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Drone tech competition wants to lift software startups off the ground

Tom Magnarelli
Jonathan Parry, the director of Genius NY.

Empire State Development is funding a startup competition called Genius NY to attract teams with ideas to innovate drone technology. The business accelerator is meant to highlight the region’s commitment to building a new economy around unmanned systems.  

Six teams will split prizes totaling more than $2.7 million and spend a year developing their ideas at the Tech Garden in Syracuse. Jonathan Parry, the director of Genius NY, said while drones are becoming more popular, this competition is looking for the software, sensors and radar that will guide autonomous systems.

“Most people when they think of unmanned systems and they think of drones, they think of the hobby drones," Parry said. "What we’re seeing now is a pivot to commercial applications. Some of the headlines would be around Amazon doing package delivery. There’s a lot that entails package delivery by a drone. There needs to be regulated airspace for it. There needs to be safety measures.”

And Parry said the use of drones will go way beyond just delivering packages.

“Everything from agriculture related to cell phone tower inspections to transmission line inspections," Parry said. "And it’s more than just the service of  sending the drone up to do the job, it’s taking that information,  analyzing the data and getting it back  to the end user, all autonomously.”

One of the problems that these business accelerator competitions have had in the past is retaining the talent and companies that have grown out of the Tech Garden. Parry points to central New York’s Upstate Revitalization Initiative, which plans to spend half of its $500 million prize on unmanned systems.

“They’re going to have a lot of resources and reasons to stay in central New York and develop their business,” Parry said. “We’ll be assisting them to be working with leading companies in the area such as SRC, Saab Sensis, Lockheed. There could be opportunities for them to partner or license their technology to these companies which would give them a reason to stay. We’ll also help them with follow-up funding. I think it was a very deliberate and conscious decision for the state to invest in unmanned systems here in central New York. I think it will be a great opportunity and create a lot of jobs.”

The final teams will be selected later this month.

Tom Magnarelli is a reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area. He joined WRVO as a freelance reporter in 2012 while a student at Syracuse University and was hired full time in 2015. He has reported extensively on politics, education, arts and culture and other issues around central New York.