A new member in fire departments. Saving lives with drones.
A flying camera for fire departments? Why not, said the team from Fotokite. Find out where the company get its inspiration for its product innovations and how the start-up secures its financing – CEO Christopher McCall on entrepreneurship and start-up ideas.
Christopher McCall, you are CEO at Fotokite. Who is Fotokite?
Christopher McCall*: Fotokite is a Swiss and US-based start-up that designs, manufactures and supports tethered aerial camera systems, which are being used by first responder teams.
Can you elaborate more on the products Fotokite offers?
What we focus on are situational awareness tools for the public safety market. We currently offer the Fotokite Sigma product line, a vehicle-integrated system that can be used by public safety teams that is connected to their vehicles. Once the system is up in the air, it streams thermal and regular video material down the tether to the ground so that firefighters, for instance, can see the location of hotspots and survivors that need to be rescued.
So, what’s special about your product is that the Fotokite drone is tethered?
Not just tethered. In fact, tethered systems have been in existence for quite a while. What’s special about ours is the fact that Fotokite systems are fully autonomous. The Fotokite Sigma launches at the push of a button, flies itself, and lands at the push of a button as well.
Fascinating. Where do you get your inspiration for product development?
Impact is the main driver. Fotokite is building products to support first responders in their mission to save lives and preserve property. This shared goal motivates the whole team to make and support a high-impact, meaningful product. After you’ve chosen the “why,” then we focus on the “what.”
We started by taking a close look at the public safety market, understanding the market’s needs versus available solutions, and then finding a unique way to solve the problems that we could with our capabilities as a team. As a result, product feature development often comes from our customers.
But how did the idea of the tethered drone come about? Why have a drone on a tether at all?
Based on his PhD-work at ETH Zurich, Sergei Lupashin discovered that a multi-copter can pull on an anchored tether and estimate its own position in a closed loop format. By doing so, the drone no longer requires a pilot to fly it, thus making this kind of tool more accessible than free-flying drones. It’s a key feature that helps solve substantial technological barriers for particular markets.
What kind of barriers are you talking about?
Safety is critical to any technology that is purposed for use in everyday environments, and we’re very sensitive to that. Actively tethered systems can be made fundamentally safer than traditional drones, since they do not depend on pilots, GPS, or other externally facing sensors – all of which can fail in complex and highly dynamic environments.
There are also some fundamental physics-based limitations that you can overcome with an intelligently tethered system, e.g. flight time. Since the system is always physically attached to the ground station, you can send power up the tether.
You primarily sold your first products to news services, such as CNN in the US and the BBC in the UK. How does a Swiss start-up succeed in approaching international clients?
I think we were quite disciplined in paying attention to the full customer story, from the moment they arrive on-site at a job to the moment they finish it. We focused a lot on looking at what they needed. When you create a system that’s truly helpful in solving a fundamental problem, a pain point to the customer, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a small Swiss start-up or a large corporation. The big players – international or not – will pay attention.
We created a culture where we're proud to stand behind the product we build.
Christopher McCall, CEO at Fotokite
What advice would you give to other young entrepreneurs to make their products known on the market?
Product dissemination strategy is both a company culture choice as well as something that is industry dependent. For example, many entrepreneurs have over-promised and then under-delivered due to the complexity of the products they tried to develop. We learned from that, and created a culture where we're proud to stand behind the product we build.
Another piece of advice I would give is to spend more time understanding which events and shows your customers actually attend. Be protective of your time when selecting outreach opportunities.
With Fotokite Sigma, you are now focusing on a new target group: first responders, as you previously said. Earlier this year, you even signed a partnership with Pierce Manufacturing, the world’s largest firetruck manufacturer. Why this customer segment in particular?
Simply put: It’s a high impact application that we can deliver in a daily use type of system. When firefighters and first responders are able to access video footage from above during their daily responses, they become safer on-site with improved situational awareness.
Furthermore, they’re able to grow and collaborate faster by examining training footage afterward. That really pushes an entire industry forward in a positive direction; and we couldn’t be more excited to be part of that. If you can do so, I think the question becomes “Why not?”
Entrepreneurs in general tend to say “why not” rather than “why.”
I think it’s healthy to question how things are done on a regular basis for the purpose of improvement or evaluation. With this approach, I feel good about the decisions we make regarding the development of fully purpose-driven products as well as creative solutions to new and old problems alike.
Your company has now grown substantially and is currently looking for more employees. How did you finance yourself as a Swiss start-up to begin with?
Fotokite secured the first ever NCCR Spin Fund Grant, which really helped a lot at the very beginning. Quickly afterward, angel and venture capital investors were on-boarded as early supporters. Since then, we have continued to attract some incredible investors that have helped us substantially in getting to where we are now. These include Credit Suisse Entrepreneur Capital Ltd. managed by Helvetica Capital AG.
Value is not just in the financial investment itself, but in the valuable discussions, the ideas, the network, and the relationship that we build together as a partnership.
Christopher McCall, CEO at Fotokite
How important are investors like Credit Suisse Entrepreneur Capital Ltd. for a start-up?
They’re critically important. Value is not just in the financial investment itself, but in the valuable discussions, the ideas, the network, and the relationship that we build together as a partnership. Start-ups differentiate themselves based on their team skills, vision, and what they can uniquely offer. And investors are no different. They differentiate themselves in their team and what they can offer to help start-ups thrive.
Is the Fotokite team already working on other innovations?
Always. We have some announcements coming up in the next few months, and we’ll be quite excited to show people what we’ve been working on.