H3 Dynamics has something special. First because they’ve been lining-up awards recently, second because they’re about to close their Series B funding of US$16M, and third because they have a masterplan that goes way beyond drones! A great conversation with Taras Wankewycz, Founder and CEO, talking about fuel cells, drones, China, Trump and Kanye West 😎!
So what is H3 Dynamics?
H3 Dynamics digitizes and automates the condition monitoring of our physical world using a combination of field robotics for data acquisition, and AI on cloud for data processing and reporting. The intent is to supply end-users with a hassle-free fully automated remote maintenance and monitoring as a service.
We see H3 Dynamics bringing together the world’s commercial drone services industry into a single distribution and deployment platform on cloud. We don’t build drones, and ultimately we don’t build the application software either – but we are building is an open platform and the first applications to set a standard for we believe the market wants.
Our starting point focused on smart cities and real estate. What we did is really very simple: we digitized the inspection workflow for high-rise buildings and sell status reports using a process that is safer, better, faster, cheaper and more precise than ever before. We also developed software that automates drone flights making it possible for non-expert pilots to operate challenging data acquisition missions.
Moving further, we are now starting to connect our inspection report software to our DBX automated drone charging station which is designed to deploy data acquisition drones, this time with no pilots at all, in faraway, remote areas of the world. Use cases range from solar farms to hydro-power dams, and various types of oil & gas infrastructure. It is also applied to new security use cases such as strategic site protection and even as a counter drone solution.
Our client base is ultimately global and we currently have strong links with Australia, Latin America, Middle East, and with Japan. Four H3 Dynamics shareholders and two board members are Japanese. Japan is struggling with ageing population, high labour costs, lots of infrastructure and earthquakes on a regular basis. They need to monitor the structure of everything regularly, so there is a natural fit for us to expand into this market.
We have found a lot of traction for our business and our first products and services are now available. We are currently raising funds to accelerate revenue and we should close our series B round of US$16M by September.
Where did the idea come from?
The idea is the result of a long evolution that faced a new and unusual situation. In fact we started out as a lab developing advanced hydrogen-electric energy storage systems for military-grade unmanned aerial vehicles as a subsidiary of another company and we were looking to expand into civilian markets.
Our first civilian encounter was with a major oil company. They came to meet with us as they were looking for a way to accelerate the inspection of their 200.000km of trans-continental pipelines. Their goal was to scan 10x longer segments per flight using our technologies compared with their current batteries. Although our hydrogen battery solution did help their operations go faster, the whole process still took over 18 months. It was basically bogged down as a result of servicing such small aircraft at every landing in very remote regions of the world.
We knew something was wrong with the idea, yet clients were pumping money into this anyway because they had nothing better. We thought about the pipeline asset operator waiting 18 months in a control room, and wondered “what if we could supply this information within just one day – not 18 months”
This is where we envisioned a network of autonomous drone stations, powered independently and placed alongside the pipeline, servicing drones able to take off and land vertically. This reduced the 18 month data collection time frame to 20-30 minutes. This led to the start of our DBX business. But then came two new problems: how to communicate all of the collected data – and how to process all of it quickly to report the identified problems to the operator within one day. That’s how we came up with what is now our third business line – H3 Zoom, which has since built a powerful A.I. machine learning core capable of processing huge amounts of data, making use of the power of cloud computing.
So to create H3 Dynamics and with the help of investors, I ended up purchasing the specialist hydrogen lab from the original company I had started and formed two additional tech teams, side by side under one roof. The end-goal was to integrate grid-independent tele-robotics, drone automation and autonomous data processing on cloud. Once this three-pronged set up was in motion, many other use cases appeared, turning H3 Dynamics into a global and multi-industry solution platform.
What’s your background and how did you come to Singapore?
It’s a long story!
I have been in Asia for 15 years. At 29 years old I was working in Holland as a corporate VC in the Chemical Industry. It was the end of my 20s, and I felt it was time to make a carreer choice as I was entering my 30s and my long term commitment to the corporate world was wavering. I remember at the time living in an apartment with a bed as my only furniture – I needed to be ready to jump into fast-moving windows of opportunity at a moment’s notice…
My first attempt was something super complicated and a complete disaster. I was dealing with Russian scientists who had a revolutionary manufacturing solution for a high-end material which I was getting ready to mass-produce in China. The scientists didn’t go ahead with an agreed tech transfer after months of waiting and preparation – leaving me completely broke. During that time I was in touch with a former CVC colleague of mine, Chinese, who ventured into another idea. We had agreed before that whoever failed first would join the other, so we were both effectively already managing our own risk. I failed first – and so I joined him!
