Joel Ifill, Founder and CEO at DASH Systems talks about their unique technology, how they manage to protect it without shoving NDAs in everyone's face and how they managed to prove such a complicated concept. For everyone in deep tech - this is an episode for you.
Joel's LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/joel-ifill-3149a06b/
DASH Systems: http://www.dash.aero/
DASH Twitter: https://twitter.com/DASHSystems
And today's a guest speaker who have Joel, I felt founder ad, Dash systems, the company that versus smart bomb technologies for peaceful application.
And this is an extremely interesting technology, extremely interesting applications, and very complicated solutions.
So, in this episode, we'll talk about raising money for technologies as complicated as dash systems and see how Joel specifically approaches problem and how he got there. So, girl, let's kick it off by giving us some background on yourself.
And on dash systems.
Hey, constanty, it's great to be here. Yeah, my name is joy, full founder, CEO of dash systems and she's a little bit about me.
My backgrounds in engineering I have a welding engineering degree to be specific when I graduate college went over a decade ago. I started working in aerospace, working on precision on the manufacturing side.
I went over and I worked in the nuclear Navy building, the next generation of nuclear reactors for submarines.
Uh, came back into the aerospace field, and I said, and then my solo career as a consult consultant, doing critical safety systems and safety system, automation, you know, how can you make things that can't fail?
How can you inspect build and manufacture things that have to always work like, aerospace components.
And nuclear components, and, uh, that all let me to where I'm today at the app systems.
Nice you have a very impressive backgrounds. Um.
Very smart speaker we got here, so let's 1st, talk about the dash system idea. So 1st of all you, you've mentioned in our Pre interview call that you had this idea for quite some time while you're working on other jobs.
For how long did you actually have this idea? And when was the moment when you were, like, okay, now it's time to turn this idea into a natural into reality yeah. There's quite a big history there.
So now really had this idea when I and I worked at air precision diet issues.
You know, better known as smart bombs, and I never really had an easy feeling, you know, spending all day, helping design or improve smart bomb technology.
And, uh, all the program managers, but always brag about all this capability. And I think some people have seen, I can see videos of them hitting people on moving vehicles, flying through certain windows of buildings. And I just had this idea of.
Well, why can't we take that technology and use it for? Something could use it for something different. So, had that went out and worked the I say, another 6 or 7 years in my career and about 2016. there was around 2016.
there's all this talk about drones and drone delivery.
And by that time, I have been enough in the aerospace industry, just know that building and airframe, you know, building a new drone from scratch and then implementing commercially is actually quite
I said, you know what, we already have the solution it's about using a smart bomb technology, deliver cargo, and then use the existing air frames and aircraft. We already have today.
So that was really the impetus and bump to start working on what would become dash and I can tell you all the funny stories of,
from the original idea to how we got to,
where we are today an actual commercial product 100% we'll definitely touch onto those funny stories,
because I absolutely love fun stuff in the entrepreneurial world,
let's go over the systems idea again so that everyone understands how exactly works.
So, could you give us step by step of how this works? What it is and how it looks.
Yeah, so I'll start with the end goal and then the technology. So our end goal is 1 day delivery, anywhere in the world. And when we say anywhere, we mean, the typical Alaska in the wintertime.
South Savannah, humanitarian crisis, if you can fly an airplane over that location, you should be able to deliver there.
The method by what you do that is by commercializing precision AirDrop technology. So simply put what we're doing is giving existing aircraft, the ability to launch and land cargo in a small space, mid flight.
And how you do that? 1 is really there's just 3 main components. We make software. That helps guide and automate the AirDrop process. So, this is, you know, Google Maps you say I want to deliver here.
It does all these fancy calculations, both on the safety side. And automation side, so you, as a pilot just have to fly straight and level.
Uh, to the right point in space uh, and then the cargo launched itself.
On the hardware side, we make cargo handling systems, so essentially how you inject things out the side door of aircraft and then finally, there's the, what are you dropping?
