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43North champ Strayos digs Buffalo potential

Strayos founder Ravi Sahu didn't make the most dazzling presentation of the 10 finalists in 43North's competition on Wednesday.

Sahu was low-key, methodical and humble, even, in explaining how he would turn his company into a Buffalo-based growth story by creating a sort of underground version of Google Maps.

It turns out, he didn't have to be flashy. The five judges liked his plan and his vision, and awarded Strayos the competition's $1 million grand prize.

Amid the hoopla onstage at Shea's afterward, Sahu seemed in awe of the outcome. "I still don't believe I am the winner here," he told the audience.

With the annual awards program over, Sahu will turn his attention to relocating Strayos' base of operations to Buffalo from St. Louis, Mo. Most of the company's eight employees will move here, and the company plans to add a dozen jobs next year.

Strayos uses drones and computer analysis to help mining and construction companies understand what is below the ground, before they drill or blast.

"We are on a mission to build Google Maps below the surface," Sahu said.

The technology helps make for safer worksites, by allowing companies to spot potential underground hazards like utility lines. They can also identify the hardness of the rock they will drill or excavate.

Sahu grew up in a small mining town in India, where his grandfather worked in engineering for a mining company. That gave him some insights into the industry, but he said after he moved to the United States, he learned more about how technology like his could make mining operations safer.

Ravi Sahu, right, celebrates his win with 43North president Alex Gress, left. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

One of the judges, David Brown, asked Sahu what it was like to be the solo founder of a startup.

"I am a solo founder but I have a great team," he said. "I don't treat them as they are just my team, but I share everything transparently, and they come back with great suggestions.

While his team members don't carry the title of founder, Sahu said, "they are equally important in every decision."

"Great answer," said William Maggio, the event's moderator, as the audience applauded in agreement.

Sahu framed his company as a problem solver for the construction and mining industry. And he pinpointed why Buffalo would be an ideal fit to accelerate its growth.

Sahu said Strayos offers a better solution to the industry than the current method of engineers using laser scanners on the surface to collect data.

When companies dig or excavate and strike a utility line, he said, they not only face the cost of paying fines and making repairs, but put their employees in danger. Sahu said his technology helps companies identify and avoid those underground risks.

Strayos has about 40 customers in eight countries, he said. The company plans to apply its $1 million prize toward hiring more people, ramping up its sales and marketing and gaining more customers.

Sahu said in the United States alone, there are 48,000 excavation contracting companies, creating a $1.2 billion market opportunity. The global market is vastly bigger.

"To capture this big market, we think that Buffalo gives us a unique advantage," Sahu said, citing the University at Buffalo's civil engineering program as a talent pool. "This is the perfect place to find geoscience engineers."

One of the judges, Denmark West, said Sahu came in with a strong business plan, but also demonstrated an ability to act on judges' feedback. Sahu and the other nine finalists had made it through a qualifying round, before a different set of judges, the day before.

"This was an extremely strong company, and if you add the fact that the founder was extremely coachable, that's what sealed it," said West, founding partner and chief investment officer with Connectivity Ventures.

Another judge, Marissa Campise, said the judges were impressed with the technical solution Sahu presented, as well as his plan to hire locally.

"To us, [the factors were] great economic development for Buffalo, a business with massive potential – the market is really, really big – and he's got a wonderful backstory that lends itself to a very authentic, mission-driven company," said Campise, founder of the venture firm Rucker Park.

Seven other companies each won $500,000 in the 43North competition and are set to move their operations to Buffalo, too. 43North itself is about to relocate to a new home, in Seneca One tower.

Sahu sounded eager to get to work here.

"This is the perfect place for us," he said. "We cannot ask for a better place to build the next phase of our company."

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