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2 NIU seniors are finalists in NASA competition

Professor Brianno Coller (left) with engineering students Kyle Bodie and David Frey. | Provided photo

Two Chicago-area college students have reached the final stage of NASA’s Space Race Startup Challenge, a contest aimed at encouraging startups to use federally funded technologies.

Kyle Bodie and David Frey, mechanical engineering students at Northern Illinois University, are members of a team competing for $1.2 million in seed money.

The team’s proposed company, Maverick Drone, would offer a program called “Mission Improbable,” which is designed to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics learning for students from fifth grade to high school seniors.

Mission Improbable consists of a series of team competitions that students complete using drone technology. Missions will include search and rescue, environmental research and games of strategy.

Students will use science and math to create programs for each drone. Bodie and Frey hope to create the first modular “drone on demand” platform. Programming will be done through plug-and-play sensors, which students will choose based on their goals for each mission.

The Space Race was heavily focused on the business aspect of forming a startup company. During the competition, the team developed a business plan, conducted market research and presented their ideas to a panel of judges through live-streamed web conferences.

Kyle Bodie (left) and David Frey. | Provided photo
Kyle Bodie (left) and David Frey. | Provided photo

Bodie, of Warrenville, and Frey, of Wheaton, first heard of the Space Race from Chris Sorensen, whom they met through NIU professor Brianno Coller. Sorensen and Coller work with Maker Research Labs, a STEM education startup funded by the National Science Foundation. Bodie and Frey began working with Maker Research this year to help with STEM projects on aviation technology.

Working with drone technology seemed like a logical next step for the team when they began to brainstorm for the competition.

“Drones have been a hot topic lately,” Frey said. “So it was in the back of our minds while we were working at Maker.”

Bodie and Frey were not the only members of the team. Sorensen played a large role and Rafael Garcia, an MBA student at the University of Texas at El Paso, also joined the challenge.

The Center for Advancing Innovation announced 15 winners and finalists of the Space Race Startup Challenge on Nov 1. Maverick Drones was among them as a finalist. Winners received a $2,500 cash prize. Maverick Drones and the other finalists will compete for up to $1.2 million in seed funding for their new companies.

“The tech community in Chicago is on the rise and we are happy to be a part of it,” Sorensen said.

The team has gained recognition from many sources for their participation in the Space Race. Gov. Bruce Rauner tweeted about the victory, wishing the team “good luck” in Phase 3.

“We put in a lot of work, so I guess I am not surprised about how far we came,” Frey said. “It is a bit surreal and nerve-wracking now that we have the attention.”