Flyability is a Swiss company building safe drones for operating indoors in complex and confined spaces, and in contact with people. Patrick Thevoz, Co-Founder and CEO, shares his thoughts on his challenges as an entrepreneur, the benefits of starting the company in Switzerland, and his vision for the industry’s future.
How did it all start?
“My second cousin Dr. Adrien Briod and I founded Flyability in 2014, I was studying a masters in engineering and he was finishing his PHD in robotics. Adrien was working on developing a novel technology: a new way to look into how we could be inspired from nature to solve certain problems with robotics. After sharing our ideas we were excited to see a positive response from the internet, it’s at this point that we realised there was demand on the market for robots that are able to perform inspection and exploration in confined spaces. We were very fortunate enough to have our first customers lined up from the moment we had our first working prototype (which could barely stay in the air for few seconds). This enabled us to continue our product development pipeline with regular field testing. Throughout 2015 and 2016, we had two full years of iterative development to transform our prototype into a product.”
What’s your mission?
“We are training with rescue teams at the moment, our drones participate in drills for urban rescue exercises. As of today we haven’t been involved in live rescue operations, but we’ve deployed robots inside plant accidents in order to limit exposure of workers. This is likely the scenario where we are closest to saving lives, as unstable power plants have a high risk of leaks or explosions we can avoid sending humans with protection suits and use drones instead. Our lowest hanging fruit is in the fields of industrial inspections for power, gas or oil, wherein lies 90% of our activities. Using robots in situations where sending humans is either too dangerous or too expensive.
The mission bleeds into all of our applications, the essence is about reducing risks for workers and solving situations faster by using robotics technologies. As we move forward this becomes relevant to security services such as firefighting or law enforcement. They are constantly putting their lives on the line, entering buildings to assess and fix potentially dangerous situations daily, this is another market I want to explore.
Beyond that, beyond going where humans can’t go, we can imagine many new possibilities. A drone that can touch objects and interact with them, this entails new forms of sensor technology and expanding the scenarios for drones to be used. We’re not building these robots with the intention of flying higher to take aerial selfies, we’re building to bring these technologies alongside us inside cities and buildings.”
How did being in Switzerland enable your startup to scale?
“The canton, and SPECo really helped us a lot through their programs, they sponsored the training of our new technical employees. As we were hiring new engineers that just graduated from school, they all needed training. The first few months of training were entirely covered by SPECo, enabling us to grow our team quickly. Under normal circumstances hiring and training highly skilled engineers is one of the major hurdles as a growing tech company. We were fortunate to be in Switzerland and as a result we grew the company from two people in 2014 to fifty today!
The region was also instrumental in supporting our production efforts, as SPECo finances half of your costs on capital investment, speeding up the development process from the prototype to the product. All in all, they’re injecting quite a bit of money in companies that are creating jobs, and hopefully returning much more in taxes and economic benefits.”
What are the challenges today?
“We are building disruptive products for industries that are very conservative and which have been doing things more or less the same way for the last hundred years or more, making it difficult to drive early adoption. Adding to this challenge is the reality that the technology is moving incredibly fast, which means that barriers to entry are quickly increasing. Today if you wish to build state of the art technology, it can take millions in research and development to get the best camera, the best transmission system, the best battery and so on so forth. You can’t do it out of your garage like you could have only a few years back.
The point being, it is very important for us to continue cultivating the differentiation which we have built so far. We are very new and quite a stretch from what is currently out on the market, but it remains a challenge to make sure we always identify this market well and drive adoption at the right speed. Not so fast as to outpace customers who aren’t necessarily ready to purchase the product, but also with one eye on the market and staying ahead of the curve.