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San Juan College drone students win $10k in business plan competition


Zia Drone Operations already has enlisted several clients

FARMINGTON — A group of drone program students at San Juan College didn't need to get involved in a new entrepreneurship competition to launch a business that would put their recently learned skills to use.

But the three partners say the Hawk Tank Business Plan Competition — which they entered and won this spring, claiming a total of $10,000 in prize money — certainly gave them a boost.

Mark Knight, Josh Bishop and Wes Bond entered San Juan College's unmanned aerial systems program when it was launched in the fall of 2020 as its first three students.

They enjoyed their experience so much they already had made the decision to begin their own company earlier this year when they learned their school was partnering with Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, in the competition.

Teams made up of students, alumni and community members of the two schools would pitch their ideas for business concepts to a team of judges, competing against each in various categories for a total of $65,000 in prize money.

During the virtual competition on April 24, Knight, Bishop and Bond — competing as a team under their company name, Zia Drone Operations — impressed the judges and won the San Juan College division, earning $5,000. They also advanced to the final round to take on the winning team from Fort Lewis College and won that round to claim the grand prize, earning another $5,000.

"What Hawk Tank did was show us how much more (assistance) we had (available)," Bishop said, describing the various forms of college and community support that contestants were able to access during the competition. "We learned so much just by going through all the steps. We could have gone through all the steps and not made any money, and it still would have been worth it."

All three students said they were ecstatic about winning the competition, especially considering how much work they put into their presentations. Bishop noted he had never been involved in the drafting of a business plan before, and going through that process was extremely beneficial, he said.

"We took every resource available in the community to make sure our projections were correct," Bond said. "We talked to deans, we talked to faculty advisers — I don't think there was a sector we missed, to be honest."

What the Zia Drone Operations team learned during that process was that there was no detail so small that it could be overlooked.

"It was the little things," Bond said. "Every single thing mattered going into this."

Knight, Bishop and Bond not only emerged from the competition with the $10,000 in prize money, they already have established a viable company that they hope will provide them a living someday soon. Zia Drone Operations has enlisted a handful of clients – including the local office of the Century 21 real estate agency, a local environmental services firm and the Tico Time River Resort north of Aztec.

ZDO also is in discussions with Navajo Agricultural Products Industry to provide the company with specialized mapping of its fields. Bond said the health of various crops can be determined by smart trackers that are carried by drones, and that data later can be downloaded and analyzed, allowing growers to determine if the plants need more fertilizer, moisture or other treatment.

The three students have learned to work with such applications in order to create a market for their services.

"There are a lot of cool things you can do with a drone," Bishop said.

ZDO prides itself on its customer service and promotes the quality of its photography. Bond said the company's photos are far from being mere snapshots.

"We put a little love into it," he said, referring to the angles, composition and production ZDO employs, especially for its real estate photography, to deliver an attractive image. "It gives (real estate clients) the upper leg against a person who just went in there with a smartphone."

With the credibility their company has earned with its Hawk Tank victory, the three students said they plan to aggressively recruit more clients this summer. In fact, they hope to generate so much work for themselves that they can put other drone pilots to work — and they know just where to go look for them.

"If we land NAPI and all its fields, we're going to have to take on pilots almost immediately," Bond said, explaining that San Juan College — which offers one-year certification and a two-year associate degree programs in small unmanned aerial systems — will be the first place they look for help.

More: San Juan College drone program students have variety of career options

"Right now, we expect to grow as more people get into the drone program," Knight said.

Bond touted the college's program and hopes his company's success serves as an example of the kind of career possibilities that await those who emerge from the program, which is led by instructor Brian Seavey.

"This shows you how much the teachers can do with the students in the drone program," he said.

More: Business plan competition comes to San Juan College through Hawk Tank program

Bond said he struggled to find direction in his late teens, but enrolling in the college's drone program helped him get over that hurdle. He said it's a great vocational choice for those who like to combine technical expertise with a little bit of adventure.

"You're going to have a blast," he said.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.