A Flying Start

Robert Blank ’11 knew it wouldn’t be easy. All the same, he quit his job in Colorado to pursue a dream: building drones that could drop dynamite and help control avalanches. After spending six months in a business incubator, Blank’s startup, Mountain Drones, is getting off the ground.

by Jason Ryan
photography by Brett Schreckengost

Robert Blank ’11 arrived in Telluride, Colo., at night, having navigated a twisty canyon road that paralleled the snaking San Miguel River. The native South Carolinian had moved to Denver, sight unseen, three years earlier, and was now moving to Telluride, sight unseen again, another 300 miles west. For at least the next six months, this mining-town-turned-ski resort high in the Rockies would be his home.

Waking up the next morning, Blank strolled onto his porch and was awestruck by the scene: Daylight had revealed the winter wonderland that is Telluride. Tucked into a majestic box canyon, the town is enclosed by mountainsides covered in pine and aspen, with sheer bands of bare, red rock contrasting gorgeously against the snow-covered slopes. Cozy, picture-perfect Victorian cottages line Telluride’s streets, all of which sit far below Mount Ajax, which looms at the end of the canyon and whose peak reaches up to nearly 13,000 feet. Taking it all in from his perch on the porch, Blank was bowled over.

This is so sweet, he said to himself. This place is awesome.

Even better was the ski lift just 400 feet from his front steps. And beyond that, the details of his morning commute: a 13-minute gondola ride up the mountainside and a short walk to his office space in a luxury hotel, where guests make reservations for heli-skiing right next door to the spa.

Blank was certainly enthusiastic that February morning in 2015, especially since the local business incubator had just agreed to invest $25,000 in Mountain Drones, the high-performance drone company he had just formed with two friends, Brent Holbrook and Warren Linde.

Eating a late breakfast in the New Sheridan Hotel on Telluride’s main street nearly a year later, Blank looks out through the glass windows that afford a view of quaint Colorado Avenue and the ski slopes on the edge of town.

“It’s a pretty cool environment to develop a product,” he says.

That’s an understatement as big as the Rockies are tall. Those who know Telluride love Telluride. Condé Nast Traveler readers have voted it the top ski resort in North America for three years in a row, and SKI Magazine readers deem it the most scenic. Men’s Health calls it “one of the coolest winter getaways,” and Vogue devoted a December 2015 article to praising its beauty and attractions.

People have desperately wanted to come to Telluride ever since it was founded in 1878. In those days, Telluride held the promise of fortune. Miners, many of them European immigrants, arrived to the town to extract zinc, lead, copper, iron and more from the nearby San Juan Mountain Range (which is part of the Rocky Mountains). In 1889, the famous outlaw Butch Cassidy took a more straightforward route to enriching himself: He robbed his first bank, stealing more than $20,000 from Telluride’s San Miguel Valley Bank.

Robert Blank, College of CharlestonA year later, the railroad came to town. And a year after that, the first long-distance transmission of alternating current was accomplished when a hydroelectric plant developed by L.L. Nunn and George Westinghouse sent electricity more than three miles to Gold King Mine. These innovations led to a boom in Telluride that swelled its population and even enabled the formation of a bustling red-light district. But after a financial panic in 1893, the town dwindled, remaining a sleepy outpost until the 1970s, when the Telluride Ski Resort was opened and established a new industry to succeed mining.

Since then, the ski slopes have expanded considerably, with Telluride Ski Resort becoming one of the world’s premier winter getaways. Skiing atop the mountain, one enjoys astounding views, with powdered and unspoiled peaks, plains and plateaus in each and every direction. Telluride is a world unto itself.

An adjacent municipality, Mountain Village, was created in 1995 above a hill outside Telluride, and has since become home to the wealthy, including such celebrities as Tom Cruise and Oprah Winfrey. The affluence has rolled down the mountain, too, along the gondola line that connects the two towns, as most single-family homes in Telluride now cost a few million dollars. Those who can afford it might argue that it’s still a bargain, given the stunning scenery and easy accessibility to first-rate skiing, hiking, mountain biking and rafting opportunities.

Just as Nunn and Westinghouse had pioneered their game-changing technology more than a century earlier there, Blank was hoping Telluride would provide the setting for his own breakthrough. By joining the Telluride Venture Accelerator, he and his partners would benefit from a five-month business boot camp designed to help launch Mountain Drones and provide valuable mentoring opportunities with local and visiting tech entrepreneurs and business executives. And Telluride, with its tall peaks and ample backcountry ski slopes, was the perfect place for Blank and his partners to test their prototypes of high-flying, dynamite-dropping drones.

Flying High
Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, are everywhere these days. They patrol the skies of the world’s hotspots and prowl for suspected terrorists. They hover above cities across the country, filming real estate commercials and other aerial photography. Hobbyists fly them in parks, and Amazon wants to use them to deliver packages to your doorstep. Drones are used to monitor container ship emissions at sea, deliver engagement rings during elaborate marriage proposals and bring bottles to patrons lounging poolside at a Las Vegas hotel. The Consumer Electronics Association estimates 700,000 drones were sold in 2015.

