, um, camera companies, a lot of stuff coming out of there. Can you talk a little bit about the ecosystem and how that's helped you and autonomy kind of grows a company?

Joshua Riedy: Yeah. You know, if I, if I think of, for your listeners, the red river valley and, and this isn't going to be active, but I start the river valley to the south of Fargo and I go north to grand forks. That is a tremendous ecosystem. If you travel along the interstate, you have bookends of Grand Farm in Fargo and Grand Sky in Grand Forks and in Grand Forks and the drone ecosystem, uh, give a little context. I believe the first unmanned aircraft systems, a baccalaureate program was at the university of North Dakota and began in 2008. If you think about that, that's a very long time to be in, um, involved with aviation and the university of North Dakota has a reputation of, of being, you know, an industry leader in aviation education. In our particular case, our partners were the aerospace UND aerospace foundation. So we've been able to rely on that expertise as well as grand sky itself, which is a partnership with, uh, the Grand Forks air force base. So there's just a lot of, of unique, uh, resources and Grand Forks would also like to mention the Northern Plains UAS test site, one of six FAA test sites in the United States as well. Um, I can't think of many ecosystems that are better than grand forks to give rise to a UAS software company.

Josh Christy: Yeah, no, that's, that's great. And I mean, it's, I'm, I'm, I've seen it and I'm not anywhere near to the industry of just, you know, how many companies are come out of that. So give, give our listeners a little, uh, story of kind of, what's been the journey so far for, for you and the company, um, you know, high highlight, any twists and turns. And, you know, I, I, I look back at when I started Codelation 13 years ago, like I never thought I'd be in the place that I am. And I think, you know, that happens through, through some events and you kind of pivot and change. So how, you know, you started off with the, the problem, how have you come to be the company you are today?

Joshua Riedy: Great question, Josh. And I appreciate the opportunity to talk about that because I think you hit the nail on the head. There are twists and turns and what we thought when we started isn't necessarily what happens today and isn't indicative of the future. Um, I took a big chance. I quit my day job in 2018, knowing that I wanted to do something different and I could do something better. And frankly, at that time I knew largely what I wanted to do, but I didn't have a plan. I didn't have partners, et cetera. So in my particular case, I went from basically August one through, uh, 2019 building a plan. And I, I worked at the 7 0 1 coworking space. Uh, I became as involved as I could in the Fargo, in the grand forks entrepreneurial scene. And that formative time, I think I, I would relate to anyone that if you have the opportunity to really invest yourself in it, it's not just coming up with a plan, but I think getting yourself ready as an entrepreneur, what that means to your family, what that means to your life.

Joshua Riedy: It's not to be taken lightly, that that if you're really going to make a success of something, you have to give it your all, and you have to understand what that means. In my particular case, um, we were absolutely blessed to encounter Microsoft and what they call their TechSpark program, uh, test, spell hug, um, you know, many others in that program. Um, we're very, very thankful that it's Taya, Mike Egan, um, Kate bank and, you know, Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft, um, early on in our journey, we met TechSpark. And from that time, uh, they were formative for us, uh, being one of the first small businesses that, that they were able to invest in by virtue of a grant to the UN D aerospace foundation. Um, we also had the community of grand forks, the EDC and the city making investment. So again, quit my day job.

Joshua Riedy: And by January one or January of 2019, we had raised $400,000 that enabled us to really take the step forward. And when I look back, Josh, $400,000 is one thing, but the relationships you're able to build is what really takes you further into that journey. And in our case, the strong ecosystem I made mention of the entrepreneurial communities of Fargo and grand forks, um, many others along the way helped us move forward. So we took the dollars, um, the relationships that we had and then really focused on meeting Xcel Energy, his expectations, you know, from, from day one, very customer centric, and really pushing ourselves to meet those goals. And it wasn't something that was overnight, um, in our particular journey, there were changes in hardware, drone hardware. There is, and then there was the pandemic itself. And I would say the start of the pandemic was really a, a, a huge opportunity for us.

Joshua Riedy: And it may be odd to say an opportunity, but the pandemic really helped us focus our efforts. Our team continued to work together and, and focus what they did. And I think it was at that point, we really took on the mentality of, uh, the little North Dakota startup that could, and we focus that, and that really drove us forward into today, which, um, we were fortunate enough to, uh, be accepted into the genius New York program. We were fortunate enough to win that program, but if I look backwards and say, what was formative, it was the commitment, um, to running a business and the sacrifices that meant it was getting dollars in the door and having the right partners in our case, Xcel Energy, Microsoft at the U and D aerospace foundation. And then it was just great people and great support along the way. And our journey was focused on the customer and their deliverables. That, that is kind of the theme that I think of when I think of Airtonomy looking back.

