Jim Perschbach, president and CEO of Port San Antonio Port San Antonio

Fast 5: Connecting MRO Industry Tech Innovators

Jim Perschbach, president and CEO of Port San Antonio, talks to Lindsay Bjerregaard about how the aviation and tech hub is building up its MRO and innovation capabilities.

What is Tech Port San Antonio and what’s the goal behind it? Why is San Antonio an ideal spot for the Port?

Tech Port San Antonio is the concept of trying to make sure the aviation industry and a few other industries are in a place where they can connect up with the new technologies. As we move into a connected and systems-based world, making sure that you have access to those technologies and that those technologies have access to your industry is going to be more important.

It’s an ideal spot for what we’re trying to do because we have some really deep capabilities. We’ve got 100-year plus heritage on the aviation side, and we’ve been doing the electronics side of this equation for about 70 or 80 years now. If you’re looking for predictive maintenance, data analytics, sensors technology and the machine learning that goes with that, you can find that here in San Antonio. But if you’re looking to provide those solutions to the industry and you want to make sure that you have people that truly understand how airplanes work and what’s going to be necessary for predictive maintenance, we’ve got that here as well.

Knight Aerospace, which specializes in modular and palletized systems to transform the functionality of aircraft, recently announced plans to move to Port San Antonio. How will this relocation fit into the Port’s strategy of building up its MRO capabilities?

We want to make sure that we’ve got nose-to-tail capabilities on the property, so having somebody like Knight Aerospace that’s doing the modular systems is a really nice addition. Now you can take that same airplane and dramatically expand its mission.

The other thing about it is what that does for some of the existing technologies. When you’re putting a modular system into an aircraft, then that connected world becomes ever more important. Not only is it the traditional connections of the electronic systems and the HVAC systems and what have you, but it’s the electronic connections: How is that system truly going to connect? How is it going to integrate? So it’s the radio frequency (RF) work that we do on this property that you’re going to need to make sure you have, and of course the cybersecurity work becomes more and more important.

The Port is working to build a new innovation center. What is the goal behind it and what will the center consist of?

The goal behind it is to connect people with opportunities, which is our cute way of saying it’s a talent development center. And it’s also to create buyers and sellers—it’s a way to showcase the technologies that we think are going to add some value to the aviation, energy and manufacturing industries.

What it’s going to consist of is a technology arena, a gaming arena, a technology showcase and a robotics arena. And that’s in a place to attract young people in—as young as elementary school—where they can be connected up with educational opportunities, both at the K-12 level and the collegiate level. [It will also include] a maker space and coworking space, which is an opportunity to start working on these new solutions in conjunction with the big employers and the universities. And then, ultimately, a showroom where you can show off the technologies and industry can see whether or not that can help them get to the next step.

What is the progress so far?

We are in the middle of a 120-day due diligence period with our construction and finance partners, looking to make sure that everything pencils out on this, but we’re very optimistic. Assuming everything pencils out the way we hope it has, we’d like to have it up and operational in about 12-15 months.

The new innovation center and the Port itself house innovators in aerospace-adjacent industries such as cybersecurity, robotics and virtual reality. How is the Port working to foster collaboration between these industries?

The best thing we can do is just bring these folks together—as I like to say, it’s putting the chocolate with the peanut butter. It is really, really hard for somebody to be an expert in absolutely everything. You just can’t possibly be. So if you have tech people working on software solutions, but they have no idea how an airplane engine works, they’re never going to be able to provide something that’s of value to that airplane engine industry. If they don’t know how airplane structures work, they’re never going to be able to provide those solutions. The proximity is so important. And what we’re seeing as you look at predictive maintenance, for example—which of course in the MRO industry is of vital importance—it’s sensors technology, artificial intelligence, virtual reality and RF that’s going to be involved. Bringing those capabilities together and putting them together in a place where people can see it is vitally important.

With the corporate and private sector emerging technology funds, we’re excited about being able to have access to [technology]—whether it’s [from] students, entrepreneurs or startups—and seeing if that’s something that’s going to provide the solution. It’s not only exciting for us, but from a pecuniary standpoint it’s wonderful, because if you can create a marketplace that attracts the sellers, that will attract the buyers. And if you attract the buyers it attracts more sellers, so it creates that spiral going up that we think is going to be great not just for the industries that are here and for Port San Antonio but, frankly, for San Antonio, for Texas and—by extension—the whole United States.

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