Iris Automation took the BCIC 3rd Prize package and BC Resource Industry Prize in 2016. Since then, the venture has raised 1.5 million for their collision avoidance system for drones. We caught up with them to get their best tips for this year’s competitors, and are thrilled to share the news that they’ve recently released a beta to customers. Interview with Alexander Harmsen, CEO/Founder.
To start, give a brief description of your startup and what you offer as a product/service. How were you inspired to come up with the concept?
Commercial drones are not toys—they’re used for surveys, pipeline inspection, package delivery, search and rescue, first responders, forest fires, and they fly in national airspace with balloons, crop dusters, and private aircraft. Introducing drones into the world requires that the see their environment, and have the situational awareness of a pilot. I have been flying since I was 17, and know the danger of having drones flying around, even as a recreational pilot.
We, at Iris Automation have built a collision avoidance system for the entire industrial drone market. People want to use drones in places where they’re not allowed to or are not trusted to, and we can make that happen for them—that’s the motivation.
We came from UBC—we worked at Boeing, NASA, and various aerospace startups – that’s where we discovered the problem. We realized no ne else was working on it, and that we should be the ones to do it. I’ve seen crashes first-hand and the limits of how drones currently fly blind. That was the spark—we thought that if drones were to become widespread and fly anywherein Canada or the US, we would need situational awareness on board, to see the drones the way a pilot might.
Describe what stage your startup was at when you entered the competition. Did you expect to compete for the top prizes?
We had desk space at the BC Tech Association’s innovation hub—we were three people putting in 12-14 hours a day. We put the prototype out and worked with our first customer. When we entered the competition, we always knew we had a great idea, and a lot of market traction. When we speak with customers, they respond with one of two things: 1) you’re crazy, this is so incredibly hard to build or 2) wow, this is truly the Holy Grail, where can we buy this?
We had product market fit—a good business plan / strategy, and knew what we were looking for—it was a matter of building the hard tech. We thought we had a pretty good plan and timeline, and by September we had seven people in the company. We more than doubled our team throughout those six months—our highest period of growth was during the competition. We also went through Y Combinator during that time period.
How have you used your prize money and services?
We went through patent filing—that was a big expense, and tremendously useful. We managed to hire more people and went on to raise a 1.5 million round in September. Being able to have that recognition—being award-winning—was one of the biggest benefits.
Any updates or successes you can share since completing the Competition?
The biggest news that we can share is about our growth – that when we first applied, there were three of us working on our first prototype. Now we have a beta in the field with customers. We have an early adopter program gaining traction—close to 100 companies signed up—it’s hard to keep up with that sort of demand. It’s been amazing; I did not expect to get there this quickly.
Best feedback from a mentor, juror or fellow competitor that you received?
I remember the sales seminar in B-to-B sales and enterprise sales. As an entrepreneur with an engineering background, I have not had a lot of experience in sales. I had a really good discussion with the speaker afterwards—we discussed an early adopter program and how to sell before our product was fully ready. We also learned to receive early feedback, especially unbiased customer feedback. We have relatively complex AI—we need feedback in its early stages, to ensure it’s completely ready and safe to use. The worst thing would be to build something that people don’t actually want.
The sales seminar drilled into my mind that it’s all an iterative process. One of my favourite quotes is: “if you’re not ashamed of the first product that you put on the market, then you released it too late.” It’s so much more important to get it out there, than to build the perfect thing the first time. The 3rd or 4th iteration will be much closer and better than holding on to something and trying to perfect it until its too late.
What tips do you have for this year’s BCIC-New Ventures competitors?
When it comes to the accelerators or a startup competition or fundraising there’s a lot of companies who try to build to the guidelines of the competition or to what they think the investors or accelerator is looking for. Ultimately, do what’s best for the business—so much other stuff comes up along the way, so it’s worth putting them aside and focusing on the bottom line and growth.
Hundreds of investors emailed us and we ignored them—we put them on a mailing list and keep them up to date. I could have been taking investor meetings all along, but I focused on sales and letters of intent, product, and hiring, leading to more success than taking those meetings. When we finally went into an investor round, I called them all up and took meetings with themback-to-back, because that’s what I was focusing on that at that time.
We really believe that doing one thing really well is better than doing 100 things at a mediocre level. We keep our KPIs—among them the total numbers of hours flown—and our goals on the wall. It’s something we can reflect on every week: are we making progress, yes or no? If that count stops increasing we know there’s something we need to fix or that we’re getting off track and losing focus.
We have this critical path, so when it comes to a competition or an advisor’s advice, etc., we keep it all in mind, and it helps us with goals, but we take it with a grain of salt. Take what’s useful, and know when and where to apply it. It’s scary to just blindly apply someone else’s advice; every startup is unique and no one understands your business as well as you do.
Any other comments you’d like to share?
In general I’m excited about the community that the competition aims to build. There was lots of learning, meetups and events. The final announcement day, and party around that, it all works to unite the BC startup ecosystem. I’m very happy about that! That’s the greatest part about the entire competition—bringing those people together.
The $35,000 BCIC Third prize package includes $25,000 cash from BCIC, complimentary access to the BCIC Venture Acceleration Program for one year, plus in Kind Services from Ernst & Young, Fasken Martineau DuMoulin, and NVBC’s bronze sponsors.
The BC Resource Industry Prize Package awards $22,0000 to the most promising venture working to commercialize a technology for application in Mining, Forestry, Agrifoods, Oceans, Oil and Gas, Energy, and/or Cleantech sectors. The venture also receives 12-month access to the Foresight Cleantech Accelerator Program.