Venture capital group Up.Partners still sees plenty to attract new investors to the advanced air mobility (AAM) market. Its enthusiasm is partially based on its hope that the Biden administration in the U.S. will cultivate this new mode of transportation as part of its wider $2 trillion infrastructure investment package.
While acknowledging that the details of what Transportation Secretary and Green New Deal advocate Pete Buttigieg will deliver for AAM remain unclear for now, Up.Partners cofounder and managing partner Ben Marcus told FutureFlight that engagement with the industry has been been “very promising” so far.
What remains to be seen is the extent to which the Biden administration’s $2 trillion infrastructure budget will feed into efforts to launch eVTOL air taxi services and other applications for electric and potentially autonomous aviation. Regardless, Up.Partners still sees a need and an opportunity for many billions of dollars more in further investment for the cash-hungry pack of start-ups and established aerospace players.
In Marcus’s view, U.S. policy and regulation have lagged behind advances in the key technologies in AAM, such as electrification and autonomy. He said that a strong and clear regulatory framework is imperative to give investors confidence about the sector’s long-term prospects for commercial viability.
While hailing the FAA's progress in delivering a more “future-proof” version of Part 23 rules—as well as support for AAM in the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act and from the U.S. Air Force’s Agility Prime program—he said that the Trump administration’s Executive Order 13771 had impeded policy innovation by requiring the scrapping of two or more regulations for every new rule introduced. He added that President Biden’s Executive Order 13992 revoking the earlier order should give agencies like the FAA greater flexibility.
Also in need of a makeover, according to Marcus, is the aerospace supply chain, including not just composites and aluminum but also items such as magnets and batteries. “The volume of aircraft that will be produced is of a couple of orders of magnitude larger than what the industry currently produces,” he commented. “It could be a million aircraft per year and the existing supply base can’t support that.”
In this regard, Up.Partners views the involvement of AAM investors from high-volume car manufacturers including Toyota, Geely, Daimler, and Hyundai as very welcome for the expertise they bring to the eVTOL pioneers.
But will cities and states across America buy into the AAM vision, especially in view of the political polarization gripping the country, if some of the new political momentum behind it seems to be coming from the new Democratic administration in Washington, D.C.? Marcus seems convinced that pragmatism will trump rhetoric in this regard, with both red and blue states standing to benefit.
“Advanced air mobility is an important economic driver for the entire country, and it will benefit not just urban areas but also rural areas,” he told FutureFlight.
Until the Covid pandemic interrupted its plans, Up.Partners had organized a series of summit meetings to bring together technology leaders, prospective investors, and policy influencers. The first of these summits was held in Wyoming, followed by a second in Bentonville, Arkansas (home of the Walmart retail empire), and a third in Fort Worth (hosted by Ross Perot, Jr., at his ranch). Up.Partners is preparing for a return to Bentonville in September for its 2021 event.
“One of the important things we do is create a community [for the AAM sector],” Marcus explained. “While investing pays the bills, most of the work is creating a community of innovators to exchange ideas and accelerate plans for the future. At our last summit, we had $100 billion in investable capital in the room, and one outcome was that we introduced an eVTOL manufacturer to a battery manufacturer that can help it achieve a 50 percent increase in range, potentially doubling its revenues.”
Moving goods could well be as significant a driver of demand as moving people. Marcus cited the recent announcement by express delivery group UPS that it plans to buy some of Beta Technologies’ Alia 250 eVTOL model as a case in point. Up.Partners is an investor in the Vermont-based company as well as in several other AAM technology start-ups, including Lidar radar developer Voyant Photonics, air traffic grid modernization specialist LineVision, and drone manufacturer Skydio.
Marcus expects start-ups to continue to make most of the noise in the AAM space, at least in the early stages of the sector’s evolution. “It is more difficult for the larger companies to create the breakthrough technologies because it is difficult for them to divert the resources needed for that,” he said. “But the start-ups don’t have the overhang of existing customers and products and so can focus more.”
However, he feels that in the longer term more established aerospace players may end up acquiring some of the start-ups to get a stronger position in the AAM sector. He cited Boeing’s acquisition of Aurora Flight Sciences and Wisk Aero as evidence of this trend.
“Aircraft development is a very complex business and we’ve seen major new airliner programs delayed by many years,” he said when asked whether the bullish timelines for service entry published by start-ups chasing investment are realistic. “What gives me a lot of optimism is that very real customers are placing very real orders now, so this is now a very real market.”
Among the many tasks on the to-do lists of the aspiring market leaders for air taxi operations is convincing the customer base why they should embrace this new mode of transportation. A lot of public engagement lies ahead and Marcus believes that Secretary of Transportation Buttigieg’s new AAM advisory committee should prove to be an important nexus for this work.