(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second 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 evolution of DataFlyte, Inc. from an idea to a company ready for growth mode mirrors in many respects the stories of many successful entrepreneurial endeavors.
Jack Dischner, the company’s President, says the start-up was boot-strapped over the last four years with much of the actual cash needed coming from him. In fact, for the first two years, he worked part-time. It was less than 24 months ago that he started devoting full-time to the company.
“This thing consumed me,” he said, acknowledging that it still regularly produces sleep-deprived nights.
With limited cash, Dischner was able to draw on connections made over his career.
“I gave away shares in exchange for work,” he explained. He hired the first full-time employee in August when Dan Nower, DataFlyte’s Vice President of Engineering, joined the company after the $600,000 angel investment led by The Lighthouse Fund was secured. In addition, the company rented its first office space on Midpark Road in West Knoxville.
All of this sudden progress was possible because DataFlyte reached a significant breakthrough about 15 months ago, producing a reliability of 97.8 percent with its aerial reading of AMR-style meters deployed by utilities. This mark is nearly six points better than the readings normally achieved by trucks that drive through neighborhoods.
“We’re better, faster, cleaner and greener,” Dischner says of the technology and the process that DataFlyte uses. A mid-sized utility might consume 1,000 gallons a month in fuel for its vehicles to do the drive-by reading, while DataFlyte use 54 gallons of fuel for a six-hour flyover.
How does it work?
“It’s like a vacuum cleaner,” Dischner says of the way the company captures data.
From an altitude of 1,800 feet, the plane flies a grid with each swath about 2,500 feet from the previous one. DataFlyte also repeats the process, flying a second grid pattern at a 90 degree angle from the initial paths.
One technical challenge the DataFlyte team had to address is the lack of a single communications standard for wireless metering. Dischner explains there are multiple brands of devices, each with its own protocol.
It’s also not just a matter of capturing the data. DataFlyte has to eliminate duplicate readings that naturally occur and upload all the information into a database the utility customers can access to bill their customers.
“We’re starting with water meters,” Dischner says, but that’s just the initial customer focus. He wants to scale the company in the right way with the equivalent of a laser approach.
“Our business plan for the first year or two says we stay east of the Mississippi River,” he adds, but that’s part of its measured growth plan. “We have an eye on national and even international, but we are not going there yet.”
The market is large – 50 million AMR meters in the U.S. currently in a sector growing by 30 percent a year. With a growing market, some issued patents and patents pending including international provisionals, DataFlyte is ready to accelerate its growth.
Dischner and the team have big plans, something we’ll cover later when he’s ready to discuss them.