BY CHARITY BRANDSMA, Greater Fayetteville Business Journal
What began as one man’s mission to better Robeson County, has now become a full fledged technology research testing center in Red Springs, North Carolina. Led by James Freeman, CEO, the Emerging Technology Institute began as a simple request made to Freeman to create a testing center for drones, a feat easier said than done with many air restrictions in place, but has quickly grown into a flourishing development center with a mission to better the community.
When Freeman happened upon the land he needed with the rare lack of flying restrictions, he immediately began thinking through what such a life change would look like. At the time he knew nothing about drones and worked for the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, directing the entrepreneurship incubator. When helping others navigate business start-ups, specifically in government contracts, Freeman became familiar with the prejudices others would face, whether from their own background or the stigma of their hometown.
Freeman explained, these prejudices only fueled a greater fire in him to help businesses succeed, “When we would tell those folks, ‘Hey, we’re from Robeson County,’ they would look at us with a stink face. So not only was it a leap of faith, it was almost a determination to prove that folks from Robeson County can do business with folks at Fort Bragg.”
And the change from working at UNC to starting his own drone testing site truly was a leap of faith. With no backup job or drone training, he purchased the land and began transforming an old warehouse and the surrounding terrain into a place where Fort Bragg drone operators would have the freedom to not only practice their job without the myriad of air restrictions but would have the ability to create new technology that would impact the military as a whole.
Freeman described ETI as not just a business, but a place where he as a private citizen could support those fighting for the United States of America.
“They couldn't train or become efficient at it because the military didn’t have the space or protocols that helped these soldiers. So sometimes they don’t get to fly the UAS, that is their job, until they get to the battlefield,” he said. “That right there makes me as a private citizen want to build a location for these guys to get good at what they're doing to protect our freedom as well.”
Not long after opening, COVID began its slow shutdown of many government entities. While this could have been ETI’s downfall, being so new in the industry, Freeman and his small team decided to keep their doors open, becoming one of the only places still available for continued training.