Drone technology has already changed the way humans interact with the world around them. Further research
and development continue to make strides with new innovations. One company to come out of that research is
Emesent, which has developed technology that allows drones to fly beyond the line of sight of humans where
there is no GPS to guide them.
Emesent co-founders Stefan Hrabar and Farid Kendoul joined Roland Siebelink of the Midstage Institute on
this week’s episode of the Midstage Startup Momentum Momentum Podcast. They discussed Emesent’s transition
from a research project to a startup and the keys to the company’s rapid growth.
- What are the important similarities between being a researcher and being a founder?
- How did underground mining become the focus of Emesent?
- The biggest challenge when Emesent grew from seven to 80 people in two and a half years.
- The importance of being conscious of company culture with such a fast-growing company.
- How Emesent was able to have “pent up demand” as soon as it launched its product.
Roland Siebelink:Hello and welcome to the Silicon Valley Momentum Podcast.
My name is Roland Siebelink and I'm a scaleup ally and founder of the Midstage
Institute. With me today are two founders of an amazing company from around the
globe. It's Emesent. And joining me now is Stefan Hrabar, who is the CEO and
founder. Later on, we will be joined also by Farid Kendoul, who's the CTO and
founder. Hello, Stefan.
Stefan Hrabar:Hello, Roland. How are you?
Roland Siebelink:I'm very good, very good. Thank you for joining. Emesent,
such an exciting company. Let's dive right into it. What do you do? And what
difference do you make for whom in the world?
Stefan Hrabar:Generally speaking, we're enabling autonomous digitalization
of very challenging and inaccessible assets and places. And that's allowing our
enterprise customers to derive new insights that were previously not possible
because they can now access these assets.
When I'm talking about autonomous digitalization, what I'm talking about is
automating the collection of the data in an area and then also automating the
analysis of that data to derive insights. The way we do this is through autonomy
capability and specifically through autonomous drones. We have developed a
system which allows drones to fly autonomously beyond line of sight in
challenging areas where there's no GPS. For us, the key focus has been in
underground mining because the system allows data to be collected in really
challenging parts of underground mines and providing those insights to the
underground mining customers.
Roland Siebelink:Are you saying your drones are actually going into mines
and flying underground? Or did I get that wrong?
Stefan Hrabar:No, that's right. Just to clarify, we don't build the drones.
We build a payload which mounts onto an existing off-the-shelf drone. And that's
a LIDAR-based system which processes the LIDAR data in real time to estimate how
the drone is moving using SLAM and self-navigate. It basically turns a standard
drone into a self-navigating autonomous drone which can fly beyond line of sight
underground. And then it's also capturing all that LIDAR data as it flies. And
we process the LIDAR data to generate really detailed, accurate 3D point clouds
of the environments that have been flown in.
Roland Siebelink:Wow. Okay. That sounds so fascinating. For someone who has
almost no experience in natural resources and mining, what kind of data does
that actually produce? Your customers being, I'm guessing, big mining companies,
what data do they derive from that and how does it help them in their business?
Stefan Hrabar:It's replacing some of the traditional survey tools in some
instances. Some of the areas underground are inaccessible; they're too dangerous
to send people in. But they still need to map them to make sure there are no
issues and to make sure that the underground blasting has gone according to
After they blast an area underground, they use autonomous or remotely-operated
bulldozers to pull out the ore and then they have to go in and scan the cavity
or the void that's left. That's called a stope. And traditionally, they'd have
to take a LIDAR scanner mounted to the end of a pole and get really close to
these dangerous areas and poke those poles into the stope to try and scan it.
Not a safe place to be and the scan that they would get would be very partial
and low-density, so they don't get a full picture of what's actually happened.
But by sending in the drone, they can launch the drone from a safe location. And
because it flies itself autonomously, it's easy to fly into this big void and
scan it in all directions to get a detailed view of what's happened, so there's
no missing data. And that allows them to accurately measure the volume of the
stope, make sure that the blasting hasn't gone and done something they weren't
expecting. Cause that can result in diluting the ore or they might be leaving
valuable ore in the ground.
That's one particular use case. But there are many others underground when they
use the system to go monitor, look for changes over time to see if there's
anything dangerous happening. For them, the mine is the asset. They're
inspecting their very valuable asset without putting the surveyors or mining
engineers at risk.
Roland Siebelink:Stefan, you said that this company actually came out of a
research project and a research Institute, and that's not always a route that we
find that often. I'd like to delve into that a little bit. Can you sketch the
history of Emesent a little bit?
