MURRAY — Smaller. Faster. Smarter.
Common goals in the world of tech startups, but Teal Drones founder and CEO George Matus — having nailed these three attributes very early on with drones he and his team developed — is on a quest for something more elusive and, perhaps, more consequential.
"Once consumer drones started becoming widely used and really popular, I started realizing that all they are is just a flying camera that can take photos and videos," Matus said. "And, I've always had these grand visions of what drones could do … and the role for good that they could have in society."
Building drones that can fulfill a greater and more impactful mission is a goal now very much in sight for Matus.
In late April, Teal was announced as one of only six companies awarded contracts with the U.S. Army to develop and prototype a lightweight surveillance drone for use by soldiers in the field. Matus, who launched Teal in 2014 and has already released two high-performance consumer model drones, said he's excited to be in the competition for designing a drone that could play a part in saving lives.
"The intention of this aircraft is to be a rucksack portable, vertical takeoff and landing aircraft the war fighter can have in their bag, pull out at any time, launch into the air and see what's around the next terrain feature, whether that's a hill or a building or whatever," Matus said. "Right now, the army doesn't have a quadcopter of this size and capability … and we're excited to be working on a design with all these awesome attributes that will potentially save lives."
Matus said the six companies, including Teal, were awarded some $11 million collectively and each have a year to design and complete a prototype that meets the specifications as outlined by the Army's program executive officer for aviation, in partnership with the Defense Innovation Unit.
Teal may have a jump on the competition as a company that has already developed two drone models, including the Teal One, which went on sale in October 2018. The Teal One has top speeds over 60 mph and, according to Matus, is the fastest production drone on the market. Features of the craft include a high-performance hardware and software platform powered by an NVIDIA Jetson supercomputer, capable of artificial intelligence, augmented reality and open source programming that allows users to modify or tweak as they wish. The Teal One is also backpack portable and modular to easily swap out propellers, arms and batteries.
The company, or companies, that win favor with the Army could be looking at procurement contracts north of $100 million. Matus said he likes Teal's chances.
"We're taking everything we've learned, all the experiences and all the mistakes that we've made from these last few products that we've launched, and taking that into this next generation with us," Matus said. "It is going to be quite an evolution and something that is going to blow a lot of people away with its capability."
Blowing people away is a strategy Matus has made a habit of. It's noteworthy that while his company has been around for five years, and attracted over $20 million in venture backing, Matus is all of 21 years old. But, his chronology is a little deceiving as he's been on the path to Teal since he became enamored of radio controlled planes and helicopters as a boy and developed a skill set that would lead to his first job in the drone industry, as a wizened 12-year-old.
"I got that first radio-controlled plane and really fell in love with it," Matus said. "I started learning as much as I could about hardware and software and flying," Matus said. "I was running lemonade stands and doing magic shows and babysitting to save up to buy my next $200 plane.
"And, when I was 12 became a test pilot for a drone company. I just applied for fun, because I saw an application."
That gig not only provided some budget relief for young Matus, but also gave him the chance to get hands-on experience with the latest-and-greatest in the still-nascent world of drones. Not long after he started building his own drones — including a large craft that could fly for two hours and carry a 25-pound payload and another smaller drone that could reach a blistering top speed over 100 mph. For that project he devised an innovative system for tilting the drones rotors, for which he received a patent.
While Matus watched the manufacturers of camera-bearing drones creating a red-hot consumer market, he thought he could do better and create something with a much wider range of potential uses by developing a drone with onboard computing capabilities. And he connected with someone who could help him take the first steps down that road.
While Matus was still in high school, he applied for and was chosen to join a select group of young entrepreneurs for a Thiel Fellowship. The namesake program of PayPal founder and venture capitalist Peter Thiel launched in 2011 with the mission of offering financial and expertise support for entrepreneurs under 22 years old who "want to build new things instead of sitting in a classroom."
"The idea is that there are people out there who, with the right support, can build something amazing without needing to necessarily attend college, or have other experience," Matus said. "Their motto is that 'some ideas can't wait' … so every year he brings in 20 kids, tells them not to go to college, gives them $100,000 and tells them, 'go do it.'"
And that's what Matus did, leveraging the seed money from Thiel and another $150,000 from a Salt Lake angel investor to get the company off the ground. He developed first the Teal Sport, and a short time later, the Teal One, with an onboard mini supercomputer and a whole lot of potential.
For now, Teal is taking a pause on consumer drones as it focuses on the Army development contract while simultaneously exploring a host of new, non-consumer business uses for drones. Matus said amidst rising commentary focused on Chinese manufactured drones and data security, it became clear that the demand for developing applications for industry was just too large to ignore.
"It was interesting that around the same time that we launched the consumer product we started getting just so many requests from different organizations looking for drones for their use cases," Matus said. "They all had similar challenges, not being able to find software that could address their needs and not able to utilize Chinese manufactured products that came with their own security concerns."
Colin Guinn has a deep resume in the drone industry and runs a company, Guinn Partners, that helps startups get their products market ready. He met Matus a few years back and became a friend and informal advisor. He said Matus is a standout in the drone world, both for his vision of how useful, beyond flying cameras, he believes drones can be, and for his ability to put that future outlook into practice.
"I am a big fan of George and the passion he brings to the space," Guinn said. "He has such a long history of building his own drones and really understanding how to create the best user experience."
Guinn, who previously worked for DJI, a China-based drone manufacturer that he said controls some 80 percent of the computer market, said Matus has always been looking further down the road than most of the competition. He noted that Teal's arc is recognizing that the use cases for drones will eventually tilt away from consumers and heavily toward an enterprise, or business, market. Guinn said data gathering, mapping, infrastructure inspection, search and rescue and many other applications have just been waiting for the technology to come up to speed. And Matus is helping lead that charge.
"I think George is right on the money with the direction they're going," Guinn said. "Becoming capable of gathering, processing and delivering data in near-real time … is a high value creation. It’s definitely happening, and Teal is one of the players that's taking us there."
Teal's $20 million plus in funding has included backing from some local venture capital firms including Pelion Venture Partners and Kickstart Seed Fund. Kickstart administrative partner Alex Soffe said his team was blown away by Matus from the start and noted that while a young founder, he's been an expert in his space for over half his life.
"When you talk with George, you realize he is wise beyond his years," Soffe said. "He’s going to do great things and we're really impressed with his ability to adapt and react and change strategy. While Teal initially was going to be a consumer play they're now pivoting to enterprise and building the go-to portable drone for the military. I just love that he’s willing to learn and is so great at taking feedback.
"And, he's a prodigy."