Josh Christy: Yeah. That's, that's great. I mean, so many people try to take an idea and hunker down, you know, in your office and just focus on this idea until it's perfect and, you know, it's so easy to get hung up on what you think is cool or what do you think is needed. And I just, I love the fact that you said Xcel Energy, a major, um, uh, power co-op in the area said, we, we need to solve their problem because if we can solve it for them, we've got a customer, we've got a testimonial. We can go take that sale sheet to anyone else. Um, realizing that that money's a part of the piece, but it's all all about those resources as we say of time, money and expertise, and you need good people on your side. Um, money certainly helps, but if you, if you don't know what directs your point, and then you're gonna run out of money pretty quick and just in a bad spot. So you, you brought up a little bit of the, the genius New York event. Tell me a little bit about that was what that was and, um, uh, kind of your, your journey, um, uh, to go into, into that process and, and why that was attractive for you and the company.

Joshua Riedy: Yeah. Happy to do so. And perhaps while I do that, Josh, to your earlier point as an entrepreneur, it's sometimes scary to put those, those thoughts that you have in that work that you have out in front of a customer or a potential customer. But I think you, and I both know the sooner you do that, the better, because whether it's good feedback or bad feedback or something in between, unless you know, that validation comes in many forms, and I don't think you can do that soon enough. And, and the reason I say that is that leads to genius. And before genius, our validation was Microsoft and it was the aerospace foundation and it was XL, but North Dakota is a really awesome place when it comes to non diluting funds. And we've been a benefactor of the Research North Dakota program, the renewable energy council and Lyft, and each one of those I considered as validations that really prepared us for GENIUS NY.

Joshua Riedy: And if you're not familiar with GENIUS NY, um, as my guess is many of your listeners may not be, uh, the world's preeminent, um, technology accelerator and competition for drones, um, central New York, uh, in Syracuse, uh, or Syracuse in particular has an ecosystem that feels very much like grand forks. They're very much focused on technology and application of that technology to drones. They have a test site for the FAA as well. In our case, it was a colleague of mine that, that maybe you, you met him Josh and your time at UND, and maybe you didn't, but Craig Garris Johnson, uh, it was an individual that had worked with us and had worked for, um, arts and sciences as well. And he and his wife relocated to, um, upstate New York area. And one day I got a message on LinkedIn that he turned me onto this program and said, Hey, you know, I, I followed you and it's one of those pay it forward that you really good to me and my career.

Joshua Riedy: And I wanted you to know about this. Uh, so he put me in touch with a colleague that we learned more about the program and we rolled up our sleeves and we applied to the program and we took that application very seriously. We put a lot of effort into it. Um, and the timing was such that all of the validation I spoke of earlier, I think really paid off that when we were able to get in front of this program, um, there was over 600 applicants from, I believe, 28 different countries, um, that was narrowed down to 13 and we had to do another interview and kind of a second application process. And then we became one of five that was part of a, roughly a three month, uh, initial phase that, that everyone works together. So we've been able to, to know our, our colleagues and I don't think any of us really thought of it as truly a competition. And yet we had to stand up on stage and we had to pitch and we had to be prepared for that pitch. And lo and behold, we came out on top of that. Um, not just the first company to participate in genius, New York, but the first company from the Midwest, uh, alone. And so we were very fortunate that they selected us into the program and it's the winner of their, their competition. And that is still kind of, um, residing within us today because it's continued to open doors for us. And we're very thankful.

Josh Christy: I can imagine. I can only imagine the, oh, this would be cool if we could get in and seeing, okay, there's what you say, 600 people. And all, it would be cool just to get to this point. And I got a feeling that's the real of holy smokes. We made it to this, and now we got in now and now it's like, now you're now you're at the showdown. And, and you know,

Joshua Riedy: Yeah, well, you know, there's a million dollar check we held and I see that in, in to this day that doesn't feel real Josh, that we've come that far. But again, I go back to the questions you asked earlier, it's a Testament to a journey and all the people that got us to where we're at. And boy, do I ever feel fortunate for that? And yet I look back and I also think we put our put in our dues and there's a lot of people that help us get to that point in many ways we earned it. Um, but again, it, it also feels surreal to this day,

Josh Christy: You know, it's, it's the, uh, 10 years of hard work and you're an overnight success, you know?

