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Drone startup gets funds for weather-related project

Northeast Ohio

The Lorain County Community College-based Innovation Fund, which awards money to help technology-based startup companies, is lending a hand to a company that plans to get off the ground in coming years.

One of the Innovation Fund’s latest award-winners is Amherst-based NEOEx, which received $25,000 to further its work to develop lightweight hydrogen fuel and energy-efficient fuel cells to power UAVs, unmanned aerial vehicles, to provide more accurate weather forecasts.

Formed in 2015, the fledgling company is led by Mark Haberbusch, a Case Western Reserve University graduate with degrees in fluid and thermal engineering science.

Before deciding to strike out on his own, Haberbusch worked as director of research and technology at Sierra Lobo, an engineering and technology company based in Fremont and Milan.

“I left there to do this full-time,” Haberbusch said, explaining that he is redirecting the knowledge from his work on underwater vehicle power systems at Sierra Lobo to unmanned drones. “I’m looking to take that to the air basically by applying what I’ve independently developed.”

Haberbusch said he hopes to be able to fly a prototype this year and to transform his research into reality within the next two to three years, which should be the same time frame for the Federal Aviation Administration to develop regulations for safe operation of unmanned drones used commercially in national airspace.

“This is exciting because it’s the future and will be of benefit to people if it’s done right,” Haberbusch said.

Haberbusch and his group are using funds from the Innovation Fund and Small Business Innovation Research funds from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. The goal is to develop drones capable of collecting weather data for up to 50 hours without the need to refuel via technology that converts hydrogen into electricity to drive electric motors that power the drones.

Of the NEOEx venture, the Innovation Center’s Chris Mather said the startup’s design “will offer two to four times longer flight times than what’s currently available at less than one-third the price. And Mark (Haberbusch) has the industry and technical background to enable this breakthrough.”

Haberbusch’s company applied for money through the Innovation Fund as it “seemed like a really good fit for where we are at in the process.”

“They are a good organization from the standpoint of what their objectives are and how they go about fostering these projects,” Haberbusch said. “Each federal government agency that does research sets aside a portion of their budget for small businesses to help them commercialize products not in the market now.”

Such early-stage investment is designed to help grow product lines more quickly, Haberbusch said.

“Because we are dependent on funding, we’re looking for investors, and the Innovation Fund has given us our first opportunity to do that,” Haberbusch said. “The fact we have our first customer lined up already helps.”

That customer would be the National Weather Service.

“We all rely on forecasts every day and to be able to fly UAVs for long periods of times to collect data will provide better weather projections to benefit all of us,” Haberbusch said.

Lightweight hydrogen fuel and energy-efficient fuel cells would enable the unmanned drones to fly on the outskirts of developing storms or unstable atmospheric conditions to record data that could be used to issue more accurate and timely warnings to the public, Haberbusch said.

“You can’t do that now with battery-operated drones because they are unable to stay aloft long enough to collect significant data,” Haberbusch said. “We’re talking about expanding (flight times) from under an hour to over 50 hours for fixed-wing (unmanned) aircraft without refueling.”

The Innovation Fund has now committed more than $11 million to 168 startups.

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