The company’s CEO is Mark Stephens, whose path to the head of the company was unusual, to say the least. He met the three NMC co-founders when he was a 65-year-old taking classes in the drone program at the school, and they were the student instructors teaching his classes.
In 1980, he founded a plastic injection-molding company in Ironwood in the Upper Peninsula called Ironwood Plastics Inc. By 2010, when he sold it, it had 300 employees in Michigan and Wisconsin. He remained with the company for more than three years, then moved to Traverse City.
He didn’t move to Traverse City to retire. He knew he would be active in business, he just wasn’t sure how.
“I didn’t know a single person, so I started networking,” he said. “Four people told me someone needed to start a drone company because there was a great drone program at the college, but that kids go through the program then leave.”
So, in 2015, Stephens, a mechanical engineer, enrolled in the school to check the program out. That year, Interactive’s founders got the idea to develop a drone for internal inspections. “All the hype was doing outdoor drones. We thought, ‘Why not make a drone that can go inside things?'” said Smith.
After the company was founded, Stephens followed its progress. In 2019, he became its lead investor and CEO, helping raise an investment round of $700,000.
Smith said the company doubled revenue each of the two years before COVID-19 and would have doubled last year too if not for the pandemic. He said the company will double revenue this year and will become profitable by the end of the year. Stephens said revenue projection for this year of more than $700,000 should easily be bypassed and he expects the company will be able to fund growth out of cash flow and not need more equity funding.
The company has 11 employees, now, up from four in 2019, and has four distributors globally in about a dozen countries, including China, Canada and Indonesia. Smith said the company only uses U.S.-made materials, such as carbon fiber components and circuit boards, for its drones and the Zenith. It does 3D printing on premises and uses Grand Traverse Tool to machine parts it can’t make itself, as does Hybrid Robotics.
“I come from a family business, so I know all the problems you can have with too many partners. Generally I don’t like to invest in companies with too many shareholders. Bad things can happen,” Stephens said. “But I’m glad I got involved.”
Brad Owens is president of Alternative Marine LLC, which operates unmanned underwater robots and does interior inspections of cargo holds and ballast holds for Great Lakes ships and underwater inspection of such things as propellers and shaft.
Though he is licensed to operate drones, he didn’t trust himself to operate them in enclosed areas, so he began hiring Interactive Aerial.
Impressed by the Zenith system, he says he will be using it next winter when the busy inspection season begins.
“I really enjoy working with these guys, and this takes it to a whole new level,” he said.