That’s a lot of competition. But save the militaries of assorted superpowers, there aren’t many, if any, other organizations attempting to drop bombs from remotely controlled drones, or “flying killer robots,” as comedian Bill Maher likes to label them. Mountain Drones’ aerial devices are not designed to kill, however, but rather to save lives. By dropping dynamite to trigger avalanches on backcountry ski slopes, Blank’s company hopes to make terrain safer for skiers.

Avalanches kill about 27 Americans each year, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, including backcountry skiers who inadvertently trigger the deluges of snow when gliding down virgin slopes. Blank says more than 400 ski resorts in the United States engage in avalanche mitigation for backcountry skiers each season, clearing slopes by dropping explosives from helicopters, firing cannons into mountainsides or sending climbers out along ridgelines with backpacks or sleds full of explosives. These methods are costly and dangerous. Blank and his partners believe drones provide a better way to deliver the explosives, and they’ve staked the success of their business on this premise. Besides ski resorts, Mountain Drones has received interest from transportation departments and railroad companies eager to find solutions for avalanches that bury roads and rails.

Robert Blank, Mountain Drones, College of CharlestonThere’s a reason so few organizations are dropping bombs from drones. Beyond the danger of dynamite, both drones and explosives are highly regulated, meaning any startup combining the two risks becomes hopelessly entangled in government red tape. Some of the leaders and mentors at the Telluride Venture Accelerator, in fact, strongly cautioned Blank and his partners about this potential problem, urging them to find other ways to utilize their unique, high-performance drones.

“Your market is too small. You can’t scale this,” Blank remembers them saying. “You’re not going to get over the regulatory hurdles. You don’t know what you’re getting into.”

In other words, Mountain Drones might never get off the ground.

Such criticism, as well-intentioned as it was, can be hard for any entrepreneur to hear. But any company accepted into the Telluride Venture Accelerator, explains Telluride resident and business mentor Len Metheny, will undergo a rigorous, eye-opening examination of who their customer is, what the market needs are for their product and how much it will truly cost to run their business.

This process is “not unlike a military boot camp,” says Metheny. “You tear them down and build them back up.” That’s the only way to ensure a company’s business plan is sustainable, he says.

Metheny was the founder and CEO of ApplyYourself, a company that counted most major colleges and universities as clients and essentially digitized the college application process. After selling the firm to the Daily Mail in 2007 and enjoying a stint in London, Metheny moved with his family to Telluride, where he began volunteering as a mentor with the local venture accelerator. Through his own experience, Metheny knows how advantageous it can be to receive business guidance, have introductions made for you and be provided with the opportunity to pitch interested investors.

“It’s a roller coaster starting a business. The odds are against you from day one,” says Metheny. “What we do is try to improve the odds for these guys.”

Blank appreciated the advice from Metheny and other mentors, but he and his partners were stubbornly convinced their original business plan had merit. In Blank’s mind, there were clear buyers (ski resorts and transportation departments/companies) with clear needs (to mitigate avalanches) who could be provided with a solution immediately, courtesy of Mountain Drones. Though Blank dutifully explored the potential of related business opportunities, such as using drones to place scientific sensors in remote parts of the Rockies and other extreme environments, he and his partners ultimately stuck to their guns and decided to focus on avalanche mitigation.

“When you say you’re going to drop dynamite from a drone, people say, ‘You’re crazy. That’s absurd,’” says Blank. “But it’s not absurd, and it’s happening.”

The Biggest and Baddest
Blank has always liked to tinker. At the age of 14, he transformed a basic tiller-controlled johnboat into a souped-up bass boat, complete with a full cast deck, steering wheel, two fish finders, trolling motors and lights. Blank loved it, even if all the gizmos made it travel 10 mph slower.

After moving to Colorado, he became intrigued by drones. Eventually, after many weekend ski trips and happy-hour meetings with other aspiring entrepreneurs, Blank, Holbrook and Linde struck the idea for Mountain Drones. Originally, the trio envisioned their drones could be used for search-and-rescue missions in tough and snowy terrain, including emergencies when avalanches trap backcountry skiers. But ski instructors warned the trio that such rescues are infrequent and that perhaps avalanche mitigation was a safer bet for creating a business. The men pivoted, and Blank, as Mountain Drones’ chief technology officer, was tasked with making a drone that could not only fly in the thin, gusting air that surrounds the Rockies, but also could safely drop and detonate bombs.

At the College, Blank studied biology. One of his professors was Robert Dillon, who one day infuriated Blank with the stern warning: “Not only am I not going to help you, I’m going to intentionally mislead you,” Blank remembers Dillon telling the class.