I moved to my co-founder’s house and we started a company to work on an ambitious plan to create the world’s first profitable hydrogen fuel cell company – an area I also followed very closely during my time as a CVC. We licensed technology and began our journey to create a low cost fuel cell. In parallel, we had discovered a new idea for hydrogen generation using a small vapor activated chemicals pouch. It was able to run a single tiny fuel cell for days and we thought this could be the next battery for portable electronics. We went to pitch a major fund in Hong Kong and wanted to somehow demonstrate the technology. We found a toy car laying around the lab, gutted it out, and replaced its electronics with our small micro-fuel cell to run the electric motor. In the investor board room, we had the wheels turning upside down during our entire presentation – to show the technology worked. And as per usual – we didn’t get the funding! But by staring at those wheels in motion, we had a major revelation. “What if we just turned that thing into a product right now” – “What if we started selling a miniature hydrogen car, to future hydrogen car drivers: i.e. 8-12 year old kids!”
And it worked: 6 months later the product was out and lucky for us – was named “Best invention of the year” by Time Magazine. The phones started ringing and we ended up selling 3 million tiny fuel cells as a result, making us one of the most commercially successful fuel cell companies in the world while our competition was pumping vast amount of money into more research. We then created many derivative science education kits as a discovery product for schools – which are the market leader up to this day. Funnily enough, these products are still selling and this same company has evolved to making real-scale fuel cell systems for Chinese-made electric trucks, buses, and other commercial vehicles.
During the evolution from toy cars to real cars, we entered a number of intermediate markets, namely aerospace, specifically – electric powered flight. Our aviation journey began with a first unmanned fixed wing aircraft flight in 2006 led by a NASA-backed university team in California, and was followed by a new world record set for flight endurance in 2007. A few months later, we powered a blended wing drone that flew in the Swiss Alps, in a prototype called HYFISH. 2 weeks after the video was uploaded, we had the visit of a world leading aviation company, ready to enter a contract with us as long as we set up shop outside of China.
I moved from Shanghai to Singapore in early 2011 to take over the lab’s management – and I ended up never coming back. I fell in love with unmanned aircraft and aviation. Our technological edge was such that we were working with the most innovative people in this industry – it was a real privilege and it was super exciting to see things fly, and to set new records.
Thinking Big but Starting Small: using drone technology as it relates to a valuable new data economy is basically the starting point of a much broader story, since all the technologies we have been developing could be re-used in larger platforms, including for the delivery of parcels, and the aerial transport of people. And so the evolutionary roadmap continues.
Last year we had discussion with a global specialty gases producer on enabling long-range electric flight in the future. We recommended to apply our approach, which is to “think big” i.e. planes, but “start small” with drones – but the large company just couldn’t understand the logic. To them drones were too small and wouldn’t generate enough revenue , so they didn’t see the value of what we were building.
Since this was only my 20th meeting with this group over the years with no outcome, I couldn’t help to feel rather frustrated on my way back in Singapore. However, I remember one of my team members planted this idea on me. He said “Never mind Taras” – “What if we built our own hydrogen-powered passenger plane!”. At first I thought he was crazy, but the idea grew on me and 6 months later, after some unique design work and global patents filed on ground-breaking ideas, we announced a passenger aircraft called “Element One Aviation”. The concept is not science fiction: it could be built today and fly people on a zero carbon fuel for longer distances than batteries.
We wanted to see a market reaction so we launched it publicly at the heart of French aerospace, in Toulouse – which led to a significant global press coverage and generated lots of traction. Funnily enough, it was so big, that Kanye West – who was invited to the Oval Office to a press event with President Donald Trump (yes indeed) suggested publicly to Donald Trump that he should drop Air Force One and switch to a new hydrogen powered plane.
How do you think Asia is different from other regions?
It’s radically different, especially China. I spent 8 years in China between 2003 and 2011 and trust me it was hard! China is an amazing country but it’s very tough being an entrepreneur there, especially when coming from a much more cozy (and frankly naïve) western experience. This is where I built my rock solid resilience. If you can survive China, you can survive anywhere.
In Singapore the pressure is high to succeed. It’s tough to pay the bills and there isn’t much time nor room for mistakes. Singapore is definitely a place to build global references and turn it into a platform for new solution development. Although it’s not yet a major reference in terms of global scale home-grown companies –H3 Dynamics certainly has a chance at contributing to its reputation as a global hub for Innovation.
What do think it takes to be an entrepreneur?
- Think very big and start very small
My idea has always been to think really big and deep, complex problems but start with a really simple success to build upon, then progress step by step. I’ve always built startup businesses this way and it proved successful in the long run. H3 Dynamics is no different, and changing the world means progressing towards a far-reaching roadmap.
- Be bold
When we launched our business in France in 2017 I drafted our press release applying mottos and phrases used by Emmanuel Macron during his campaign, aligning our actions with his goals. As I was boarding the plane that would take me to Vivatech, the President’s cabinet members called me to let me know I was chosen to be THE entrepreneur to have a press conference with for his first Vivatech as newly elected President! It was an incredible experience.
- Always think “platform”
Platforms are great because they give you multiple options –but it’s important to have the right starting point. Multiple options are necessary at all times especially as we are bound to pivot and adjust over the course of the journey! One must always have options and backup plans, because things never work out the way one expects.