But fear of flying? Not for Preston. Five months later he was jumping regularly and searching for the best parachute available. The only one that impressed him was made by Atair Aerodynamics, a Slovenian company. Preston, now 35, met with its founder and in 1999 opened a division of the company in a converted 19th-century warehouse in Brooklyn, N.Y., with a view of the Statue of Liberty.
These days Atair Aerospace, an independent 14-person spin-off, is getting attention for its parachutes, made with an innovative material, and the computer systems that make them self-guiding. Preston has been working to solve a vexing problem for the military: Personnel and cargo must be dropped from low-flying planes to land anywhere near their targets. That leaves aircraft vulnerable to surface-to-air missiles. But Atair's Onyx System can be dropped from 35,000 feet and land within 150 feet of its target. And Atair's "flocking" algorithm allows up to 50 units to be dropped at once without colliding. "What really sets Atair apart is this technology," says Edward Doucette, director of airdrop engineering at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Center in Natick, Mass. Atair has won $1.3 million in government contracts.
Preston is a soft-spoken New York City native who started college at age 12, attending several schools but never graduating. He trained to become a master glass-blower and in 1989, at the age of 19, he turned his hobby into a specialty glass company that also designed and built high-speed automation systems. Preston sold it in 1999 for $4.3 million. Some of that money funded Atair's early efforts. He's also raised about $5.5 million in angel funding.
Preston's first task in building a better parachute was to develop a material that would open more smoothly and with less stretching than the nylon used since World War II. He created a composite fabric by using extreme heat and pressure to bond high-strength Spectra fibers between two layers of ultrathin polymer. The material is three times as strong and less than one-third the weight of standard parachute nylon. And it stretches only one-sixth as much. Preston calls it "the Holy Grail of parachute fabric."
The fabric's military applications were obvious. Initially reluctant to go that route, Preston "started to think about it differently after September 11." Two months later, he spun off Atair Aerospace. At first the military rejected Atair's proposals for a self-guiding parachute. "They told me we were so far ahead they didn't think it would work," Preston says. He built the prototype anyway, and demonstrated it for military officials. "I blew them away," he says. In 2002 he won a $1.1 million Small Business Innovation Research grant to develop it.
Atair now has products from navigation aides to guide Special Operations forces to "monster" parachutes, including one used in a self-guiding paraglider that the military may use for surveillance. The company has nine patents and 86 pending. In a recent exhibit at the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York, Atair's composite fabric hung a few feet from the Wright Brothers' 1902 glider.
Preston intends to keep his staff lean, growing instead through strategic partnerships. Five have been signed so far. "I don't want to grow so fast that we can no longer do what we do best, which is find innovative solutions quickly," he says. That may leave him more time for inventing and, of course, skydiving with one of Atair's parachutes.For more on entrepreneurs, visit businessweek.com/smallbiz By Susan Price in Brooklyn, N.Y.