(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first article in a two-part series focused on Knoxville-based DataFlyte Inc. which just secured $600,000 in angel funding in a round led by The Lighthouse Fund with strong participation from investors in Chattanooga.)
By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
The President of the most recent Knoxville start-up to announce a round of angel funding traces the company’s current success to past connections that have been maintained over the years and the patient commitment of those individuals to build a unique product.
The result is impressive.
“What we have come-up with is completely disruptive,” Jack Dischner, President of DataFlyte, Inc., proclaims of the technology that is an order of magnitude improvement over the current way that utility meters are read remotely.
After spending about 90 minutes last week with Dischner and Dan Nower, the company’s Vice President of Engineering, we are believers. Who would not be when you learn that a process that requires 40-person days a month for a modest-sized utility in the region can be done by DataFlyte in just six hours with a higher accuracy rate than the current approach?
The breakthrough is a combination of patented and patent-pending technologies that utilize an aerial process to capture customer usage information from AMR-style meters, process the data, and deliver it back to the utility the same day that it is collected.
The Lighthouse Fund, which led the capital round, celebrated the inaugural investment at an event last night. In meeting DataFlyte’s needs, the Knoxville-based angel fund also leveraged two Chattanooga funds – Blank Slate Ventures and the Chattanooga Renaissance Fund – as well as four individual investors from the Scenic City.
For the DataFlyte team, the new monies are allowing the nearly four-year old start-up to go from operating as a virtual company in semi-stealth mode to an entity with an actual office and a growth plan that is moderate in the short-term but aggressive over the long haul.
The investment celebrated last night draws on connections made in the 1990s when Dischner, Nower and Geoff Robson, President of The Lighthouse Fund, were colleagues at Computational Systems, Inc. (CSI), a Knoxville start-up acquired by Emerson in 1998. The work they did at CSI in machinery diagnostics proved invaluable when Dischner founded DataFlyte.
“We (CSI) were able to take huge amounts of data from places like mines and extract what was pertinent,” Dischner explained. Fast forward a decade when he co-founded the company, and that approach is exactly the concept behind DataFlyte.
The affable and engaging Dischner said he was working in his yard in 2010 when he observed a truck traveling through the neighborhood. He wondered what it was doing and only later learned later that the vehicle was remotely reading utility meters using wireless technology. That revelation got him to thinking.
“If we go up in an airplane, we are going to be able to do the same thing,” Dischner concluded, but quickly learned it was more challenging than he initially thought.
The journey to building a disruptive approach started with a local utility loaning some remote reading equipment to the businessman with an idea. Dischner laughs when he describes the initial attempt to capture data from the air.
“We failed,” he said simply. “Over the next bit of time, we learned a lot about wireless.”
After a number of flights with different approaches, Dischner was able to get his data reliability readings to 60 percent, then 68 percent and eventually 70 percent, but they were well below the 92 percent reliability of truck drive-bys.
“We were stuck,” he says at that point. However, he was unwilling to give-up. So, like a number of area entrepreneurs, he turned to Vig Sherrill, a well-known, technology-focused entrepreneur who connected him with a wireless expert. The latter’s advice allowed Dischner to modify things and raise the reliability readings to a range of 95 to 98 percent accuracy, higher than the existing technology available to utilities.
“At that stage, we knew we were on to something,” he said.
NEXT: From one breakthrough to another and what the future holds.