Saving Lives of Soldiers
By Jessica Farrar
Photo by Mark Ostow
On a mid-October night in 2003, Brian Hart, MBA ’84, received a call from his son John, a solider serving in Iraq. John enlisted on his 19th birthday and had been working overseas for just three months. He told his father that he and his fellow soldiers were not adequately protected in their Humvees and was worried about their safety.
John had reason to worry. A third of American soldiers in Iraq didn’t have body armor, and only 225 of 35,000 vehicles were armored at the time.
Days after the nervous phone call, John was killed in an ambush south of Kirkuk. Hart first felt lost and was shocked that a young man so tenderhearted died so violently. But it didn’t take long for him to channel his grief into making positive changes in his son’s honor.
“Since then I have felt a deep obligation to honor him by helping protect his comrades. It was his last request to us, and in my mind, a lasting legacy,” says Hart.
He and his wife could not be more proud of John’s determination to serve after 9/11, and they resolved to prevent the same ill fate from ending the lives of other soldiers.
“John and I shared an abiding love for our country and a belief that we have the power to change the world around us if we have the will,” Hart says.
Hart passed up a promotion, quit his job at a Fortune 50 company and moved his family to Washington, D.C. He worked closely with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy to urge Congress to provide safer military vehicles, sufficient body armor and advanced tourniquets for the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2005 Kennedy co-sponsored legislation to provide $213 million to ensure that every Humvee that was manufactured for the army was adequately armored.
Eventually however, Capitol Hill was not enough for Hart. He realized that cost-effective robots could save the lives of soldiers and civilians and decided to co-found a company in 2006—Black-I Robotics—with his brother, a former Marine, and a business partner.
Hart explains that his small team focuses on utilizing the latest technical developments and keeping the cost and price structure below that of competitors in order to make the most affordable robots possible.
With Kennedy’s help, Hart won a contract from the Pentagon in 2008 that allowed for government support of the company. With almost no overhead costs, the modest company works closely with the Department of Defense to ship its products to soldiers overseas.
Black-I Robotics’ mission is to develop robotic devices to aid soldiers in dangerous environments. The Landshark, a robotic unmanned ground vehicle, was named Popular Science Magazine’s “Best of What’s New” in 2008 because of its power, flexibility and low cost.
Hart advises aspiring entrepreneurs to build new products with this cost competiveness in mind. “I would also emphasize partnering with other companies for quick technological development and a greater use of open source software and collaboration.”
John’s death was not Hart’s first time to start a business as a call to action. His dad was killed in 1987 at a hospital in Irving, TX due to a medication error. In 1994 he co-founded a company to improve drug safety and drug dispensing called Telepharmacy Solutions.
Hart admits that “you have to be emotionally committed” to start your own business. “I think it’s important to have an axe to grind because it requires tremendous persistence and both financial and emotional sacrifice.”
Owning a robotics company was an unexpected business venture, but Hart says that “It’s very hard to plan life…it has its own path,” and we have to manufacture our own solutions.