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6 Electric Aviation Companies to Keep on Your Radar

Claudia Baldwin

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Aviation emissions have doubled since the mid-1980s, Our World in Data reports, and they account for 2.5 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. The U.S. is becoming more ambitious about reaching net-zero emissions, and President Joe Biden even signed an executive order to push for a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas pollution by 2030. Addressing air travel is a large part of that, which has inspired innovation in sustainable aviation fuels, as well as in technologies that promise to electrify flight.

“The electrification of aviation has come a long way in recent years. In 2008, the industry adopted a global, sector-wide climate action framework — a world first. Since then, the industry has continued to recognize and respond to environmental concerns expressed by consumers, the environmental lobby, governments and other players by, for example, cutting emissions and reducing noise levels,” Stephane Lagut, a global aerospace and defense sector leader at Ernst & Young, told GreenBiz. “Together, these factors have made a greener, cleaner aviation sector inevitable — and that was before the pandemic struck.”

Air travel took a big hit because of the pandemic. Still, air mobility investments groups are ready to pour funds into electric aviation. Take UP.Partners. The firm launched a $230 million venture capital fund last fall to back electric aviation companies. With more financial backing, we may see some all-electric passenger aircrafts in the sky by 2026.

In some ways, the unexpected halt in traveling in 2020 may have helped boost this transition. For one thing, free-falling demand led to low aircraft use, triggering decommissioning of older aircraft sooner than planned. Cost pressures on the system are also driving exploration of investments in more cost-effective and sustainable aircraft, Lagut said.

The industry may still be far off from urban air mobility, a.k.a flying taxis. (See our separate list for some of those players.) Still, advancements in electric and autonomous vehicles have sparked renewed excitement about integrating battery power more broadly in aviation, Lagut explained. Funding, talent, battery capacities and other energy storage concerns will be some of the biggest hurdles in the electric aviation industry, but companies aren’t shying away from the challenges.

The global market for electric aircraft is projected to reach $27.7 billion by 2030, according to market research company MarketsandMarkets. Experts say the growth in this market stems from urban mobility aircraft deployment and the increasing use of electric aircraft for cargo and other activities.

Below, you can find six electric aviation companies to watch in 2022. We’re featuring these privately held companies because they are all moving into new phases of product development, raised funding to fuel growt, or are simply powering forward on their missions.

It’s important to note that these aren’t the only companies doing the best work, but these are some we think you should know about. We also chose electric aviation companies we haven’t previously featured (check out the 2019 list) and that aren’t attached to projects managed by larger corporations or airlines.

Here they are:

Airflow is building an aircraft for middle-mile logistics and passengers. Image courtesy of Airflow

Airflow

Founded in 2019, San Francisco Bay Area-based Airflow is building an aircraft for middle-mile logistics and passengers. The aircraft, which can carry nine passengers or 2,000 pounds of cargo, will be staffed and operated by one pilot. The company was launched by a team from the former Airbus Vahana eVTOL program, which worked on an electric-powered personal air vehicle prototype.

Over the next decade, Airflow wants to develop fully autonomous, cargo-carrying vehicles. For now, the company is focused on developing its flagship electric short takeoff and landing (eSTOL) aircraft. Airflow recently landed partnerships with Honeywell and Tailwind Air Service to help develop its aircraft. Through its partnership with Honeywell, Airflow will be testing out the company’s traffic radar tech on its aircraft and developing personalized avoidance algorithms.

“Honeywell recognizes the impact that an eSTOL manned aircraft can have on not only passenger and middle-mile logistics operations but also on building a sustainable future for aviation. We want our technologies to be a part of that journey and future,” St?phane Fymat, vice president and general manager of urban air mobility at Honeywell Aerospace, said in a press release. “Airflow is founded by some of aerospace’s most experienced professionals, and we’re excited to help the company deliver upon both their short- and long-term goals, which are to expand the benefits of aviation as well as reduce carbon emissions with an electric aircraft.”

