Ever have the hankering to build an airplane you could fly?

Not a drone or a toy, but a real two-seater, flight-worthy plane that could carry you from here to Key West, Florida, in about five hours on a single tank of fuel?

DarkAero is a young Madison company that says it manufactures most of the parts you will need. DarkAero makes aircraft kits, working out of a Dane County Regional Airport hangar.

Three brothers with a longtime love affair with flying — Keegan, River and Ryley Karl — were captivated by the aircraft they saw each year at the EAA AirVenture, a gathering of planes of all types and ages in Oshkosh. They decided they could come up with their own design based on new technology that would travel faster, farther and more efficiently than anything they’d seen.

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Rolls of carbon fiber cloth with different weave patterns are used for DarkAero's airplane components. The three brothers who formed DarkAero say the plane assembled from their kit will be lightweight, long-range and fast.

Natives of Frederic, Wisconsin, and UW-Madison graduates, the brothers, ages 28 to 32, quit their jobs in July 2017 and formed a self-funded company, DarkAero. They have progressed far enough that they were invited to display a prototype at this year’s EAA Innovation Showcase in July.

“This is certainly the biggest and riskiest endeavor we have ever embarked upon, but it wasn’t something we decided to do on a whim,” Ryley Karl said. “We had been talking about starting a company together ever since we were in college.”

Startup smorgasbord

The Madison area is getting a reputation for its growing, innovative tech, biotech and gaming companies.

But airplane parts manufacturing?

How about wild mustang contraceptives? Or liquid composite armor?

They all are among the 25 companies named finalists in this year’s Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest. Twelve are in the Madison area, including DarkAero.

Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, which presents the competition, agrees that the scope of startups applying for a spot in the event seems to be broadening.

“One reason is that technology is so embedded in all sectors today that we’re seeing a wider swath of ideas,” Still said.

Birth control for stray animals

SpayVac for Wildlife is a Madison company that licensed animal contraceptive vaccine technology last year from IMV, a Canadian company, based on research that began at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, more than 20 years ago.

SpayVac says its mission is to provide “humane wildlife population control” in a less invasive way than spaying.

Its main vaccine is aimed at wild animals that become too abundant and invasive, such as feral horses, deer, elephants and seals. Other versions are being developed for feral cats and dogs.

The vaccine, called DepoVax, is an injection, delivered using liposomes, a type of engineered nanoparticle. The liposomes contain a protein that prompts the animal’s immune system to produce antibodies; those antibodies prevent sperm from penetrating the female’s eggs.

CEO Tom D’Orazio said the vaccine has been tested in three species of deer as well as horses, wild burros, seals and elephants and one dose provides contraceptive protection for multiple years — in horses, as much as five years; six years in deer and as long as 11 years for seals.

“We are working with potential partners around the world to test the ... vaccine in antelope in India, macaques in India, kangaroos and camels in Australia,” he said.

For now, the vaccine is being manufactured in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. D’Orazio said he hopes eventually, the research lab is in Madison.

D’Orazio said SpayVac will need approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency before it can market the vaccine. He said the company has met with EPA officials twice in the last year and hopes to apply for approval by August.

An improved bulletproof vest

Simply Solutions in Janesville is working on an alternative to the bulletproof vest. The company says it has developed a substance that can provide better protection, based on a fluid that thickens when something hits it.

“It is not based on ‘hardness’ (like a steel plate),” said chief operating officer Mark Schweiger. Instead, it involves the way energy is dispersed. When a projectile — such as a bullet — hits the material, the fluid instantly hardens, he said.

“It actually sort of ‘absorbs’ the projectile and spreads the energy,” Schweiger said. “We have prototypes that consistently stop armor-piercing munition rounds.”

Schweiger’s vision is to use the material for personal protection garments, for vehicle protection, to protect military or commercial buildings or schools, and to protect against sports impact.

He said, though, it will take more research and testing before Simply Solutions can start thinking about manufacturing products.

DarkAero’s airplane kits

DarkAero may be making one of the more expensive products ever to come through the Governor’s Business Plan Contest.

The company’s kit — including the wings, tail, fuselage, windshield, landing gear and engine mount — will cost more than $70,000 and buying the rest of the components raises the total customer cost to about $150,000 per airplane. But that’s a bargain, said Ryley Karl.

“Factory-built aircraft with speed similar to what we are targeting are upwards of $700,000 new. Even used versions of these factory-built aircraft remain significantly more costly than our kit would cost to build,” he said.

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Brothers River, left, and Ryley Karl display the wings for the airplane kit that their company, DarkAero, plans to sell. The two-seat propeller plane will have a wingspan of nearly 24 feet but Ryley Karl says it will be easy enough to assemble that "someone can do it in a garage." 

The propeller plane design uses a piston engine made by ULPower Aero Engines, of Belgium. It has a nearly 24-foot wingspan and is 18 feet long and about 7 feet tall, with a 77-gallon gas tank.

Karl said he thinks there will be strong interest in DarkAero’s product. He said the kit airplane market is bigger than you may think.

“According to FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) records, there are around 30,000 registered kit aircraft in the U.S. and it is continuing to grow year over year,” Karl said. “We are trying to capture the segment of this market made up of pilots seeking a fast, efficient, long-range aircraft.”

He said he and his brothers are making the design easy for the average pilot to put together. “If you can turn a wrench, someone can do it in a garage,” Karl said.

DarkAero’s kit will need approval from the FAA. One of the requirements is that purchasers will have to conduct at least 51 percent of the assembly. The company plans to apply with the FAA this fall. Already, a couple of customers have made deposits to reserve production slots, Karl said.

Other local finalists

Also among the Madison-area finalists are:

  • All Brick Medical — An ergonomic syringe that can be used in either hand.
  • Auto-Scope — Artificial intelligence technology to help diagnose ear problems.
  • Blexx Technology — A hypodermic needle disposal tool that won the Elevator Pitch Olympics last November.
  • GrowthChart Records — An app that lets child care workers give oral updates on youngsters in their care, using Google Home speakers.
  • Papriik — A smart spice rack, including the company’s branded herbs and spices.
  • TCARE — Technology to prevent family caregiver burnout.
  • The Virtual Foundry — Patented metal filament for 3-D printed metal parts.
  • UCHardChip — Safety equipment for construction workers with embedded sensors and wireless, two-way communications.
  • Voximetry — Technology to determine specific radiation doses necessary for individual patients.
  • Zero Barrier — A 3-D metal printing factory.

The 25 finalists, chosen after two rounds of competition from among nearly 200 applications, will have to submit business plans of up to 20 pages for review by a panel of judges. The top 12 will make presentations on June 4 at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference in Milwaukee, and winners will be named on June 5. A total of about $160,000 in cash and in-kind services is at stake.

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