In an exclusive interview with DroneDJ, Claire Owen talks about founding multiple companies with no college degree, building humane software, exceeding business expectations during a pandemic, and getting more women to be a part of the drone industry. Read on…
Let’s just say she likes to be on the move. Growing up in South West England, her heart was set on sports. She continued to play hockey even when she moved to London after school. School, by the way, was Pangbourne College in the English county of Berkshire, where she got in through sports and academic scholarship. But by the time she turned 16, Claire Owen thought she knew it all. And she quit.
“Only to learn very quickly that I definitely didn’t know it all.”
The early years of her professional life were spent trying out different career paths – assisting in sales and marketing of a pharmaceutical company, doing basic bookkeeping at an investment firm, negotiating deals for real estate organizations. And while she loved working and the independence that came with it, Claire’s vagabond spirit wouldn’t let her rest.
Next stop: Canada. To qualify as a ski instructor!
“Skiing is still a huge passion of mine. I’ve just spent the winter in France ski-touring,” she smiles.
Come 2017 and Claire founded her first company: Loop Software. The proptech startup specialized in equipping real estate professionals with client management software that focused on prospecting and residential property data.
“Having traveled a fair amount in my early 20s, without any A level certifications or a college degree, the property industry was an easy career choice. It grew my network and taught me the value of data and insight,” she points out. “However, I couldn’t ignore my hobby of ‘tinkering’ with software and building websites. It quickly became a passion.”
The thing Claire loves the most about coding is that there is always a solution; all you have to do is find it. “Literally anything is possible with enough time and resource,” she quips. “It’s incredible to work in an industry with endless possibilities and creations!”
Founding Loop came with a vast amount of learning, the most important being staying true to your vision. “It takes a lot of energy, time, and passion to give up a secure paid job and take an enormous leap of faith. For a lot of founders, it’s the purpose that gives us that drive to keep going especially when things are really hard – and they can get really hard. But knowing you are making a small difference in the world is a powerful driving force.”
Discovering new possibilities
Claire decided to lean on Geovation, a community of location data, geospatial, and proptech professionals supported by Ordnance Survey, Britain’s national mapping agency. Geovation organizes networking events where entrepreneurs get together to share pain points, brainstorm, and learn new skills together.
“I cannot stress enough how helpful it is as a founder to be able to share ideas and issues with other founders going through the same things,” Claire says. “You learn an awful lot.”
It was at Geovation that Claire first discovered the emerging drone industry. “Founder chats” allowed her to share her experiences with Gareth Whatmore who was looking for ways to bring drone pilots and landowners together to propel the drone delivery ecosystem forward.
Around the same time, Loop secured funding and made a pivot into a straight software solution. “It had become a powerful product, but my original mission and vision had been lost in the process. So, in early 2020, as the first COVID-19 lockdown was put into place in the UK, I had an opportunity to step aside, leaving the company and team in good shape.”
Not soon after, as part of a consortia, Gareth’s brainchild DronePrep was asked to deliver on a medical drone airbridge in response to COVID-19. And Claire jumped at the opportunity to join the team as a cofounder and enable the advancement of a safe, fully integrated airspace for green logistics. “Given the great working relationship I already had with Gareth, the software and product skills I could bring to the table, and the passion reignited to be able to work on something close to my core values, it was a no-brainer.”
Unexpected explosive growth
DronePrep is only a year old today, but the startup has achieved some pretty great milestones already, including scaling up its beta platform into a much more powerful product. “We’ve either been involved with or are leading some of the most innovative and pioneering drone projects in the UK including the first medical drone airbridge to the Isle of Wight, trialing a second medical airbridge to the Isles of Scilly and partnering with Skyports, what3words, and Royal Mail to become the first UK parcel carrier to use a drone to deliver a parcel.”
Several exciting projects are in the pipeline for this year too, including international opportunities. And Claire is quick to apologize for not being able to disclose more since most are under NDA. “I can’t reveal much, but we are about to embark on a groundbreaking consultation program and trial which will focus on engaging with the community to explore the viability of using drones to deliver to rural communities on the Isle of Mull.”
DronePrep is backed by HM Land Registry, Ordnance Survey, Esri, and Microsoft for Startups – which is pretty mind-blowing. And only recently, the startup completed its term with another accelerator program, BetaDen.
Admittedly, having experienced mentors, all-around support, and access to multiple grants and awards played an instrumental role in helping DronePrep accelerate growth even during a pandemic.
Affirming that DronePrep couldn’t have achieved even half of what it has without experienced mentors supporting the team, Claire says:
“There is so much to learn and understand about running a business that, even the second time around, I’m learning every day. The support and guidance you receive provide a huge confidence boost. And decisions around tech stack and company structure made early on can have huge implications in years to come. Also, raising investment can be a minefield. So, having experts on hand to guide you is an incredible benefit and advantage for any early-stage startup.”
Seizing serendipitous moments
Incidentally, Claire has always harbored a love for aviation, even though she wasn’t flying drones before DronePrep. “I actually sat the entrance tests for both Oxford Aviation Academy and NATS (UK’s leading provider of air traffic control services) in my early 20s. But my very color-blind eyes let me down there,” she laughs.
Today, Claire owns a Tello EDU and a DJI Mavic 2 Pro. And she uses them to understand the end users she’s building products for. “Drone flying is completely addictive,” she says. “It’s really fun to share experiences and images with our amazing DronePrep community. Knowing we’re building software that helps all categories of drone users is very exciting. I feel strongly about humane technology and building software to operate for good.”
The DronePrep community, meanwhile, is 99% male. And this is not all that shocking given that experts estimate only 4% of drone pilots in the UK are female.
“But even with this outrageously low figure of female participation, my experience of working in the industry has been incredibly positive,” Claire says, adding that DronePrep is keen to change the status quo and encourage more women into the industry both as professionals and as hobbyists.
“It’s such great fun and wonderful to see the world from a different perspective. There are some truly brilliant leading female figures throughout the world,” she says. Her list of change-makers includes Dr. Catherine Ball & Jackie Dujmovic in Australia, Louise Jupp in South Africa, Gemma Alcock, Carys Kaiser & Emily Bratt in the UK, Dr. Amber Wilson & Elena Buenrostro in the US, and myself (we were both named Rising Stars of the geospatial industry this year by Geospatial World magazine). “The list is long which is remarkably encouraging and I expect, and very much hope, the 4% to rise swiftly.”
Claire points out that since the drone industry is still emerging, not only are there more opportunities available for women right now but that the scale of opportunities will only grow in the future.
“Get in early and you have the chance to shape the growth and direction of the industry, irrespective of whether you’re interested in becoming a pilot to carry out deliveries, inspections, surveys, videography, or supporting the industry from a software/tech, leadership or project capacity. It’s an incredibly varied, exhilarating industry with huge possibilities and career opportunities, and we’re only just getting started.”
And where exactly does one start? “Online communities would be a great first; you will find many on social media forums. Also, Bethany Jackson and Chelsi Smith of Coptrz run a weekly Clubhouse, which is an awesome place to listen in and connect to others.”
So, if you are a female looking to join the drone industry, Claire is happy to help – be it for an invite to the aforementioned Clubhouse or an introduction with someone in her network. Reach out here.
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