Stefan Hrabar:Yeah. Myself and Farid have similar backgrounds. We both did
our PhDs in robotics, specifically on drone autonomy and control. And then we
joined CSIRO, which is Australia's national research organization a couple of
years apart. I was there for almost 13 years before forming Emesent. We've been
working together on drone autonomy projects and developing some really unique
capabilities for drones above ground. And then started using a combination of
LIDAR and SLAM on a drone and realized that would allow the system to operate
where there's no GPS.
It wasn't long before we started getting some interest from the mining community
because they realized the potential use case. A lot of interest from other
applications as well, not just mining where you use a drone in challenging
areas. We decided that we were both excited about this opportunity and wanted to
create impact with the technology we've been developing. We went through an
accelerator inside the research organization and decided to just found Emesent
to commercialize the technology we'd been working on. It was a bit of a process,
took a couple of years. But we finally went through and had a fundraising round
and managed to form Emesent and spin out of the research organization.
Roland Siebelink:That's awesome. And looking back at that decision now, a
few years later, as you say, what would be a big gap between what you think you
expected to happen at that time and how things really turned out so far?
Stefan Hrabar:I think what was really exciting for me to see as a
researcher is getting out into the real world and being in front of customers
and understanding their pain points and their challenges, and showing them what
we could potentially do with the solution we were developing, and seeing their
excitement and interest.
And then when we add a solution and we can go and offer it to market, I can
remember the first time we flew the drone underground into one of these voids
and showed the data to the surveyors, they were just blown away. It's just such
a clear value proposition.
Roland Siebelink:One thing I wanted to add still to this transition from
researchers into company founders - some people who have that profile say that
they really have to learn that what customers ask for is not always what you
want to offer. Have you had similar experiences?
Stefan Hrabar:Yeah, like I said, when you're just doing research for the
sake of research, you're developing a solution and then looking for a problem.
It's definitely the other way around now. We've learned that we've got to
understand the problem first. We were very fortunate that we'd been developing a
solution that had a very real problem. But as we keep innovating and doing more
R&D, we're obviously very focused on making sure that whatever we build is
solving a real need and a problem.
There's things that we were doing as researchers that are definitely applicable
to running a company as well. Just the idea of testing hypotheses. Before, we
were testing scientific hypotheses and running experiments to validate that.
And that definitely carries on into business. You're obviously testing
hypotheses around your value proposition, and your market, and your customers,
and running experiments to validate your hypotheses. I think there's some sort
of mindset in the research world which definitely translates into the business
world as well. And it's helped us.
Roland Siebelink:Okay. How do you now look back at the growth of Emesent
and the different product lines, verticals you were exploring? Startup founders
often ask me, "Should I stick to my knitting and really try to dominate one
first niche? Or should I really expand as fast as possible and build my
portfolio? What's your take on that?
Stefan Hrabar:Yeah, it's a great question. And we struggled with this for a
while because - Hovermap is our product. That's the payload that you mount on
the drone. It's such a versatile system. You can use it for so many different
things. We're getting excited about so many different verticals and
opportunities. And we were struggling to really go for one and decide which one
to focus on until we started to realize how strong the value proposition was in
underground mining. And then we finally decided to just focus on that and put
all the effort into that vertical.
It's hard to say no to others and to give up other potential applications. But
it definitely made things clearer and easier for us when we could just focus all
our messaging on that and all our go-to markets activities just on one vertical.
It suddenly made it clear and easy. And even the pitching - when we're pitching
for an investment, being clear about this is where we can have our beachhead
market and become world leaders in this space.
Roland Siebelink:How have you built your organization to support all of
that? How big is your team right now? And how have you split them up between
Stefan Hrabar:In terms of the timeframe, we spun out of CSRO end of 2018,
so two and a half years ago. To start with, there was myself and Farid as
co-founders. And then five of the technical team that had been working on
Hovermap as a project joined us as well. Seven to start with and now we're now
almost at 80. It's been growing pretty quickly.
Roland Siebelink:Growing from seven to 80 people in just two and a half
years, that's a huge scaling journey. What have you found were the biggest
challenges just from an organizational buildup front?
Stefan Hrabar:Getting the structure right. Obviously, we wanted to make
sure we didn't make any mistakes. To start off, we're a fairly flat structure.
As we've grown each team, we've had to put one or two layers in place. We now
have team leaders and heads of departments or VPs. And then an executive level.
We've been very fortunate in that the team we've managed to grow. We have an
awesome culture. Everyone's really excited about what we're doing. We've been
able to attract a really high quality technical team and senior leadership team
to manage and run those various departments. It's always evolving as we go. As
we grow each sector, figuring out how we should structure things is always a bit
of trial and error. We're looking at how it's been done in other places. And so
far, I think we've managed to strike a good balance between not being too fully
structured but not being too flat either.
