The iPhone of Drones Is Being Built by This Teenager
His drone, he believes, will be revolutionary. It will come equipped with artificial intelligence so it can recognize faces and objects and pick them out in a crowd; it will help police departments find lost children, ranchers monitor their herds, cities inspect buildings. If all goes according to plan, it will do for drones what the iPhone did for phones. It will make them useful, helpful. It will change the way we live. And it will be very, very fast.
Yet, until a year ago, whenever its creator, George Matus, went to see a venture capitalist to ask for money to bring it to market, his father had to drive him. That’s because Matus didn’t have a driver’s license. He wore braces, lived at home and was still in high school. Unique were the challenges facing young George Matus. That was then. On a morning this past June, he sits behind the wheel of a Mercedes SUV, navigating traffic in the leafy suburbs of Salt Lake City, where he lives. He is 19, rail-thin, quick to laugh and unfailingly polite and optimistic, as he describes his vision for his drone. At a red light, he hits the brakes just a tad too hard and the SUV lurches to a halt. He smiles sheepishly, as if to say, Oops; still getting the hang of this.
That isn’t the only thing he’s getting the hang of. Matus is the founder and CEO of his own drone company, Teal, which has raised $2.8 million in seed money and attracted the support of some of the biggest venture capitalists in the tech world. He’s looking to raise another $15 to $20 million next year. He’s managing a staff of people decades older than he is. He is also under pressure. A lot of pressure. Which is why it’s good that we’re headed to a park to play with his company’s first product, the Teal Sport.
“This is how I relax,” he says.
The Sport is just the initial step toward realizing Matus’ vision for what a drone can do; still, it represents a technological leap forward. Retailing from $499 to $799, it is the fastest production drone on the market, topping off at 80 mph and it can respond to voice commands through Siri. When it debuted in June, it sold out almost immediately.
Matus parks his SUV, gets out and walks over to a strip of sidewalk abutting a large park. He straps on a pair of futuristic goggles equipped with something called FPV, for “first-person view,” which allows him to fly the drone as if he’s sitting in the cockpit. He then unsnaps a carrying case about the size of a suitcase and removes the drone, which is small enough to fit in the palm of his hand.
“Meet Teal,” he says.
With that, Matus hits a button on a handheld remote control and the drone shoots up hundreds of feet into the overcast sky, with the whoosh of a little rocket. As the craft traces loops in the air, a serene smile spreads across his face.
“I’ve always loved the feeling of flight, to be untethered, to feel limitless,” he says. As he flies, he reflects on the chaos of building a company over the past few years, what the experience taught him about who he is. He pauses for a moment and watches his drone soaring above him. “Unflappable,” he says, finally. “Maybe that’s how I’d describe myself.”
When Matus was a kid -- really a kid -- he dreamed of flying.
His parents met on a plane from Prague to New York. His mom was a flight attendant; his dad, a recent business school graduate. After they married and had George, they flew to Slovakia each summer to visit George’s maternal grandparents. Because his mother worked for the airline, Matus was often granted access to the cockpit, where he’d pepper the pilots with questions.
Matus had another passion: making money. When he was little, following the lead of countless other entrepreneurs, he started a lemonade stand. It went well, but he foresaw a problem. Lemonade was seasonal. That made him wonder what drink he could sell in the winter. Seeing an opportunity that no one else was exploiting, Matus started a hot chocolate stand.
One day, a customer told Matus he wanted to buy out all his inventory for $60. Matus agreed. He loaded his stand into the back of the customer’s pickup, and they drove to the man’s office and served what was left of the hot chocolate to all his employees. Luckily, the buyer turned out to be a friend of his father’s, but Matus didn’t know that at the time, and his parents were alarmed that their 10-year-old would go somewhere with a stranger. They grounded him for two months.
When Matus was 10, his family moved from San Diego to a suburb of Salt Lake City. Their home sat next to a large park, and Matus, still obsessed with flying, persuaded his parents to let him save up for a remote-controlled airplane. He got it, and gave it to his dad to try. His dad crashed it. Matus cried, saved up to buy spare parts and fixed it. Something sparked. He started tinkering with other planes and helicopters. Before long, Matus was making them do things they weren’t designed to do. He made a video of one helicopter he’d modified to fly upside down and posted it on YouTube. The helicopter manufacturer both asked him to take it down and offered him a job as a test pilot. Matus accepted, and every week or so, the company sent him new prototypes to test.
Matus got in deeper. He turned his bedroom into a lab and eventually migrated to the basement, commandeering a Ping-Pong table. He built a helicopter that could fly for two hours and a drone that could go more than 100 miles per hour. At the age of 14, he won a world-champion drone race against engineers from Germany, Japan and Russia. “I was totally obsessed,” Matus recalls. “Like, every two minutes, I’d be thinking about drones, from the second I got up.” His father, George Matus, Sr. recalls, “He’d be down in the basement soldering until 2 a.m. We saw smoke coming up the stairs; there were funny smells. We’d hear the drill going. It was like Tony Stark from Iron Man, down in the basement, tinkering away.”