The company hasn’t yet disclosed funding details but states on its website that it will be sharing venture capital backing soon. Airflow is led by CEO Marc Ausman, a former chief strategist on the Airbus Vahana program. Before launching Airflow, Ausman also held executive roles at Yuneec, Eclipse Aviation and the U.S. Navy.

Beta Technologies has raised $511 million in funding across two rounds from companies including Amazon and Hula. Image courtesy of Beta Technologies

Beta Technologies

Burlington, Vermont-based Beta Technologies is an aerospace manufacturer developing electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircrafts for the cargo and logistics industry. Founded in 2017, the company started as CEO Kyle Clark’s senior thesis project in college. He threw himself into learning aircraft design, ultimately landing on the concept Beta is advancing today.

The startup has raised $511 million in funding across two rounds, including a $368 million Series A closed in May. It has attracted investments from Amazon, Hula and The Climate Pledge.

But Beta isn’t just in the business of developing electric aircraft; the company also provides rapid charging stations at airports and is developing a training program with CAE, a Canada-based simulation technologies manufacturer, for electric vertical pilots and maintenance technicians. Clark said Beta has more than 60 rapid charging stations online or in construction from here to Arkansas.

“The future of transportation is electric, and Beta enables it,” Clark told GreenBiz. “We’re building all the elements needed for deployment of electric aircraft — including the aircraft itself as well as a cross-country charging infrastructure that supports all-electric vehicles — eVTOL, trucks, cars — not just our own.”

With its steadfast mission of expanding electric aviation worldwide, Beta built, tested and flew its first eVTOL aircraft, Ava, in under a year. The company took lessons from its flagship aircraft and built Alia, which has a 50-foot wingspan and will be the aircraft Beta takes through FAA certification. Clark said Alia is a “zero operational emissions aircraft” that reduces material waste generated in production and ongoing maintenance, offering a lower impact means of transportation for use cases across the board.

In summer 2021, Heart Aerospace closed a $35 million Series A funding round led by big names, including Bill Gates’s Breakthrough Energy Ventures and United’s venture arm. Image courtesy of Heart Aerospace

Heart Aerospace

Heart Aerospace, a Sweden-based electric aviation startup, is developing a 19-passenger electric aircraft that can travel 250 miles and a backup generator for energy reserve and range extension. The company coined its flagship aircraft Heart ES-19, and United Airlines and commercial aviation holding company Mesa Air Group ordered 200 of Heart Aerospace’s inaugural electric aircrafts.

Last summer, the company closed a $35 million Series A funding round led by big names, including Bill Gates’s Breakthrough Energy Ventures and United’s venture arm. Heart Aerospace spun out of a research project at Sweden-based Chalmers University of Technology in 2018, and the company was a part of Y Combinator’s Winter 2019 cohort. The company’s deal with United and Mesa was announced in conjunction with its Series A and includes an option of purchasing up to 100 additional aircraft, TechCrunch reported.

“We’re not looking to reinvent the wheel. A lot of startups are presenting very novel aircraft architectures, spending several years in subscale testing just to demonstrate the basic functionality of the aircraft,” Anders Forslund said in a press release. “We’ve avoided these pitfalls by relying on a conventional aircraft architecture,” says Forslund. “We can devote almost all our resources to the formal development — bringing this aircraft through certification and into commercial service.”

Heart Aerospace has raised $37.3 million since its inception to develop its electric aircrafts, and the company plans to deliver its first commercial aircraft by 2026. We expect the company will continue to release positive progress updates following a successful flight of a subscale model of its Heart ES-19 aircraft in December. Check out the flight here.

Full-scale prototype of Universal Hydrogen’s gaseous hydrogen module, with one capsule removed. Image courtesy of BusinessWire

Universal Hydrogen

Los Angeles-based Universal Hydrogen is on a mission to make a flexible and carbon-free future possible by making hydrogen the universal fuel choice. The company developed a modular capsule technology solution for hydrogen transportation to power electric aircrafts. Universal Hydrogen also develops conversion kits that aircraft operators can purchase to retrofit their existing regional airplanes with hydrogen-electric powertrains compatible with its modular capsule technology.