Roland Siebelink:Okay, I get it. You mentioned your amazing culture. Is
that something you're consciously building in a way? And if so, how do you do
that? Or is it something that's more just emerging by the people you hire?
Stefan Hrabar:I'm definitely conscious of it. We realized pretty early on
that a great culture had evolved and I think that's because of early employees.
We're all passionate and believe in what we're doing and excited about it. That
means we've attracted people that have similar interests. But now that we get
into the size, for me personally, as CEO, making sure we are very conscious
about not ruining that culture because it's going to get harder as we grow. I'm
quite conscious about the way we onboard people. Obviously, hiring people is
important. We do that for energy and culture, not just for technical expertise.
And then as we bring them on and onboard them, make sure that they get to
witness and understand the culture.
Stefan Hrabar:Obviously culture is something - you don't just write your
values up on the wall, then suddenly everybody's doing it.
Roland Siebelink:You don't?
Stefan Hrabar:Definitely not. Doing a lot of reading in that space to
understand and make sure we don't mess it up. Keep the culture we've got.
Understanding that what you do is what are kind of thing. Make sure we lead by
example from the top as well.
Roland Siebelink:Yeah, absolutely. I think that was the title of Ben
Horowitz's latest book. Was that happened to be the one you were reading? I
love that. As they say, "Great leaders are great readers," right? They like
picking up things from elsewhere and learning from that.
You mentioned that actually a few times in this discussion, I think. You
mentioned how things are done elsewhere, reading about it. What are your big
go-to sources in learning and making sure you keep up to date and copy the best
Stefan Hrabar:For me, the biggest problem is having the time to do that
kind of thing. Podcasts are a great resource for me because I can do it while
driving or exercising and flying. We can actually fly these days in Australia.
Podcasts and then occasionally I do make sure I have some time to actually read
the truth in a book.
Roland Siebelink:What about you Farid? Thank you for joining. Where do you
pick up certain sources of learning? How to do better at Emesent? How to keep
your company at the forefront of what startups are doing?
Farid Kendoul:Hi. Yeah, that's a very good question. And there are so many
things to learn. And as a scientist in the beginning, you are always curious and
eager to learn new things. Finding time was really the main challenge. But the
main thing is really to surround ourselves with good people and people who are
better than us and people who have done that before. For me, it has been really
very helpful to listen to these people ask the question and try to learn from
Roland Siebelink:How good would you say, at this stage where you are 80
people, how good are you guys with taking solid decisions in the sense that once
a decision is taken, you can just implement it, then you don't have to come back
to it time and time again?
Farid Kendoul:I think one of the things - at Emesent, we have the culture
of collaboration and transparency and trying to be credible. Generally, we try
to make sure that we have shaken the tree in the beginning, asking all the hard
questions against ourselves to make sure that we are looking at the problem and
the decision from different angles. Considering the short-term goals and the
long-term goals in terms of the company vision and what we really want to do.
And try also to get the best perspective from different relevant people in the
So far, it has been more of a collaborative decision-making process. As
founders and management, we try to provide the guiding star. What's really the
big picture that Emesent wants to achieve? And it helps everyone to put everyone
in the same context to ask the right question and to head in the same direction.
But usually once a decision is made, whether it's a growth strategy or a product
roadmap or things like that, we still try to get feedback from different people
and to refine it and adjust. And then we have a framework and structure to make
sure that we are implementing that decision effectively while still staying
agile. Because as you start implementing things, you might discover a few
things. The market is evolving, especially with this COVID situation. I think
the main thing is to stay agile and to adapt as new information comes to light.
Roland Siebelink:Maybe we can talk a little bit about the traction the
company's had so far, accomplishments you're particularly proud of. What would
you say has been working exceptionally well for Emesent so far?
Stefan Hrabar:In terms of traction, again, I think we were pretty fortunate
having been incubating within the research organization for almost two years
with a product which was in a prototype stage. We had early adopters, almost 20
early adopters around the world using the system, and we're generating revenue
and we're getting feedback from them about the good use cases for it. By the
time we launched the company, we were almost ready to launch the product as
well. It was only a few months later that Hovermap as a product was launched.
And we really had pent up demand because early adopters had been using the
prototypes and were ready to purchase the commercial solution.
Roland Siebelink:Farid, how big can you see Emesent become?
Farid Kendoul:I think as big as we can be. We are very bold and very
ambitious and we want to achieve a big impact through innovation. In the future,
wherever there is a problem that requires the collection of data in a
challenging environment, Emesent solution is the go-to. We are really working
hard on that.