Joshua Riedy: Right. Exactly.

Josh Christy: Um, how do you have any idea of how much time it took to go and prep for like the GENIUS pitch event or like give the listeners just some idea of what does that take to really do it right. Um, from you and from your team,

Joshua Riedy: Um, it starts back to the application process. So first off I would say we put in at least 20 or 30 hours, I'm understanding the program that goes all the way back to Craig, who I give the shout out to. We have to know if the program was right. They had some initial information sessions and we went back and we looked at prior pitches and looked at prior companies. So I would say at least 20 to 40 hours that just, are we going to do this? Are we prepared at that point? Um, I'll give my team credit. I would say that between the business plan that we put thoughtful consideration into and everything it took to be ready for an application, we probably put in another 40 to 80 hours, if not more Josh, because we really put our best foot forward. We were very conscientious of the requirements and we, we made it look good.

Joshua Riedy: We made it sound good. And we put a lot of thought into it. So at that point, I would say we're probably at anywhere from a minimum of 80 hours to twice that much. Um, and then we sat back and we waited. And when we are announced as one of 13, uh, we had to revise our materials and create a first pitch. And I would say we probably put in another 20 plus hours as a team to get ready for that. And after that, and we were accepted into the top five, um, there's a residency component in Syracuse. So I know myself or others on my team had spent the better part of over two months in Syracuse, uh, participating in maximizing that effort, um, you know, for your listeners, if you think of Y Combinator, Techstars are plug and play, generally, there's a cohort of five companies, but it's about a three month process.

Joshua Riedy: Genius. New York is a 12 month residency. And we're very thankful for that. They give us a lot of time and attention to be successful. So we're about a little over three months into that. When it came down to the pitch itself, Josh, I will tell my listeners that was not for the faint of heart. I have never worked as hard on one thing is I had on that pitch. My brain just doesn't memorize very well. So you have the lights on you, you have all this pressure to win. And I would give myself a B minus performance and having to watch myself in a movie theater after the fact that probably lower that to a C minus. It's certainly not my best take, but I can tell you the preparation was there. I'd give a shout out. Uh, they set us up with a pitch coach and then a gentleman by the name of Nathan gold that comes from Silicon valley. He's amazing of helping you tell your stories, the company. So all of that effort, uh, led to us winning, but I can tell you, I've never prepared for this program or this opportunity like this in my lifetime.

Josh Christy: I, I, I've done a few pitches and nowhere near that, that level, but having, like, I remember having to do a 15 minute pitch or something, and it's like, you get your timing down, you make sure. And then he practice and it's like four hours a day of just going through that. Cause you get to 11 minutes and then you stumble and you're going on in the wrong direction. And it's the most frustrating thing, because anything can throw you off. I remember doing one that they, they held up a timer. I was admitted off of my pitch and my head and it was like, it just went down the tubes from there. So I think what you're saying is this, isn't just putting your pitch check together and fly out to Syracuse and get on stage. There's a lot of time that goes into it.

Joshua Riedy: There's a lot of time that goes into this Josh and in our case, think of it this way. It was a five minute pitch. Each minute was worth a hundred thousand dollars, you know, and in our case that that feels like a lot of pressure. Um, but I will say this, Josh, that if you follow the journey, shout out to governor Burgum and the state who is trying to put pieces in place to make this an easier journey for others. But when I say easier, I do not want to misrepresent. It's hard being an entrepreneur. It's really hard and being a technology startup and I'll stress the word startup because there's a lot of lifestyle businesses and small businesses that I give all the credit in the world to. But if you really want to be that startup, uh, in our area, if you think a bushel, you know, that that is a distinction and that is not a distinction for the faint of heart, because in many ways you have to reprogram your brain and, and throw out everything you knew about small businesses and reprogram your brain to be a startup because even the economics, the velocity, um, right now we're in the process of, of finding a lead investor and raising a series a and I can tell you that it feels like you're shifting your life and your business into overdrive.

Joshua Riedy: And, uh, you know, when you replace fuel your gasoline with jet fuel, you get that kind of whiplash effect. And we're feeling that right now, but it feels like we're in the right time with the right product and the right place. And we'll see how it goes.

