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Two key players resign from Luminati’s ‘dream team,’ raising questions about the aerospace startup and its founder

Daniel Preston, founder of Luminati Aerospace at his plant in April.
File photo: Denise Civiletti

Luminati Aerospace, the startup company seeking to buy nearly all of the remaining town-owned land at the Calverton Enterprise Park, has lost two key players on what founder Daniel Preston calls his “dream team.”

Senior scientist Dr. Anthony Calise and chief operating officer — and Luminati co-founder — Stefan Maier have resigned from the startup.

Calise said in an interview Tuesday he left Luminati last fall.

Calise said he “led the entire tech effort, all of the design work and had a team of engineers reporting to me.”

“I’m not the only one who left. I’m not sure there’s anyone there at this point in time,” he said, adding that he has not been there or spoken to Preston this year.

Chief operating Stefan Maier resigned from the company last Thursday, Maier said through a spokesperson. He said his attorney has advised him against speaking publicly about the reasons for his resignation.

Both men are among the 18 people whose names, photos and bios currently appear on Luminati’s website indicating that they are employed by the company. Calise said his employment contract granted Luminati the right to use his image even after he left.

“Nobody’s more disappointed than I am at how things turned out,” said Calise, who, like Maier was there at the startup’s founding. Calise formerly worked for Atair Aerospace, a company Preston built and sold for a reported $22 million in 2009.

“I had great hopes,” Calise said. “The chance to design a first-of-its-kind aircraft, to do something no one’s ever done before. I had all these aspirations and it all went up in smoke.”

Calise declined to say exactly what went wrong or why it went wrong. “I don’t know how real his offer is,” Calise said.

A third Luminati technical employee told RiverheadLOCAL he left the company more than a year ago. He would speak only on the condition of anonymity.

Luminati cofounders Daniel Preston, left, and Stefan Maier admiring their prototype aircraft as it flew before a crowd last June at the former Grumman site in Calverton. File photo: Denise Civiletti

Preston said last week he currently has “about 30 people on staff.” During an interview with Preston at the enterprise park last week, there were five people working on equipment in the otherwise quiet 53,000-square-feet of hangar space Luminati is renting in Plant Six.

Today, Luminati spokesperson Jeremy Freeman acknowledged that Calise and Maier had resigned. In addition, seven of the other staff members depicted on Luminati’s website are presently “on leave” Freeman said.

“We are approaching completion of our manufacturing facility at Plant Six. What this means in terms of staffing is that we are in transition between the team we needed to build out the factory and the team we need to manufacture and be stratospheric within the next year,” Freeman said. “Like any transition period, we have had our rocky moments and Anthony Calise and Stefan Maier did resign.”

Freeman said Luminati plans to announce “the new Stratos Team on June 17.” Luminati issued a press release today announcing an air show at the former Grumman site in Calverton on that date.

Supervisor Sean Walter who has expressed high hopes for Luminati’s venture and praise for Preston, said today he learned of the resignations yesterday.

Walter said he has not yet signed the letter of intent. He said he spoke with Preston yesterday and will speak — for a second time — with Preston’s financier before he signs it. He on has arranged to have a conversation with the company on Friday, Walter said.

Preston’s claims about Luminati’s resources and the company’s ability to develop and use the former Grumman site for economic development in the Town of Riverhead will be the subject of a hearing to determine whether the company is a “qualified and eligible sponsor” as required by state law.

According to rules adopted by the town, the criteria for that determination include: experience in developing a project of similar scope and size; a demonstrated ability to finance the acquisition and development; and demonstrated integrity and responsibility.

“To some extent the state vetted Luminati for their financial awards,” Walter said, referring to grants and tax incentives provided by N.Y State Economic Development, which in December announced a $2 million economic development grant for Luminati and a tax incentive package worth more than $5 million.

“We will vet their financial records, just as we did for determining them qualified and eligible for the runway use agreement,” Walter said. “They presented us with their bank statements showing large sums of money,” he said.

“The vetting now will also be about the financier and their ability to move forward, a discussion of all the contingencies. If Luminati fails to perform, the financier will be owning this property in some fashion or another and so what does that look like,” Walter said.

Democratic supervisor candidate Laura Jens-Smith called for more transparency in the vetting process. She said the qualified and eligible determination should include fact-checking statements Preston has made regarding things like the number of patents he holds and having three planes on exhibit in the Smithsonian.