I think some of the achievements amazes me every day, an idea that started as a
research project at CSRO five years, six years ago, when we were flying a drone
in an experimental area without GPS, it was a huge thing and everyone was
excited. We didn't just hover for a couple of minutes. And years later, we're
seeing hundreds of the systems used by our customers in some of the most
challenging environments on earth and seeing those customers having confidence
in the system, using it routinely. It's really a big achievement for us.
Roland Siebelink:One question I always like to finish the interview with is
what advice would both of you have for the founders of other companies that come
behind you. What have you learned as a founder that you would convey as advice
to other founders, whether in your field or some other fields? Let's hear from
Farid Kendoul:It's very hard to summarize all the learning to put them into
advice. But I think one of the things is just stay simple and true to yourself.
Be transparent and credible with your employees, with your customers, with your
partners. Don't look for low hanging fruits and take shortcuts. For us, we have
adopted that mindset from the beginning, and I think it helped us a lot. I think
that's really one advice.
And the other one, surround yourself with good people and don't be afraid to
hire people who are better than you. When you are a technical person and a
founder and you love your technology, it's sometimes hard to let go and hire
people that are better than you. It will pay off and it will give you the
bandwidth to do the things more strategically and do more exciting things.
Roland Siebelink:Very good. That's awesome. What about Stefan?
Stefan Hrabar:Obviously, perseverance is critical. I think for most
entrepreneurs that comes next naturally anyway. If you really believe in
something, you go after it wholeheartedly until you have success. I think what
we mentioned earlier around finding a focus and a single beachhead market is
critical as well. And it makes sense to try and align that with natural, unfair
advantages that you might have.
Obviously, for us, we were in Australia surrounded by mines in this research
organization, which had a very strong mining pedigree as well. A couple of
things made sense for us to go off to that market. But also realizing that no
matter where you are in the world, I think these days the world is your oyster
because you can access markets almost anywhere in the world, even if you're in a
small part of the world that doesn't have a large customer base around you.
Being able to set up resellers and distributors around the world. Especially
with SaaS products, you can connect with markets almost anywhere. That's a
benefit, I suppose.
Roland Siebelink:Absolutely. Very cool. Okay. That's great advice for the
founders listening to this podcast. Last, what is something that Emesent needs?
What is something you're looking for? And what's something our audience could
help you with potentially? Are you hiring? Are you looking to find new
customers? Looking to get investors? What would be most appreciated?
Farid Kendoul:I think all of those. Hiring is a big one. We are expanding
and planning to double or triple the size of our team in the next 12 months.
Finding expert people, especially in our technical areas like robotics, machine
learning, AI, SLAM, data analytics, et cetera. It's becoming very hard. If
anyone is looking for a job in those areas and wants to do very advanced
research that will still achieve a big impact in the real world, just get in
touch with us. And we are happy to have the discussion with them.
Roland Siebelink:That's awesome. You're such a sales guy, Farid. I love it.
A very, very compelling proposition. How are you on the location these days? Are
you looking for people primarily in the Brisbane area or are you also
considering remote people?
Farid Kendoul:I think for now, most of our team is based here in Brisbane.
It's very hard to be somewhere else. It's always sunny. It's very nice weather
and surrounded by awesome places. I think even though our growth plans, I think
we are open to people working remotely, or even in the near future, try to have
offices and branches in other regions and countries, including the USA. I think
everything is on the table.
Roland Siebelink:Okay, great. That's good to hear. Stefan, last word and
what you need.
Stefan Hrabar:Just reiterating, hiring. That's obviously a big challenge as
we grow. In terms of the location, we do have a couple of employees in the US
and in Europe already. We do have some remote workers. That's more on the sales,
technical sales, customer support side of things. That's gonna be growing.
Partnerships, like I said, this is an ecosystem that we're building. If there's
anybody that's got relevant technology that makes sense to partner.
We've just started the process of preparing for another round. Definitely happy
to have some conversations, early conversations with potential investors. We've
started the preparations and we'll be running a formal process in the next
couple of months.
Roland Siebelink:Perfect. Okay. And if there's any investors listening to
this podcast who would be interested in talking with Stefan and Farid, then I'm
happy to provide an introduction as well.
Thank you so much, Stefan Hrabar and Farid Kendoul, the CEO and founder,
respectfully, CTO and founder, of Emesent coming to us live, at least today,
from Brisbane. This was an amazing interview. I've learned so much. I really
thank you for your time.
Farid Kendoul:Thank you very much, Roland.
Stefan Hrabar:Thanks, Roland. It's been really great to have a chat.
Roland Siebelink talks all things tech startup and bring you interviews with tech cofounders
across the world.