Josh Christy: Awesome. Yeah. I that's, that's great to hear your guys' success and something you had talked about of kind of the lifestyle business and, you know, making an income for you and your family is different than raising $10 million and having to exit a hundred million dollars for your investors can get returned. So there's, there's different pressures on it. I'm not saying one's easier than the other, but, uh, it's. Yeah, it's interesting.

Joshua Riedy: There are different, I think is the way I would think of it that they're, they're very much different right now. Josh, we've been fortunate, we've crossed the $10 million fundraising threshold. Um, we're looking to more than double that when it comes to series a and we are hopeful to have some good news that we can announce to the world in the coming weeks and months with that, but it does shift it into overdrive. And when you start taking other people's money is where for me personally, it feels like that that that responsibility to deliver becomes all the more real, um, when I came back and we talked to our employees, we had a celebration, we pop the champagne. It was fun to pause and reflect on success, but I can tell you what happened next is you feel even more resolved and more determination to take that next step and to prove everyone, right, that, Hey, thanks for having faith in me. And we're going to deliver.

Joshua Riedy: Back to work, yeah, if you, if you're a fan of college football, if you've ever heard Nick Saban talk about the Alabama Crimson side tied, you know, I don't know about you, but when I watch him, he can win the biggest game in all he can think about is well, we could've done this better and this better, this better. And the reason he does that is he has a bigger prize than mine. So a lot of times I feel myself guilty of we could've done this better and this better and this better. But if your ultimate prize is having a successful exit, either through an IPO or being acquired, that's what you got to focus on as a technology startup. And I can tell you that maybe when that date comes, it'll feel surreal again. But until that day, I wake up every morning thinking about how I'm going to get.

Josh Christy: I think it was Nick Saban too. Like don't focus on the championship. Don't focus on the season. Don't focus on the game, focus on the next play that's in front of you and just keep moving the ball forward.

Joshua Riedy: Exactly, absolutely what wake up every morning. And you have to almost be obsessive of not just what's going the company do, but what can you do to improve every single day? And when you have enough of those days, strong together is where you can look back and see that you'd actually moved the needle substantially.

Josh Christy: And I don't know about you, but like every day for me in, in totalization is it's new, rare air. I've never been in that place before. And so it's like, you're constantly reinventing yourself and reading books and trying new things. Um, and it's, it's awesome and scary. And all the emotions rolled up into one. And, you know, I, I think you just got to enjoy the journey because you're never, you're never, it's never complete.

Joshua Riedy: No, you, you are absolutely right. It's never complete. And I think if you're, if you're too hard on yourself, you're not afraid to dare and be different. And I can tell you being a technology startup, an entrepreneur, I can look back and probably see as many mistakes as I, as I had success. But I can also tell you that every one of those mistakes taught a valuable lesson and you have to be afraid or not be afraid to make mistakes. You have to be able to put yourself out there and you just hope that you can, you know, step back and look at the ledger, the scale and see there's more positive than negative in our case today, it feels like there's a lot more positive than that.

Josh Christy: Yeah. It's it's context and perspective. I appreciate you Josh coming on the podcast so much, how can the listeners, how can we help support you and Airtonomy, uh, going forward?

Joshua Riedy: You know, that I appreciate you asking that. And here's what I would say, Josh, first off, thank you for having a podcast, talking about these things where we're from. If North Dakota wants to be a birthplace of more startups, I think we have to understand what that is, understand how we can support companies and frankly put it out there and have these conversations and inspire others to do that and give them the best possible path for success. And it is truly one of those pay it forward, help people when you can and know is personally, I, I want to give back as much as I can because I hope to look back and all kinds of others follow in our

Josh Christy: Footsteps. Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Well, I appreciate you so much for coming on today. Thanks for your time and look forward to our next chat.

Joshua Riedy: Sounds good. Thank you, Josh. Take care.

VO: Thanks so much for tuning into this episode of, from idea to done. If you're enjoying the show, please feel free to rate, subscribe, and leave a review. Wherever you listen to your podcasts, we really appreciate it. And we'll catch you in the next episode.

About the Show

Erick and Josh talk about big ideas, companies that are winning and those that aren’t, and current events in the crazy world of software startups.

Josh Christy

CEO

Erick Roder

Director of People
and Nerd Culture