Chris McCall of Fotokite was presented with the $1 million top prize in Syracuse, NY on April 9. Image:CenterstateCEO

Interview: Chris McCall of Fotokite


I had the opportunity to interview Chris McCall, CEO of Fotokite, following the Genius NY awards ceremony where his company took the top prize of $1 million.

Q: I’m with Chris McCall of Fotokite and a few questions to ask. First of all, you’re the winner tonight of the million dollar prize in the Genius New York competition. Tell me how you feel about that?

Chris McCall: It’s just been incredible, you know, there’s a really, really high level of competition this year, every single one of the teams did a really, really incredible job. It’s been awesome to see everybody grow during the last three months of this program and we couldn’t be happier to be walking away with the first prize.

Q: Maybe you could tell me what do you think works about the ecosystem here in Syracuse?

Chris McCall: I think that there are so many different stakeholders and that everybody’s proactively going about trying to make it happen. There are a lot of accelerators out there that are a little less focused or a little less active about really getting hands-on with startups; this one is completely the opposite, they really seem to have a vested interest in making things work for each team’s individual needs and I’ve been really impressed with the space as a whole here.

Q: Your origins are in Switzerland, in Zurich. You’re continuing operations there, and starting operations here?

Chris McCall: We’ll continue to have R&D based there. In terms of opening up a US presence, sales, bizdev, team hires, which will be our first, as well as manufacturing for a US-made product, yes, we plan to do that here.

Q: Now, I have a couple of technical questions. So the drone was a great live demo, I think you had the only live drone on the stage today and of course a tethered drone is much safer than a random drone flying around. Now was that model the Fotokite Phi?

Chris McCall: That’s correct, yeah, that’s one of our very first generation-one products. We learned quite a bit in the manufacturing and delivery of that system, over a thousand units worldwide and now we’re really, really quite excited about moving in the direction that we are, serving public-safety teams first. You know, at this point it’s all about execution for the team.

Q: Let me ask a little bit about the public-safety application, which I think is a great application. How do you see those units that fly up from a fire truck working in the airspace with for example helicopters, police helicopters, or news-gathering helicopters? How do we avoid collisions?

Chris McCall: Yeah, I think that there will have to be coordination in some respect whether it’s a tethered system, or a free-flying system. The difference is what we’re going after is widescale use of these technologies now. This is not something to plan for, it’s something to execute on in the shorter term, and really implement in the real world, in terms of implementing sense-and-avoid, in terms of implementing collaboration-type technologies. That’s something we can integrate into our products just as easily as traditional free-flying systems as well.

Q: Now, I’m very interested in the skinny tether that I see on the units. How do you transmit the data down that wire? Is it Ethernet, is it optical, what is it?

Chris McCall: That’s proprietary, but what we do is we make sure that we reduce the tether weight and tether drag as much as possible, just to enable our customers to be able to fly as high as they possibly can.

Q: OK, one more question: what will make Fotokite different from competitors who might have the same idea, to have tethered drones on emergency vehicles?

Chris McCall: I think the key differentiator for us is the ability to robustly and reliably launch, fly and land back into a vehicle-mounted enclosure without the need for a dedicated operator and without the need for GPS. So, what that creates is the ability for public-safety teams and customers to use this system with the single push of a button, without needing to know how to fly a drone, without complications or high cognitive load in dynamic, complex environments.

Q: All right, well once again congratulations for winning this year’s prize.

Chris McCall: Thanks very much, I appreciate it.