The Future of Advanced Air Mobility

Vermont Stakes Its Claim as a Launch Pad for Aerospace Innovation

As a proud Vermont native, Beta Technologies founder Kyle Clark apparently found it easy to resist the lure of Silicon Valley in 2017. That's when he established his eVTOL aircraft start-up at Burlington on the shores of Lake Champlain, which borders both New York state and the Canadian province of Quebec.

For the founders of Hula, a technology campus and business accelerator vertical capital fund, Beta is the poster child for what it believes start-ups can achieve if they buy into the Green Mountain state’s ambitions to become an aerospace hub. Part of the Beta team is based on the campus, while the company headquarters is at the nearby Burlington International Airport.

Vermont doesn’t have California’s abundance of sunshine, nor does it have the sort of tax breaks that state governments in places like Washington, Ohio, and South Carolina are willing to deploy. Unlike the latter, Vermont is not a so-called right-to-work state in which trade unions struggle to exert authority—a factor that has apparently influenced aerospace giants like Boeing when selecting factory sites for major aircraft programs.

Nonetheless, according to Hula owner Russ Scully, growing numbers of people are migrating north to the state, attracted by what he says is an exceptional quality of life. Crucially, he added, many of the newcomers are just the sort of well-educated, technologically inclined younger people needed by aviation companies, and especially those working on cutting-edge products like eVTOL aircraft, new forms of propulsion, and autonomous flight.

Beta Technologies is one of the most prominent tenants at the 14-acre Hula campus. When it opened its doors four years ago, there were only around 30 engineers on-site; now there are about 350, with more being recruited all the time. Work on its Alia 250 four-passenger eVTOL aircraft appears to be progressing well, and it seems to be on its way to starting commercial services by 2024.

Another start-up putting down roots in Burlington, a town of just 50,000 inhabitants for now, is Benchmark Space Systems. The company is focused on propulsion systems for spacecraft and is also working on mobility subsystems and orbit transfer capability for space programs.

Now Hula CEO Robert Lair sees potential for the site to attract companies pushing the technological boundaries for batteries, charging infrastructure, and power electronics. The group has funds available to make early-stage seed investments in start-ups that it sees as being key elements in supporting programs right along the advanced air mobility food chain.

According to Lair and Scully, the Covid pandemic has triggered a lasting shift in attitudes toward the workplace environment and in employees’ priorities in choosing where they live and work. They claim that Vermont’s record of dealing with Covid is one of the best in the U.S. and that this, combined with factors such as the quality of public education, are strong attractions for an in-demand workforce in an aviation industry that has to compete hard for engineers with other sectors, such as IT, entertainment, and e-commerce.

Scully said that Vermont is now attracting young talent looking to move away from relatively nearby cities including Boston, Montreal, and New York. Burlington now finds itself competing with other alternative business incubator hubs such as Portland, Maine.

Among other things, Beta Technologies is noted for its internship program and efforts to nurture employee skills through initiatives such as the chance for everyone on the payroll to learn to fly. Scully said that the potential for complementary start-ups to mentor each other and cross-fertilize ideas is strong in a location like the Hula campus.

And what of the absence of California sunshine and winters that are not for the faint-hearted or those not enamored of skiing? “Perfect for cold-weather testing aircraft,” Lair responded, claiming that Vermont also boasts a user-friendly environment for flight testing.