At 16, Matus started going to hackathons, where coders and software engineers gather to compete, building new products and apps. Matus won a few of them. At one, set at Stanford, he spoke about the limitless potential he saw for drones -- how they can go way beyond just taking photos and video. Matus wanted to explode people’s narrow perceptions of drones. That caught the attention of PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, whose foundation pays young people to forgo college and pursue “radical innovation that will benefit society.” Thiel gave Matus $100,000 to launch a company of his own. Matus named the company Teal, partly for the teal duck, one of the fastest birds on Earth. He envisioned a drone that would be faster, easy to adapt and upgrade and outfitted with a supercomputer that would eventually be equipped with artificial intelligence to give it a boundless range of capabilities. As Matus worked on his design, the headmaster of the private school he was attending put him in touch with an investor named Mark Harris, who was on the school’s board. They met, and Harris eventually agreed to put in $150,000. Later, Matus was called in for a meeting by a Salt Lake City VC firm called Pelion, which specializes in tech startups. “This kid came in, and I had planned to say no,” says Pelion’s Ben Lambert. “I wanted to say no. But when he started talking, I forgot I was talking to a 17-year-old. We realized his vision was much bigger than what drones were.”
Pelion offered Matus a term sheet a few days before his 18th birthday. It would put in a hefty chunk of what ended up being a $2.8 million round if Matus could raise the rest within a couple months. With his father’s help and intros from Pelion and people at the Thiel Fellowship, Matus met with more VCs in Salt Lake City and started cold-calling VC firms in Silicon Valley. “A lot of people were skeptical at first,” he says. “They’d see my dad driving me there, waiting for me in the parking lot. I’ve got braces and I’m asking for millions of dollars.”
It wasn’t easy -- at one point the deal nearly fell apart -- but Matus eventually cobbled together the financing to trigger the $1 million investment from Pelion. Because of Matus’ age and inexperience, Pelion put in what he refers to as “a few checks and balances.” He had to work out of Pelion’s offices, couldn’t spend more than $25,000 without the board’s approval. What's more, the hectic fundraising push strained friendships and burned some bridges, Matus admits, without getting into details. “Last year there were lots of ups and downs,” he says. “One day everything is fantastic, and the next day you’re gonna fail. But I don’t think it took away my optimism.”
When I meet Matus again, it’s another warm June morning in Murray, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City. He still lives at home, but he no longer has to work out of Pelion. He’s seated in his corner office behind a table full of drone prototypes, dressed, as usual, in a T-shirt and shorts. Like Matus, the space is quirky, humble and unassuming. He’s decorated the doors with the symbol of the latest Star Wars movie, Rogue One and throughout the office, there are Star Wars memorabilia and toys in random spots -- an X-wing fighter in a drawer stuffed with small plastic propellers, a BB-8 still in its case beside a box of drones ready to ship.
Today, Teal has 20 employees, including a former test pilot from Australia who cold-called Matus from Silicon Valley to see if he could join the startup. Matus oversees all areas of the company, but he’s also learned to delegate more and more to his employees, including on the tech side. “Starting off I had no experience, or little experience, with building anything or working on the business side of things, and I was almost 100 percent focused on product,” he says, “so it’s obviously been a learning curve the past couple of years.”
Matus says it’s also been an adjustment leading a team of staffers a decade or two older than he is. “It’s, uh, interesting,” he says as he roots through a drawer stuffed with drone parts. Choosing his words carefully, he looks up and smiles. “People can be difficult.” He says he’s learned to take advice from people with more experience, to step back and defer when necessary, even as founder and CEO. “For being as smart as he is,” says Lambert, “he’s one of the most humble people I know. He doesn’t think he knows everything. He’s like a sponge.”
Matus says he’s been surprised by how much he’s enjoyed the business side of running a company -- meeting with investors, haggling over prices with suppliers and negotiating with distributors. But he really lights up when he starts talking about his drone. “The core is still the flying aspect and the joy of flight, which is still the root of it,” he says. “It still feels like a hobby.”
If all goes according to plan, later this year, the company will release a drone that will bring Matus closer than ever to realizing his vision. He’s calling it “the flagship.” It will cost $1,299. Like the Teal Sport, the flagship will be geared toward consumers “as a platform for learning how to fly, gaming, racing, companionship, education, taking photos and videos,” Matus says. But that’s just the start. The unit will also be equipped with a software development kit that will enable anyone to develop apps for it, and a powerful computer that will allow autonomous flight and deep learning. The goal is to give it the ability to recognize images and voices, meaning that if you’re a parent and you tell it to go check on the kids at the park, it will be able to go find them and transmit video back to you. Teal will also offer an upgrade that will allow the drone to avoid obstacles such as trees and buildings of its own accord (sparing it from the fate that befell Matus’ first remote-controlled plane).
In the future, the company plans to build out more commercial applications and partner with companies and municipalities that can use the drone for supervising building projects, search-and-rescue operations, even emergency services. (This isn’t as far-fetched as it may seem. In a recent test, Swedish researchers deployed drones equipped with defibrillators from fire stations and found they arrived, on average, 17 minutes faster than ambulances.)
Naturally, the specter of an extremely fast flying machine that can spot a face in a crowd and follow around its owner has raised safety and privacy concerns. Those have led to proposed legislation that would give the federal government power to track, hack and destroy any drone.
But Matus isn’t worried about looming regulation. If anything, he thinks it will help restrict drones in a positive way, to normalize them and make them less recreational and more useful, more helpful. “Drones will be as ubiquitous as smartphones,” he says with a giddy grin. Whatever happens next for Teal -- an IPO, an acquisition, a bust, whatever -- that spirit of inquiry, exploration and optimism will guide George Matus.
“For me it’s more about the ability to be able to stay on the bleeding edge of something. Elon Musk says he just likes to think about the future and not be sad. That’s the way I like to approach it, too. We’ve got the chance to make a slightly better future. That’s what keeps me motivated.”