An exclusive Tech Tribune Q&A with Tom Brady, the founder and CTO of SkySpecs, which was honored in our:
- 2020 Best Tech Startups in Michigan
- 2020 Best Tech Startups in Ann Arbor
- 2019 Best Tech Startups in Michigan
- 2019 Best Tech Startups in Ann Arbor
- 2018 Best Tech Startups in Ann Arbor
Tell us the origin story of SkySpecs – what problem were you trying to solve and why?
SkySpecs’ origin was a bit different from a typical startup company. In 2009, a core group of us started working together on a volunteer robotics research project at the University of Michigan, essentially seeking hands-on experience with the kinds of things we had been learning in the classroom. As students, we raised money from the College of Engineering, Northrup Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and others, to build a team and compete in the International Aerial Robotics Competition (for which we were building small drones that could navigate autonomously indoors). We loved working together and the type of work we were doing in robotics, so as we were preparing to graduate in 2012, we founded SkySpecs with the goal of using similar robotic technologies to benefit industry. It wasn’t until 2014 that we found our home in the wind energy sector. Today we’re helping owners of wind turbines with automated solutions for condition monitoring, decision making, and the maintenance of their wind turbine blades.
What was the biggest hurdle you encountered in your journey?
Our journey is far from over so I hesitate to pinpoint a singular hurdle that has been formative for us. As a startup, hurdles and challenges are with you every step of the way — never stopping, only evolving. Speaking a bit to our hurdles for today, we’re seeing a great many challenges and opportunities around the immense scale of the operation that we’ve built (20 countries on 5 continents and counting). Whereas in the early days of SkySpecs we could focus exclusively on product development and finding product-market fit, today our growth goals require us to deliver on extremely aggressive operational volume and efficiency targets while simultaneously reaching new markets and launching new products. This is a balancing act we’re still acclimating to.
What does the future hold for SkySpecs?
SkySpecs’ mission is to reduce the cost of renewable electricity by allowing renewable energy infrastructure to be run by robots. While autonomous inspection of wind turbine blades has been a great starting point for us and has allowed us to prove to the industry what we’re capable of, we still have a long way to go to see our mission through to fruition. For now we’re focusing on wind turbine blade maintenance problems. In the future, I expect we’ll be launching robots in the sky, in the cloud, and on the ground to solve a much larger variety of operations and maintenance issues.
What are your thoughts on the local tech startup scene in Ann Arbor?
The startup scene in Ann Arbor is vibrant and has grown exponentially even since we started SkySpecs in 2012. Ann Arbor has the perfect combination of bright minds, capital, and community support that it takes to make a great startup ecosystem. Ann Arbor’s tech scene is a little bit like a flywheel. Great people come to Ann Arbor or stay here to work for great companies. As these people change careers or startups inevitably ramp down, new opportunities and their next adventure awaits, usually just down the street. The cycle continues. SkySpecs has been fortunate to have a great number of our teammates bringing experience from past startup successes to work every day, allowing us to avoid making the same mistakes or encouraging us to do what has already proven to work well elsewhere.
What’s your best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Great teams can get through anything together. If there’s one thing that is absolutely critical to get right, it’s surrounding yourself with a team you can lean on, whatever may come in your journey. As an entrepreneur, you won’t always know the way forward, so you have to allow yourself to be vulnerable and be okay with surrounding yourself with people that are smarter than you are. These are the kinds of people you’ll want around when the going gets tough. I’m proud of the team and the culture we’ve built and continue to build at SkySpecs and consider myself lucky to come in to work every day to work with people that are as excited as I am about helping to make renewable energy ubiquitous.