Vertx Partners was recently featured in West Virginia Executive
The following content has been taken from WV Executive and repurposed for the Vertx Partners website. To view the original page, click here.
It’s all about connection and problem solving at retired Air Force Colonel Sean Frisbee’s company, Vertx Partners, as the company president and his lean staff encourage Appalachian high-tech researchers and entrepreneurs to broaden their view and look to the sky for economic opportunities that provide innovative security measures for the nation.
Frisbee founded Vertx Partners in 2021 to help strengthen and grow West Virginia’s economy while solving problems for the U.S. Air Force. His goal is to create a national security innovation marketplace that links the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) with high-tech creators and researchers. Partners of Vertx include education institutions and technology businesses new to defense department contracting.
“There are great companies in West Virginia developing incredible technology,” Frisbee says. “We want to increase the number of West Virginia companies who support the defense industrial base and in doing so, grow jobs in West Virginia. We’re focused on the Air Force at the moment, but there is great potential working with the Army, Navy, Marines and other defense organizations.”
Vertx is not a network just for companies with a defense background—Frisbee has already involved a wide variety of industries. Vertx nurtures these companies at no cost to create a web of research and innovation.
“The math here isn’t additive; it’s logarithmic,” he says. “We utilize a four-way approach by linking public, private, academic and nonprofit institutions together, so hard work has got to be completed first before we see huge gains.”
Vertx keeps its finger on the state’s economic development pulse and works closely with economic development leaders to stay abreast of new ventures, and this vigilance is already bearing high-tech fruit. One of Vertx’s biggest success stories is with West Virginia University (WVU) and Kinnami Software Corporation. Kinnami specializes in edge computing and the secure transmission and storage of data. WVU is a leader in autonomous operations, navigation and areas where GPS is denied. The two joined forces and won a project with the U.S. Air Force.
“When search and rescue squadrons go in for a rescue, they sometimes send in drones beforehand to assess the situation. Kinnami and WVU are developing a way to send in these drones and secure the data they recover,” Frisbee says. “This is an important mission for the Air Force that saves lives.”
Vertx is also working with Marshall University’s Bill Noe Flight School. Frisbee has introduced the school to Sinclair Community College in Ohio so the two can expand their educational training to include unmanned systems, drones and electric vertical take-off and landing—or eVTOL—aircraft.
“We think Marshall is going to play an important role in these efforts and could be a leader in developing a workforce that can fly and maintain these aircraft,” Frisbee says. “I hope we can bring some new companies and new industry to West Virginia and Appalachia and also provide a path for our young folks to get into aerospace.”
Vertx works with the High Technology Foundation in Fairmont and TechConnect West Virginia in Charleston. Frisbee also reaches these tech-savvy entrepreneurs through social media so Vertx can begin a dialogue explaining the government’s interest in their products and companies.
Iconic Air, a startup out of WVU’s Vantage Ventures, was founded in 2018, well before Vertx Partners. Frisbee introduced the environmental software company—which helps track, analyze and reduce an organization’s emissions footprint—to Ohio’s Parallax Advanced Research, and the duo secured its first of three rounds of Small Business Innovation Research funding.
“The Iconic Air founders never considered working with the federal government,” Frisbee says. “However, they have continued to grow and be successful in the Air Force, which is a great example of the benefits of working with those startups and looking at how those technologies can make a bigger impact than first estimated.”
Frisbee says the DOD can dig into the state’s coal supply for much-needed materials in advanced carbon manufacturing. In fact, AmeriCarbon, a small business in Morgantown and a Vertx partner, is doing just that with coal byproducts.
“As our nation and the world shift toward cleaner energy, we’re seeing less of a focus on coal as a fuel source, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its uses,” he says. “That’s where advanced carbon manufacturing comes into play. Graphene, graphite, carbon fiber, carbon composites: these materials are highly sought after by manufacturing entities, especially big defense firms. I believe West Virginia is a natural spot to convert this resource into something less pollutive and highly versatile.”
Vertx Partners is also looking for technology to solve problems in the areas of advanced air mobility and unmanned flight. Frisbee says West Virginia has a golden opportunity to take the lead in a field that NASA believes will generate thousands of jobs and billions in revenue.
“NASA is looking into how we can integrate these unmanned systems into the national airspace in a safe and efficient way,” Frisbee says. “These high mountains and valleys, various states of broadband and communication as well as the weather make West Virginia the perfect location for companies to test their drones in challenging environments to establish how these systems can be used for the delivery of medical supplies or how we can use these systems for first responders, whether during natural disasters or in hostile situations.”
Frisbee’s focus on creating a network of eclectic companies to solve defense problems has a proven track record. In 2013, he did similar work in Ohio, and the initiative grew to become the Academic Partnership Engagement Experiment (APEX).
APEX spread from Ohio across the U.S. Frisbee, a 1989 WVU graduate with a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering as well as three master’s degrees in the aeronautical field from other institutions, is a problem solver to the core who built his career thinking outside the box.
“When I was in the Air Force, I was involved in technology development,” he says. “I led many weapon system development programs, including the F-22 Stealth Fighter Program. I have been part of Air Force leadership that’s striven to solve problems and maintain a competitive edge. After retirement, I started and led small businesses in the defense industry.”
Mary Cook, a relationship executive at Vertx Partners, says that one of Frisbee’s most valuable professional skills is his ability to build effective, diverse teams to get the job done.
“The Vertx team has deep connections in the business community in West Virginia and Appalachia, which enable us to easily connect with entrepreneurs, innovators and researchers,” she says. “Building networks is critical to our success, and we have a team composed of natural connectors.”
Appalachia had already caught APEX’s attention as an overlooked area with great potential when Frisbee was appointed the president and CEO of the WVU Alumni Association, where he served from 2015 to 2021. That fortuitous appointment for Frisbee and the Mountain State was the catalyst to draw West Virginia deeper into the defense industry contractor mix.
“I think that job at the alumni association was key in developing my vision and approach to Vertx because it was there that I became engaged with many different industries,” Frisbee says. “WVU has 220,000 alumni spread all over the globe, and they are involved in every industry imaginable. I got to see the technology these alums were developing and often thought, ‘That technology could solve this problem in the Department of Defense.’ I began making these connections that bring private enterprises into the public sphere.”
Vertx takes a holistic approach to working with tech businesses, helping them put winning plans into place rather than just grooming them to be federal contractors.
“We’re focused on nurturing these businesses just as much as we are educating and guiding them toward the federal contract process,” says Scott Rotruck, Vertx vice president of external relations. “I can’t think of any effort as comprehensive as this one. We will continue probing all corners of the state and region to foster these networks and generate the snowball effect we’re aiming for.”
At Vertx Partners, everyone—from the science team to the marketing team—seeks out technologies to join the network. Frisbee says it is an all-hands-on-deck approach to growing the business of defense contracting. Vertx Partners started in the Mountain State, but today Frisbee is expanding into other parts of Appalachia.
“Appalachia is a hotbed of unrecognized potential—APEX identified that years ago,” Frisbee says. “We just need to get the word out and facilitate that partnership. We anticipate that we can double the number of small businesses supporting the defense industrial base over the next few years. We’re already seeing success with companies winning contracts and beginning to gain a foothold in the defense industry, and that will continue to expand. What we’ve got going on here is the network effect.”