Whether we are glued to the TV for a 10 second Olympic race, watching an episode of the Amazing Race, or joining the millions who view each and every Nascar race, it is quite evident that humans love the thrill associated with racing. As we embrace speed in all shapes and sizes, it is time to welcome a new kind of race; drone racing. Drone racing brought to us by the Drone Racing League (DRL) is revolutionizing racing as we know it with VR while still maintaining the true elements of a good race. As the premier league for drone racing, the DRL is claiming a spot for drones among major sports leagues and is quickly growing to meet the incredible interest that drone racing is attracts.
AlleyWatch chatted with CEO and founder Nicholas Horbaczewski about the company and their most recent round of funding.
Who were your investors and how much did you raise?
We are thrilled to have recently announced the close of a Series B investment round, with a total financing of more than $20 million, led by Sky, Liberty Media Corporation (owner of Formula 1) and Lux Capital. In addition to Liberty Media Corporation, we added new investors Allianz — our global Title Sponsor of the race circuit — and World Wrestling Entertainment.
We are also excited that our existing partners, including Hearst Ventures, RSE Ventures, Lerer Hippeau Ventures, and Courtside Ventures, also joined the round. We also added CRCM Ventures, supporting DRL’s expansion into China.
Tell us about your product or service.
What happens when you combine the thrill of pod-racing from Star Wars with the real-world adrenaline of Formula 1? Drone. Racing. League.
DRL is the premier international drone racing league for elite pilots. With custom built racing drones traveling in speeds above 80 MPH, pilots race FPV (First Person View) through the most insane three-dimensional courses ever created outside of a video game.
What inspired you to start the company?
I have always been drawn to action sports and incredible video content, and FPV (First Person View) racing perfectly combines these two passions. In 2015, I met Ryan Gury, our Head of Product who’s known in the industry as the Da Vinci of drones, and he introduced me to FPV racing in a parking lot in Long Island.
At the time, drone racing was a small but growing hobbyist sport, and I saw the potential for the sport to grow into something bigger. I knew we could build out the technology, media and sports ecosystem required to bring drone racing to a massive audience.
How is it different?
Unlike amateur drone racing organizations, DRL is the professional league, where the world’s most elite pilots compete with standardized, hand-built racing drones.
Our cutting edge technology allows us to bring traditional racing to courses that have never existed. It’s different from historical flat racing lines we’ve come to know (and love) in car or motorcycle racing. Any space you can imagine a race could be a course – from the hallway in your office to the streets through Time Square – up and down buildings, and around curves at speeds in excess of 80 MPH. The use of a 3D flight line in a venue allows you to exploit features that are not possible in any other sport. The immersive viewing element is very captivating to casual viewers as well. DRL is like a real-life video game that blends digital and physical worlds in a way other racing formats are not able to support.
What market you are targeting and how big is it?
While we’re continuing to bring the sport of drone racing to audiences and fans across the globe, we’re discovering a huge fandom for DRL emerging among millennial males.
We’ve all witnessed the massive growth of the eSports industry, and we think drone racing has the same potential for fan building and engagement. DRL offers a wide array of exciting elements — whether it’s the out-of-this-world courses or high-speed crashes, DRL spotlights non-stop edge-of-your-seat-type action and when viewers at home get to know the pilots and better understand the incredible skill required to race 3D courses, new groups of fans will continue to emerge from unexpected places.
What’s your business model?
DRL operates like any traditional sports league, driving revenue through sponsorships, media rights and ticketing at our live spectator events.
Where’s your favorite place in NYC to operate a drone?
You can’t fly a drone in NYC. So, it’s a good excuse to get out of the city. There are a number of AMA approved locations to fly near the city though. Check the AMA website for the full list.
What was the funding process like?
In the funding process, I focus on finding partners that will add real value to growing DRL beyond just contributing capital. In the short term, it makes the process more time consuming because you need to find investors with capital and a strategic alignment. But in the long term, it’s worth the effort and really sets up the company for success.
What are the biggest challenges that you faced while raising capital?
