From steel to space robotics | 2021 Midwest Venture Showcase | A move to Nashville
“Don't tell me that man doesn't belong out there. Man belongs wherever he wants to go - and he'll do plenty well when he gets there." — Wernher von Braun, Rocket Engineer
January 7, 2021
CHAT WITH AN INNOVATOR
Astrobotic is out of this world
Image courtesy Astrobotic
This is the story of what happens when a university, a tech spinout, and a funding partner converge and change the trajectory of a city. The city, in this case, is Pittsburgh. Historically known for steel-related businesses, Pittsburgh is also the home of Carnegie Mellon University, which is where this story begins.
Flyover Future spoke with John Thornton, a mechanical engineering graduate out of Carnegie Mellon and the current CEO of Astrobotic, that is developing space robotics technology for lunar and planetary missions, and Mark Thomas, president of the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, about how they worked together to create a successful niche.
John, how did Astrobotic get started?
John: Astrobotic was founded by CMU professor Red Whittaker and associates. Our original intent was to compete for the Google Lunar XPRIZE, which was to be the first to go to the moon, drive 500 meters, and send back pictures and video. No one ever won the prize, but it was the catalyst for us and others to get started. We almost went under several times during the early years, and then six or seven years ago we began to focus more on government contracting to keep the doors open.
Our business model focuses on a lunar payload sales model, and we actually made the first commercial lunar payload sale ever. Then we got critical mass for delivery and NASA came in as a large purchaser of lunar payload and bought an $80 million package last year and a $200 million package this year for deliveries that they want to send to the surface of the moon. We are now 105 employees here in Pittsburgh’s north side and we’re landing on the moon in about a year’s time. So, we are off and running now.
"Pittsburgh is a real center, a global center of robotics. And we discovered that that wasn’t necessarily the perception everywhere. Having companies like John’s is a stellar example of what’s possible here."
— Mark Thomas, Pittsburgh Regional Alliance
And I assume you’re not talking about a space version of DoorDash?
You can think about us a little bit like a delivery truck. You can think about it like all of the different things on the back of the truck, all of the different objectives. We’ve got folks who want to do science, we have folks that want to do time capsules with stories and messages about people. We have folks that want to demonstrate technology.
We have a commercial customer, for example, that is sending a small, walking, little robot on the surface of the moon purely to demonstrate and see if they can get it to work. We have a program called MoonBox where, for a few hundred dollars, people can send small mementoes to the surface. It’s really all sorts, shapes, and sizes that are being sent up, and then we provide the lander.
Mark, can you talk about what made Astrobotic attractive for an initial investment from The Strategic Investment Fund (SIF)?
Mark: Pittsburgh is a real center, a global center of robotics. And we discovered that that wasn’t necessarily the perception everywhere. Having companies like John’s is a stellar example of what’s possible here. It helps to course-correct that lack of understanding, because we are one of the top-three robotics hubs globally.
SIF’s $6.9 million loan will assist in funding the acquisition and development of the property on Pittsburgh’s North Shore as the headquarters for Astrobotic. This is the coming together of the business community and the private sector to find unique ways to move the region forward. “They do WHAT in Pittsburgh?” That’s the effect we’re looking for.
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How will data change your trajectory in 2021?
Last year (it's so nice to write that), we launched our inaugural Innovators Podcast with Microsoft's Future of Work Initiative in Louisville. Each episode shares stories from experts at the forefront of data and artificial intelligence. Listen to gain valuable insight and inspiration for your own data strategy. Your next big idea is one podcast episode away!
Here are a few of the most listened to episodes:
Episode 11: Healthier with data
Episode 10: Serve the superuser, change the world
Episode 8: The IoT of Barbed Wire
Episode 7: Data, logistics, kidney donors, and cute puppies
Episode 4: Data driven decisions from appliance repair to brand colors
You can also listen to these episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, or wherever else you get your podcasts.
