S2,E3 - Kara Jones

Posted on February 7, 2024

Talk CNY - Season 2, Episode 3 - Kara Jones

This is Talk CNY, presented by NBT Bank, a semi-monthly podcast by CenterState CEO, Central New York's premier leadership and economic development organization. Join us as we meet the people and explore the projects driving the regional economy forward.

Thanks for joining us for Talk CNY presented by NBT Bank. I'm Katie Zilcosky, director of communications and your host for Talk CNY. In 2016, New York State leaders recognized the potential of making central New York a globally recognized hub for uncrewed aerial systems or UAS innovation. That vision became reality through unparalleled state investments. Now, our region has an ecosystem of research and development assets like one of seven FAA designated test sites in the country, beyond visual line of sight testing and advanced air mobility capabilities that are on the leading edge of this growing industry. Central New York is also home of the world's largest UAS accelerator, GENIUS New York, operated by CenterState, CEO Genius New York (NY) brings startups from the UAS industry all over the world to Syracuse, New York, for a one year accelerator program with a grand prize of $1 million. The GENIUS New York team is now getting ready to open applications and welcome its eighth cohort to Syracuse. So with me today to talk about all things GENIUS New York is CenterState CEO's, director of the GENIUS New York program, Kara Jones. Kara, thanks for being here.

Thanks for having me. Of course. GENIUS New York is the world's largest UAS accelerator. So, you've been with it since the start. What makes it different? What makes it special, and how has that made an impact on the industry and the community?

Yeah, so I've been, like you said, I've been with the program since it started in 2017. We're currently in our seventh year going on our eighth year. What makes GENIUS New York so unique as an accelerator, is that we are focused solely uncrewed aerial systems or UAS drones. This provides a really cool ecosystem of collaboration. Teams partnering together, team sharing, customers, teams, sharing partners, mentors. It creates a really cool vibe at The Tech Garden and there's shared challenges, shared investors, you name it. So that's one unique thing. Another thing is that it's one year, it's in resident and it's for international applicants as well. So to date, we've had over, oh gosh, 8, 9, 10, I think eight. But there was a whole cohort of all international teams. Yeah, cohort six was all international teams, but I think we're up to about nine international teams that have gone through the program. So that's unique. And then, like you said before, we're awarding $3 million into five teams, and that's a very significant amount for accelerators.

If you get into the accelerator, you're guaranteed at least half a million dollars, at least half a million dollars, and that grand prize winner will get 1 million. To date, teams have gone on to raise over a hundred million dollars and follow on funding think Series A and Beyond. They're growing their companies. They're growing their customer base. They're partnering with local resources in the community, and they're really pushing the limits in the UAS industry forward.

Now, as we said, you have been with Genius since it's start in 2017, but you, yourself, your career was not in the uncrewed aerial systems industry. No. So how did you kind of get introduced to this industry? Great question. Was there a moment for you that was like, oh, this is something I want to be invested in and a part of?

Yeah, great questions. So I started at CenterState (CEO) seven years ago now in a marketing role, and I remember, I think it was my second day on the job that my former boss said, we have this GENIUS New York program. It's focused on UAS. What's UAS? I'm thinking. We need applications. We need you to develop this kind of program. So immediately when I thought of drones in 2016, the norm was, people are spying on me, kind of that narrative. So it was really educating myself on not only all of the acronyms that this industry uses, but also what are the different use cases, the technologies, the hurdles, the regulation. It was a lot, but it was a lot of fun. I remember the first cohort, there was a team called SkyOp. They have drone training and curriculum for teams, and they also work with a lot of universities in the region.

I took, I think it was a 12-week small U-A-S-S U-A-S course. That really opened my eyes to the capabilities, the transformative technologies coming out of the space. I remember flying my first drone, I think it weighed less than a pound. Oh my gosh. It was like $20. And I was in the Tech Garden theater and I was like, oh, I can do this. I had been training on the computer with my flight controller and it just flew up, hit the theater ceiling, fell down, broke, and I'm like, you know what? This is hard. So you think I would have learned my lesson. But I think a week later I took the DGI Mavic that we had, brought it to my house, flew it up in the air a hundred feet. It was loud. Long story short, I competed the course, part 1 0 7, know how to fly a drone.