In October, Universal Hydrogen secured $62 million in funding to advance the first test flight of its hydrogen fuel cell powertrain on a regional airliner in 2022. The company said its tech is appealing because the modular capsules are lighter than your typical hydrogen storage options.

Universal Hydrogen also landed a partnership with Connect Airlines in December to help it become the first zero-emission U.S.-based airline. The airline is purchasing 24 of Universal Hydrogen’s green hydrogen conversion kits to transition to an actual zero-emission operation. Universal Hydrogen has signed various other letters of intent with airline operators interested in purchasing its conversion kits.

Wright Electric builds technology for large commercial airplanes and is currently developing its flagship electric aircraft. Image courtesy of Wright Electric

Wright Electric

Launched in 2016, New York-based Wright Electric builds technology for large commercial airplanes and is developing its flagship electric aircraft. The Wright Spirit will be a zero-emission 100-passenger airplane for one-hour flights, and the Wright 1 will be a 186-seat single-aisle aircraft with an 800-mile range.

The company’s mission is to eliminate carbon emissions from all flights under 800 miles, so it’s targeting single-aisle planes, which account for 45 percent of all aviation emissions. Wright plans on doing this by developing electric motors, high-frequency inverters and adaptable propulsion systems. The company is in the development stages for its motors and inverters and will be working on the propulsion fans this year. After 2022, Wright will be in testing mode ahead of its plans to launch the Wright Spirit by 2026 and the Wright 1 by 2030.

Wright is funded by NASA, the U.S. Department of Energy, Y Combinator, Lionheart Ventures, the U.S. Air Force and other investors. The company is designing its electric motors to be scalable from 500 kilowatts to four megawatts.

“The level of power and weight demonstrated with our new 2 MW motor will become the baseline for any new electric aircraft and is a key technology in our megawatt system,” Wright CEO Jeff Engler said in a press release.

ZeroAvia, which raised a $35 million Series B round in December 2021, manufactures hydrogen-electric aircrafts. Image courtesy of ZeroAvia

ZeroAvia

After closing a $35 million Series B in December, this hydrogen-electric aircraft developer is hyper-focused on its growth plans.

ZeroAvia manufactures hydrogen-electric aircrafts to improve emission performance. The company was founded in 2017 in San Carlos, California, but it moved to England last year. ZeroAvia has made significant strides in developing its commercial entry product. The company began electrical testing of its initial powertrain design in 2019, and most recently, in August, ZeroAvia did some ground testing on its hydrogen aircraft engine.

In its first HyFlyer I project, the company completed 35 test flights of its six-seat prototype. For its HyFlyer II project, ZeroAvia is developing a 600-kilowatt hydrogen-electric powertrain for a 10-20 seat aircraft and preparing for flight testing in early 2022. The company has secured commercial deals with big names such as Alaska Airlines, ASL Aviation Holdings and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Regional Jet division. ZeroAvia has secured more than 460 commitments to deliver on its hydrogen-electric engines and other programs.

[To learn more about transportation & mobility marketplace news, trends & analysis, subscribe to our free Mobility Weekly Newsletter.]

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Is Climate Tech the Hottest Corner of the VC Business in the 2020s?

Claudia Baldwin

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This is an excerpt from “Climatenomics: Washington, Wall Street, and the Economic Battle to Save Our Planet” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2022). Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

While government policies and leadership from Washington can help accelerate change, there’s another place that can accelerate change much faster: Silicon Valley.