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2021 Midwest Venture Showcase
For many reasons, there is a strong movement afoot to help turn the Midwest into a true tech heartland by supporting its startups and taking advantage of the talent emerging from Midwest colleges and universities.
There’s no better example of this than the 2021 Midwest Venture Showcase, a virtual event that allows companies in the heartland that are seeking venture capital investments to present their ideas in front of an online audience of top-tier investors, entrepreneurs, researchers, and business executives.
The 2021 Midwest Venture Showcase is developed from a partnership between the Midwest Growth Capital Symposium (MGCS) and InvestMidwest (a venture capital forum managed by the Cortex Innovation Community that brings together high-growth companies from across the Midwest that are seeking $1 million or more in equity investments in Life Science, Tech, and Ag/Food tracks).
Last year was the first that the event went virtual. It attracted 600 active attendees focused on meeting Midwest companies seeking seed stage, Series A and Series B funding. The 60 companies at the event made dozens of connections with investors across the country.
On the first day of the event there will be speakers and panel discussions on venture investment trends, followed by an afternoon of company pitches. The next day will feature Tech Transfer pitches as well as panels.
If you are a Midwest company seeking venture capital or if you’re an investor seeking to take advantage of the movement toward the Midwest, you can get more information by visiting www.InvestMidwestForum.com or emailing Phyllis Ellison. The deadline for applications for companies interested in presenting is February 2.
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Cintrifuse Presents: How Green is CES 2021?
From Sustainability Gadgets to Climate Tech, An Innovation Review – One Hour Free Webinar on Thursday, January 14th at 2 p.m.
We know this year’s virtual CES will be carbon-neutral on travel, but what about the multitude of products, gadgets, smart-home devices, and other gizmos on display? More importantly, who will score the biggest green wins — the really BIG corporate players or the SMALLER startups involved? And where is the best green innovation coming from? Join Cincinnati’s startup catalyst, Cintrifuse for a “sustainability review” of CES 2021. Register HERE.
A couple of Flyover Country standouts were recognized this year at CES, the national trade show hosted by the Consumer Technology Association. Illinois' John Deere received a robotics category award for their X Series, which uses ActiveVision camera technology to help farmers see inside a combine’s grain tank and monitor the condition of harvested grain.
Wisconsin's Mercury Marine has been named a CES 2021 Innovation Awards Best of Innovation honoree for its 1st Mate Marine Safety and Security System.
Purdue develops tech to be used in public cameras
A professor in Purdue’s College of Engineering, is leading a team working on several patented technologies related to public cameras. The team has created several patented technologies that they combined into a computer system to acquire and analyze real-time visual data from millions of globally distributed network cameras.
Music City builds on its tech scene
After a $23 million investment from General Motors Ventures, Yoshi, a startup that provides on-site, on-demand car maintenance and gas delivery, is moving from Silicon Valley to Nashville. Yoshi is following in the footsteps of the other companies that have moved to Nashville, including Harrow Health Inc., GoCheck Kids, Greenlight Medical, Stache and Mitsubishi Motors North America Inc.
Virtual reality solution for coping with stress
BehaVR, an Elizabethtown, KY company, in cooperation with Johns Hopkins HealthCare Solutions, has developed a virtual reality program that’s a new way to help employees cope with ongoing stress. The program, called CenteredVR, is a dynamic and personalized VR experience that helps users build resilience and coping skills.
Fast-growing vertical farming industry
Orlando-based Kalera plans to build a "vertical farm" in Columbus, OH as part of the company's effort to become one of the nation's largest operators of indoor, year-round farms. Kalera would be the latest player in Ohio's fast-growing vertical farm industry.
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FUELING THE FUTURE
What is fueling Flyover Country innovation? In this weekly feature, we share a variety of announcements covering funding, acquisitions, exits, grants, and everything in between. Got something to celebrate? Click here to share your story.
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NAME THAT FLYOVER CITY!
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