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How GENIUS NY is helping New York State become one of the biggest players in the drone industry

We had the chance to sit down with Kara Jones, the Director of GENIUS NY, one of the world's largest drone accelerators. Their organisation provides an example of the progressive support system available to international drone start-ups struggling to get on their feet. The accelerator programme does this by bringing together an impressive $3 million in investment to five start-ups each year and has done so for the past six years, transforming it from just a booster programme to a driving force in the drone industry ecosystem. 

Beyond financial support, GENIUS NY provides a range of support to the selected start-ups. These new companies benefit from free workspace in a dedicated tech incubator and mentorship from a pool of industry leaders, including regulatory consulting from the Murzilli Consulting team. The organisation also provides support in several key areas such as recruitment, marketing and sales support alongside numerous events and workshops, both within the local community and internationally. Importantly, GENIUS NY provides crucial assistance in securing subsequent rounds of funding.
Funded by the New York State Economic Development Team and based in Syracuse, GENIUS NY works in partnership with NUAIR, which manages one of the FAA's seven UAS test sites. The accelerator’s mission is to attract and retain companies in the region, help grow the UAS ecosystem, and ultimately position the region as a global leader in this growing industry. This ambition is not only self-serving but also aims to strengthen the region’s economy.

How both international and US-based drone companies can apply

Many international companies may be wondering how they can get involved or apply to the next funding round. As it turns out, it's pretty straightforward. Start-ups can apply directly through the GENIUS NY website every year from February to May. Swiss companies should also feel inspired as both Fotokite and WindShape are previous winners.

As part of the application process, start-ups must provide the basics of their business case, including details of their competitors, product viability and the size of their addressable market. Kara explained to us that the evaluators at GENIUS NY are looking for a strong team with a clear path to revenue in the next twelve months. They're trying to stimulate the New York State economy, so they ultimately want to make sure that the teams can take advantage of local resources and contribute to the local economy. The final goal of the year-long accelerator programme is for these companies to stay after the first year is over and grow their businesses in New York State.
New York’s strategy towards attracting new drone organisations to their region has made them one of the biggest players in the global UAS industry. Since 2016, they've invested more than $100 million into the sector, developing a world-leading UAS hub in central New York and the Mohawk Valley. With initiatives like NUAIR driving the 50-mile UAS corridor between Rome, New York and Syracuse, and the recent opening of SkyDome, an indoor drone testing facility, New York is working hard to bring drones into the national airspace.

Recognising the need to support this emerging sector, GENIUS NY was born in 2017. To date, they've invested over $18 million in 32 companies from eight countries, making it one of the largest accelerator programmes in the world, which is pretty impressive. 

Where will the American drone market be in 15 years from now?

Over the past six years, the drone industry has evolved significantly, particularly in the types of companies applying to GENIUS NY, Kara told us. There's been a trend towards more advanced start-ups, mostly around the Series A and seed stage, compared to the early-stage teams with still-developing prototypes that used to be the main applicants. Equally notable is the increase in international interest, with almost half of the companies applying now coming from outside of the United States. These international companies want to enter the US market, either for drone manufacturing or to expand their customer base.

However, entering this industry is not easy. Regulatory and legal hurdles can be high, and meeting compliance requirements is often time-consuming. The capital-intensive nature of developing a UAS platform and hardware is also a significant challenge. Therefore, companies venturing into this space and applying to GENIUS NY need to differentiate themselves with a competitive advantage and the potential for a large market. Recent trends indicate a significant increase in the number of companies specialising in data collection, hardware OEM and mission planning within the UAS space.

Looking ahead, Kara anticipates that the next 15 years promise exciting developments for the drone industry. With so many ongoing challenges, it can be difficult to predict what the next year, let alone 15, will bring. However, we can expect to see increased integration and the rise of urban air mobility. Everyday tasks such as package delivery may soon be performed by drones, and with major advances in battery technology, longer endurance and greater range are on the horizon. 

