The journey to funding: Buffalo Automation’s story

Thiru Vikram learned a lot about artificial intelligence in self-navigating vehicles while studying engineering at the University at Buffalo – in 2015 it was still an evolving technology with applications that had yet to be fully explored.

But Vikram’s colleagues were focused on applying AI to motor vehicles. No one, Vikram said, was exploring AI uses for self-driving boats, both recreational and for commercial shipping.

Three years later, the company Vikram co-founded, Buffalo Automation, has reached several milestones in fundraising through venture capital investors, its most recent a $900,000 seed investment led by the Jacobs family, with a $100,000 follow-on investment from Z80 Labs.

“I’m very surprised,” Jon Spitz, managing director of Z80 said. “That’s a lot of money for Buffalo.”

Vikram’s business and engineering expertise may come naturally – he gained experience running a company through his family while growing up – but to grow a tech startup from the ground didn’t come easily.

The momentum for Buffalo Automation began in 2016, when Vikram and his team, including co-founders Emilie Reynolds and Alex Zhitelzeyf, all UB graduates or current students, began to win pitch competitions, including the locally prestigious Henry A. Panasci Jr. Technology Entrepreneurship Competition through the UB School of Management. The Buffalo Automation team earned first place in the 2015 Buffalo Student Sandbox competition and the 2016 New York State Business Plan Competition, among others.

That level of achievement, Spitz said, caught people’s attention.

“We got to the point where we were raising a significant amount of capital,” Vikram said. Z80 worked with the Buffalo Automation team to refine its pitch and introduced the young engineers to investors both locally and nationally.

For now, the team of eight is focused on growing revenue. Vikram said Buffalo is the logical location for Buffalo Automation. The eastern tip of Lake Erie is still a major shipping hub, and when commercial boats are dormant near the frozen mouth of the Niagara River, Vikram’s team can test AI applications for the self-driving ship.

In the last round of seed funds, Buffalo Automation surpassed its $700,000 goal. Other investors include Gerald Lippes of Lippes Mathias Wexler Friedman, investment manager Ted Pierce, and John Somers, owner of Harmac Medical Products.

The funding will go toward developing Buffalo Automation’s AutoMate system, which uses analytical data through sensors to pilot a boat, detecting debris and water depth and using an algorithm to find the most efficient routes. The technology can optimize fuel efficiency and improve safety, according to the company.

“He made a lot out of a little in terms of financing,” Spitz said about Buffalo Automation’s rapid growth. “He wasn’t going to be stopped no matter what. It’s still obviously very early, but with this financing he’s going to have an opportunity to continue to validate this idea and scale up.

“It’s the first step in a series of steps,” Spitz added.

Vikram said another added benefit to Buffalo is its proximity to Canada, where many major shipping companies are based. There’s no shortage of local talent, but Buffalo Automation can recruit from virtually anywhere with developers’ ability to work for the Amherst-based company remotely if they can’t relocate here.

Fleet management and autopilot applications are the company’s focus, but most recently Vikram said Buffalo Automation is exploring self-driving devices for yachts, speed boats and within recreational markets.

That means the UB engineers get to spend days on boats that can travel over 50 knots. And that part, Vikram said, can be a lot of fun.

Vikram credits the UB Technology Incubator’s tenX co-working space for supporting the company in its early stages. “We were always fortunate to have other people with experience lead the way,” Vikram said.

Currently, Buffalo Automation is also still developing customer testing, and constantly in the stages of responding to feedback from its products.

“As long as we can help him out, we’re going to do our best. We have an incentive to do that,” Spitz said.

Read more articles by Joel Lehman.

After spending 15 years in northern Vermont where he worked as managing editor for a daily publication, Western New York native Joel Lehman returned to Buffalo this summer to be part of the city’s renaissance. He lives with his girlfriend and his goldendoodle, Wilson, and he enjoys running, skiing and cooking for his family.
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