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Business Rx: The seed has been planted. Now what will the tree look like?

By Special to Capital Business
Monday, October 18, 2010; 31

THE ENTREPRENEUR

For many people, the whirling maple seeds that flutter down from the trees and sprout tiny saplings in gutters, lawns and flower beds can be a nuisance. But for Evan Ulrich, they were inspiration. Ulrich, an aerospace engineering PhD candidate at the University of Maryland, developed a small, remote-controlled, unmanned flying device with a design based on the maple seed. The one-winged flier is based on four years of research with Ulrich's adviser, Darryll Pines, dean of the University of Maryland's A. James Clark School of Engineering.

Ulrich's pocket-sized flying machine makes for a stealthy surveillance tool that can fly 150 feet off the ground, maneuver around corners and transmit video, giving operators a 10-mile line of sight. He thinks the technology could be invaluable for the departments of Defense and Homeland Security, as well as for police work, weather tracking and commercial security.

After tinkering with more than 100 iterations, Ulrich has perfected the design and patented it, calling his company RoboSeed. Now he's shopping the technology to a potentially billion-dollar market.

THE PITCH

Ulrich

"We offer a paradigm shift -- the world's smallest single-wing, vertical-flight aircraft. The vehicle can be flown at night, and because it's modeled after the maple seed, the orientation doesn't matter. On-board electronics or automation are not required to fly the vehicle, which slips it within FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] rules.

"It will not become unstable in high or gusty winds, which is one [of] the big problems with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) now. Just like a maple seed is designed by nature to fly in the wind, if you have a gust of wind, it will stay stable and keep flying. Worst-case scenario, this will go with the wind.

"By 2020, it is estimated that the commercial market for UAVs will be around $50 billion globally. This includes applications such as security and surveillance, aerial photography of traffic or real estate, or animal tracking. Our UAV can also be used as an emergency transmitter. The government market is estimated at $20 billion, with applications in homeland security, border controls, military situational awareness, search and rescue, and hurricane data collection. There is also an application to make this into a child's or hobbyist's remote-controlled toy.

"We are in the process of applying for government Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants for weather observation, military sensors and border security. Additionally, a 3D mapping/obstacle avoidance version of the vehicle will be collaboratively developed with Lockheed Martin beginning in 2011.

"The unique configuration and capabilities of our UAV make it particularly attractive as a sole-source sale to government agencies. But this substantial opportunity is only available to companies that are General Services Administration (GSA) contractors, and obtaining this status will be our major challenge in penetrating the government market."

THE FEEDBACK

Asher Epstein, managing director of the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business

"Right now, your biggest challenge may not be cracking into the government market. To really ramp up and roll out to all of the markets you have defined, you need to address how RoboSeed offers a full solution.

"Your technology is amazing, but it's only part of the solution for your potential customers. Your UAV, the camera, how that camera wirelessly transmits video images, the software needed to view the images either at a desktop or in the field, and then the ability to use that information as intelligence all add up to the full solution.

"Think about all the components and be able to offer that full solution, or find a company that can offer the pieces beyond the technology you've developed and partner with them.

"You've already laid out a great strategy for how RoboSeed's technology can be applied in several different markets. Just make sure you fully address all the components of the technology's use for each market you pursue."

REACTION

Ulrich

"The quickest product RoboSeed LLC can bring to market is a remote-controlled toy. This is also the simplest use of the technology without the need for the video camera or software, so there are far fewer components. A sublicense to a major toy manufacturer would provide funding for the development of other platforms, and pursuit of this market will be done in conjunction with SBIR grant applications."

Looking for some advice on a new business, or need held fixing an existing one? Capital Business and the experts at the University of Maryland's Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the Robert H. Smith School of Business are ready to assist. Contact us at capbiznews@washpost.com.

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