In 2003, as a national technology reporter for a chain of newspapers, I visited the Mountain View, California campus of Google to meet with cofounder Sergey Brin. At the time, Google was still a private company, though there was widespread speculation that it would launch an initial public offering soon. The moment I pulled into the company parking lot, I got a taste that Google wasn’t a typical company. Covering many of the parking spaces were canopies made from solar panels, something that’s commonplace today but back then was pretty unusual. Even more unusual were the thick power cords hanging down from the panels over nearly every parking space, something that didn’t make sense until Brin and team later explained it to me. At the time, electric vehicles were even more uncommon than solar parking lot canopies (the first Tesla wouldn’t hit the streets for another five years). But Google knew EVs were coming someday soon, and it wanted to be ready. Google also wanted employees and other visitors to think about the possibilities that could come with solar-powered parking lots and cars that you could plug in to refuel.

Two of the forward-thinking people responsible for Google’s early solar deployment were Chris Sacca, who as the company’s corporate counsel and later head of special initiatives was involved in Google’s energy purchase agreements, and Andrew Beebe, who was chief commercial officer at solar company Suntech, which helped Google go solar.

“There really wasn’t any corporate interest until those guys stepped up and said, ‘Please build solar arrays all over our campus,'” Beebe recalled during a GreenBiz VERGE [climate] tech conference in October 2021. “But (Google executives) also said, ‘Set it up so we can have Walmart and Cisco and Microsoft and all of our competitors come over and see what we have done.’ They obviously had a hugely catalytic role in making all this happen.”

Both Beebe and Sacca would go on to become successful venture capitalists, Beebe with Obvious Ventures, the firm that helped launch companies such as Medium, Beyond Meat and electric bus maker Proterra, and Sacca with his firm called Lowercase Capital, which funded companies such as Twitter, Uber and Instagram. For about three years, Sacca also was a “guest shark” on the ABC television show “Shark Tank,” where budding entrepreneurs bid for the favor — and the funding — of millionaire investors. But it didn’t take long before Sacca was feeling unfulfilled by funding kitchen gadget start-ups on “Shark Tank” or electronic-gaming companies back in Silicon Valley. He, like Beebe, turned his attention almost fully toward clean-energy and climate-related investments.

Sacca and Beebe represent one of the hottest corners of the venture capital business in the 2020s: climate tech. Some of the companies that investors like them are backing today will likely become the Googles of tomorrow. Only instead of changing the way we search for stuff on the Internet, climate tech companies will change the way we source and store our energy, grow our food, and move from point A to point B, whether on land, water, or air. In doing so, they’ll not only transform our economy, but help save the planet.

In 2021, investments in climate tech companies hit more $31 billion, according to deal tracking firm PitchBook. That was 30 percent more than in 2020 and more than 2.5 times what it was in 2019. Those big numbers will likely only get bigger as federal, state and international clean climate and clean-energy policies are implemented. Quite simply, government policies and funding help reassure venture capitalists and other private investors to put more of their money at risk.

In 2021, investments in climate tech companies hit more $31 billion, according to deal tracking firm PitchBook.

Climate-tech and clean-tech investing is no longer just about solar or wind or even batteries anymore. Those businesses now attract plenty of mainstream investors. They’re almost like investing in restaurants or real estate — they’re too passe for venture capitalists who are more interested in finding more disruptive technologies that can scale quickly and create big returns.

“What we look at every day are energy innovations that are just insane, some of which are doing things that Einstein declared literally would not be possible,” Sacca said at the VERGE conference. “We see stuff happening in synthetic biology, for instance, that’s just nuts.”

Amid the hellish fires in the West, back-to-back hurricanes in the East and scientists everywhere warning that things were only going to get worse, Sacca in August 2021 stepped away from Lowercase Capital, quit “Shark Tank,” and with wife Crystal turned his attention specifically toward figuring out how to fund and support companies trying to do more to address climate change. The couple launched a new investment fund called Lowercarbon Capital. In a matter of days, they raised more than $800 million that Lowercarbon Capital could deploy to try to “un— the planet,” in Sacca’s terms. The fund was so popular, Sacca wrote on Lowercarbon Capital’s blog, that it had to turn investors away. “It turns out that raising for a climate fund in the context of an unprecedented heatwave and from behind the thick clouds of fire smoke probably didn’t hurt,” he wrote.