And our and our systems are alternatives to parachutes but I can't really mix too many words.
They kind of work like smart bomb so you have a casing with things on the back that guides something to the ground. We pull a little pair sheet to slow it down before it lands.
This is a very, very cool. Absolutely. Love this idea. And how you guys are using it. So 1st, is 1st testing out the idea and when it's so hard, it's it's pretty much impossible to test out an idea.
So, how do you manage to run the 1st test? How do you manage to persuade the 1st.
Aircraft carriers to to drop off those smart bombs with the carrier packages. Yeah, this is a a good 1 this often happens in a complex or expensive system.
How do you do something like precision air drops when it it takes a lot of money in a very smart engineers to actually develop a working system.
I will say this, you can always test, I say fractions or parts of your business before you test the whole thing.
Uh, and to me, it was always build the hardware last building hardware is expensive and slow so we can test the idea of several different ways starting with. I'd say the most common 1 is starting with customer discovery.
You know, we challenge ourselves to talk to 75 carriers and customers in different fields. And get their input and get where they said, yes, isn't nose.
And I use that information to make sure we were just building what we thought we wanted, but what customers wanted and would actually pay for.
And then I'm firmly believe in most ideas.
Maybe you can't test the technology, but you can contest the results and how the input pack would actually play out.
Uh, and, uh, you know, uh, just a very big fan of that for so, for us.
Uh, we test the concept by going and doing, um, AirDrops for humanitarian relief.
So, starting with Hurricane Maria, then hurricane Michael and hurricane Florence. We went into actual hurricanes and tested the concept. We couldn't test the hardware and precision, but we could test say a more passive, less accurate air drop.
But really what we were testing was how aviation partners, the FFA, the end customer, all wanted to interact and receive and air dropped and that we absolutely could do for a very reasonable price.
And this is really cool. So, based on the feedback that you've got from those people, what changes did you mean? Do you actually learn something super valuable? Did you make any significant changes and us by the way?
That's the part of it where he tells stories of how you change the from the initial plan to the final result we're having now.
Yes, yes, well, I'll say this to him a big fan of this, the concept of design thinking and then design thinking 1 of those tenants is not being. I say, too jealous of your own ideas and making sure you get this other input.
You know, what does an air drop mean to you and ask them customers this? So we absolutely learned so much by going and doing AirDrops in the field.
the 1st thing we learned is that we could do the safely legally customers definitely didn't want this conceptually and didn't want this in practice,
which was essentially kind of getting to the end point of we're providing a helicopter service.
Uh, but at the same or even lower prices than what existing airplanes cost, and if you kind of think of that, conceptually, like, you know, and especially the noise, you know, you would like, uh, if Amazon Prime had a helicopter come, just.
Obviously, it's, you know, the cost, you know, 2 to 5000 dollars an hour to fly a helicopter.
Clearly can't do that so, so many learnings, but I'll can kind of tell you a 1 or 2 funny ones. You know, our our original idea for this company was to do a home delivery.
You know, so so, you know, quite like that, that Amazon package delivery to your doorstep.
Once we got into it, especially on the regulation and safety side.
It was a parent that just wasn't the right model and there's just so many questions why does this thing land on your pet, or on your child, or on your neighbor's roof? You know, all these questions that really guided us towards where we're now, which is a business to business technology.
So, it's more about landing, you know, hundreds to thousands of pounds.
Add a logistics facility or an airport versus we know landing 5 pounds at someone's doorstep.
So, those types of learnings, uh, you know, I'd say some of them are best learn the hard way, which is going out there and doing it and just figuring out the lateral limits or what the customer wants.
Yes, and 1st of all, I would like to note that I would absolutely love to see my Amazon package being dropped off off an airplane, just dropping somewhere in the area and I have to find it. That would be. Absolutely cool. But unfortunately, probably would not work out.
