Academic to entrepreneur: How this ecologist bagged $670,000 to get her animal-tracking drone startup off the ground

Wildlife Drones

Wildlife Drones founder and chief Debbie Saunders. Source: Supplied.

Animal-tracking startup Wildlife Drones has raised $670,000 in seed funding to commercialise its product and grow its user base. But for ecologist-turned-founder Debbie Saunders, leaving her natural habitat of academia hasn’t always been easy.

The funding comes from a variety of angel investors, and research commercialisation fund Uniseed.

Wildlife Drones started life as a grant-funded research project, as Saunders set out to see if drones could be used to help her research tracking the endangered Swift Parrot, a bird too small for traditional tags.

“We knew almost nothing about its migratory movements,” Saunders tells StartupSmart, “we had to find a new way to track them”.

When the project was over, the concept was proven and the grant money had run out, it was clear there was a real use case for the technology.

But “we had identified lots of things that needed to be improved in order for it to be a useful tool”.

Saunders started attending startup courses, learning about market validation and setting goals for the business, and researching how to start getting the technology out to potential customers.

Wildlife Drones received grant funding totalling $45,000, and incorporated as a business in August 2016, while Saunders continued her research and built on the product with the help of a team of part-time volunteers.

“We just kept going and going, and we found ourselves at the point where we had a whole bunch of people really keen for us to get the tech out to them,” Saunders says.

This seed funding will be used to bring on employees Saunders has already hired two people, and is working with external software developers and to improve the technology, making it more user-friendly. The startup has also moved into the new Centre for Entrepreneurial Agri-Technology in Canberra.

Now, the team is modifying the product, meaning it’s detachable from the drones themselves, rather than incorporated into them. The attachment means the technology can be used with any drone, or with no drone at all, Saunders says.

A slow start

Despite initially pitching to a group of angel investors, and even starting conversations with Uniseed, progress was slow. With software developers lined up to begin work on the technology and no funds to pay them with, Wildlife Drones was in danger of losing momentum.

“Everything was dragging on,” Saunders says.

It was one investor met by chance on LinkedIn who really served to kick-start the round. He committed a significant amount of funding, “and that led to other investors getting involved”, she adds.

That initial investment led to other angels jumping on board, while Uniseed completed the round, bringing it up to the $670,000 Saunders and the team needed.

“I was just really stoked that we had diversity in investors,” Saunders says.

“They have knowledge about business and the technology stuff that we don’t have in our team at the moment,” she adds.

“It’s been really wonderful.”

Learning to sing on pitch

When Saunders initially pitched to a group of angel investors, she admits to being somewhat out of her comfort zone.

In academia, “a short talk is 15 minutes,” now she has one or two minutes to say everything she wants to say.

“It’s certainly very different, but I love it,” she says.

“The ability to present your ideas in a really concise manner is really valuable,” she adds.

Saunders attributes her success so far largely to the fact she’s been operating on a shoestring. It has meant the people on her team are those that really want to be there, and “who are really passionate”, she says.

Being cash-strapped has also forced the first-time founder to focus.

“It forces you to really validate the ideas, and to get that customer market lined up who are willing to pay for the product you have.”

However, these things will only fall into place “if you have a good pain point”, she warns.

Saunders advises startups to make sure their product is addressing a real problem or gap in the market, and to surround themselves with people who believe in their vision.

“The other things flow from there,” she says.

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