UWC-USA Alumni Win $1M Grand Prize Advancing Drone Technology

Saïf-Deen Akanni ’85 and four other UWC-USA alumni are behind a company that is revolutionizing the drone (UAV) industry by increasing the flight time of UAVs from about 30 minutes to up to four hours. Saïf, CEO and Chief Technology Officer of Sentient Blue, accepted a $1M grand prize from the GENIUS NY business accelerator competition in early April.

“When the U.S. government opened the use of drones to commercial applications in 2016, I realized there was a great opportunity to improve the performance of drones,” Saïf explained. Lithium batteries could only support flight for about 30 minutes with a recharging time of up to 80 minutes. And in cold weather flight time was often reduced to 10 minutes.

Saïf and the team at Sentient Blue developed a hybrid propulsion system using a microturbine which is essentially a very small jet engine that can increase flight time up to 4 hours.

Saïf gained important experiences and developed valuable skills in his two years at UWC-USA. “I came to UWC-USA in 1982 with very few skills and left two years later with new experiences that were instrumental in making me the person I am today.” When pressed for further clarification, he explained that UWC-USA encourages students to go outside their comfort zones while pushing themselves – and the organizations they come into contact with – to do more.

Saïf also contends that his ability to speak six languages has been instrumental in his ability to build a company that works in a highly international field. “The applications for drones with longer flight times can help both industry and humanitarian efforts,” Saïf said. “We’ve been in conversations with non-profits and foundations about using drones to deliver medicines or vaccines to remote areas. I’m an aerospace engineer but my work can be used to improve the lives of others and support the UWC mission.”

Saïf is the only member of the class of 1985 who has been part of this project but is pleased that four other alumni from his time at UWC-USA are investors or advisors. Bertrand Kan ’84, Amit Mohindra ’84, Charles Wong ’84, and Eugenio Ruggiero ’84 are also involved.

Since winning the award, Saïf and Sentient Blue have been inundated with calls from investors and media inquiring about their plans. “The recognition this prize affords us is nothing short of amazing,” Saïf further explained. And the prize money will help them hire more employees and get their product to market more quickly.

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