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Saïf-Deen Akanni ’90, the founder, CEO and chief technology officer of Sentient Blue, pitches the aerospace engineering company’s proposal during the GENIUS NY finals in Syracuse earlier in April.

Alumnus’s drone tech company wins $1M state competition

An engineering alumnus and his aerospace engineering company have won the $1 million grand prize in the GENIUS NY competition.

The business accelerator award, which is sponsored by New York state and the governor’s office, aims to grow the central New York economy through investments in companies developing unmanned systems software, hardware and analytics. The program is administered by The Tech Garden technology incubator and CenterState Corporation for Economic Opportunity in Syracuse. Five finalist teams pitched their business plans to a panel of judges and a live audience in Syracuse, New York, earlier this month.

Saïf-Deen Akanni ’90 is the founder, CEO and chief technology officer of Sentient Blue, an Italian company that develops hybrid microturbine engines to increase efficiency and flight endurance in drones and other applications in the unmanned aerial systems (UAS) industry.

The GENIUS NY program offers incubator space, company resources and mentoring for award winners, who are required to operate their businesses in central New York for at least a year. Akanni said his company will be making the region their center of operations over the next few months.

“Words cannot truly capture the feelings I have right now, having returned to central New York,” Akanni said. “Suffice to say that it is like coming home, and I am very excited to be back.”

Akanni said he will be focusing on growing the company in both Syracuse and Rome, New York, where they will be locating research and development, manufacturing and testing facilities. “We have an immediate requirement for software, electrical and mechanical engineers and by this summer, we will be recruiting for machinist positions,” he said.

Akanni, who majored in mechanical engineering, said that his Cornell education was “a whirlwind experience” that prepared him well for not only further education but for “guiding the technical course of my company and setting standards of excellence.”

“When I graduated, I felt like I had accomplished something special,” Akanni said, adding: “But I didn’t appreciate just how special Cornell University was until I started doing my doctorate in fluid dynamics some years later at City University in London, England.

“One week, I was doing an intensive reference search and the names of quite a few of my old Cornell professors kept popping up in my search results – John Lumley, Albert George and Sidney Leibovich, to name a few. Cornell was repeatedly listed as the institution where a lot of relevant research was being conducted. I used to pass all of these distinguished professors in the corridors on a daily basis. That was when it hit me just how special Cornell University was and remains to this day.”

Four other competition finalists will receive $500,000 investments: EagleHawk from Buffalo, Vermeer from Brooklyn, Resilienx from Syracuse and Civdrone from Israel. New York state has now invested $15 million in the program over three rounds of the competition.

“The GENIUS NY program provides real investments and programmatic resources to support these high-potential UAS companies,” said Jon Parry, director of GENIUS NY. “These teams will now take their investments and get right back to work growing their companies and building on their success over the next eight months here in central New York. As these teams advance their technologies and platforms, they are also supporting our goal to create a global hub for UAS in our region.”

Previous GENIUS NY winners still have a presence in the region and have continued to grow. Several have secured additional follow-on investments. A Switzerland-based team, Fotokite, recently opened its U.S. headquarters in The Tech Garden, hired four new full-time employees and closed on a $3.2 million investment led by Credit Suisse.

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Lindsey Hadlock