“From checking that I’ve done I haven’t been able to verify it,” Jens-Smith said.

“The three planes are two parafoils and a remote-controlled parachute and they are part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum,” Freeman said. He provided copies of a Smithsonian catalogue showing the craft, which are credited to Preston in the text.

Preston holds numerous patents, Freeman said today. He could not provide a precise number, in part because patents are bundled together, he said.

“This needs to be vetted very very carefully,” Jens-Smith said, “to make sure that the claims are realistic, especially the jobs being promised, in today’s economy and in the aerospace industry.”

Luminati Aerospace bought the Skydive Long Island property in 2015. The Skydive site was part of the property purchased from the town by developer Jan Burman in 2001. The town was not a party to the transaction between Skydive and Luminati, but is subsequently entered into a runway use agreement with Luminati, granting the company the exclusive right to use the active runway on the site.

Preston and members of his “dream team,” including Calise and Maier, spoke of their ambitions for the site during the qualified and eligible sponsor hearing the town convened about the runway use agreement. Luminati was designing and would be building ultralight, solar- and wind-powered unmanned aircraft capable of perpetual flight — at 60,000 feet. The goal would be to bring high-speed internet connections to portions of the world that lack such connectivity. Preston said Luminati had the backing of a “Fortune 200” company for the project but said a nondisclosure agreement prevented him from identifying it.

Last June, at a demonstration flight of an aircraft, Preston said Luminati designed and built, Preston said Luminati would lease 53,000 square feet of hangar space in Plant Six, where, he said at the time, the company would begin manufacturing a small recreational aircraft designed by Sea Max. Preston said last June he expected to be in full production of the Sea Max by Halloween. He also said in an interview that day he was pursuing defense department contracts for his solar-powered UAVs.

A German company named PC-Aero announced in July that Luminati had falsely claimed credit for the aircraft flown at Calverton a month earlier — with great fanfare, including a large crowd and a press conference. PC-Aero said the plane was designed and built at its facilities. Preston said that he and a team of Luminati engineers spent three months at PC-Aero’s plant in Germany making major adaptations to the aircraft and he stands by his claim to its design. He said his lawyer obtained a written retraction from PC-Aero, but was unable to provide a copy which he said his lawyer Robert Hasday had. Hasday did not return a phone call or produce the retraction letter.

Calin Gologan, CEO of Elektra Solar, a company formed when PC-Aero and Elektra-UAS merged, insisted today the plane Luminati displayed last June was built by his company and maintained that there was no retraction by his company.

“The aircraft from Luminati was completely manufactured in Germany by us,” Gologan said in an email.

Freeman said Luminati stands by its prior statements.

As for the Sea Max plane, Preston said Luminati would be manufacturing at EPCAL by November 2016, Freeman said plans to manufacture that plane were put on a back burner when Preston got involved pursuing the idea of manufacturing ultralight unmanned aircraft for the military. Preston said last week he is focused on putting Dupont’s Kevlar technology to work to make military drones resistant to small arms fire.

“I think he’s a thinker, a tinkerer who comes up with great ideas,” Jens-Smith said, expressing doubt about Preston’s ability to deliver. “The town really needs to be very, very careful.”

“I think the mission has changed,” Walter said. “It’s morphed into something similar but different. With any startup company you’ve got to start producing so you can bring in money, so I think this new path might be the low-hanging fruit for him.”

Walter said he believes Luminati could be Riverhead’s best option and is definitely worth fully exploring.

“At some point the town has to step off with somebody and I’m comfortable stepping off with Luminati because it’s such a short suspense. We have 30 days to negotiate a contract and 90 days for due diligence,” he said. “It’s better to step off with a company that’s invested millions of dollars in the Town of Riverhead already than someone from the outside and if it doesn’t come to fruition it’s a 90-day period.”

Riverhead has owned the former Grumman site since 1998 when it was transferred to the town by the Navy for economic development purposes. The town sold the 500-acre “industrial core” to Burman in 2001. The developer subdivided it into 40 lots and today approximately 36 businesses employ 600 people there.

The town has entertained many offers for the site over the years. This is the first time anyone has suggested they could bring the aerospace industry back to the Town of Riverhead.

Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter and editor, an attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including a “writer of the year” award from the N.Y. Press Association in 2015. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website. Email Denise.