By Eric Peterson | Jan 02, 2023
Autonomous UTV technology
New York-based spine surgeon Neubardt has more than 20 patents to his name. "I did a lot of medical device work on my own patents and actually started a company based on two of them, which I grew to 140 people," says Neubardt, who sold the business to San Diego-based NuVasive in 2018.
"Then I wanted to do something for fun that I was passionate about -- and that was skiing,” he says of dolaGon, the name being an inversion of gondola. "I love backcountry skiing and I was really, really bothered by the whole commercial ski industry and what it had become."
Neubardt envisioned an autonomous snowcat while skiing Powder Mountain's Lightning Ridge in Utah in 2018. "I was like, 'This is a ridiculous system. I've got to take three chairlifts just to get back to the snowcat. If I had my own vehicle, we could just run up the hill and meet the snowcat.'"
After an aborted attempt with a snowmobile, dolaGon's first autonomous tracked utility terrain vehicle (UTV) debuted in Vermont in winter 2020-21. "There wasn't enough snow, so we decided to go out West," says Neubardt.
Illinois-based AutonomouStuff made subsequent tracked vehicles for dolaGon that were tested in Colorado in 2020. "We learned a lot in the field about what was needed and what people wanted," says Neubardt.
He also connected with Logan Banning as a co-founder. "He left Lockheed Martin and joined dolaGon. He was a competitive skier in high school -- he's from Steamboat Springs."
In 2021, another tour led to the realization that dolaGon could help with workforce woes. Resorts "really have a problem with labor," says Neubardt. "They wanted to know how much cargo it could carry -- could it carry garbage?
"People have a pain point with shuttling stuff through off-road, backcountry terrain. It's slow and hard. We said, 'Let's be that company that figures out that space: how to transport stuff off-road in all weather.' And that's what we did."
After going through the Techstars program in summer 2022 and landing a $250,000 Advanced Industries grant from the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade in the fall, dolaGon aims to sell a handful of the fourth-generation vehicles in early 2023.
Still using contract partners for manufacturing, dolaGon now leverages a base vehicle from Polaris or Can-Am and adds autonomous guidance via camera vision and LiDAR sensors.
"Our concern is safety," says Neubardt, noting that his 30-plus years as a surgeon informs golaDon's strategy. "We have zero tolerance for injury or even death."
"The idea is to create a low-cost, simple accessory or bolt-on attachment to make UTVs drive themselves," he says, targeting a price tag of about $10,000 on a roughly $30,000 vehicle. "A lot of it's proven, off-the-shelf stuff that we're going to be using. Because we're going at slow speeds, we can get away with that. Pricing is part of the objective to keep it affordable, so this is something that can be added on to any vehicle."
Neubardt forecasts 2023 will be a big year for his startup. "We have a lot of great momentum," he says. "Even the haters end up loving us."
Challenges: The industry focus on on-road autonomy often means dolaGon is working in virgin territory. "The challenge is really perfecting the technology for navigating extreme terrain," says Neubardt. "We're doing something extraordinarily difficult. We've learned a lot."
Opportunities: Front and center is an alternative to lift-served skiing. "There's like billions of miles of snow out there," says Neubardt. "The ski companies, commercial ski companies have a death grip through one piece of infrastructure, and that's the chairlift."
But an industry-wide labor shortage opens up a wide swath of applications: "It's going to be used to haul garbage, to haul fuel in, to take people from the parking lot to the ice skating pond."
Then there's the broader UTV market -- about 500,000 are sold in the U.S. annually -- especially electric models expected to hit the market by 2025. Beyond skiing, Neubardt is targeting hunting, mountain biking, and assorted opportunities in outdoor recreation. "We're a backcountry automation company," he says. "If you're a 70-year-old guy and you're a hunter, to press a button and have a vehicle show up from three miles away at five in the afternoon to take you home with your cargo is worth a hell of a lot of money."
But any large landowner is a target: Other potential markets include agriculture, construction, and energy.
Needs: Capital. "We are going to be raising money in the springtime," says Neubardt, noting that dolaGon is debt-free and self-funded with an assist from angel investors. "We're well-funded now."