By GREGORY ZELLER // Daniel Preston, CEO of Luminati Aerospace, the Brooklyn startup with plans to build communication drones at Calverton, seems comfortable punching the throttle.
Incorporated in Delaware in April and registered as a New York LLC in July, Luminati is ready to fly. Company officials, including Preston, are already relocating to Riverhead, and the firm is pushing for speedy approvals of its plans, which include expanding a former skydiving school at Calverton and taking over the former Navy facility’s main runway.
“Technology moves at a fast pace,” Preston told Innovate LI. “We’re set up for expressly that purpose: being able to move quickly.”
Quick has always been part of Preston’s makeup. A college student by age 12 — he dropped out to start his first company, which he sold for “seven figures” — the Brooklyn entrepreneur then launched a next-generation parachute company that built more than $20 million in sales to the U.S. military.
After selling that, and faced with a numbing five-year non-compete, Preston started tinkering with his family’s 100-year-old cacao business. The result: A mammoth expansion of family farms in the Dominican Republic, plus new lines of gourmet chocolate here, followed by a Brooklyn distilling operation that produces cacao-laced rum, liqueurs and Widow Jane, a stand-in-line-popular bourbon. There’s also Botanica, a Venetian-style cocktail bar.
Oh, and Cacao Biotechnologies, which is developing skin care products and pharamaceuticals. And Brooklyn Cacao, which designs and builds custom machinery for the chocolate trade.
Now comes Luminati, around which the rumors are flying almost as fast as Preston. Topping the list: Whether “the client” is Facebook or a similar global enterprise that plans to use drones to laser-beam Internet connectivity into hard-to-reach locales. Despite the buzz, Preston was tightlipped Thursday about Luminati clients and the exact nature of his company’s work, noting repeatedly that he was “not at liberty to discuss” specific customers or their potential uses for Luminati’s next-generation aircraft.
“We’re not secretive by nature, but there is a propriety aspect to what we’re developing,” said Preston, who holds more than 100 patents in 17 countries and doubles as the startup’s chief technology officer. “I have to respect the confidential nature of this program and our client.”
Preston did allay fears that Luminati Aerospace would be engaged in the testing of military drones over heavily populated Long Island by noting “what we’re designing is commercial in nature.”
“We design and manufacture the drones,” he added. “How they’re used is up to the client.”
Preston did offer a few details about his startup, which he described as a “dream team of engineers and university professors.” The CEO is a self-described “inventor and engineer with expertise in UAVs that’s both commercial and military in nature,” and Luminati Aerospace – “We had a little fun with the name,” Preston noted, nothing sinister there – will bring 40 full-time jobs to Calverton “immediately.”
The aircraft it develops and tests at the former Grumman site will be solar-powered, making Luminati Aerospace “a very green project,” and Preston is hoping to not only develop his next-gen drones on Long Island, but secure manufacturing here as well.
The CEO would not reveal how large an investment his company is making at Calverton, referencing only a “multi-million-dollar” project nor speculate on future hiring by his firm, though Preston did note that “aerospace projects are not small.”
“There’s money being invested locally,” he said. “Jobs being created locally. And long-term, this has the potential to be significantly larger than what it is today.”
While negotiating with Riverhead officials over runway restrictions and other land-use and property-specific details – the use of a second runway on the site and the need for a new control tower are both “to be determined,” Preston noted – Luminati Aerospace is already wheels up.
It plans to be “up and running immediately,” according to its CEO, and already has a rudimentary production schedule in the making.
“For the next two years, we’ll be in what we’re considering a skunkworks phase: research, development, testing and low-volume manufacturing,” Preston said. “We hope to enter into a production phase in year three.”
As for the long and sad history of grand proposals for the Calverton enterprise zone – and potential public backlash against a not-quite-defined drone-testing and manufacturing enterprise next door – the CEO expressed confidence.
“There’s one thing tying all of those previous proposals together: They weren’t aviation-based,” Preston said. “Our application is in line with what the facilities were originally developed for and what they’re ideal for.
“Compared to what’s gone on there, people won’t even notice what we’re doing,” he added. “We’re quiet and we’re very green, and we should have a positive impact on the region with job creation.”