When I took on the leadership role as Executive Director for the UAS Cluster Initiative (UASCI), the senior executive team at our parent company, Development Capital Networks (DCN), asked me to walk them through some of my key priorities during the first 90 days. My response was simple: "listen….and then listen some more." I have now spent the last six weeks visiting with and listening to some of the smartest and most "aerospace-informed" folks Oklahoma has to offer.
This summary reflection aims to let each idea I heard share its own truth and act as an informing mechanism for any future conversations and strategic planning sessions. The goal is to cross pollinate the many outlooks, hopes and aspirations of a broad representation of industry silos. Successful unmanned aviation ecosystem building is a massively complex and rewarding venture requiring engagement, collaboration and commitment from all interested parties. No one gets a free pass.
My hope is that this summary helps to catalyze UASCI's vision of an Oklahoma centric ecosystem made up of industry specific thought leaders, angel investors, manufacturers and public partnerships, focused on making Oklahoma a world class destination for all things Unmanned Aviation and Advanced Air Mobility.
Entrepreneurs and private industry understand that any successful ecosystem, ripe to grow both current and new business in Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) and Advanced Air Mobility (AAM), must be driven by market opportunities. In his book "Start Up Communities" Brad Feld talks about the different roles individuals and organizations play in building an entrepreneurial ecosystem. He mentions one of the biggest mistakes communities often make is they assign these roles of leadership to organizations or individuals un-equipped to carry out that mission.
While meeting with these current and former company executives it became apparent that in a complex and rapidly changing technological environment like emerging aviation technology, they are the ones that possess the agility and deep market understanding needed to lead new business development.
In order to lead, industry needs an appropriate level of influence and community voice. I heard from multiple sources that they feel a bit under represented during high level industry discussions at the state level, but that they understood the paradox was often due to a lack of coordinated industry engagement. Simply put, business owners want to be engaged in policy discussions but are busy running their businesses, and so time outside that specific endeavor is extremely valuable and protected.
In conversations with our tribal partners, it's clear there is a lot of excitement and energy around UAS and AAM and they see the new business and entrepreneurial opportunities. Major investments of time and money have been expended in order to establish themselves as "first movers." A vast array of federal grants has also created numerous funding opportunities. UAS and AAM testing facilities and infrastructure are the early primary focus and there is no shortage of private industry demand ready and willing to partner during both prototype and beyond visual line of site (BVLOS) testing.
Developing a sustainable business model for both UAS and AAM is a key area of concern. FAA regulatory timing and public acceptance are complex unknowns that make creating reliable and specific business investment decisions feel a bit speculative. Unlike the traditional aviation industry, companies developing these early-stage autonomous technologies are not revenue producing which means they require upfront investment in order to form a workable partnership. Tribes are still working out the risk reward calculus, which requires an understanding the market.
Even in the midst of a pandemic, 2020 saw nearly 1.3 billion dollars in private industry investment in the advanced air mobility market alone. According to McKinsey, the 2021 number was $7 billion of new investment. I think this reflects that investors recognize both the disruptiveness of UAS and AAM, and the size of the market. During my conversations with folks who live in this world I heard some interesting things:
- Even though many of these companies and technologies appear "new" to the average person, most of this work has been going on for a decade or longer.
- Vehicle development is complex and hard; certification is exponentially harder.
- UAS and AAM start-ups are not Facebook. Significant angel and venture capital is needed much sooner in the life cycle of the company. This creates greater risk for larger sums of investment.
When it comes to the availability of capital resources in the state, I heard a couple of repeated thoughts and concerns. One is that it would be very difficult for Oklahoma to compete with other more cash rich states willing to risk much higher sums on unproven technology. We have seen other state governments offer sums in the eight-figure range in order to entice the more prominent UAS and AAM companies to relocate or expand operations within their borders.
Oklahoma would be better served in precise and strategic use of its limited funds rather than a broad scattering of resources throughout the industry. This could come in the form of early-stage funding capital for in-state startups working on a prototype or minimum viable product or it could mean a state and private industry joint infrastructure project related to UAS or Advanced Air Mobility that pushes the bounds of current regulation and public acceptance.
The investment community sees real opportunity for the state to lead this industry but a specific strategic model and clear narrative has to have ownership from all stakeholders.
I don't want to single out specific academic institutions, but what I will say is that Oklahoma universities, colleges and trade schools have been the "tip of the spear" when it comes to carrying the UAS and AAM industry flag. Our institutions of higher learning are at the cutting edge of the industry, lead many of the R&D efforts and are busy churning out the future industry workforce.
One of the key things I heard over and over is that we have to really commit as a state to connecting kids to STEM at a much younger age. By the time a student reaches high school it's too late. Some progress has been made on this front but more needs to be done. The growth of the industry entrepreneurial ecosystem is directly related to the available workforce. All skillsets are needed, from hands on building and manufacturing to dreaming and designing. We must engage students from all walks of life and all parts of the state.
Federal and State Government
Government's primary purpose in an industry ecosystem is creating an environment ripe for growth. This can be done in many ways; favorable regulatory environment, funding, network support, legislative action, etc. Individuals I spoke with from all levels of government want to make sure they are playing the appropriate industry role and using their resources and influence in the most appropriate ways. Government officials understand that a state UAS and AAM strategy led and designed solely from their limited perspective would be a mistake.
Oklahoma federal and state employees are excited about the UAS and AAM industry, are extremely bright, and have great ideas about how to move the industry forward. What those institutions struggle with is agility, the ability to quickly pivot, and commitment to a strategy beyond the current election cycle. They want to be good at "feeding" UAS and AAM specific resources as quickly and efficiently as possible but need private industry to take up the long-term mantel of industry leadership.
I've spent my entire professional life in the aerospace industry in some form or another. It's a sector that is always pushing the bounds of technology, regulation and public perception. Both Unmanned Aerial Systems and Advanced Air Mobility ratchet that tension up a little more. The problems are complex and the speed of change is palpable.
I've been super encouraged about the level of expertise, commitment, and long-term strategic thinking of Oklahoma UAS and AAM thought leaders. All the necessary ingredients exist to expand a vibrant and active state ecosystem able to thrive during the coming transportation revolution.
UASCI looks forward to supporting all the different industry nodes and stakeholders through connection, communication and collaboration focused on making Oklahoma a world class destination for all things Unmanned Aviation and Advanced Air Mobility.