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San Diego
Tuesday, May 28, 2024
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Bringing AI To the Fight

San Diego-­based Shield AI, a software company focused on bringing AI to the national security sector, is quickly becoming one of the hottest technology startups in the region.

Founded in 2015, the company was co-founded by Brandon Tseng, a retired naval officer, based on his experiences serving in combat in Afghanistan.

After serving seven years as a Navy SEAL, Tseng approached his entrepreneurial brother Ryan about creating a company that would use AI to save the lives of service members and civilians.

In 2016, the company signed its first contract with the Defense Innovation Unit, the Pentagon’s arm for technological innovations that was established the prior year.

Today, the five-year-old company’s AI software enables unmanned systems to interpret signals and react autonomously in dynamic environments, allowing service members to see what lies ahead and make more informed decisions.

Launching AI Drone

Shield AI is best known for developing and building Nova, its first autonomous quadcopter. Their fully autonomous quadcopter drones scout combat zones overseas — even inside buildings and tunnels — to identify threats for soldiers.

The drone can self-fly both indoors and outdoors and relays maps and videos of its surroundings to a smartphone app, even in the dark or in GPS-disabled areas.

In addition, AI is used to both map environments and navigate the drone, similar to self-driving cars with the added complexity of the environment being unknown rather than structured like roadways.

Valued at $200M

The company has contracts with the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security. More impressively, the team has grown to more than 150 people strong at its Downtown San Diego headquarters over the last few years.

Shield AI is a venture capital-backed firm backed by top-tier investors including Andreessen Horowitz, Breyer Capital, Homebrew, and Silicon Valley Bank. To date, the startup has raised $50 million at a valuation close to $200 million, per PitchBook.

“We were fortunate to get the backing of Andreessen Horowitz, a top-tier venture fund. They’re certainly leaning in, in terms of their thinking about defense technology — believing that despite the history, there might be a way to find an opening to create companies that can become economically sustainable and make substantial mission impact,” said CEO Ryan Tseng in an interview with DefenseNews.

The Team

Mike Krenn, president and CEO of Connect with San Diego Venture Group said personally he has been impressed with the startup’s ability to build a solid team, adding that the local tech founder clearly stands out in the region.

“I am more familiar with the team than the tech. Ryan, is not unlike a lot of San Diego’s tech founders. Wicked smart technically, yet very personable,” said Krenn. “You can tell he’s a great leader from the moment you meet him. A team builder. He’s very focused, driven, yet very thoughtful. The kind of guy you bet on.”

Ryan Tseng currently serves as CEO, and Andrew Reiter, a former robotics engineer at MIT-associated Draper Laboratory, is the co-founder and technical fellow.

Ryan Tseng had a brief stint as a consultant at McKinsey, and went into a career in tech. He founded wireless charger maker WiPower, then joined Qualcomm as an engineering manager in 2010 after his company was acquired. The brothers both also hold MBAs, Ryan from MIT and Brandon from Harvard Business School.

Heading the startup’s development of AI systems that operate on the edge in challenging, previously unknown, real-world environments is Nathan Michael, Shield AI’s chief technology officer. Michael is also a professor at the Carnegie Mellon University’s Resilient Intelligent Systems Lab.

Shield AI currently offers three products including an autonomous robotic system called the Nova Quadcopter, an intelligent AI software stack, as well as an integrated AI framework for data management and analysis to accelerate product development workflows.

The company said it brought in “double-digit million” in revenue in 2019 and is projected to double again this year.

Looking forward, the company plans to launch a new line of software and hardware in early 2021. Although, company officials are keeping hush on what that will look like exactly.

“We are focused on building a defining company committed to the mission of protecting service members and civilians, and this is a whole-of-team effort. We have seen tremendous growth and recognition this year and will build upon this momentum as we continue to scale and expand,” stated Brandon Tseng in a press release.

Earlier this year, the company was deemed an essential business for its role in national security, operating with limited in-person staff for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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