photo of arthur erickson
Arthur Erickson, B.S. ASE 2017, Co-Founder and CEO of Hylio

A group of Longhorns led by aerospace engineering alumnus Arthur Erickson (B.S. ASE 2017) is working to transform agricultural crop care across the globe with their “AgroDrones.” In 2015, Erickson, a co-founder and CEO of the startup company Hylio, came up with the idea, along with two other UT students (Nikhil Dixit, B.S. EE/CS and Mike Oda, B.B.A., Corporate Finance) while they were still pursuing their degrees.

Erickson took some time to talk with us about what it’s like to start a company from the ground up and how his experience as a student in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics at the Cockrell School of Engineering helped him along the way.

How did you all get the idea to start Hylio while you were still students and how did you acquire funding?

At first, it was a bootstrap, sweat equity thing between me and two other UT students at the time – Nikhil Dixit and Mike Oda. Nick Nawratil, our fourth co-founder, joined the team a little bit later, in 2017. Mike, Nikhil and I actually went to the same high school, but we did not know each other very well at the time. It wasn’t until we went to UT that we actually became friends and then business partners. Mike grew up on a ranch, so he’s got a good background in agriculture – and I spent a lot of time with him on the ranch too, so that helped us come up with the idea. We were able to utilize our resources at UT, such as prototyping at the machine shop, to help get us started. We also talked with professors to bounce ideas around and for feedback on our designs. 

hylio team photo taken from drone
Hylio team photo taken with a camera drone in Costa Rica. Nearly all members are UT graduates. From left to right: Nikhil Dixit (Hylio CTO; B.S. EE/CS; M.S. Comp. Arch.), Alex Suarez (Hylio Engineering Intern; B.S. ASE), Michael Erickson (Trinity University B.S. Engr.), Arthur Erickson (Hylio CEO; B.S. ASE) Mike Oda (Hylio CFO; B.B.A., Corporate Finance), Nick Nawratil (Hylio COO; B.S., EE/CS).
Tell us a little about Hylio and what makes the company unique.

The idea of spray drones for agricultural crops has been around for a few decades and was popularized over in Asia, but relatively speaking, it’s a very new market; we are one of the very few U.S. companies that is actually developing these drone systems in-house, right now. We design the entire system; this includes the mechanical engineering components such as the power distribution system, as well as the aerospace aspects – optimization of the flight envelope, propellers, and aerodynamics in general – and then there’s the software to control the drones. We create and then sell the this turn-key system which allows famers and service operators to use drones effectively for crop treatment. That’s what we sell at Hylio.

We had our first customers in 2017, when we were prototyping our spray drones in the field by offering services to farmers. From those experiences we learned what did and didn’t work and began working toward designing software and our entire system to accomplish the goal of covering more acreage in a shorter amount of time. We’re still constantly innovating and trying to make the technology smarter, more automated and more valuable in general to the customer.

Hylio team members with drone flying overhead
Hylio team in El Salvador with one of their AG-116 spray drones flying overhead.
What have you found most rewarding – and most challenging – about entrepreneurship?

Well, the obvious rewarding thing that I appreciate is seeing something that our team has developed from scratch come to fruition through a lot of hard work and planning. We’re solving a problem no one else has ever done in quite the same way, and that’s really satisfying. At the same time, running your own company can also be nerve-wracking. Making compromises based on how the market is responding, or because of your limited resources can be difficult. And as a trained engineer, it’s hard not to want to design a perfect system, but we have to work with what we have in front of us, which can be challenging sometimes.

How did your aerospace engineering degree help prepare you for your success?

I guess it’s probably not really common for someone to take exactly what they learned in their senior design class and apply it to their business right out of college, but that’s practically what Nick and I did. We use a lot of the same technology that we studied in Senior Aircraft Design in our own business today. For example, we worked with radio telemetry devices in our senior design class that are very similar to the telemetry devices we use in our systems today.

What advice would you give current students who might be interested in pursuing a startup in the aerospace industry?

Well, I was very fortunate to have such good co-founders – I think that’s something that isn’t always that easy to find at first. I think knowing them from high school helped too, and then working with them in college helped create a unifying thread when we started our business. I’d say don’t be afraid to try something new, especially when you’re in college, because you will probably have much more free time than you think. Don’t neglect the opportunity for hands-on experiences. If you can find time to get your hands dirty – try at something and fail – I think you learn a lot from that. In this business, we fail at something nearly every day, but we also overcome our failures, and I think that’s the best kind of learning.