August 24, 2023
When Norwegian Startup Tundra Drone signed up for our Hacking 4 Allies accelerator program in 2022, they hoped for quick entry into the U.S. Department of Defense as a technology supplier. Now, as the next Hacking 4 Allies cohort ramps up for the 2023-2024 cycle, Tundra Drone’s founders reflect on their experiences, and where they are today. They learned through their participation that doing business with the DoD is a longer game than they expected, and completed the cohort with a better understanding and the tools to make that dream a reality by working first to gain traction in the U.S. commercial marketplace.
Tor Erik Somby and Tim Valio founded Tundra Drone in 2019 to offer accessories to improve traditional capabilities of consumer and mid-sized drones. They started by equipping traditional drones with high-pitched sirens to aid the painstaking challenge of herding reindeer in remote Norway, and have advanced their capabilities to include drone lighting and other drone payloads.
“We give average drones superpowers. While off-the-shelf drones only provide camera and remote control functionality, we offer payloads that enable them to see at night and give alerts with sirens,” said Somby.
Given the expansive potential in their products, Somby and his Tundra Drone team saw Hacking 4 Allies as a way to engage U.S. Defense and commercial buyers. The team understood there would be differences in business culture, and hoped to gain a foothold in communicating with American audiences. Those differences in culture were more vast than anticipated, with polite enthusiasm not always translating into investment, and legal terms superseding human interaction. What most surprised them, however, was that the DoD procurement process is more challenging, cumbersome and time-consuming than they expected.
“The decision-makers in the Pentagon want to see commercial traction before buying from a small business. Our Hacking 4 Allies mentors highlighted those realities, but also gave us hope. Not only did they help mitigate unnecessary distractions that are common for startups, they showed us that finding the right commercial prime partner or subcontractor can decrease the average time to get a Pentagon contract from 10 years to just a few years,” said Somby.
Delivering “right partners” is a key focus for Hacking 4 Allies. Associated with leaders who cross the boundaries of commercial and defense, the accelerator connects small foreign businesses with relevant networks to enable action and promote better understanding. Having early discussions with commercial networks gave Somby and Valio what they needed to begin the work of growing their small business and gaining traction on American soil.
After conversations with Defense leaders, Tundra Drone’s team understood that their company was too small to deliver directly to the Pentagon. They decided instead to focus on growing the company and developing tools that can directly enhance current U.S. public safety drones in circulation, build new capabilities, and continue meeting the right people.
The team also expanded the concept of shepherding beyond reindeer to sheep in New Zealand and are hoping to bring that concept to American agriculture.
They are currently retooling their parameters to directly interface with active military drones as a way to support national security priorities when the time comes.
They have garnered enthusiastic support from emergency responders, such as American police forces and firefighters. Tundra Drone payloads are now being used by law enforcement and firefighters in the U.S. to help with search and rescue, suspect tracking, and critical missions in the dark. That growth is projected to enable future support to the U.S. DoD.
With its ultimate goal to become a regular resource for Pentagon drone payloads, Tundra Drone now has a realistic path forward: continuing to build commercial relationships in the U.S., and growing networks among the DoD.
Eight companies are kicking off the next cohort of Hacking 4 Allies this week in Oslo, where the teams will meet one another and engage with various leaders of the program.
• Maritime Robotics: Specializes in unmanned vehicle systems for sea, land, and air operations.
• Henriksen AS: Provides influence sweep solutions for mine countermeasures.
• USEA Ocean Data: Offers technology solutions for underwater data collection.
• Watch Bird: A low-level face protection against respiratory hazard exposure.
• Kongsberg Ferrotech AS: Provides robotic solutions for subsea asset inspection and repair.
• North Sea Electronics: Specializes in high-temperature and rugged electronics for harsh environments.
• Levato: Provides simulators for tactical decision-making and leadership training.
• Pistachio: Offers social engineered attack simulations for cybersecurity training.
From September to April, the companies will conduct product validation and discover pathways to deployment of their innovation to the U.S. The goal of the cohort is to assist companies to achieve a product or mission fit in American commercial or defense sectors, effectively navigate government customers, access investor networks and adapt business models for the U.S. market. Ultimately, Hacking 4 Allies exists to increase partnerships to solve shared challenges while supporting innovation and entrepreneurship in allied countries. Learn more here.
Opportunity to help shape the next-generation of problem-solvers, contribute to meaningful solutions for the nation
A look at how the DoD is enabling dual-use startups