In the beginning of April, McCormick junior Marc Gyongyosi traveled to one of the biggest conferences in the computing industry, the Graphics Processing Unit Technology Conference. The conference covers innovation from self-driving cars to robots to GPU gaming.
Unlike most students at the conference, however, Gyongyosi was not just a bystander. He went with Kellogg student Justin Saeheng to present about the company they co-founded, Intelligent Flying Machines (IFM).
The two, in short, have created small drones that can fly without any controllers. While this feat by itself has been developed in the past, nobody cracked the code in creating autonomous drones that can operate indoors until Gyongyosi and Saeheng began development.
Gyongyosi and Saeheng, the CEO and COO respectively, founded the company in the fall after researching breakthroughs in drone technology and noticing a trend in a particularly challenging part of already complicated technology. The two say they made a great match: Gyongyosi built flying things in his basement from the time he was 15 on, and Saeheng knew he wanted to be involved with innovative technology as he went into graduate school.
North by Northwestern sat down with the two founders to learn about their experience as both students and entrepreneurs. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
NBN: Why drones?
Saeheng: This kind of technology opens up an ocean of opportunities. Two markets that we’re working with right now very closely are both in construction and analytics. In regards to construction, there is need to continuously document the process not just outdoors but also indoors. This would allow for visual inspection instead of manual inspection.
Gyogyosi: What we think about drones as consumers is cool photos and footage from an entertainment perspective. Not many people, especially our age, have insight what drones actually do. We’re not just making a cool-looking video, we’re actually benefitting a business.
NBN: If I was a CS major or someone who was into robotics, would I know what you guys were doing? How big is this right now?
Gyongyosi: Indoor drones are basically one of the most challenging tasks in robotics today. A lot of people would love to be able to do it, but the number of people is very small. Even if you’re in robotics, you won’t understand the challenges unless you spend a lot of time doing research in this area. The challenging thing here is that it’s not just computer science. You have a lot of math and electronics and coding.
NBN: Tell me about the conference.
Gyongyosi: I gave the talk, but the major thing for us was that we were on the expo floor at this huge conference organized by Nvidia, which is this huge computer company. We were literally doing six hours of autonomous drone flights and that was pushing both our technology and our concentration to the absolute limit. But we did get to meet a lot of other people.
Saeheng: We were at the center of this conference and we had our own drone cage there, and a couple thousand people probably came to watch and then every time our drones started up hoards of people would try to videotape it. We ran out of product sheets in the first day so we had to print an extra couple hundred...it was a good experience.
NBN: What is it like to run a business and be a student at the same time?
Gyongyosi: I think there’s a very common misconception that entrepreneurship and being a student is kind of either/or, but really when you work on your own independent company it gives you a different perspective about when you go to class and talk to people. I still have to learn…that’s why I go to Northwestern. Because I want to learn. But it’s important to look at from that perspective; whatever you’re working on outside of class can supplement or be supplemented by what you’re doing inside of class.
Saeheng: There’s the added aspect of taking risks like bringing in our own money to try something that’s never been tried before whereas when you’re sitting in class you’re kind of in a safe environment just thinking about theory and being taught by professors. But we’re actually applying the field and were thinking “well, we don’t have the money to do this, where can we get money, should we dig in our own pockets?” Those are things that you learn as you go.
Gyongyosi: There’s even one more layer to all this and that’s that what we are doing is something that probably no professor at Northwestern could even teach.
NBN: What’d I miss?
Saeheng: It’s definitely challenging balancing school and work. One of the things that’s also difficult is the social life, and balancing those, too. The ask for us is for Northwestern to continue to be a supportive community. Don’t be shy to ask us what we’re doing and how you can help; if you know of anyone in these industries that were focusing on or even in drones, it’d be great to meet them and be more connected to each other.