Unmanned with one hand

Houston-based company's device is revolutionizing drone technology across industries

Fluidity Technologies' joystick-like device is designed based on movement in space. Courtesy of Fluidity

It's not enough that Scott Parazynski has spent 57 days, 15 hours and 34 minutes in space. Nor is the fact that he's trained as a trauma surgeon. Not even climbing Mount Everest as a team physician for the Discovery Channel could satisfy one of Earth's most talent-blessed residents. Now Parazynski is on course to change multiple industries with his latest invention.

Not surprisingly, the member of the US Astronaut Hall of Fame based his design on movement in space. He wanted to approximate the movement of simultaneously shifting from one place to another, but also changing the body's orientation. In zero gravity, it takes precision and planning, Parazynski says, to do that in the most efficient way possible.

As a member of the Houston Methodist Research Institute, his goal was to create a joystick-like device "that would revolutionize surgical robotics." That is still a target for the technology, but with his own Houston-based company, Fluidity Technologies, Parazynski is first releasing the device as a drone controller known as FT Aviator.

"Mostly because it's an enormously growing marketplace and the barriers are a lot less," he admits.

That's not to say Parazynski is anything less than a world-class expert on the subject of flight.

"I've flown aircraft and spacecraft," says Parazynski. "But none allowed for the precision of motion I was looking for. None prevented unintended motion."

Lifelong passion
He himself has had toy drones for as long as they've been available and purchased his first "serious drones" three or four years ago, around the same time he conceived of FT Aviator.

When he started to research other drone controllers, he realized that most current models aren't too different from relics from the 1930s on display at the Smithsonian.

"There has been zero innovation in flight control," he says.

As opposed to the two-handed controllers that recall 1990s video game systems, FT Aviator only requires the attention of the pilot's dominant hand. This is especially useful to those using drone cameras. Instead of complex machinations that often require multiple launches, the user can simply make adjustments to the camera with his or her other hand.

"It does this incredibly intuitive motion with a drone or computer game or virtual augmented reality," Parazynski says, listing other potential uses for the technology.

It's FT Aviator's natural movement that will one day make Fluidity's core technology a groundbreaker in surgical robotics. Since the da Vinci surgical robot's 2000 FDA approval, the machine has created controversy. In the hands of a well-trained surgeon, it substantially reduces healing time. But there is no approval process for doctors to use it, so disasters in the hands of untrained practitioners have made the news.

By using the simpler mechanism of Parazynski's technology, the learning curve for robotic surgery is far less steep.

"What we want to do is make it so someone with less training can enjoy the same outcomes," Parazynski explains.

Cross-industry innovation
Ideally, one day a doctor in Houston will be able to operate remotely on a patient across the globe. Thanks to the device's tactile feedback, it's a realistic goal.

But Parazynski foresees "dozens of applications" for his invention, which will begin shipping in February. Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico has already engaged Fluidity, just one on a list of about 50 businesses and government institutions interested to work with the company when it comes onto the marketplace.

"But any good startup will tell you it's about focus," the entrepreneur admits.

That means that for now, he and his team have his eye specifically on controlling drones. Within two weeks of launching a Kickstarter this fall for the business, Fluidity doubled its goal. The FT Aviator has been named a 2019 Innovation Award Honoree at the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show. But Parazynski says he owes much of his success to Houston, his home of a quarter century.

Fluidity is based out of a WeWork coworking space.

"I think it's a really exciting place to have a tech startup" Parazynski says. "It's not yet to the scale of Silicon Valley or even Austin but certainly the innovation that's taking place here warrants a major tech hub."

And thanks to Parazynski's work, that day may be coming sooner rather than later.

Drone on

Courtesy of Fluidity

From surgeries to flying drones, Fluidity's technology will affect several industries.

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Building Houston

 
 

Activate is planting its roots in Houston with a plan to have its first set of fellows next year. Photo via Getty Images

An organization that directs support to scientists developing impactful technology has decided on Houston for its fifth program.

Activate was founded in Berkeley, California, in 2015 to bridge the gap between the federal and public sectors to deploy capital and resources into the innovators creating transformative products. The nonprofit expanded its programs to Boston and New York before launching a virtual fellowship program — Activate Anywhere, which is for scientists 50 or more miles outside one of the three hubs.

"Our mission is to empower scientists to reinvent the world by bringing their research to market," Aimee Rose, executive managing director of Activate, tells InnovationMap. "There's so much technical talent that we educate in this country every year and so many amazing inventions that happen, that combining the two, which is the sort of inventor/entrepreneur, and giving them the support mechanisms they need to get on their feet and be successful, has the potential to unlock an incredible amount of value for the country, for the environment, and to address other social problems."

This year, Activate is planting seeds in Houston to grow a presence locally and have its first set of fellows in 2024. While Activate is industry agnostic, Rose says a big draw from Houston is the ability to impact the future of energy.

"We're super excited about Houston as an emerging ecosystem for the clean energy transition as being the energy capital of the world, as well as all the other emerging players there are across the landscape in Houston," Rose says. "I think we can move the needle in Houston because of our national footprint."

The first order of business, Rose says, is hiring a managing director for Activate Houston. The job, which is posted online, is suited for an individual who has already developed a hardtech business and has experience and connections within Houston's innovation ecosystem.

"We want to customize the program so that it makes the most sense for the community," Rose says about the position. "So, somebody that has the relationships and the knowledge of the ecosystem to be able to do that and somebody that's kind of a mentor at heart."

The program is for early-stage founders — who have raised less than $2 million in funding — working on high-impact technology. Rose explains that Activate has seen a number of microelectronics and new materials companies go through the program, and, while medical innovation is impactful, Activate doesn't focus on pharmaceutical or therapeutic industries since there are existing pathways for those products.

Ultimately, Activate is seeking innovators whose technologies fall through the cracks of existing innovation infrastructure.

"Not every business fits into the venture capital model in terms of what investors would expect to be eventual outcomes, but these these types of businesses can still have significant impact and make the world a better place," Rose says, explaining how Activate is different from an incubator or accelerator. "As opposed as compared to a traditional incubator, this is a very high touch program. You get a living stipend so you can take a big business technical risk without a personal risk. We give you a lot of hands on support and mentoring."

Each of the programs selects 10 fellows that join the program for two years. The fellows receive a living stipend, connections from Activate's robust network of mentors, and access to a curriculum specific to the program.

Since its inception, Activate has supported 104 companies and around 146 entrepreneurs associated with those companies. With the addition of Houston, Activate will be able to back 50 individuals a year.

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