Startup Spotlight: AURA Technologies approach to innovation built around artificial intelligence

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At the outset of the global coronavirus pandemic, the co-founders of AURA Technologies, LLC, CEO Douglas Bennett and President Anna Bennett, decided to gather their employees together for a brainstorming session on how the company could leverage its resources to assist in responding to the rapidly evolving world health crisis occurring due to COVID-19.

“We decided that we have super smart people, we brought our heads together, with the goal of answering how we could help,” said Anna Bennett.  “We assembled our whole team together, held a brainstorming session, sifted through the ideas, and came out with a few that we thought would really help.”

The company doesn’t specialize in global health.  But the company does possess the expertise, background, and understanding of how to tackle large problems through innovative applications of technology, said Anna Bennett.

That includes the company’s work in advancing artificial intelligence technologies, which recently resulted in the awarding of a $50 million contract with the US Army Research Office, and will allow the company to expand its research and development efforts into a number of critical focus areas such as advanced manufacturing and predictive maintenance.

The groundwork for landing such a contract was laid a long time ago, said Douglas Bennett, as the company was founded to advance technologies that are areas of particular focus for the United States Government through the SBIR program.

As the SBIR program is designed to spur and foster innovation within small businesses, said Douglas Bennett, AURA was founded to spread an innovation ecosystem by building a team of experts in core topic areas.

Mr. Bennett began his career working for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), assigned to the advanced research and development division of the National Reconnaissance Office, then worked as the study director for the National Academy of Science’s Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board where he crafted public policy for U.S. federal and state governments and led a committee focused on Mars exploration.

“I started in the real world version of the James Bond “Q Lab” – which was essentially rapid prototyping for field operations,” said Mr. Bennett.  “I then moved over to the advanced R&D group within the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).”

Mr. Bennett has also consulted for NASA, DARPA, the US Air Force Laboratory, and the US Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center, and has started two prior firms where he’s also served as CEO. He launched AURA Technologies in 2015 with his partner—co-founder in business, and also in marriage—Anna, who he describes as being integral to the launch of the company.

After more than a decade advancing her career in the biopharmaceutical industry, including serving as the head of global content development at IQVIA where she rebuilt a 200-person global department, Anna Bennett joined her husband to found AURA with the intention of focusing on the commercial, product development, and core operations of the company, which includes focusing on the company’s growth strategy.  Mrs. Bennett, who holds a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt, began building AURA around establishing a foundation that included systems for growth, allowing a very sophisticated process through an established system to become highly efficient and effective.

As a result, AURA was named an INC. 5000 list of the fastest-growing private companies, coming in at No. 125, after reporting 2,933% growth in revenues over a three-year period.

The company strategy is simple: it leverages SBIR funding to research key topics during a Phase I period, then works to convert that Phase I research into Phase II and commercial products and services.  The purpose is to ensure that through AURA’s research, the U.S. government is as competitive as possible in the worldwide market, and according to both Mr. and Mrs. Bennett, that’s the purpose that drives them to build a successful company.  For military applications, it’s critical that the technology the company develops is aimed at making sure the U.S. military is competitive, said Mrs. Bennett.

“We’ve been very good at converting Phase I into Phase II with even larger dollar amounts via enhancement and Phase III funding,” said Mrs. Bennett.  “Then there’s Phase III, which is commercialization, whether that is within DoD or the private sector.”

The commercialization of its technology is the next phase, said Mrs. Bennett, and the company is already beginning that work, including deploying its technology in the field and shifting a significant amount of its work into the private sector.

“The groundwork is a years-long process, there’s lots and lots of project work within the overarching program that we’re pursuing,” said Douglas Bennett.  From the company’s standpoint, landing individual awards that can be connected, and built upon, across different technical areas, that is promising for advancing innovation.

One such technology is the company’s predictive maintenance solution that is designed to decrease overall maintenance costs and reduce the need for spare parts, called AssuranceAI, which uses a supervised machine learning approach to predict supply chain disruptions, identify root causes, and recommend mitigation strategies. According to the company, the solution supports a wide range of equipment across industries, including industrial power plants, naval vessels, and aircraft.

The company also developed an artificial intelligence solution for application by the U.S. Air Force and Army, known as SmartThread. The digital product, with its digital thread, AI-based intelligent search, allows users in many different locations to print parts on demand with additive manufacturing and 3D printing. According to the company, this ability does not currently exist at scale in the DoD and would radically change logistics for defense.

“AURA’s new work in emerging Quantum Computing is one I am particularly excited about,” said Mr. Bennett.  “It is the next paradigm shift in computing and AI. Once Quantum Computing truly comes online, society as we know it will change dramatically.”

It will be critical for the United States to invest, even more, in research and development, particularly in the areas of artificial intelligence and quantum computing, said Mr. Bennett, including through the support of small and growing businesses that can innovate in these areas and develop leading technology products and solutions.

Technology will continue to change industries, said Mrs. Bennett.  But technology can, and will, help address many of society’s most pressing challenges, including the environmental challenges we are currently experiencing.

“It’s just a matter of time before a technology (or technologies) are developed that will positively impact global climate change,” said Mrs. Bennett.  “Douglas and I are both passionate about the environment and hope to be a part of the solution, even if in a small way.”

And the company is developing technologies across industries, too, leveraging its capability to research applications of technology in new and innovative ways.

“We have another one of these contracts in advanced manufacturing, for example,” said Mr. Bennett.  “We started out in a digital thread environment, started working in deployed environments for additive manufacturing.”

“When you start to bring those all together, they have added value, and increased interest for funding,” he added.  “AI is one focus of our company, but it feeds into almost all aspects of our company.”

“The next stage, that we’re already starting on, is the commercialization aspect, the commercialization to the DoD, deploying the technology in the field, and also shifting the technology where applicable to the private sector, and we have some fairly interesting products that were a response to COVID, not necessarily connected as much to our DoD work, but our two most relevant projects are COVID response.”

One output of that brainstorming session in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic: a method to decontaminate N-95 masks using UV-C light. According to the company’s website, the technology has the ability to decontaminate more than 1,700 N-95 masks daily, and does so without any consumables, and could be made readily available and be affordable in even the most rural locations.

The company also developed a telepresence partner, BlueCar, which is easily disinfected and can be used in clinics or hospitals, and was designed specifically to address challenges in delivering healthcare during the COVID-19 era.  The technology was developed in collaboration with the UNC Physician network, and allows health care providers to examine patients remotely, and facilitates connections between family members from remote locations.  Critical for widespread adoption, the company developed the product to be software agnostic, meaning there is no requirement for specific software or subscription fees, and the product provides detailed and clear imaging from high-precision cameras that can zoom, tilt, or pan.

Then, there’s another concept, which is currently in prototyping.  “The basic concept that would be helpful to understand is that this product is an ionizer product, using negative air ions, which have been proven many, many times to neutralize and kill viral particles, as well as dust, smoke, and other contaminants,” said Mrs. Bennett.

“This product will have the ability to creating a secure shield around rooms, homes, or areas,” Mr. Bennett added, “not like a filter that sits on the ground, it’s a very different and big approach, and the companies that we’ve talked to have projected millions of units of sales in the first 12 months, this would be nationwide or worldwide companies that would take this on.”

“We are the innovation partner, where we are going to be coming up with some very good tech, and we’re going to look to other companies who would like to take on the commercialization,” said Mr. Bennett.