But it was just really eye opening to see the process of getting able to fly a drone, making sure the weather's good for the drone, making sure you have the right waivers in place it, it's a lot. And it was nice to really share that experience with the community. Before COVID, we used to have an event called Drones over Downtown, at The Tech Garden where we'd welcome the community. They would take a look at all the teams, the UAS partners, they got to fly a drone. So it was really cool to share that experience with the community. And that's going back to your question, that's kind of the point where I was like, this is cool, and I'm really fortunate to be consumed by all of these advancements, but also the people, the teams, the really intelligent entrepreneurs that I'm surrounded by with every day. It's fun.

Yeah, we had really great teams come through the GENIUS program, but like we said, we're on cohort eight now. So we've had a lot of different types of teams, a lot of teams in different stages of their company. So heading into cohort eight, what are you guys looking for in the teams that you're recruiting? Is there anything or any new technology that you're really trying to hone in with this GENIUS cohort that you're kind of looking for as you start to take in applications?

So, I'll just say I'm not a judge. I'm just putting that out there. But the team and I and the judges, first and foremost, we want to make sure that we have a team that wants to grow in Central New York. The whole point of the GENIUS New York program is to grow the UAS ecosystem here, which means coming here for one year, being involved in the community, working with our CenterState (CEO) members, our partners, meeting our local investors here, working with portfolio teams. So first and foremost, do they want to grow in Central New York? I think that's first. Second, we try and look for teams that are complimentary, not competitive to past portfolio teams that really want to come in and start working with some of the teams. There's been a lot of collaborations in partnerships like I spoke about before, but that's big too. Aside from that, judges look at is it an innovative technology? Is the market there? Do they have a skilled team? Is it a good team? There's a whole list of criteria. But yeah, definitely looking forward to some of the new technologies and use cases that'll come in through applications. It's exciting to see every year, and since I started in 2017, our applications grow significantly every year. Last year we had over 600 - 50% were U.S. and 50% international.

Wow. So despite this growth of UAS ecosystem in Central New York, I'm sure there are still people who aren't doing it every day who are like, why does UAS make sense in Central New York? So for someone who still might not be familiar with the industry and ecosystem here, why are these two such a good match?

Great question. Central New York is really a great hub for UAS technologies. We have a history and we have a really awesome ecosystem already in the aerospace fields. Think about companies like Lockheed Martin and SRC and Saab that are already here. They have a great talent exchange and just wealth of knowledge in the space. GENIUS New York uses a lot of those mentors, either retired from those firms or still active there and active military. So just right there, the history of the aerospace industry that we have in Central New York is huge, and then tapping into their mentors and things is great. I will say too, the reach of research institutions and educational collaborators and partners, we've been able to partner with Syracuse University, with the Le Moyne Keenan Center. That has been great, not only for knowledge exchange and talent, but for continued collaborations for interns. That's huge.

Another thing is our unique geography, believe it or not, it's amazing for teams to be able to come here and test their drones in rain, snow, sleet, wind, hail, sometimes all on the same day. So that's pretty unique. We have great rural and urban areas for testing. So all in all, I would say Central New York is really combined with the aerospace expertise, the reach of research institutions, the unique geography, and honestly a supportive ecosystem. It takes a lot to keep this program going and to keep these teams here. So we're really fortunate that all of these partners have come together to support this.

And that speaks to that. It's not just good for an established company, but startup companies like the teams often entering the GENIUS program. So what makes our startup, what makes this location so great for startups as well as just companies already established?

Yeah. I think now more than ever, we're seeing more growth in the innovation entrepreneurship landscape in Central New York. We have the expansion of The Tech Garden coming up this year. We were really lucky that our GENIUS New York program started the same time as our new Syracuse Surge Accelerator, which is focused on BIPOC tech companies. So just the blend and the collaborations between those two cohorts is really amazing to see. And I think it's just a time to be here. I mean, there's more investment, there's more state resources and funding. Obviously, GENIUS New York, the news about Micron, Tech Hubs, it's really a place to get your idea going and to make it happen.

