Industry: Electronics & Aerospace
Products: Counter unmanned aerial systems, helmet-mounted displays, thermal cameras
CEO Kenneth Geyer is finding big growth with the technology to fight the drone wars.
After Geyer and Liteye co-founder and CTO Tom Scott sold a previous VR company in the late 1990s, they launched a new company to make head-mounted displays largely for military and defense. "We wanted to keep that core technology and build a company around it," says Geyer. "That became Liteye."
The market has stayed the same in the years since, but a lot has changed. "Military/government is probably 90 percent of our business," says Geyer. The catalog grew to include surveillance radar and thermal cameras.
The reliance on a single market led to some lean times. "Sequestration years were tough," says Geyer. "We basically went into slumbertime. . . . We're only one of two hardcore head-mounted display companies left. They either went to VR or went out of business."
The changing nature of the 21st century airspace led to a new market for Liteye based on an emerging military need. "There was a drone problem," says Geyer. "[Drones] watch our troops. They drop bombs. $100, $1,000 drones were very effective."
And that totally changed the nature of air defense, he adds. "We always controlled the air. All of a sudden, we didn't." The military "needed a solution."
In June 2016, Liteye was part of a 30-day U.S. Army test to find a system to thwart enemy UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones) in the desert near Yuma, Arizona. "At the end of that, we were the last guys standing and we won the contract," says Geyer. "We could detect, identify, track, and defeat UAVs."
The Army placed its first order for Liteye's Counter Unmanned Aerial System (Counter UAS) in September and 1,000 drones were dropped over Iraq in October. "Our system is a complete, comprehensive system," says Geyer. "There were people with pieces. Nobody had a complete system."
The system detects drones up to 10 kilometers away with Doppler radar, tracks them with cameras and software, and disrupts them with a directional radio frequency inhibitor.
The cameras and other components are made by Liteye in Centennial, which is also the site of final assembly. Fort Collins-based Numerica developed the system's software and Liteye also works with Pratt & Miller of Michigan and other providers.
The product is constantly evolving. "The system's already matured," adds Geyer, calling the UAV wars "a chess game."
Other markets include airports and big industrial facilities and critical infrastructure, as drones become tools of crime and warfare. "Unfortunately, we're going to see a lot more of that around the world," he says.
Another market: security against corporate espionage. "You've got drones flying up to an R&D center, trying to hack into the network and steal IP."
Counter UAS costs "sub-$1 million to $3.5 million," says Geyer. "There's a lot of flexibility. It's not just open the box and here's your gadget."
Liteye's 24,000-square-foot facility in Centennial features CNC machines, rapid prototyping capabilities, and clean hoods. The company works with contract manufacturers for displays, optics, and other specialized components.
To date, Liteye has signed five contracts to provide its Counter UAS solutions to the military. "At the end of this year, we will have delivered over $37 million worth of contracts to the DoD," says Geyer. "This was a significant jump."
Challenges: "Finding qualified employees," says Geyer, citing openings for engineers and other technical positions.
"The political game” is another challenge. "We've got big companies in this sector and they've got a lot op political pull," says Geyer. His strategy is to partner with such companies as Northrop Grumman, Boeing, and Raytheon.
Opportunities: "Military is going to be huge. It will continue to outdistance everything else," says Geyer.
He sees security for critical infrastructure, including dams and reservoirs, as a potential sales driver. Prisons could emerge as another user of Counter UAS. "We're an expensive option right now for prisons se we're working one a lower-cost, lower-capability system for that market," says Geyer.
Beyond the counter UAV space, orders for thermal cameras and helmet-mounted displays have increased. "Legacy products came back to life," says Geyer.
Needs: "We're hiring," says Geyer. He expects to add about 10 employees by the end of 2018.
Liteye is also looking at mergers and acquisitions to consolidate the supply chain. "We're in the process of doing some acquisitions . . . bringing some technology in-house," says Geyer. "Part of that is capital partners coming in."
He adds, "We need more room." Geyer says he'd like to at least double Liteye's square footage. Colorado is his first choice, but he won't rule out the right incentive package from somewhere else. "A lot of states are trying to lure us away. We're talking to Nevada."