Published on
Apr 7, 2021

Morgantown, West Virginia –In October 2019, IconicAir won an AFWERX Small Business Technology Transfer(STTR) $700,000 Phase II contract for their SaaS platform that maps and analyzes emissions data in one software solution. The Department of the Air Force Academic Partnership Engagement Experiment program, or APEX, provided STTR process navigation and consulting to IconicAir throughout their Phase I proposal and Phase II application processes. APEX services helped the start-up achieve selection in the highly competitive awards-based program that enables small businesses to explore technology potential within the Department of Defense (DoD). 

IconicAir was co-founded by Kyle Gillis and James Carnes while they were students of industrial engineering at West Virginia University. They had the vision and mission to revolutionize how oil and gas industries track leaks and emissions data. They sought to tackle the sustainability crisis within fossil-fuel industries by reducing emissions and moving into a carbon-free energy system. The IconicAir platform provides companies and governments the ability to visualize emissions and air quality data across their assets worldwide. The Air Force application of the platform focuses on pollutant exposure at airstrips.

“Bioenvironmental engineers don’t have time to constantly take samples and create reports by hand for every event, to monitor content and quantity of these emissions. IconicAir’s monitoring system continuously analyzes and reports emissions data, allowing managers and environmental engineers to focus on their jobs while being aware of higher-than-normal spikes in any particular chemical emission,” said IconicAir Co-Founder, Kyle Gillis.

IconicAir’s technology works with prior sensor systems at airstrips so that engineers don’t have to worry about compatibility issues and troubleshooting. This is critical to efficiency as well as averting major health-hazards for pilots, maintenance workers and engineers.

“Having that peace of mind about the environment they are working in enables all parties to perform at an optimal level,” said Gillis.

The two West Virginia University alumni, with backgrounds in industrial engineering, but with no experience in the petroleum industry, visualized and materialized their innovation using their combination of skills and collaborations within the University’s science and technology network.

“During our senior year, we got involved in business competitions at West Virginia University. We were trying to find cool ways to make changes to this world. We originally launched a company called IconicEDU, which we eventually switched to IconicAir. Initially, we were flying drones near local oil and gas facilities and offering leak detection services using our hardware and software. This eventually led us to a final pivot to focus on a pure software solution for managing and analyzing leak and emissions data. This would help companies solve their true “hair on fire” problem,” said Gillis.

Gillis and Carnes had seen posters and flyers about the U.S. Air Force Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and STTR awards program, but never considered it due to rumors of its lengthiness and complexity. That disposition changed when they made contact with APEX.

West Virginia University’s Corporate Relations Director Jack Thompson facilitated a conversation between Gillis and APEX STTR Director Dave Nestic during which Nestic described the proposal and ;DoD contract solicitation process to Gillis.

“This was a turning point for our company and propelled us to take the path toward an SBIR/STTR award application. Talking with Dave was my deep dive into what the process entails and what the DoD is looking for. That’s what APEX is here to do, help companies like mine and people like me, who have no connection into the DoD, through the process,” said Gillis.

It was during the winter holiday season when Gillis and Nestic began working together, and it was at this point that IconicAir was thinking of ways to keep the company afloat after graduation. After receiving a detailed description of the AFWERX award process, Gillis and Carnes got to work. Throughout their application process, they received consistent help from the APEX team, from putting together their slide decks to their financials.

“Then we won an STTR Phase I award in March 2019,” said Gillis, “and that’s when the alarm went off, like we can do this, we can win these contracts in a very short time.”

After winning their Phase I award, the process became more intense for IconicAir as they had to get in touch with Air Force contacts. While they had a system for doing that, they were still nervous because, to them, the DoD was completely unknown territory. However, APEX guided them through8 every step, helping Gillis and Carnes understand the protocols for calling and following up with the DoD.

During the buildout of their SaaS platform, IconicAir collaborated with researchers at West Virginia University and the University of Utah, leveraging their technological expertise.

“We worked with West Virginia University’s Dr. Mike McCawley of Occupational & Environmental Health Sciences, who has thirty years’ experience working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He was the perfect person to provide the information we needed on particulate inhalation,” said Gillis.

In addition, IconicAir will work with Research Professor of Electrical & Computer Engineering, Dr. Scott Collins, of the University of Utah who has background in high-level metadata health informatics that involves using sensors to detect particles in the air.

“Combining our already existing software with expertise from Dr. Mike McCawley and Dr. Scott Collins, created a robust team and eventually won us the $700,000 STTR Phase II award,” said Gillis.

One of the strongest assurances for the start-up, through the process, was the help APEX provided.

“APEX helped us from beginning to end. One of the things I tell people here at the University is that if you do want to pursue one of these opportunities, you need to go through a group like APEX; it’s essentially someone guiding you and telling you the next step the whole way. The entire presence of APEX through our STTR contract solicitation process was very mentor like and exactly what we needed at that stage of our business,” said Gillis.

Coupled with funding a much-needed service for the DoD, the award monies also ensured IconicAir’s stability as a business, allowing the company to provide competitive salaries for their employees. It also connected them with a larger network that has expanded their client base within the oil and gas industry and provided them recognition that has resulted in negotiations with investors interested in their technology. The AFWERX STTR award and their experience with APEX also put them in a good position for upcoming meetings with venture capitalists interested in investing in the start-up.

“For any start-up with a valuable technology, applying for AFWERX SBIR/STTR awards while working with APEX is the perfect partnership and the fastest process in the world! I couldn’t recommend the APEX program enough, for helping us achieve our goals,” said Gillis.

IconicAir is looking forward to a Phase III transition to the Air Force.


About APEX

APEX cultivates innovation by expanding the American research enterprise for the Department of the Air Force by engaging, connecting and enabling innovators across academia, industry and the Department of Defense (DoD). APEX utilizes data analytics to identify transformational operational defense solutions in academia, industry and government sectors; provides process navigation services for academic teams and small businesses; and enhances cross-sector engagement by providing direct connections to the technology needs of multiple DoD program.