Originally published on Slice of MIT
Jonathan Downey ’06 started building drones when he was a computer science and electrical engineering student at MIT. Five years after he started the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) team at MIT and three years after he graduated, he founded Airware, a San Francisco-based startup that offers services to help companies make strategic use of commercial drones.
The company provides a service called the Aerial Information Platform that combines on-board hardware, operator software, and cloud services to enable companies to customize, manage, and safely operate commercial drones at scale.
Last December, Downey was named a USA Today 2015 Small-Business Innovator of the Year, recognized for leading the innovative company that has grown to more than 100 employees since its founding in 2011.
Although UAVs have a long history of innovation in the military and defense space, Airware is notable for early development of software and cloud services for commercial drones.
Downey, whose parents are both retired pilots, can trace the roots of his success back to the Edgerton Center at MIT. In fact, some challenges he encountered as an entrepreneur he first experienced while starting MIT’s UAV team. The most important thing he learned then? Surprisingly, it wasn’t how to develop drone software.
“Getting funding for the UAV team was a big learning experience,” Downey recalls, “Not unlike trying to get seed funding later for Airware.”
As the leader of the fledging UAV team, then called Project A2RES, Downey had support from the Edgerton Center, but needed more funding. Cold-calling big aerospace companies like L3 Communications and Northrup Grumman, he pitched funding the UAV team as a strategic investment in hiring college students. Downey successfully secured sponsorship, and the aerospace companies benefited by connecting to MIT students interested in the field.
In fact, Downey notes that a crucial early investment in Airware came from an Edgerton Center connection. At MIT, he and fellow student Jeremy Conrad ’06 tried to get each other to join their respective Edgerton Center student teams. Years later, Downey found Conrad again at Lemnos Labs, a San Francisco seed-stage incubator with a focus on hardware startups. Lemnos Labs’ investment in Airware was an important step.
Downey’s endeavors have strong MIT ties. Airware’s Chief Technology Officer, Bernard “Buddy” Michini ’07, SM ’09, PhD ’13, joined after graduating from MIT. Before Airware, Michini and Downey worked together developing early prototypes.
Today, Downey is looking forward to working with the phenomenal people at his company and his clients, which include General Electric and insurance, oil and gas, utilities, and telecom companies. And, he says, Airware will continue to push the future of commercial drones.