November 16, 2021

photo of hailey nichols

Aerospace engineering graduate student Hailey Nichols, who is working under faculty advisor Todd Humphreys, recently won first place in UT Austin’s inaugural Female Founder Pitch Competition, hosted by the Kendra Scott Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Institute (KS WELI) and the Texas Innovation Center at The University of Texas at Austin. Nichols won in the UT Graduate/Postdoc category for her company, Locus Lock, a technology that enables low-cost, high-precision positioning solutions using GPS.

Nichols, who is pursuing a master’s degree in aerospace engineering, took some time to answer a few questions about her experience as an entrepreneur in graduate school.

Tell us a little about your start-up, Locus Lock, that you founded this year.

Locus Lock is an early-stage technology startup that delivers next generation GPS solutions to businesses around the globe. The company presents a robust software-defined radio (SDR) to the market that can provide end users with precise heading and positioning that can be used for positioning, navigation and timing (PNT). Our mission is to provide centimeter accurate real-time positioning to ensure globally available, high integrity positioning at a fraction of the cost.

Why did you decide to start your own company?

Before coming to UT Austin, my manager encouraged me and my team to brainstorm as many unique ideas for a product or a company (not just technology-focused) as we could think of. Over time, the idea drawer would get full, and management would urge us to meet with patent lawyers to see if the ideas had any merit to them. I have continued this practice throughout graduate school and have my own idea drawer here in Austin.

Although the inspiration for Locus Lock began from research in the Radionavigation Lab at UT Austin and not from my eclectic idea drawer, this practice highlights my entrepreneurial mindset to recognize technology potential. In my application to UT Austin I wrote,“Following graduate school, I aspire to work in a fast-paced start-up environment and take those lessons in conjunction with my education to eventually found my own company. I thrive on taking on mission-critical responsibilities and working in small teams with common goals.”

What do you enjoy most about entrepreneurship? What do you find most challenging?

My background is entirely in aerospace engineering, so most of my expertise lies on the technology development side. However, I have enjoyed learning about the business side of building a company. This includes all aspects of business development: product development, validation testing, market research, finance, operations and marketing/sales.

One of the more challenging aspects of entrepreneurship is managing priorities. As the founder, I make product decisions, collaborate with customers, pursue marketing and fundraising efforts, etc. On any given day, there are several hats I must wear and determining priorities is quite a tough challenge.

How will Locus Lock make a difference in the world?

In an era of emerging space technology and advanced robotics, there is a practical need for accurate, affordable, robust, secure and flexible streaming and collection of Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) signals and data. We have developed an advanced software-defined radio for high performance that has use in many applications such as satellite operations, rockets, urban air mobility, drones, ground vehicles, etc.

For example, autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are reliant on lightweight GNSS solutions for precise positioning. Locus Lock can offer this centimeter-level precision and security in a small, lightweight form factor that is suitable for micro-aerial platforms.

In addition, the surge in automated ground vehicles has raised a need for robust positioning with lane-level accuracy. Our solution can counter challenging urban multipath environments by exploiting triple-frequency signal processing techniques. Additionally, our Radio Frequency (RF) front-end’s dual-antennas and onboard inertial measurement unit (IMU) provide robust defense mechanisms against GNSS spoofing. These advanced interference mitigation techniques become increasingly important as automated ground vehicles are deployed in urban areas.

Locus Lock supports this new era of technological innovation by providing businesses and consumers with the power of high integrity GNSS.

How has your work as a graduate student helped you with this startup?

As a graduate student, we are often faced with problems that are open-ended that require us to be comfortable in uncertainty. The most impactful way graduate school had aided me is to be comfortable in this uncertainty, and to rely on my skills and tools that I’ve learned along the way to address problems without clear solutions. There is no template that models exactly what the business case for Locus Lock is. There’s very limited open-source market research and competitor analysis in the exact market segment Locus Lock is in. However, graduate school has shaped the way I approach these problems and I am better equipped to use current research to build credibility around the product which translates to effective business documents.

After Nichols graduated in Spring 2022, she plans to develop and grow Locus Lock full-time.