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Students help get struggling midstate drone business off the ground

Written by Rachel McDevitt | Jun 11, 2018 6:31 AM
pinpoint_innovationu.jpg

Business students at Susquehanna University speak with Pinpoint Robotics co-founder Jeff Kay (far right). (Photo: Rachel McDevitt/WITF)

(Selinsgrove) -- A lot of business ideas never seem to get off the ground. 

Take, for example, a midstate drone company that couldn't seem to find a place in the market.

But instead of seeing failure, a Susquehanna University professor took an opportunity for her business students to learn the foundations of being an entrepreneur.

Jeff Kay, cofounder of Pinpoint Robotics, said he and his business partner Shawn Preisz were in a rut at the end of 2017. They had done a couple jobs, but they just couldn't compete with other drone companies in the area. They didn't have the time or manpower. 

"It really just started as something fun to do that we'd like to do for a living, and it never really got past that," Kay said. 

The two said they saw a win-win opportunity in leaving their business alone for a few months while Susquehanna University students figured out a new direction for them.

Senior Kevin Flatley said he and his five teammates had their work cut out for them at first.

"Our first presentation, we came up with, like, six different markets that we could enter, and we were kind of just all over the place," Flatley remembered. 

The six were dressed in smart suits and seated around a conference table as they recapped how they arrived at their final pitch for Pinpoint.

They said they quickly realized just offering some version of an aerial photography service wouldn't make them profitable. They had to find a niche.

Senior Greg Wright said they were torn for a while between real estate imaging and agricultural analysis, but a quick call to a competitor put things in perspective.

"I said, 'how much would a roof inspection cost?' And he goes, 'oh do you just want to see if there's damage?' And I said 'yeah, what's the minimum price that you're willing to come out for?' And he says, 'well I'd come out for about $100'. And we're looking at that -- and this is someone who's open from nine in the morning until nine at night -- and we realized that would be really tough competition for us to meet," Wright said. 

This was exactly the kind of real-world problem Professor Emma Fleck wanted her students to deal with first-hand.

"Knowledge is at their fingertips all of the time," Fleck said. "They just have to Google anything and get an answer, but that's not what society requires anymore. Society requires them to take that information and to do something with it."

This spring was the first semster for the class, called Entrepreneurial Experience,  and Fleck says her goal was to foster an entrepreneurial mindset by emphasizing problem-solving and creative thinking. 

She said the students' approach got a boost after reaching out to Susquehanna's alumni network, and being put in touch with people in the drone industry in California. 

Those conversations put the team firmly in the track of agricultural analysis and consulting, which uses images taken by drones to determine things like sun exposure, where there are wet and dry areas of a field, irrigation issues, and crop health.

Flatley said the team decided to recommend that the company owners invest in thermal imaging cameras, rechargeable batteries to allow longer flight times, and training in analytical software to be able to help farmers better understand their crops.

The team created a rebrand for the company, changing the name from Pinpoint Robotics to Pinpoint Agriculture, and making a new logo, website, and launch video.

Wright said if the company can market itself well, growers will be willing to pay for this service.

"Farmers don't realize how much money they're leaving on the table, with inefficient irrigation and fertilizer," Wright said. "Fertilizer is the number one expense in terms of inputs that farmers use, and if we're able to reduce that consumption, and reduce that cost, their profit margins are going to be much greater."

Flatley said the specialized service will protect Pinpoint from regional competition.

"Being able to analyze the data that they pull and being able to spit it back to the farmers in a way that they can understand it," Flatley said. "I think that's where we're taking more of a consulting role and an analytics role than a drone services role."

Pinpoint's owners were impressed with the rebrand, but are still weighing whether it's a path they can go down.

Even if it doesn't move forward, Fleck said her students will still be able to utilize their new skills into their first jobs, and maybe their own companies.


Innovation U is a project from WITF, where we share stories of local entrepreneurs and midstate universities who are working together to make new ideas come to life.  Learn more  at witf.org/innovation

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