George Matus graduated from high school in May, but his schedule is crazier than ever. While most of his former classmates are catching up on sleep after the marathon that is senior year, Matus is lucky if he averages six hours a night.
As the 18-year-old has learned, sleep is a luxury when you’re the founder and chief executive of an early-stage startup. In the weeks since school ended, it’s been a race to get everything ready — from building a website to ironing out a warranty policy — before the public unveiling of his company.
It’s time: Teal, which sells commercial drones, launches today. The company’s first product, a battery-operated, camera-equipped unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that reaches speeds of 70 mph, is available for pre-order (the product, which costs $1,299, will ship in early 2017). It’s an important milestone for Matus, if only one of many. In the past year or so alone, he’s raised $2.8 million in seed funding, received $100,000 from Peter Thiel’s foundation to skip college, competed in the ABC show BattleBots (in which contestants face off via fighting robots) and built a team of 15 employees and contract workers — all while juggling classes.
“It’s been a steep learning curve,” Matus says of pitching venture capitalists and managing workers who, in some cases, are decades older. Luckily, the product part is intuitive. Matus has been building and flying drones for more than a third of his life. The obsession began at age 11, when he moved with his family from San Diego to Salt Lake City (the family’s new home came with a sprawling backyard, the perfect launching pad for DIY aircraft).
After happening upon a forum on how to fix aircrafts and RC planes, the hobby quickly spiralled into a full-blown obsession.
“I fell in love,” he says.
He experimented, finding communities of fellow hobbyists online. Early on, he bought a helicopter and modified the device so it could fly upside down. Thrilled with the result, he videotaped the aircraft in action, posting the footage on YouTube. HorizonHobby, the company that made the helicopter, was less than pleased. “They told me to take it down — basically a cease and desist,” says Matus.
The order came with a job offer, however: the company wanted to hire him as a part-time test pilot. Still in middle-school, he’d scored his first drone-related job. There, he built prototypes, including “a helicopter that could fly for two hours,” and a drone that could fly over 100 miles per hour. After his homework, each evening was spent flying his creations in the mountains behind his house.
By 16, he knew the drone market well enough to recognize the gaps. “I built a wish list of everything I wanted in a drone,” he says, which included a more compact, fast and stable model. With the help of Mark Harris, a venture capitalist who happened to be on Matus’ high school board, he began raising a seed round to build it himself.
Teal is the byproduct of that. The company’s drone comes with a camera, and three built-in apps (command and control, follow-me mode and gaming).
Now that he’s done with school — as a Thiel Fellow, he won’t attend college — Matus’ day-to-day is all drone all the time. This makes him happy. Drones still give him an immense sense of comfort. When I ask him what he does to relax, his answer is immediate: Viewing the world through a drone’s point of view, via goggles that project footage from the aircraft’s camera.
When you slide them on, he explains, “it’s essentially like you’re sitting in a movie theater and the screen is right in front of you and you can see exactly what the drone see.” His voice, level until now, becomes more animated. “You can fly two miles away if you want. You can roll and flip and fly through clouds. It can be an out of body experience. You fly around yourself and you see yourself standing there — it’s like Inception.”
Based on this response, it’s easy to see why Matus believes that in the future, most people will own drones, just like most people own smartphones. Drones bring him so much joy — why wouldn’t everyone want one? And the appeal will only increase as unmanned aircrafts become smaller, more powerful and easy to use, he says. Five, 10 years from now, he predicts every soccer mom will own a drone, enabling hoards of parents to capture their kids’ progression up and down the field and monitor their homes at night. Drones will serve as personalized videographers and security guards. More generally, as Matus writes in the company’s press release, they’ll help “us do our work more easily and live our lives better.”
Demand for consumer drones is indeed growing — The Federal Aviation Administration predicts the number of units sold annually will more than double by 2020, up from 1.9 billion to 4.3 billion — but not all Americans share this mindset. The devices are already raising privacy and safety concerns, and the thought of a near-reality where New Yorkers moves through the city accompanied by their own, tiny buzzing aircraft makes me shiver. And while the rules governing consumer drone use are relatively lax — recreational drones under 55 pounds are fine as long as they’re registered, fly under 400 feet, steer clear of airports, stadiums and, somewhat vaguely, “groups of people” — it’s possible the FAA will tighten the regulations as UAVs become more widespread.
But for Matus a drone’s appeal, one he believes extends from developers, to racers, to average consumers , is too obvious for these concerns to carry much weight. His company grew out of his desire to build his dream drone; the ultimate goal, he says, is for more people to discover the beauty of flight. When I ask him to choose a high-point from the last 12 months, he doesn’t describe closing his seed round or winning the Thiel Fellowship. Instead, he recounts a quiet, overcast afternoon spent with his drone. “The clouds were super low, and I went up close to the base of the mountains and was actually flying through the clouds, down the cliffs,” he says. “It was serene. You could see the details of the clouds as I was flying through them — it was amazing.”