From engineer to entrepreneur

Lei Shi walks out into a field in rural Kansas, not to look at the crops, but to survey the skies — the test site for his new drone technology.

Shi, an electrical engineering doctoral student, is developing a miniature radar system that will help small, unmanned aerial vehicles — UAVs — sense what’s around them and avoid collisions.

His timing couldn’t be better. Although 30,000 drones are expected to take off by 2020, the Federal Aviation Administration is limiting commercial drone permits until collision-avoidance technology improves.

Seeing this rising need and a ripe market, Shi went public with his sense-and-avoid radar in 2014. He had been researching radar technology as a KU graduate assistant since 2010, when many still considered drones the stuff of science fiction.

From there, he became a KU doctoral engineering student, earning a prestigious Self Graduate Fellowship, an enrichment program for talented doctoral candidates. The Self program, which had a $39 million infusion of funds in 2014 from the Self estate, introduced Shi to the possibilities of commercializing his drone technology.

He launched a startup, UAVradars LLC, with the help of KU Catalyst student business incubator program, and received a NASA Small Business Innovation Research Grant through KU’s SBIR Assistance Program. His business now occupies space in the Bioscience & Technology Business Center in KU’s West District.

The work is far from over. With the funding he received, he continues to refine — and shrink — his collision avoidance radar. It’s now hand-sized but ultimately will be much smaller.

He’s also continuing his crash course in commercialization, taking advantage of programs like 1 Million Cups, where early-stage startups present business plans to local mentors and receive feedback that can help their business take off.

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