Now, as we mentioned, and when we were talking about who you're looking for a GENIUS NY team, they do have to be here in Syracuse, in Central New York for one year, but we have a number of teams who have stayed past their one year in residency period. Can you tell me why they choose to stay? What some of those teams are working on right now that keeps them in Central New York?

So teams have been able to stay here because of the support, the continued support of our community, of our UAS ecosystem. It takes a lot, right? It takes continued fundraising, it takes customers, those early beta customers. It takes continued partnerships, access to talent utilizing Syracuse University and other institutions to keep that talent coming in. And interns, one of our teams ResilienX, I think they were year four, they're now at 10 or 12 employees. They've been fortunate enough to partner with past teams. So I think they've partnered with probably half a dozen portfolio teams from GENIUS to continue to grow that UAS ecosystem forward. So it takes a lot, but we've been really successful in keeping teams here, but it's not a one-person job. We need the whole community to be bought in and really welcome these teams here and make sure that they're continuing to support.

So you mentioned ResilienX. Are there other teams, can you mentioned some of the other teams that have gone on to do some kind of really cool projects, whether be it here in Central New York or have grown here in Central New York and expanded even past?

Yeah, so we have, I think 36 teams now have gone through the GENIUS New York program. Like I said, we're on year seven. Our last year's winner. Archangel (Imaging) has been able to grow. They have a presence in Syracuse. Bradford who actually used to work for Fotokite. Another million-dollar winner is now at Archangel. So it's cool to kind of share talent as well. One of our teams, U-S-P-L-M was acquired by AutoModality from year one and FarmX, a bigger company on the West Coast acquired AutoModality. So there's been a lot of transitions, and so that's pretty cool to see.

I've been talking to Kara Jones, CenterState CEO's, director of the GENIUS New York program. We will continue our conversation in just a moment. But first, a quick word from our presenting sponsor.

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Welcome back to Talk CNY, presented by NBT Bank. I'm Katie Zilcosky, and with me is Kara Jones, CenterState CEO's, director of the GENIUS New York program. We are talking about all things Uncrewed Aerial Systems or UAS in Central New York. So the GENIUS New York program, the world's largest UAS accelerator is based out of The Tech Garden, which in case people haven't been past the facility recently is going through some pretty major renovations. And part of those renovations will of course help the GENIUS program, but also help the Central New York innovation ecosystem at large. So can you tell me about some of those renovations and enhancements that are coming on the way?

If you haven't been down Warren Street, they're going at it. So every day there are people out there on the roof, and it is scheduled to be opening spring of 2025. Super excited about it. As you can imagine, GENIUS New York brings in five teams every year. Now we have the Syracuse Surge Accelerator program bringing five teams in. So we're at capacity. We're excited to expand our facility. We have earlier-stage companies, later-stage companies that need hardware space, that need lab space, that need a UAS access roof. So we're excited to really build that out for these teams and really make a hub for innovation in a community, in an inclusive environment so that everyone feels welcome and that they have the support and they have the space to really collaborate and partner and bump into each other with ideas. And I'm excited for it. It's cool because we are now at Equitable Towers looking down at the expansion. So every day we're checking in what's different, what's new. So we're really excited for that to start the grand opening next year. Yeah.

So before the break, you mentioned Drones over Downtown, and that's not as active anymore, but there are still ways for the community to get involved, and one of those ways is GENIUS New York Pitch Finals Night, which is now Innovation Night. We last year did a little bit of a revamp of the programming there to really celebrate the entire Central New York innovation ecosystem. Can you tell me what played into making that choice and shifting the focus more broadly?