The biggest challenges we faced are the same ones we personally face everyday: We’ve spent decades imagining what the future looks like, and the hype around drone racing isn’t just hype – it’s a set of massive expectations formed by years of watching videogames, movies and science fiction. When people first hear about drone racing, they immediately think of pod racing from Star Wars or the Light Cycle from Tron, ideas based entirely on computer graphics and nearly impossible to create in real life. The challenge we’ve faced both internally and while raising capital has been a big and fun one: How do you introduce a new sport and build the technology to meet decades of sky-high expectations? Our brilliant team of expert drone engineers, media pioneers and savvy marketers have been working tirelessly to help us meet this challenge, and our investors have stood by our side through this process.
What factors about your business led your investors to write the check?
Similar to the excitement we feel, our investors have been thrilled about DRL’s:
- Position in the marketplace as a cutting edge new sport engaging millions of fans across the globe and expanding its reach through the world’s best sports broadcast programs, including ESPN, Sky, Prosieben, Disney XD, and OSN.
- Innovative partnership opportunities for the globe’s leading brands, including groups we’re already collaborating with like Allianz, Amazon (Prime Video), Swatch, Toy State, FORTO Coffee Shots, and the U.S. Air Force, to reach new audiences.
- Consistent global press attention and recent accolades including DRL being recognized as One of the Most Innovative Companies of 2017 by Fast Company and named as Ad Age’s 2017 Startup to Watch.
What are the milestones you plan to achieve in the next six months?
In the next six months, we expect to:
- Release wildly epic new drone racing video content with partners
- Re-launch our true-to-life simulator for aspiring pilots to test and develop their skills, as they fly on simulated versions of the DRL courses that our professional pilots race in real life
- Take over retail shelves with our new toy-racing drone, the Nikko Air DRL Drones, in partnership with Toy State – making for awesome holiday gifts and serving as a great, cost-effective entry-level drone for aspiring pilots to practice with after learning how to fly on our revamped DRL Drone Racing Simulator.
- Finalize our 2018 Season, creating three-dimensional race courses through new iconic venues across the world
What advice can you offer companies in New York that do not have a fresh injection of capital in the bank?
New York is an expensive city, which can be particularly painful if you’re an early stage company stressing about burn rate. On the plus side, NYC also has a vibrant entrepreneurial community. Shared work spaces, conferences and investor meet ups all give you a chance to build your network of fellow entrepreneurs from whom you can learn and with whom can commiserate on the tough days.
Where do you see the company going now over the near term?
DRL has aggressive ambitions to continue innovating the sport as we grow and introduce DRL and futuristic content to new fans around the world. A few key areas of focus for our team include:
- Participation – DRL is constantly on the lookout for new, superior FPV talent from the drone racing community. Our pilot roster will continue to grow with us, and we aim to help develop the careers of full-time, professional pilots.
- Courses – We’re excited to host our first international races this year, with the Allianz World Championship taking place at the Alexandra Palace in London. Our courses will only get more challenging and visually enthralling as we add to our roster of iconic and dynamic venues.
- Broadcasting – In the past year, we partnered with ESPN in North and South America, Sky in the UK and Italy, Prosieben in the DACH region, and recently expanded to OSN in the Middle East and North Africa, and Disney XD. Our goal is to continue growing our fan base and audience to bring DRL to the international community.
- Partnerships – We recently announced DRL’s title sponsorship with insurance giant Allianz for the 2017 season, the Allianz World Championship, which includes all six of our professional races. We also partnered with Bud Light around the launch of our drone racing simulator, Toy State for our new toy-racing drone, the Nikko Air DRL Drone that will hit retail shelves in August, and announced new partnerships with some of the best brands in the world, including Amazon Prime Video, Swatch, FORTO Coffee Shots, and the U.S. Force. We’re excited to continue additional partnership conversations with brands that align with our goals and standards.
- Technology – We recently announced the DRL Racer3, which serves as the backbone for the sport of the future – flown by elite pilots throughout the 2017 season. It features a number of improvements from the Racer2, and our brilliant engineers are always developing ways to make our drones faster, lighter and more agile. We look forward to continue innovating and developing future iterations of DRL drones to come.
What’s your favorite restaurant in the city?
It’s hard to have a favorite restaurant in NYC, but I love ABC Cocina. The food is always amazing.