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UND Tech Incubator provides starting point for new UAS businesses


For now, Suite 188 sits empty in the University of North Dakota Center for Innovation, but Tero Heinonen has big plans for the small space.

Heinonen is the CEO of Sharper Shape, a company seeking to inspect infrastructure with unmanned aircraft systems, also known as drones. The company is the latest to join the center as a UAS tenant, bringing the total number firms to nearly two dozen.

The Center for Innovation, which provides support and resources for startup businesses or companies looking to move to the region, is an asset that has drawn entrepreneurs such as Heinonen to Grand Forks.

"This cluster (of businesses) was the reason why we chose this particular location in the United States," he said, adding he hopes to build a national operation from the Grand Forks office.

After moving the company from Finland to America last year, Heinonen said he is optimistic about the industry growth in the area and the country as a whole. He already has plans to begin recruiting staff from the area.

North Dakota -- particularly Grand Forks -- is regarded as an epicenter of unmanned aircraft activity by those within the industry. A tenant space at the Center for Innovation is a way for both startup and established companies to become a part of that activity in an environment with support from staff and fellow tenants and flexible leases that allow tenants to pay as they go.

"They're part of an entrepreneur community, and they're part of an ecosystem with a lot of folks trying to do the same thing," said Bruce Gjovig, CEO of the Center for Innovation. "They encourage each other, and they share contacts."

Creating a presence

Establishing a presence on North Dakota's unmanned aircraft scene doesn't require a brand new building and dozen of employees for companies working with the Center for Innovation.

Some firms rent office space for a few staff members within the center's buildings while others are considered virtual tenants and work from other locations but can still use its services.

ISight RPV Services, an unmanned infrastructure inspection, training and consulting firm, does not maintain an office in the center, but its virtual presence there is valuable because of the relationships with university staff and other tenants, according to co-founder Adam Lingwall.

"We still gain access to that networking and mentorship without having to have the expense of a physical office space," he said.

Lingwall works from his home in West Fargo while the company's other co-founder, Nathaniel Leben, runs his portion of the operation from California. Though starting the business in California and other states was a possibility, the growing support in North Dakota for the unmanned industry was a large factor in drawing ISight to Grand Forks.

"We're in North Dakota on purpose because of the culture that's being built around the UAS industry here," Lingwall said. "We want to be part of the progress of making North Dakota a hub for the industry, which is what it's become."

Another Center for Innovation tenant with staff working from afar is Altavian, a Florida-based company that offers aerial imaging and mapping services.

COO Thomas Rambo said the company began a big push in North Dakota last year. Altavian reached an agreement with ComDel Innovation in Wahpeton, N.D., to manufacture one of its aircraft models, a fixed-wing device called the Nova F6500.

Rambo usually makes trips to North Dakota every other month and uses conference rooms at the Center for Innovation to get work done while he's in town.

Rambo said his company had a number of reasons for picking North Dakota, including UND's UAS program and Center for Innovation, the presence of a research test site and the state's open airspace.

"It is the right mixture of ingredients for the industry to take off," he said.

Tenant support

Though there is some overlap in services, a number of the Center for Innovation tenants are working to find a niche in a larger market that will soon become more crowded as federal regulations open up.

Flying aircraft to collect some sort of data is emerging as a popular business plan, but there are other service gaps to fill.

Center tenant North American InnoVets' focus isn't on the act of flying an unmanned aircraft but everything that makes it possible.

Composed of a group of pilots with civilian and military backgrounds, company President Chris Yakabe said the firm acts as a translator between the various entities involved in legally flying unmanned aircraft. This includes helping file flight plans, talk to control towers or work with government entities such as the Federal Aviation Administration or the U.S. Air Force.

Yakabe and Chief Operating Officer Mike Whitted said their company was recruited to the center by Gjovig and other staff.

"We were brought in by the Center for Innovation to help the UAS operators there not only with the integration process but also developing operational procedures," Yakabe said.

Like other Center for Innovation tenants, North American InnoVets staff recognizes the potential for economic growth unmanned technology brings to North Dakota.

Yakabe and Whitted said they want to be a part of that growth as the industry develops in the state. That growth would ideally include creating local jobs and internships for college students.

"We're not only invested in North Dakota, but we're committed to do our part to help advance the economy," Yakabe said.

Story written by Brandi Jewett and published by Forum News Service at

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