Friday, December 4, 2015

From LeTourneau to the Tank

When JD Claridge was a student at LeTourneau University 15 years ago, he probably didn’t expect that he would one day present his own company to five of the country’s top business professionals. He probably didn’t think he would own a company that would be valued at $6 million. And he probably didn’t expect to pitch a business on national television. Yet, this fall, that’s exactly what happened.

Claridge, co-founder of drone startup xCraft, invented a different kind of drone. In a now saturated market, he used his innovative spirit—one that LETU students are known for—to create a product that has made America stop and take notice.

PhoneDrone Ethos
xCraft offers two revolutionary drone models. The X PlusOne is a professional, commercial drone that combines hovering capabilities and speed. The average drone has hovering capacity only. This, on the other hand, has the capacity to fly up to 60 miles per hour while climbing to 10,000 feet.

The second of the two xCraft drone models lives up to its name, PhoneDrone Ethos, by giving flight to your own smartphone. Far less expensive than a typical drone, it provides consumers easy access to aerial footage using their smartphone cameras. 

This fall, Claridge and his business partner, Charles Manning, pitched xCraft on ABC’s hit television show “Shark Tank.” The show gives entrepreneurs the chance to present their businesses to the Sharks­­—self-made millionaire and billionaire business moguls—who then decide if they want to invest in the entrepreneur’s company. Claridge and Manning originally requested $500,000 for a 20% stake in their company. After several sharks tried to outdo each other with higher offers—in a “shark fight,” as it’s called in the Tank—all five investors banded together to offer xCraft $1.5 million for a 25% stake. As a result, Claridge is now in business with Mark Cuban, Kevin O’Leary, Lori Greiner, Robert Herjavec and Damon John. 

This extensive, all-sharks-in partnership signaled a remarkably high vote of confidence in Claridge’s company. Kevin O’Leary himself said that this kind of deal was “very rare in the Shark Tank.”

Before his turn in the Tank, Claridge graduated from LETU in 2001 with an aeronautical science electronic systems degree and we’re extraordinarily proud to be his alma mater. His work embodies LeTourneau’s vision of graduating professionals of ingenuity. While his schedule is packed these days creating innovative products and now working hard to take full advantage of such an entrepreneurial windfall, he took a moment to share how LETU helped him get where he is today:

“Attending LeTourneau was an incredible experience that not only taught me the skills I needed for my career but also challenged me to learn in a way I had not experienced before.  I often say that LeTourneau is where I learned how to learn.” 

Claridge credits faculty, and one professor in particular, as having a lasting effect on his life. 

“There were several faculty members who guided me along the way, but the standout is Lauren Bitikofer. While I attended LeTourneau, he and his wife, Kathy, took me under their wing. They fed me, mentored me, and even let me live at their house one summer. Ever since attending, Lauren and I have stayed in touch. We talk on a regular basis about radio control modeling and flying—two of our common passions. I have appreciated his guidance and friendship so much. He has truly had a profound impact in my life, both professionally and spiritually. Thank you, Mr. B!”

Claridge adds that LETU wasn’t strictly an academic experience for him. He shared that one of his most memorable accomplishments was being part of residence life:

“I would say what I am most proud of was the mentoring I was able to provide during my time as an RA on Flooders. So many great relationships were forged. Many of them are still strong today.”

While his business booms, Claridge still holds on to his time at LETU, both academically and relationally. He hopes that current LETU students will take advantage of the full college experience that makes up LeTourneau.

“I would say that LeTourneau has so much more to offer than a stellar education—the friendships you make, the experiences you have, the mentorship you give and receive. Make sure you take advantage of it all while you are there. Those few years at LeTourneau are formative for the rest of your life. My time at LeTourneau is something I'll never forget.”


  1. Nice to see fellow alums go on to do great and laudable things. Go YellowJackets!

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