““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
After launching a successful high-tech startup–communication equipment manufacturer Shiva Corporation–Dan Schwinn turned his talents to fixing a glaring problem with the utility of small general aviation airplanes.
The instrumentation available in the early 1990s on the typical single-engine aircraft was needlessly complicated, Schwinn felt. What aviation needed was a much simpler interface between the airplane and the pilot–something that presents information in a clear, easy-to-interpret manner and that promotes safety, rather than detracting from it.
When Schwinn founded Avidyne Corporation in 1995 to design and manufacture modern avionics (aircraft electronics), he became a pioneer of the “glass cockpit” era, which saw decades-old instrument designs replaced by modern liquid crystal displays (LCDs) capable of delivering much more information in a lightweight, reasonably priced package. Avidyne’s products are intuitively easy to use, and allow pilots to focus on flying the airplane, instead of pushing a lot of buttons.
Avidyne has grown into a full-line avionics manufacturer, but retains Schwinn’s original goal: to make flying easier and safer.
How did you get started in electronics?
I started Shiva two years out of college with another guy. The products that made the company a big success were remote access, the connectivity stuff that made it possible to get from your laptop to your office. It was before the Internet was really established, and that [connectivity] was something everybody wanted. It was a traditional high-tech venture with a bunch of investors. Eventually we took it public and bought other companies, so it was a good way to get perspective on the startup process.
Why did you want to get into the avionics business?
I got my pilot’s license and bought an airplane. At the time, I did a lot of traveling for my prior company. I always thought, “How come flying isn’t [like] a rental car, where I can have the airplanes be mostly the same and not too complicated and I can just get one and go?” You can buy a boat and learn how to drive it in a relatively short period of time without a lot of hassle. As an electronics guy, I said one of the major issues is that the instrumentation makes these [airplanes] more difficult to use than they need to be. So that was what got me interested in starting up Avidyne.
What makes Avidyne different from other avionics manufacturers?
We were first in bringing a graphical user interface to general aviation. We were first with a fully colored map that did all kinds of things and overlaid all the different kinds of data. Our products have always been recognized as the easiest to use and we have a fanatical following because of some of those characteristics. We pioneered the glass-cockpit arena, primarily with Cirrus, Piper and other companies. We’ve now done flight controls with the safety features [that help pilots avoid loss of control]. I think that’s just scratching the surface of what can be done. A significant fraction of the population of owner-pilots–that’s our primary market–are interested in this stuff, even if it’s not required for their most minimal flight operation.
Is general aviation a good market for a startup?
It’s very difficult to raise money to start a business in general aviation compared with other areas of technology. It’s a relatively small market. You have a big regulatory overhead. And the success rate of the investments hasn’t been as high. Right now it would be particularly difficult because you had a lot of [general aviation] startups over the last decade and not a lot of money going back to shareholders.
But China has made big investments in general aviation companies.
They have a different outlook. They look at their market and say, “This is going to explode.” If an investor looks at the U.S. or European market, they say, “This market is not going anywhere. Why do I want to invest in that?” [In Asia], airspace is going to become liberalized, the ground [transportation] infrastructure isn’t that great, the economy is growing, there’s lots of wealth being created. This is going to explode.
Will that growth help Avidyne?
There are growth opportunities for Avidyne inside and outside of the traditional markets. The whole glass-cockpit thing–when we started off, there were people who had a long list of reasons why glass cockpits would never happen in general-aviation airplanes. Not only did that not turn out to be true, but [the technology] was adopted at an incredibly quick rate. That’s a strong lesson that says if something comes along that significantly differentiates this new technology from whatever has been out there, people will adopt it. I do think there’s a big opportunity, as some of the emerging markets kind of get general aviation. And we’re going to try and be in position to participate in that.
What happened with the Eclipse jet? Avidyne is no longer part of that program.
We were the new kid on the block. The established avionics guys were less interested in catering to the new airframe guys, and the existing airframe guys weren’t as interested in the new avionics guys, so you had this logical separation where we ended up primarily doing business with a lot of the startup airframe [developers]. Unfortunately for us, [most] of those companies [disappeared]. We built the system that’s now known as Entegra R9 for them and for Eclipse, although Eclipse’s was much more highly tailored because they have such an integrated airplane. The program had its challenges, but I think it was a good airplane design and it is a good airplane. For us, it was good to have been involved. It was a good [learning experience]. We developed good technology that was fielded on the Eclipse. We did a system integration that was at a level that had not ever been done on any airplane nearly that small, so it was a useful experience.
Did you enjoy flying the Falcon 100?
I had one for a couple of years, flew it around 500 hours. That airplane had the dawn of the EFIS-era equipment [cathode-ray-tube instruments] in it. There were some aspects that were really good and some that–for an owner pilot–were not optimized for that. So it was a good way to experience that in that era’s best-available equipment.
Cathode-ray tubes lasted surprisingly long in aviation.
I was surprised at how slowly LCDs took over. There are a tremendous number of impediments to innovation in this business. Regulatory and so forth, the man-rating. There are only a few things in the world that have a life safety factor like aviation products.
Is that why avionics cost so much, compared with, say, flat-screen TVs?
It’s a function of the volume and the regulatory and the life safety elements. I’d totally agree with somebody who walks up to me at a trade show and says, “Your [display] costs 10 times as much as my iPad and only does the same amount of stuff. It’s ridiculous that it’s so expensive, and its display is smaller, by the way.” But there are a lot of expenses associated with building the certified stuff, and you can’t compare an iPad to a certified piece of avionics. The iPad’s fabulous and great for airplanes, but there’s a lot of stuff that we go through to make certified avionics that does make it better for the specific application–at significant cost, but there is a significant benefit.
What are you flying now?
All the Avidyne airplanes. We’ve done a lot of our development work on Cirrus. We have a couple of Cessna 182s. We’ve got a Piper Meridian that I’ve started flying. And I’ve got a Lake Renegade seaplane that has the only single-screen R9 installation that there is.
And when you’re not flying?
I am an electronics hobbyist, so I do home automation stuff. I’m not on the very leading edge of the latest geek device but I’m close to it. Some of it’s very applicable to what we’re doing at Avidyne, some of it is slightly and some of it not at all.
Are your children showing an interest in flying?
They’ve taken an interest. I’d influence them hopefully to see general aviation as something that ought to be considered–one of those things in their bag of tricks to be able to do. I won’t try to turn them into airline pilots, although it would be perfectly fine if they wanted to be. I would like [flying] be something that they know how to do. So that’s how I’ll try to influence them. There’ so many neat things you can do and different adventures you can have.
Résumé: Dan Schwinn
POSITION: Founder, president and CEO, Avidyne
PAST POSITIONS: Cofounder and president of Shiva Corporation. Took it public during his tenure.
EDUCATION: Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
PERSONAL: Married, three children. Electronics hobbyist and private pilot. Owns a Lake Renegade single-engine seaplane, flies a Piper Meridian single-engine turboprop and is type rated in the Falcon 10/100.