If you want to understand how StreetDrone came to be, simply visit their office courtyard around the end of June every summer.
The StreetDrone Summer Party has become legendary in the tech industry in the UK. In this little corner of Oxford, you’ll find autonomous vehicles running nonchalantly up and down the road outside the StreetDrone HQ, showing off their very-much-here technology, while inside the courtyard is a treasure trove of workshops, coding spaces, simulation rigs and, of course, the office bar.
Around the office space, you’ll notice an intriguing blend of motorsport paraphernalia, carbon fibre tubs leaning casually against the wall and empty podium champagne bottles standing next to proud championship winners trophies.
But this isn’t quite a racing team – at least not in the traditional sense.
Mike Potts and Mark Preston are the co-founders of StreetDrone. Both have an appetite for adventure and entrepreneurship, starting their lifelong friendship after meeting in Australia as teenagers.
Cycling the streets of Canterbury in Melbourne, the two dreamed of interesting ways to use technology, especially early stage home computers, to have a real impact on the world – from learning how to create 3D graphics on a BBC Micro to building a rudimental solar heating rig for Mark’s parents pool.
Mike returned to the UK in 1985, and after dropping out at his first attempt at university – in his own often-repeated words, “I would say I’m a failed, wannabe engineer at heart” – his second attempt, at Oxford Brookes University, became the catalyst for his fledgling business career to take off.
At the start of his final year of study he went to Lloyds Bank on Oxford high street, convincing the business manager to loan him £1000, which bought a “very second-hand” van, allowing him to do deliveries and assemblies of flat-pack furniture for the Futon Company, among others. This was a turning point for Mike, proving to himself he could make something from nothing and generate a good profit at the same time, all while completing his university degree.
Meanwhile in Australia, Mark attended the prestigious Monash University and, frustrated at its largely theoretical teachings, decided to additionally gain practical experience in the proven motorsport training ground of Formula Fords with Borland Racing Developments. Designing and manufacturing the successful Spectrum FF1600 machine, Mark also enjoyed spells with General Motors Holden, working with pioneering crash analysis simulations.
But it was his work with Tom Walkinshaw Racing’s Holden Special Vehicles outfit that led him to the UK and into Formula 1. When the organisation bought the Arrows Formula 1 Team, Mark followed to the UK in 1996.
Mike used his skills and experience gained from his delivery business to stand out when he applied for a role with Coca-Cola in 1998, earning the job and the company van that allowed him to regularly see best friend Mark in Oxford, sowing the seeds for StreetDrone’s future.
However, both had industries to transform and companies to lead before reaching autonomous vehicles.
When Arrows folded in 2002, Mark moved to McLaren and linked up with the famous Adrian Newey, overseeing stress analysis, composite design, materials, and vehicle laboratories.
Then came a greater challenge, joining forces with Aguri Suzuki to create an F1 team in just 100 days, working as the Founder and Technical Director of the new team: the Super Aguri Honda F1 Team. This is now a story infamous among the employees of StreetDrone, told in hushed tones around the campfire.
While short-lived in F1, it was a partnership that was revived in 2013 when Mark headed up one of the first-ever Formula E Teams, Team Aguri, as one of only 10 founding Team Principals, in leading a motorsport revolution as it embraced e-mobility.
Mark would leave an incredible impact in Formula E, becoming the most successful Team Principal in the series as it evolved into DS-Techeetah, winning 3 Drivers’ and 2 Teams’ World Championships.
Speaking to Mark now, he’s incredibly humble about his achievements on-track and is clearly striving for the next level in performance, always. Optimisation is the game and Mark is pretty good at winning.
Mike would begin working with pioneering technologies, joining the fledgling Expedia in 2000 as just the seventh employee on the books in the UK.
Heavyweights Microsoft pushed Expedia forward, helping Mike put himself front and centre in the world of e-commerce, not only in the UK, but across Expedia’s fledgling European operations.
It was the perfect grounding for Mike to launch his second business, and in 2006, Elisa Interactive Group was formed, focussing on data analytics and the optimisation of ecommerce sites across the UK, Spain and Portugal.
After seven years, and clients ranging from Zara to Sky.com, Elisa Interactive was acquired by multinational media agency Havas and Mike became the Chief Data Officer of Havas’s operations in the UK.
Both feeling they needed new challenges, there was the burning desire to be at the vanguard of pioneering technology, and a global event helped them focus on their next move.
The Eyjafjallajökull volcano eruption, which covered much of Europe in ash clouds and grounded flights, led to Mike spending five days in Oxford with Mark, during which time they dreamed big.
All day they would analyse global technology companies, before unwinding in the local pub in the evening, laying the groundwork for what would later become their move into the autonomous technology sector.
In 2015, rising to the challenge of future transportation and mobility in Oxfordshire, Mike and Mark co-founded the MobOx Foundation. They teamed up with Oxford University, Oxford Brookes University, and the Oxfordshire County Council, providing the perfect opportunity for their shared knowledge of data, motorsport, automotive, and business to dovetail. This proved pivotal in the founding of StreetDrone one year later.
From there, the pair never looked back. In 2016, it was the turn of Oxbotica, an autonomous vehicle software company, who requested that Mike, Mark, and future StreetDrone Technical Director Ian Murphy proposed an autonomous-ready vehicle solution: a robotised Renault Twizy concept was built to be used as an autonomous software test platform for the road by Oxbotica.
While Oxbotica decided to not go with the Oxford based solution, other potential clients saw the genius in using the Twizy. The duo pushed forward, utilising their thick contacts book, they quickly sold their first vehicle to the successful Cambridge startup Wayve.
Mike’s extensive background in marketing, commercial, and entrepreneurship, combined with Mark’s engineering expertise and experience in building high-performance teams, provides a world-class leadership team. With dozens of potential customers and the makings of a growing business, the partners set up shop in 2017 with an office in Oxford to develop their technologies from the ground up.
Fast forward six years and this growing team (now over 35 people) in Oxford is working to change the world using its autonomous solutions. From grassroots motorsport to the future of autonomous vehicles, Mike and Mark share an insatiable appetite for creating new technologies with real applications – and now it’s paying off.
Speak to Mike about the company he has built and it’s clear – he wants StreetDrone to be the best place in the world to work.
Just look around at the community from industry that gathers at their Summer Party every year. As the team moves from success to success (with over 30 autonomous vehicles in the wild and recently completing the first autonomous deliveries at Nissan’s car plant in Sunderland), the founders manage to revel in that sweet-spot of startups: growing at a fast pace and retaining a sense of fun, empathy, and excitement for adventure.
From a paper round in Australia, to scaling both digital and four-wheeled worlds of data and motorsport, to transforming the communities of Oxfordshire and now deploying real near-term autonomy, Mike and Mark have built something remarkable together.