Blank was outraged. Yet once the anger subsided, Blank realized Dillon’s point: He needed to discover his own answers. Since then, Dillon’s tough love has paid dividends for Blank. Armed with confidence and a can-do attitude, Blank turned a deaf ear to the doubters who inevitably question any startup business plan.

“When someone says, always, never, can’t, I just immediately kind of wonder, Is that true? Why is that the case?” says Blank.

He forged ahead with his drone dream, setting up a home workshop covered in tiny wires, Dremel tools, microchips and assorted plastic parts. Blank’s girlfriend calls it the “mad scientist room,” and, indeed, Blank used the space to cannibalize a number of consumer drones and create a Frankenstein drone featuring a combination of the best and toughest components.

As Blank says proudly of the $20,000 machine, “It’s just the biggest, baddest drone there is.”

Mountain Drones, Robert Blank, College of CharlestonThe Mountain Drones’ prototype features eight rotors that help it fly in the thin mountain air, where motors perform at only 70 percent of the power they’d enjoy at a lower altitude. Their prototype can fly for 30 minutes carrying a 20-pound payload, traveling about 15 mph and never soaring more than 400 feet off the ground (per government rules).

While it’s impressive to develop a drone that performs in the cold, blustery Rocky Mountain air, Blank’s real coup was the development of a mechanism that could simultaneously release an explosive from the drone and remove its cotter pin as the bomb began a free fall. Additionally, Blank toyed with microchips and learned computer programming to create a failsafe method for the drone operator to drop and arm the explosive.

Those challenges were time consuming, but at least they were fun – not too far a cry from his childhood experiments with Legos. Preparing a 180-page application to the Federal Aviation Administration to operate explosive-carrying drones was another story.

“I wouldn’t wish that process on my worst enemy,” Blank says of the month of 16-hour days the effort required.

He would have hired a lawyer to do that work, he says, except it likely would have cost him and his partners the entire investment stake they earned from the Telluride Venture Accelerator. As Dillon taught him in class, some things you have to do yourself.

Bombs Away
The FAA granted Mountain Drones an operating permit in late 2015. With this major milestone passed, Mountain Drones could pursue more financing. Like any tech startup, cash is a crucial resource.

“The reality of all these young companies is they’re always raising money. The clock is always ticking,” says Jesse Johnson, the CEO and co-founder of the Telluride Venture Accelerator, which is owned by the nonprofit Telluride Foundation.

Since beginning operations in 2013, the Telluride Venture Accelerator has helped launch 18 companies, which have raised more than $10 million. Johnson is proud to point out that two-thirds of these companies have raised more than $300,000 within a year of graduation from the accelerator, which is more than double the benchmark for accelerators worldwide.

One company that began in the Telluride accelerator, Fresh Monster, now sells its natural hair care products in more than 1,000 stores, including Target and Amazon. But another company, which created communal trip-planning software, fizzled. Johnson notes that there are lots of ways a promising venture can derail.

“You can do everything right, have a great idea, and still stumble. There are so many things you don’t control,” says Johnson.

Hiring choices, establishing a leadership hierarchy, making prototypes and creating pilot programs – these are some of the tough problems for entrepreneurs to solve, says Johnson. Also hard: coordinating a shared vision with your partners and deciding how far the team is willing to go to possibly succeed.

“Are you going to mortgage your home, or is that off limits?” asks Johnson.

For Metheny, Blank’s business mentor, these challenging issues require a combination of energy and intelligence to navigate.

“Passion is important, but many times, your decisions require more than a gut feel,” he says.

In the case of Mountain Drones, Metheny credits Blank for being passionate but also data driven. Blank’s determination to obtain a permit from the FAA, says Metheny, also gives Mountain Drones a business advantage, since regulations can serve as a barrier to entry for other firms. Some other good news: The drone market is growing, and fast. It’s a trend Blank is well aware of.

“It’s moving at warp speed, like a rocket ship,” says Blank, ticking off estimates for the commercial drone market that range from $30 billion to $120 billion.

Ultimately, Blank’s business philosophy is to create a viable product now and be positioned for future opportunity. He peppers his conversations with nuggets of wisdom, some appropriated and some his own, that are variations on this theme: Stay present and keep your head up.One foot in front of the other.As long as you’re right more than 51 percent of the time, you’re doing OK.Learn – use failure as a data point.You have to make decisions – you can’t keep stalling because others will pass you.Live to fight another day.

The optimism is natural for the affable 26-year-old, but it also serves to counteract the anxiety associated with starting a tech company.

“They said this would be the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, and they were right,” says Blank. “I’ve never been this stressed before.”

But with permit in hand, consumer interest growing and a spate of media attention for Mountain Drones in publications like Outside and Popular Science, Blank has reason to smile and keep the faith.

“I wish I had a crystal ball where I could tell you where we’ll be in 10 years, but, I think, it will be something sweet involving drones and there will be drones out there dropping dynamite,” says Blank. “If I just stay in the game, big things will happen.”

Robert Blank, Mountain Drones, College of Charleston