A Minnesota-born civilian drone company has spun out of its former corporate parent and this year made Richfield its world headquarters.
Sentera may be the largest pure-play drone company in the state and has deep industry roots.
The 20-employee company also just raised $5 million in expansion capital from a private investor.
“Our team includes some of the pioneers in the industry,” said Sentera CEO and co-founder Eric Taipale, 44. Taipale nearly 20 years ago was part of a team at the former Lockheed Martin plant in Eagan that developed the electronics for the first Predator drones for the U.S. military.
Sentera, located on Cedar Avenue across the street from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, “is not a great location for flying drones,” quipped Vice President Greg Emerick, 52, the other co-founder and a pilot and veteran agricultural sales executive who knows something about high-security areas and drone limitations.
However, the company, which emerged from a Mankato-based agricultural software firm last November, has gained altitude as an independent concern.
Taipale, a University of Minnesota-minted electrical engineer, said he expects the firm to achieve positive cash flow next year on sales of more than $5 million.
Sentera is a hybrid of “Sense” and “Tera,” the Latin word for earth. Taipale and Emerick came up with it during a road trip to North Dakota last winter. The company focuses on several markets: selling through distributors to agronomists and crop growers, bridge-and-road inspectors and public safety agencies.
“We have a couple competitors on the drone side,” said Taipale, including Sensefly of Switzerland and Precision Hawk of Raleigh, N.C. “But I don’t think anybody can do what we do on the integrated-software-and-sensor side of the business.”
Sentera designs and sells systems, including its customized sensor-and-avionics packages, for as little as $1,500 for building inspectors looking for deteriorating roofs to a high-end, $50,000 drone-and-software system, complete with thermal imaging technology used by government helicopter crews to search for lost people in rugged mountain-or-forest terrain.
The drone bodies are constructed, and Sentera-developed electronics are assembled at Riverbend Electronics in Rushford, Minn.
“There are a lot of ‘newbies’ in the industry,” said Rick Brimacomb, a veteran technology-venture adviser who worked with the Sentera principals to raise capital and organize the company this year. “I love the fact that the Sentera team has over 200 years of industry experience and the core engineering group has been together for nearly 10 years.”
Sentera sells a value proposition rooted in saving money through intelligence gathering.
For example, Sentera’s crop-analysis software is designed to help farmers understand where they are watering too much or too little, spot diseases earlier or where they can use less fertilizer.
“We have a sensor that we can teach to do many things, but the agronomist or farm customer uses it to detect five different weed species before they can be detected with traditional photography,” Taipale said. And its search-and-rescue technology can help police agencies find suspects or lost people in the woods at night using heat-sensor technology.
Sentera started to fly free from Lockheed after the aerospace-electronics conglomerate shut down the Eagan plant several years ago. Through an acquisition, the avionics business for defense ended up at United Technologies, or UT.
Taipale stayed with UT for awhile, working from his home. UT sold the drone business to Farm Intelligence of Mankato and Taipale went along with the business. Taipale met Emerick at Farm Intelligence. Emerick is a licensed private pilot and western Minnesota farm boy who is in charge of sales and marketing.
The marriage of what is now Sentera and software-firm Farm Intelligence proved short-lived.
“Farm Intelligence was focused on the software analytics and the business we bought is drone hardware and sensors,” said Taipale, who said he was bound by a sale-confidentiality agreement to not discuss what led to the dissolution of the two businesses.
Farm Intelligence, since renamed Aglytix, provides a variety of agricultural-analytical services.
Executives of Aglytix were not available for comment Friday afternoon.
Taipale and Emerick acquired the drone business from Aglytix last November. They moved into the Richfield headquarters earlier this year and raised the $5 million in capital this month.