In addition to this, automation and artificial intelligence are likely to bring greater autonomy and intelligence, and while this prospect may be daunting to some, the future of drones will be shaped by innovation, market demand, regulatory frameworks and societal acceptance.

Tracking the diversity of early-stage founders: where is the industry today?

Many recognise that the drone industry is right at the edge of some major developments in terms of diversity, Kara explained to us, and New York is a leading state in the US for this innovation. Just a look into the GENIUS NY website reveals their commitment to diversity and promoting female leadership within the industry. However, the question arises as to whether there has been an increase in the number of female-led start-ups applying to the accelerator over the past six years and whether these diversity initiatives are making progress.

Kara, the director of GENIUS NY, acknowledges that there is always room for improvement when it comes to being more inclusive. The organisation continually monitors the diversity of its applicant pool, tracking female and BIPOC founders, as well as founders from MWBE backgrounds. They work with several platforms that support women in the industry, including DroneTalks and Women and Drones, and encourage more female involvement in key roles such as guest judges and mentors from the FAA, NASA and VC world.

Despite the continued need for progress, there is clear evidence that positive change is taking place. Kara recalls attending a conference seven years ago where the majority of attendees were men. At the AUVSI XPONENTIAL 2022 in Denver, she observed far greater diversity. This change is encouraging and points to a future where female leaders in the drone industry work hand-in-hand with their male counterparts.

Who should get involved with the GENIUS NY programme?

Kara ended the interview by expressing her appreciation to all the teams that applied to the GENIUS NY programme this year. She notes that this year’s applicant pool was particularly competitive, with a significant number of international and US teams applying. She also mentioned how enthusiastic she is about the growth of the UAS hub in New York and encourages anyone interested in developing their company or business in the state to get in touch.

Acknowledging the challenging selection process ahead for the advisors, she looks forward to welcoming another group of promising start-ups to Syracuse in July. As well as start-ups, Kara also invites new mentors, advisors and guest judges to join her efforts, and pays tribute to those who have already been involved, including Eszter Kovács, who was an evaluator for Cohort Seven. She is grateful for the expansion of her mentor and VC network beyond Syracuse and for the continued support of the programme.

The event announcing the winners of Cohort Seven is scheduled for early July and will kick off the year-long accelerator programme in Syracuse for the selected start-ups. Highlighting the speed and rigour of the due diligence process, Kara promises that a press release will reveal the five finalists in early July 2023

About Kara Jones

Kara Jones currently serves as the Director of GENIUS NY, the world's largest business accelerator programmes for uncrewed systems start-ups. Located at The Tech Garden in Syracuse, New York, the competition selects five start-ups each year from a competitive global pool and provides them with the necessary tools for success, including scholarships, prize money, resources, programming, mentors and connections.

Kara has been part of The Tech Garden ecosystem for nearly five years. She initially joined the organisation in September 2018 as Content and Outreach Strategy Manager, where she was instrumental in driving member engagement and increasing brand awareness through strategic digital and traditional marketing efforts. Among her many responsibilities, Kara developed content and engagement strategies, designed marketing collateral, managed digital platforms, and oversaw the Tech Garden Marketing Centre.

Kara then transitioned to the role of Director of Communications in September 2020, where she served for ten months before taking on her current role as Director of GENIUS NY in June 2021.

To complement her roles at The Tech Garden, Kara has also served as an adjunct professor at the State University of New York College at Oswego since August 2019. She developed and teaches the curriculum for MKT 330: Entrepreneurial Marketing and Sales, a course that is critical for students in the entrepreneurship minor and sales major at SUNY Oswego's School of Business. 

About GENIUS NY

GENIUS NY is the world's largest business accelerator competition for uncrewed systems, IoT and big data startups. The accelerator is funded by Empire State Development and housed at The Tech Garden, CenterState CEO's incubator in downtown Syracuse, NY.

Five finalists are selected from a competitive pool of submissions from across the globe each year. The accelerator provides startups all the tools they need for success, including stipends and award money, resources, programming, mentors and connections.

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