Matthew Gira and Danny Vessells have a lot in common: They both love outdoor activities, they both just graduated from Hope College in May, they both are the brains and brawn behind Fathom, an affordable, easy-to-use underwater drone.
Back up a minute. Millennials who have a clear focus, a business plan and talk like guys with decades of business experience? Yes, yes and yes. How’s that for a surprise at the Mackinac Policy Conference?
Gira and Vessells are the co-founder of Fathom, and they will be one of the two teams presenting Thursday at the Detroit Regional Chamber event on Mackinac Island. They will take Center Stage with the guys from Ento in a pitch competition pitting Detroit (Ento) versus Grand Rapids (Fathom). But it’s not region against region; it’s innovative ideas trying to better each other.
At the very least, Ento and Fathom will get the experience of a lifetime during the Mackinac Pitch competition. That’s largely in part because Mackinac keynote speaker Daymond John of ABC’s “Shark Tank” and creator of the FUBU brand will serve on a panel of expert judges, deciding which team will walk away with the glory of victory on one of the most promoted stages in the state.
However, this isn’t Gira and Vessells first time in front of an audience. The duo has pitched Fathom in front of multiple pitch competitions, including the well-known 5X5 Night in Grand Rapids. Gira said they’ve entered as many student competitions as possible, giving them experience both marketing the product and fielding questions. They indeed sound like seasoned professionals and have an understanding of their product, user needs and potential pitfalls along the route to business growth.
A little about Fathom: The product is a scalable water-friendly drone whose aim is to make subaquatic fun accessible to anyone with a Jacques Cousteau fantasy, about $600 to invest in a new technology and a smart device to control it. Gira and Vessells call it “the future of underwater adventure.” Fathom, which is named for the maritime measurement and the feeling of understanding the world around you, will launch by August 2016.
“The idea in part is that whatever you can fathom, you can do,” Gira said.
Both Fathom founders come by their entrepreneurial spirit naturally. Gira was the student entrepreneur-in-residence at Hope College, helping other student entrepreneurs start their businesses. Additionally, Gira interned at the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute, and has been helping to develop the Hope College entrepreneurship program.
Vessells came up with an idea for an accessible underwater drone two years ago and has been working on it ever since. As a co-founder of Fathom, he focuses on customer engagement and forming partnerships with organizations across the country, as well as producing promotional material for the company.
As the Fathom lore goes, Vessells wanted to find a way to do some underwater exploration, especially seeking historic Michigan crafts. But everything he found online to purchase was far too expensive or was made for a specialty purpose. He understood the need for something everyday people could use and adapt to their needs.
“People of every interest – whether it’s SCUBA divers, boaters, fishermen – are interested in exploring the world around them,” Vessells said, but he imagines a use across industries and experience levels, including researchers,
Gira said one of his favorite potential users is a retired British military professional who is paralyzed and cannot dive anymore. The idea of returning thrill of exploring the water to this person is exactly why Gira and Vessells are working so diligently on this project.
They’ve gone through multiple models, lots of ideas – Vessells even has a sketch he did initially of a football-shaped model. And while the first drafts of Fathom didn’t make it – and, yes, that was an ego blow of sorts, Vessells admits – the resulting product is more what the consumer wants and needs, he noted.
“You start building something and you’re building it for yourself; the opportunity is getting to a product that everyone can use and appreciation in its simplicity,” Vessells said.