Haven’t heard of them yet?
You might soon be at a football game when one of these miniature multiple-rotor helicopters flies over you to capture a bird’s-eye view of the action below.
Michael Williams is the entrepreneurial incoming junior at Oregon State University who is working with OSU football officials on just one of the possible applications for the aircraft designed by his company, Multicopter Northwest.
Williams is among the first 13 participants of the university’s Venture Accelerator, a program designed to propel concepts and research into new companies. The businesses chosen for the program come from the university and the community at large and represent a broad spectrum of ideas, from renewable energy to biological research.
The Venture Accelerator is part of the regional Southern Willamette Valley Regional Accelerator and Innovation Network, or RAIN, which received one-time funding of $3.75 million from the state Legislature. That broader collaboration includes OSU and the University of Oregon, as well as the cities of Corvallis, Albany, Eugene and Springfield. Leaders hope to tap into the research and educational expertise on campus and aggressively move it toward private economic growth, bolstering the mid-valley’s reputation as a hub for tech startups.
By learning all the aspects of running his own business, Williams said he’ll have a head start when he graduates in two years.
“I wholeheartedly intend to be able to walk into my office and continue on with business,” he said.
In addition to enticing coaches with a competitive advantage through a better view to analyze game footage, Williams plans to market his multicopters to the forestry and agriculture industries for data collection. Unlike a fixed-wing aircraft, which has to keep moving forward, the multicopter can hover or can go up and down or backward.
“It has hummingbird maneuverability,” Williams explained. “And it’s much less intimidating than a traditional helicopter and safer in small spaces.”
Williams has been flying and building model planes and helicopters since age 11, when he saved enough money to buy his first plane from a hobby store.
A few years ago, conversations on Internet forums about multicopters caught his attention. But the self-described “poor college student” said he didn’t have money to buy one. So he used his engineering background to build one.
The version he created fits in the seat of his car and has photo and video capabilities from an altitude of 400 feet. He created a buzz when he started posting photos on his Facebook page of the images captured from onboard his multicopters. Through conversations with his professors, he was referred to the Weatherford Garage, a campus community for student entrepreneurs such as Williams who are looking to evolve their business ideas.
From there, he was nominated to the OSU Venture Accelerator. He went through a screening and interview process before being selected for the initial class.
This summer, Williams and representatives from the other businesses selected met individually with Venture Accelerator leaders to discuss the next steps in their business plans. Starting in September, participants will meet biweekly to hear from speakers from the program’s CEO roundtable and other business representatives, said John Turner, co-director of the OSU Venture Accelerator.
They’ll cover topics such as HR questions and how to locate the right source of funding. The group is intentionally kept small so conversations can be tailored to the needs of those represented.
“It will be driven by the collective interest of the group and what they need to move ahead,” Turner said.
Venture Accelerator will be a conduit for these businesses to industry experts and investors. In November, an expo will showcase the businesses to a regional audience with backing from the cities of Corvallis and Eugene and both universities.
Like other business accelerators, the idea is that the businesses selected for OSU’s Venture Accelerator will remain under the program’s wing for a relatively short duration. But even though the program doesn’t have a rigid structure, it’s intended to offer resources and advice to business startups, Turner said.
“We will move companies through every six months, provide them what they need, and make room for new companies,” he said. “Ultimately we would like to grow the program. But more than taking on companies, we want to have successful companies.”