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What began as a school project has turned into an exciting career for the founders of SkySpecs, an Ann Arbor-based startup that provides drone technology for the inspection of infrastructure projects, such as wind turbines, cell towers, power transmission towers, and eventually bridges.
“It was all ‘right place, right time’ really,” said SkySpecs CEO Danny Ellis. “In 2009, I was pursuing my aerospace degree and decided to build a drone for my senior design project. I pulled together a student group and for three years we led a team building drones at the University of Michigan.”
Start Up is a national PBS Television series that airs on over 300 PBS Stations across the country, as well as on Create TV Network, World Channel and internationally in over 16 countries. SkySpecs was chosen by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) to be one of 15 companies featured in a web series produced by Start Up.
In 2012, Ellis and other team members went to an event in San Francisco through the University’s Center for Entrepreneurship to pitch their business idea to a panel of U-M alumni. The team received insightful feedback that inspired them to pursue the business back home.
“At the beginning, we were really a solution looking for a problem,” said Ellis. “We had this great drone technology, but we weren’t sure where it was going to fit in or who was going to care about it.”
“Organizations in Michigan like the MEDC are encouraging and supporting startups in a way that isn’t necessarily available in other states.”
– SkySpecs CEO Danny Ellis
The team received invaluable advice through mentors in the Southeast Michigan area, and was quickly able to identify business competitions and other opportunities to share their objectives and secure funding.
The team entered several competitions, securing prize money at each event, and eventually took first place at the 2014 Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition for a prize of $500,000. The prize money from multiple competitions, as well as a round of fundraising led by the Detroit First Step Fund, allowed them to buy materials, build their product and test their technology in new ways.
In late 2015, the company raised $3 million in a Series A round led by Venture Investors, including investment from Huron River Ventures, Amherst Fund, and the Michigan Angel Fund, a joint fund launched by MEDC and Ann Arbor SPARK.
When asked why the team is building their company in Michigan, Ellis said there’s no better place.
“Organizations in Michigan like the MEDC are encouraging and supporting startups in a way that isn’t necessarily available in other states,” said Ellis.
“It also helps that our connection to the university is so strong, the cost of living here is appealing, there is great talent coming out of this area, and the support from other entrepreneurs and successful businesses is extraordinary,” he said.