So good thing. You made a bunch of customer interviews. So now, let's move on to the major subject of the whole podcast, which is fundraising.
So, when you started raising money, 1st, money for dash systems, you already have some kind of concept where you have something to show to investors.
And if you did, what was it? Yeah. So, uh, again, also acknowledging, you know, this is aerospace hardware, which can be very expensive and it's really easy for us engineers to say, you know, what?
I'm going to dump all my capital everything into building the best prototype.
Most cutting edge everything we, I'd say, avoided that and spent a lot of money as I mentioned, or not a lot, but a lot of our effort on process, how are you going to do this legally safely in practice?
So, we did have prototypes, we built 1 look and feel prototype. So this is how it look like, but it wasn't the actual working prototype.
And then we had a lot of very cheap, passive prototypes of things. We were actually testing for AirDrops that didn't work just not as well as we would like. So we had both of those. But really the biggest thing is we had a prototype of our process.
So, for us, we could bring in video saying, here's us doing an AirDrop in North America in the current air space and air space regulations.
Uh, this is why, if we build this technology, we can do this even better for more customers. So really, really helped our story or helped a lot of those common questions. Like, this can't be legal. How could you do this?
And we can just point to videos and processes saying, well, here, we are doing this.
Uh, here's how capital will help us do a better rate, right? And that video that he mentioning, it was like, the.
Graphic fully designed, so it was not an actual recorded video. It was just so radical that you're right.
No, it was that was actual recorded videos of us and hurricanes doing delivery customers.
Yeah, say fortunate again, this all kind of comes together, we were able to test a subset of the business and actually generate a little bit of revenue just showing that people are willing to pay for an air drop.
And there was definitely a need if you could do this the day after Hurricane, you can do this for routine commercial deliveries as well. Nice. Yes. That's very cool.
And will not go into sales of how you can find customers in such completed fields. But we'll talk about 1 customer. So, on our printing call, you mentioned that you are currently working also with the U. S. military. How did that happen?
Yeah, uh, that's an interesting 1. it's 1 of those, uh, uh, classic stories that it takes, you know, I say years to be an overnight success.
Uh, by this point, we had been doing multiple deployments into hurricane relief work.
And being a young, scrappy startup, we were very cost conscious in both our prototypes and our systems.
Uh, and we're introduced by another entrepreneur who basically said, hey, I don't think I have a solution, but I think dash does.
And what they were I say interested in, is that as civilians, we were already doing this process. So we were already doing eardrops and then our performance.
And our price was much better than they could reach. So we are getting more accurate AirDrop systems at a better price. And that was intrinsically interesting to them. So.
Uh, it was just kind of unfortunate meeting. They were very interested and quote that always sticks to me as, you know, they said we have an immediate mission need for a precise AirDrop capability.
And for them, that's being able to get a, you know, 1st, aid supplies, resupplies, interim, remote military bases and do it very quickly.
Nice so, let's talk about probably 1 of my favorite topics, which is, you know, previous mistakes. So, based on your description of how you start dash system, it sounds perfect.
You've entry customers 1st, you didn't deploy a ton of money into hardware development before you tested it.
Out you've got some revenue before starting to raise money and all this great looking back at that experience looking back at how you started dash systems do think there was some major mistake that you made or maybe.
And prove to customer that you wish you changed or anything that you would like to change.
Yeah, so many, uh, and I like to call those mistakes learning moments because I think usually, uh, uh, I say negative things or mistakes, or some of the best teachers.
Yeah, you know, I can say something specific to fundraising when we 1st started.
I think we cast it too wide of a net of who we talk to, you know, when you're doing logistics and hardware there's some investors that this really resonates with.
And there's some that will take the meeting, but really just kind of wasting your time. They're curious about what you're doing, but they've never invested in hardware. They don't understand logistics.
And those cases, we found our success rate always was 0T. So, I think in the early days, we just took too many meetings with them very strong capital and venture partners, but just people that weren't right for our business.
