WASHINGTON ― Epirus, a venture-backed startup offering a counter-drone capability, launched quietly enough two years ago, but it’s making noise by bringing together key veterans of Microsoft, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon ― and by landing its first deal with a name-brand defense prime contractor.
Epirus chief executive Leigh Madden was general manager for Microsoft’s national security business before he joined the Hawthorne, Calif.,-based firm two months ago, and its chief financial officer, Ken Bedingfield, is a former chief financial officer at Northrop. The former chairman of Epirus is Joe Lonsdale, co-founder of the Silicon Valley data-analytics company Palantir Technologies.
Epirus, this week, is expected to announce a previously undisclosed strategic supplier agreement with Northrop to provide exclusive access to Epirus’ software-defined electromagnetic pulse system, called Leonidas. The dollar value of the deal isn’t being disclosed.
Northrop said Leonidas would augment its own kinetic and non-kinetic solutions to counter small drones. The Army recently selected Northrop’s Forward Area Air Defense Command and Control software, or FAAD-C2, as the interim C2 system to counter small drones. (DoD’s FY21 budget request included $18.7 million for counter-drone enhancements for the system.)
“UAS threats are proliferating across the modern battlespace,” said Kenn Todorov, vice president and general manager of Northrop Grumman’s Combat Systems and Mission Readiness division. “By integrating the Epirus EMP weapon system into our C-UAS portfolio, we continue maturing our robust, integrated, layered approach to addressing and defeating these evolving threats.”
Many companies have jumped into the $2 billion counter-UAS market, anticipating a boom as commercial drones have grown cheaper and more commonplace, posing an asymmetric threat on the battlefield as well as a threat to airports, sports stadiums, government buildings and urban areas. So many companies are in the field the Pentagon has been working to streamline the number of systems available across the department.
Epirus executives said the company’s technology is unique because its use of solid-state commercial semiconductor technology makes it lighter and smaller ― and because it can have narrow effects or be “adjusted to sanitize a volume of terrain or sky, creating a forcefield effect.” The company’s systems involve a combination of high-power microwave technology and, for enhanced targeting, artificial intelligence.
Epirus Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Bo Marr was a radio frequency engineer and technical lead on Raytheon’s next-generation jammer program, under development by the U.S. Navy. Madden, a former U.S. Navy SEAL who spent eight years at Microsoft, and Bedingfield, who spent five years as Northrop’s CFO, both said they joined Epirus because they were impressed by the technology and its potential.
“Northrop and Microsoft are both multibillion-dollar defense businesses, and I think we bring a knowledge of how to operate around some of the larger opportunities and to make outsized impacts in the market,” Madden said. “We’re taking that experience to a smaller, innovative company. I think that will allow us to really accelerate the pace of growth and have a more rapid and greater impact for our customers.”
The Pentagon has attempted to shift toward working with smaller, more innovative companies to supplement its work with larger firms, which continue to dominate the marketplace. Flexible, non-traditional contact vehicles called “other transaction authorities” have grown more popular as the Pentagon has turned to Silicon Valley for cutting edge technologies.
“One of the things that attracted me to come to Epirus is the ability to work in an agile enterprise that is trying to take some of the approaches of Silicon Valley and apply them to the defense world―to iterate quicker and to field faster, and to be able to respond to the urgent needs of the customer,” Bedingfield said.
Bedingfield said the company is growing fast and generating revenue from working with customers on studies and technology demonstrations, but it’s as yet unclear when it will begin to deliver products. The coronavirus pandemic has slowed its hiring, but the firm is looking to double in the next year, adding more than 50 employees in Hawthorne, and a planned office in Northern Virgina.
Formed in 2018 and named after the magical bow of the Greek hero Theseus, Epirus was raising $17.8 million in new funding last November, according to its public filings. With Lonsdale and Marr, its co-founders include its previous CEO Nathan Mintz; current Vice Chairman John Tenet, from venture capitol firm 8VC; Chief Operating Officer Max Mednik, a Google veteran; UnitedHealthcare Chief Digital Officer Grant Verstandig is the current chairman.
Palantir, which Lonsdale founded with billionaire Peter Thiel in 2005, appeared as an upstart when the Defense Department hadn’t opened its arms as wide to Silicon Valley. Last year, Palantir beat Raytheon in a head-to-head competition to provide the Army a new version of its intelligence analysis system ― after a years long saga in which the Army rejected Palantir’s offering and Palantir sued.
In September, Epirus won a Small Business Innovation Research contract from the U.S. Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center as part of its AFWERX technology accelerator. The contract was for the company’s novel architecture for using commercial off-the-shelf field programmable gate arrays, which are semiconductor devices commonly used in electronic circuits, as ultra-wideband radio frequency transceivers.
While traditional systems use large vacuum tubes, Madden said Leonidas is based in microchips and software.
“We believe there is no other solution on the market that allows for fully software defined precision targeting at digital speeds, enabling both precision targeting as well as large-area, counter-swarm targeting of many drones at the same time,” he said.
Northrop and Epirus are expected to announce their partnership this week.
“We’re not just solving today’s swarm threat, we’re also looking to the future to understand how asymmetric threats will evolve,” Marr said in a statement. “Epirus is an agile startup, Northrop Grumman has defense prime contractor resources, and through this partnership we intend to deliver the best technology to the warfighter as fast as possible.”
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.