Thread (not to be confused with Threads), a startup developing a robotics platform to collect inspection data for utilities, today announced that it raised $15 million in a Series A funding round led by Badlands Capital with participation from Minnkota Power Cooperative, Generational Partners, Rosecliff Ventures, Excell Partners, Homegrown Capital and Kevin O’Leary’s Wonder Fund North Dakota.
Joshua Riedy co-founded Thread several years ago with Jim Higgins, an aviator, and Travis Desell, a computer scientist. The three met at the University of North Dakota while creating software for FedEx, and — building on that experience — decided to refocus their efforts on digitizing and modernizing energy assets, like wind turbines.
Riedy, Higgins and Dessell began working with Xcel Energy, a regional investor-owned utility, on its digital transformation efforts. After securing initial funding from Microsoft’s TechSpark program, the trio launched Thread — which they claim is only the second North Dakota company to reach a Series A round.
“The pandemic disrupted supply chains and highlighted the industry’s dependence on third-party service providers to inspect and monitor their assets,” Riedy told TechCrunch in an email interview. “Customers in our space struggle with truly digitizing assets and operationalizing the data and workflows that come with inspection and other sources that drive asset management.”
Thread’s product — a self-contained device with an on-board processor, paired with AI algorithms and back-end management software — autonomously collects data from oil, wind, gas, solar, power transmission and distribution, and other types of energy assets. How? By letting customers deploy and control drones and robots for asset monitoring.
With Thread, energy and utility operators get a suite of integrations that pull in real-time asset data from their existing software stacks. They also get templated data pipelines that Reidy describes as “predictable and governable.”
“By enabling customers to perform in-house, on-demand inspections, they’re able to create a digital record that represents asset health through the use of common methodology across entire ecosystems — including power generation, transmission and distribution,” Riedy said. “The structure to be able to service data with analytics, as well as aggregate with other sources, gives C-suite leaders the opportunity to have comprehensive views of asset performance and maintenance strategies to manage financial and reputational risk.”
Now, there’s no shortage of drone-based options for inspecting energy utility assets. Indeed, Riedy sees Thread competing along three axes: manual, non-drone-based traditional inspection service providers; drone “service providers” (which supply the pilots and software to operate inspection drones); and autonomous, drone-based asset inspection providers focused on utility assets.
There’s Zeitview, previously known as DroneBase, which recently secured a $55 million investment for its platform that uses airborne robotics and sensors to capture data about how solar panels, turbines and so on change over time. Aerones is creating a robotics fleet to inspect wind turbines. And Skyqraft sells a robotic powerline issue-detection system.
But Thread has a handful of customers under its belt, including Xcel Energy, Constellation Energy and Otter Tail Power. It’s also established partnerships with asset protection companies including Mistras Group, and — in a sign that Thread’s considering branching into defense — Thread’s working with the U.S. Air Force to develop a drone system to “enhance security” at Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota.
I asked for more details on the Air Force contract, which Riedy tells me is worth around $1.2 million. He had this to say: “The award, which was made by AFWERX, an arm of the Air Force Research Laboratory, will help ensure the 5,773-acre base is protected against threats, intrusions and breaches, while freeing up resources to address additional security concerns.”
For me, it brings to mind Skydio, a drone startup that eventually pivoted from the consumer sector to lean heavily into defense and law enforcement. But Riedy implied that — at least for now — Thread isn’t shifting its focus away from the utilities industry.
“If Thread hits its mark, we’ll be to the energy world, specifically asset performance management, what Wisconsin’s Epic is to electronic medical records,” Riedy said.
Riedy says that the proceeds from Thread’s Series A round — which, curiously, was first announced close to a year ago — will be put toward recruiting technical talent and launching Thread’s product for inspection of power lines on the highway. In addition, on the customer side, Thread plans to invest in business development efforts, including scaling its sales and broader workforce of 50 full-time employees.