And I think in retrospect, I'm glad some of those people didn't invest because you would always have that tension of them, not understanding what you're doing, or software returns.
Or I say software development cycles, when we're essays a different pace or scale.
So that's definitely a mistake I can I can, I think to and I think the other big 1, I always highlight, especially with complicated ideas is.
You know, focus your vision, focus your team.
It's, it's great to be, you know, have this. I say that 10 year vision, that big enterprise vision of of 1 day delivery everywhere, but you really have to focus your efforts.
So, for us, you know, that's focusing where we're doing business development for what? Customers versus.
Trying to talk to everyone all in early stages. You just end up deluding your product and you have a product that's.
You know, okay, for 10 different groups versus fantastic and amazing for what.
Yeah, being focused, especially I mean, it's pretty much in every single industry. If you don't focus, you are going to waste so much time on random stuff and then you're like, okay, what have I done these here? Realize that then you haven't done much. Exactly.
So, since you mentioned fund raising and fundraising mistakes, unless toggle and more about that stuff. So, now looking back again at the very 1st rounds that you were trying to raise, what do you think about the timeline?
So, do you, maybe you started racing too early maybe you start raising too late. What do you think about the timeline there?
Yeah, so I have this philosophy. You can never fundraise too late. But you can always be too early and I think it's.
Uh, sure you can come in the door too early, you know, when you're still at ideation or our concept and next to sometimes it's worse to get funded at that stage.
Because then you're going to be burning money onto this ideation concept development and not on the actual winning idea.
talking about this customer discovery,
I think it was fortunate that we were able to do a lot of that upfront and eliminate a lot of the not the bad ideas,
the wrong version of the idea and we did that cheap before we started committing a lot of money to development,
especially on hardware and software.
So, yeah, my biggest advice is you can be too early. You can never be too late and it's these classic ones. If you go in asking for money, you'll get advice. You go and ask them for advice. You'll get money.
Um, so a lot of it just for us was making sure we found out the right people to talk to.
I would not agree that you can never fundraise too late because I've seen cases of people fundraising too late, and it was actually too late. It was like, 2 months left of runway and they are like, oh.
We haven't started fundraising yet, just like running around asking people for. I agree with you on that. 1.
I think some of this too is that if you're too late, it's making sure you're talking to the right people, but I would not recommend 2 months before you're out of runway to start fundraising and part of that.
And my philosophy now is, well, I'm not raising money this moment. I'm always making connections with the right people, especially building those social connections so that when I do want or need to start fundraising.
I already have the right people who've already kind of been in a soft diligence process. I think that works a lot better than actually 1 of these things that, in the early days was kind of waiting until you hit your imaginary milestone or your milestone and said, okay, now is the day we'll start.
And no 1 knows who we are, or what we're doing.
Yeah, yep, yep Yep, right. So, by the way speaking of timeline, speaking of fundraising too late or too early, when do you start making connections with investors for the upcoming round? So, for example, you've recently raised your.
I forgot what was wrong with that was, but you've recently raised money. I think it was 2020, December and question is, when do you plan to start raising the next round, or at least preparing for an extra to start to reach out to investors start to having those conversations excited, right? Yeah, yeah.
So, we raised, we raised our seed round in 2020 as you mentioned there. I'll ask that came in in December of 2020.
Looking forward about a year from now is when we'll be raising a series A, but just as I was telling you in part of that process.
We're already having the conversation, but the right players today.
Uh, but we're not asking for money. We're actually very well capitalized right now. It's really like getting to know people, uh, letting in on what we're doing and what we're accomplishing.
Uh, so they're just equally as excited as as we are to both see the progress and see the end point. So, um.
Yeah, I'd say as well as ones you're always fundraising, but you're never fundraising so at this moment taking meetings, but we're not fundraising at all. Absolutely. Yeah that's.