Absolutely. So as I mentioned before, the GENIUS New York cohort started when the Syracuse Surge Accelerator program started. So already we had a facility full of really fabulous entrepreneurs that really needed to be celebrated. So GENIUS New York Pitch Finals. Think about it like a Shark Tank. They get up on stage, they pitch, they're awarded $3 million total, but it doesn't stop there. And there's so much that helps these teams be successful between pitch coaches, the partners they meet, the mentors they meet, the Surge teams they're collaborating with bouncing ideas off of, and that all was represented at Innovation night. It is not just about the GENIUS New York teams. They wouldn't be here without the rest of the community and with the rest, without the rest of the entrepreneurs supporting them along the way. So it was an exciting night. It was held last October at the Marriott, downtown Syracuse.

We had over 200 people there, and it was not only great to see the team's pitch, but we had tables of entrepreneurs from our entire Tech Garden membership from different programs that we had. So I'm excited to see what the growth of that event will look like, how more people can get involved, but it's really showcasing our innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem that's growing here in Central New York. And I think, so the tentative date for this year is end of October again, so stay tuned for more information about that, but certainly excited about what that can become.

Yeah, I mean, I was also at Innovation Night last year, and it was really great to see sort of both the stage, the really grand stage with all the pitch finals and also sort of the Innovation Alley in the back where you could interact with all the members of The Tech Garden and innovators in our central New York community. Collaboration is a big theme here that we've been kind touching on throughout this entire conversation, and there's a really exciting new collaboration coming up at the airport right now. So can you tell me a little bit about what's going on at Syracuse Hancock Airport?

So there's a lot of collaborations within our GENIUS New York program. That's what makes it unique, as I mentioned before. So one of the more recent collaborations, partnerships, whatever you want to call it, is with NUAIR. Our partner, our organization, their mission is integrating drones into the national airspace safely. And they've been a crucial role in the development and testing of UAS technologies. So NUAIR and three Genius New York teams ResilienX year four, TruWeather (Solutions), year three or year two maybe, and Aloft current year. They've all partnered with NUAIR and then Hidden Level, a local drone company here to really create this digital infrastructure to enhance the BVLOS. So beyond visual line of sight corridor, one of those acronyms, right, for real life, real world applications and activities and really enhance the AAM or Advanced Air Mobility. This is all happening at NUAIR's, new Center of Excellence located right at the airport. So if you're getting off your plane and you go through the doors that trap you in, but then they let you out, it's right on the left, you'll see their operations center. Very cool. What does this all mean, right? Is that NUAIR is really becoming the leader with GENIUS New York teams and others in making BVLOS safer and reliable. And it's great that they're doing these real world use cases right here in our backyard.

And BVLOS, just for people who don't know, is when you would be flying a drone and you can't see it anymore, but you're still controlling where it's going, what it's doing Beyond visual line of sight. Yep.

So then overall, really to drive this theme of collaboration home, how do you see collaboration really pushing the innovation in Central New York forward?

Great question. I think I've said this a bunch of times, but it takes a whole community to keep teams here. And not even just GENIUS teams. A big theme is students coming out of university and wanting to leave to go to these startups. But we have that here. We have startups, but we have ways and curriculum and programs to even take an idea and form a team. So we're excited to do more of that at the expanded Tech Garden. We're fortunate enough to have new programming coming down the pipeline between the Clean Tech Center, our already established Syracuse Surge Accelerator, but I've seen a lot of collaboration just between the teams and partners here. One more recent collaboration is with our team Drone Hub from last year, they are able to start a strategic partnership with a CenterState CEO member Marquardt, an international company. So now they're working with Drone Hub, and that's what it's all about, is just seeing the community take a piece of this innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem and just to continue to grow it. And I think that's what I'm excited about, and I'm excited for the future to see more of it happen.

So before we wrap up here, I want to make sure that everyone listening knows where to go if they have interest in the UAS industry, Central New York or the GENIUS New York program for applications, where would you send someone who's asking you questions?

Yeah, so you can visit our website at geniusny.com. NUAIR also has their new website out now too that has a lot of information about testing capabilities and what they're doing at the airport. Like I said, applications open February 8th for cohort eight. Try to make it easy there. And yeah, we're really excited about the new technologies, the new teams that we're going to see. So thank you for having me.

And thank you for being here, Kara.

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