The modern seatbelt, Google, and the implantable pacemaker are just a few disruptive innovations with origins on university campuses. Every day, students, faculty and researchers at universities around the world invent new technologies and launch startups that could alter the way people live and work, or even save their lives.
Could a self-driving boat be the next notable innovation with university roots? The University at Buffalo and Varia Consulting Group have put money on it.
The first-ever venture capital fund administered by the University at Buffalo has made its inaugural investment: $250,000 to Buffalo Automation, an artificial intelligence (AI) startup founded by former UB students and primarily focused on autonomous marine navigation. UB’s investment will be matched by Varia for a total investment of $500,000.
Managed by UB’s Office of Business and Entrepreneur Partnerships, the Buffalo Innovation Seed Fund is an early-stage, evergreen venture capital fund dedicated to funding and growing the next generation of outstanding businesses in Buffalo. The initial fund has been capitalized with $10 million from Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion initiative, as part of UB’s Innovation Hub initiative. The Hub’s goal is to accelerate the commercialization of technology being developed by researchers, faculty, staff or students at UB and its research partners — Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Center, the Jacobs Institute and Kaleida Health.
“The University at Buffalo is not only a leader in research and education, but they are providing the ecosystem needed to cultivate and nurture innovation,” said Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul. “The UB Innovation Hub is helping support emerging partnerships and foster collaboration. This inaugural investment is an example of the university’s commitment to growing the tech economy and creating good-paying jobs paving the way for Buffalo and Western New York to build back better and succeed in the post-pandemic future.”
First portfolio company has deep roots at UB
The idea for Buffalo Automation began in 2014, when Thiru Vikram was an engineering student at UB. After winning $300 in a student pitch competition, Vikram and his co-founders gained confidence in their idea and officially formed the tech startup.
In following years, the team picked up momentum through winning the grand prize at UB’s Student Sandbox competition, first prize at the Henry A. Panasci Jr. Technology Entrepreneurship Competition and representing UB at The New York Business Plan Competition, where they won top honors in the information technology and software category.
UB faculty and staff have fostered Buffalo Automation’s growth through technology and business coaching and mentorship. The company is also a graduate of UB’s Incubator @ Baird, which provides space for startups to progress alongside other entrepreneurial companies. The company has benefitted from accessing student interns from UB and has hired several UB graduates.
“UB has been inspirational to us from the time we were exposed to various startup initiatives at the university. During my freshman days as a student software assistant at CBLS [Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences], I still remember the excitement I felt watching companies pitch there and experiencing the dynamism of the entrepreneurs I met, often leading me to wonder how I could build my own venture. The programs to support entrepreneurial activities have been helpful to many student ventures, and the university’s ability to refine entrepreneurs and open doors is often understated. The mentorship and support we’ve received from faculty and staff have been instrumental in getting us to the key milestones we’ve achieved,” says Vikram.
Investment catalyzes AI innovations
Buffalo Automation’s flagship product, AutoMate, is a predictive boat navigation system that guides large commercial ships. The system utilizes AI, neural networks and thermal imaging technologies to identify obstructions such as stationary objects, people or other boats and provide warnings to crews to safely navigate around them.
AutoMate has been implemented in multiple commercial ships operating in the Great Lakes, with customer interest around the world. The $500,000 combined investment from UB and Varia will accelerate Buffalo Automation’s growth, helping the company secure additional customers and will be used in part for continued product development.
“Our next key milestone is to automate lock entry. Locks are very difficult for humans to navigate and are the number one place that vessels get damaged. Our goal is for AutoMate to navigate locks precisely, eliminating damage to both ships and public infrastructure,” says Vikram.
The AutoMate system is also available in a consumer version called Pegasus, designed for smaller recreational boats. Pegasus provides a comprehensive navigation and safety system that protects both new and experienced boaters. While working seamlessly with today’s gas-powered engines, the forward-thinking Pegasus technology is designed to provide a fully autonomous boating experience when combined with future electrified transport such as water taxis and ferries.
Vikram explains, “Decarbonizing the boating industry is an important part of our ethos, and we’ve designed Pegasus to fit into that model. With a self-driving boat, or with one that you can control from your phone, you can relax, socialize, or enjoy being on the water without worrying about steering the boat or controlling speed or direction. Pegasus helps to prevent the alarming rise in accidents and fatalities occurring due to inexperienced or impaired boaters. The pandemic has created a wave of new boat owners, bringing safety issues to the surface.”
While working to further develop these marine safety innovations, Buffalo Automation has launched a new product line that expands upon the company’s existing AI technologies and adapts them for different markets — a project that will also be boosted by the Buffalo Innovation Seed Fund.
The product is an app called Mayday that enables the public to experiment with AI. Using the app, people can point their phones at their surroundings, and Mayday will identify objects in view. While Buffalo Automation has already programmed the app to detect watercraft — sounding an alert to fishermen, for example, if they get too close to another boat or object in the water — Mayday can actually detect anything once trained to do so. According to Vikram, this technology could potentially be implemented in any circumstance that needs AI, opening up new market opportunities for the tech company.
“Mayday is a solution for non-programmers. The lack of software engineering and AI knowledge is a limitation for a lot of people who want to start tech companies. Mayday allows entrepreneurs to utilize AI in their products without ever writing a single line of code,” explains Vikram. “Say, for example, you have a machine that you want to give food to your cat or dog. If you have a mechanical background, you’ll be great at building the machine, but detecting the animal might be a challenge. Mayday can be easily trained to detect the dog and dispense food at a specific time. This kind of technology could be utilized in all kinds of unique use cases in a wide array of markets. It’s a very exciting direction for our company.”
“Funding will make Buffalo Automation profitable, helping us extend our runway, so that these big projects we’re working on will be able to move forward,” says Vikram. “The investment will cement Buffalo Automation as a permanent fixture in the Buffalo startup scene.”
About the investment, Rick Gardner, director of startup ventures at UB, says, “Throughout our engagement with Buffalo Automation, we have been impressed with their intelligence, resourcefulness and grit. These attributes, combined with their innovative solution in a growing market, makes Buffalo Automation an attractive investment for the seed fund.”
Scott Friedman, Varia co-founder and managing director, adds, “Buffalo Automation’s combination of AI, machine learning and proprietary algorithms is unique around the world. We have enjoyed working with Vikram and his team and helping them grow one of Buffalo’s great early-stage companies. We also are delighted to partner with UB in supporting Buffalo Automation. With its many talented faculty and students, we have long viewed the university as at the epicenter of innovation in Western New York and expect the new Buffalo Innovation Seed Fund to further enhance and define its leadership role — not only locally but in the worldwide innovation economy.”
Reinvesting in Buffalo for years to come
At its core, the mission of the Buffalo Innovation Seed Fund is about investing in the future. By supporting Western New York-based, early-stage companies, the fund enables life-changing technologies to make it out of the lab and into the marketplace. There, companies grow in the community and create new jobs for the region.
Monetary returns to the fund will allow UB to continue investing in emerging innovative startup companies.
“We designed the Buffalo Innovation Seed Fund to be cyclical, and our investment in Buffalo Automation is just the beginning. By providing students, faculty, staff and researchers with the support they need to take a kernel of an idea and turn it into a product or service that benefits society, we are catalyzing the next generation of great startups right here in Buffalo,” says Christina Orsi, UB associate vice president for economic development.