That's a really great approach and investors always love when founders reach out to them before they start fundraising just to make these connections just to get to know each other for a few months before they come in and say, like, hey, we're looking for for money now.
So, can you, when you want to top money so, yes, this is a very nice approach. Well, done.
1, last thing before we move on to last question is episodes, which is your advice to founders who are running their hardware or deep tech solutions businesses what would you recommend them right now?
So many things big 1 is make sure you talk about this with people networking absolutely is valuable.
Especially in deep tech or hardware you need, I think, more people at the table and allies to help you.
So, the earlier you can talk to people build an advisory network I say, you know, for us as a friends of dash network and build that support the better you'll get, I say, results.
And in that those 11 hours, those 2 months, before you're out of runway someone you talked to a year ago and say oh, yeah, I have the personal person you need to talk to her.
I have a customer,
you should talk to that was I say,
absolutely foundational for us was always building a network and also providing value for our network for nothing return,
getting friendly advice, taking meetings.
Uh, inviting people to our, uh, facilities, et cetera. So, um, yeah, just always, uh, always be networking. I think it's 1 of the strongest things. A, uh, CEO of a startup can be doing.
And then finally.
Just be very smart. Don't fall in love with the technology.
Fall in love with the solution and what it's going to do for the customer that's where your mindset should be. How is this gonna be best for them? What do they need? Because ultimately the end of the day, we always buy a solution. We don't buy technology.
Right that's a very accurate again. And speaking of speaking to more and more people, especially when you're in deep tech or hard tech how about NDA? So how protective should be founders of their national technology?
Because from my experience.
I absolutely hate Indies. 1, founder reaches at me and we're about to start speaking, but then they're like, oh, could you sign an NDA? I always say no goodbye but help out deep tech or hard tech. Should that be still a thing there?
Yeah, so this is an interesting 2nd of all. Yeah, there's parts of our technology we can describe the concept, but.
We don't describe where the lies and the aerospace engineering and the software development. The algorithms.
That we are very secretive of, but the general concept, we are more than happy to describe and with that, you know, be able to show people prototypes and how they work in my experience too. Especially if something is complex of what we're doing.
If I just told the constant team, hey, I'm doing an air drop business and you're Boeing. You're not gonna say, you know, what this is great. We're going to pay all our resources and start doing it.
And if you're asking these very detailed questions, you know, how does this been articulate how to do your, your see if the analysis on this piece of aerospace gear.
Uh, the answer is, well, why would you need to know that? We're not discussing that level of detail yet so, uh, for us, it's always building a wall around our core.
Uh, but the, the basic concept, what we're doing, you know, we've taken customers and quote unquote competitors in our airplane are showed them videos of our airplane flying.
Uh, we're not afraid to show the concept and the process of what we're doing. Nice yes, this is a great solution to its problem and.
It should be working and seems like it's working so on days optimistic now we're moving on to a last question of today's episode, which is a call to action. So, Joel, what do you want the listener to do? Right? After this episode is over.
Yes, follow us on Twitter at dash systems and LinkedIn at dash systems. And really? My biggest call to action is if I can do it, you can too.
You know, I have a degree in welding engineering, which is already pretty obscure. Entrepreneurship is available to everyone engineering. Can be a great path into it.
Focus on learning something new, every day focus on and improving and being the best version of yourself, you don't need a lot of money, you know, dozens of wind under your belt to be successful. If you focus on how to make yourself successful.
Nice good call to action and extremely optimistic. So, by the way, I'll make sure to leave the links to dash systems, both LinkedIn and Twitter and description of this episode. So if you're curious to see what they're up to, what are their news? Where are they working on right now?
Definitely make sure to check out the description this episode and.
Follow their systems, and also I'll leave Joe LinkedIn in the description of this episode. In case you might have some extra questions on tech or any questions in that fields.
Um, is going to be there and yeah, that's going to be my call to action full. Joel's call to action then check out the description of this episode and then have a good date.