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AeroInnovate: Making Great Ideas Take Flight

By Randy Dufault

July 23, 2018 - Entrepreneurs all over the world continuously dream up new and better ways to accomplish things both big and small. Ultimately, only a small fraction of those great ideas become reality due to the inherent difficulty of finding the knowledge and the capital necessary to take an innovation from concept to the marketplace.

By its very nature, aviation is an industry that promotes innovation, and the AeroInnovate program at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh is helping budding businesses make the leap from dream to reality.

“AeroInnovate is a business accelerator for early stage aviation, aerospace, and drone startups,” Steve Slocum, director of the program, said. “Right now we are a program of UW Oshkosh, but we are funded by a [Department of Defense] DOD grant.

“Our mission is to connect aero innovators wherever they are in the world. We are connecting [them] with mentors and an opportunity to pitch in front of the crowd at AirVenture at our annual Pitch and Mingle, which is coming up Wednesday.

“And for investors and industry professionals, it is an opportunity to see four or five up and coming startups in one spot.”

Each year AeroInnovate selects companies for an eight-week program that culminates at AirVenture.

“Seven of those weeks are virtual,” Steve said. “So we feel it’s very accommodating to a startup company.”

Within those seven weeks, AeroInnovate pairs the company with one or two core mentors. Other mentors and resources join as needed.

“If they require help with aerospace engineering, or they need a wind tunnel, or they need some type of help to continue to develop their minimum viable product, or need to do research, we can help them with that,” Steve said. “We connect them with resources within the aviation, aerospace, and drone communities that they cannot normally be able to connect with — certainly not in a quick manner and certainly not within seven weeks.”

Technical help is important, but so is the business aspect. Program mentors assist with preparing a concise executive summary as well as helping to prepare the all-important pitch necessary for attracting investors.

AeroInnovate’s Pitch and Mingle event is celebrating its 10th anniversary in conjunction with EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2018. Conducted on Wednesday evening at the UW Oshkosh Alumni Welcome and Conference Center, this year’s companies get the opportunity to meet and network with potential investors and the broader aviation community.

The accelerator program grew from the Pitch and Mingle event and is now in its fourth year. Steve points to a number of successes including 2015 graduate Grypmat.

“Last fall they pitched on Shark Tank, and all five of the sharks were vying for an opportunity to work with Grypmat,” Steve said. “The founder, Tom Burden, was able to make a deal with three of the sharks: Richard Branson, Mark Cuban, and Lori Greiner. He secured capital that helped him continue building his business and expand his manufacturing. Along with that capital he secured some pretty fantastic relationships.”

This year’s class includes four companies: EFX Applied Technology, which is developing interactive alert systems that identify and warn personnel of danger zones; Kerr Avionics, which is creating vision systems to detect landing zone lights up to 300 percent earlier; Ramper Innovations, which designs and manufactures products for airlines and ground servicing companies; and Vita Inclinata, which designs load stability systems for helicopter hoisting.

All four companies are exhibiting their ideas in the Innovation Showcase at Aviation Gateway Park.

Another noted program graduate is TakeFlight Interactive. As a participant in the accelerator, founder and CEO Brandon Seltz teamed up with EAA to offer the Virtual Flight Academy, a new benefit available to members and Young Eagles.