Since then, Lowercarbon has invested in companies that capture carbon dioxide and turn it into consumer products, reduce carbon emissions from livestock and fertilizers on the farm, and mine materials that are key to batteries and storage in ways that don’t destroy the environment. One such company is Twelve, a Bay Area start-up that “upcycles” carbon dioxide captured from industrial emissions and turns it into everything from jet fuel to sunglasses lenses, replacing fossil fuels and plastic. Another company Sacca was particularly excited about in 2021 was Lilac Solutions, which has raised $150 million to commercialize its lithium-mining technology. Lilac claims it can produce the essential element for batteries 10,000 times faster than conventional methods, using 90 percent less land and water. Lowercarbon Capital has also made numerous major investments in companies at the intersection of agriculture and climate, including start-up Formo, which is following the Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger model to make fine European cheeses that don’t require dairy or cows; Entocycle, which has figured out how to speed up the gestation period for black soldier fly larvae which happen to be some of the world’s fastest converters of food waste to protein; and Nitricity, which uses solar-powered modules placed around farms to literally make fertilizer out of thin air by converting and processing nitrates found in the atmosphere.

If garbage-eating fly larvae and fine cheeses bioengineered in a sterile laboratory don’t sound like appealing business models, think again. According to research group Climate Tech VC, food-and-water-related climate tech was the biggest sector for climate venture funding in 2021, followed by mobility, consumer goods, and clean energy. Tech investors’ take on food and agriculture is yielding new high-tech twists in one of the world’s oldest and most established economic sectors. Seattle-based clean-agriculture start-up Nori, for instance, got its start in 2017 when its cofounders entered a hackathon contest for coders to figure out new ways to use blockchain technology for social good. Far from the nearest farm, what they came up with was a way to use blockchain technology to monitor and track low-carbon agriculture practices and then monetize that by selling farm-based carbon-removal offsets.

In doing so, Nori is incentivizing farmers to use more climate-friendly agriculture practices that don’t just reduce carbon emissions but actually increase the ability of soil and crops to store carbon, while also creating a new marketplace for carbon removal and trading. In 2020, Nori raised more than $5 million in seed funding to launch its platform. “We call it climate-smart agriculture — thinking of carbon removal like a crop,” Christophe Jospe, a Nori cofounder, told E2.

This excerpt has been updated since publication.

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Walmart Begins Search for Sustainable Packaging

Claudia Baldwin

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“We don’t have time to waste.” With this imperative tagline, American retail giant Walmart launched its Circular Connector this spring.

The goal: to accelerate innovation in the field of sustainable and circular packaging, creating a bridge between companies looking for packaging that has less impact on the environment and those with new solutions to offer.

Searching for sustainable packaging

That the world’s largest retail multinational is launching an online platform to encourage the circular economy of packaging — even while accounting for some form of greenwashing — is undoubtedly great news.

After all, it’s a fact that consumers are becoming increasingly sensitive to the problem of plastic pollution and in general to any aspect related to the sustainability of products. And Walmart, the retail chain of over 10,000 stores around the world, is held accountable by consumers on a daily basis.

Hence the ambitious commitment that the multinational has set for itself by 2025: to achieve that 100 percent of packaging on its shelves would be either recyclable, reusable or industrially compostable. And hence the rush to find solutions to reach the goals.

It’s a fact that consumers are becoming increasingly sensitive to the problem of plastic pollution… And Walmart is held accountable by consumers on a daily basis.

The Circular Connector was therefore created as an online tool to connect packaging designers and manufacturers with companies in various sectors, from food to cosmetics, from fashion to toys. “Basically,” explains a statement on Walmart’s website, “it’s a platform to accelerate packaging innovation and implementation. We want to make it easier for suppliers and brands to find sustainable packaging solutions, thus enabling all of us to move faster toward waste reduction.”

How does the Circular Connector work?

The Circular Connector is accessed from the multinational company’s sustainability policy site, the Walmart Sustainability Hub. To participate, sustainable packaging manufacturers or designers must fill out a special questionnaire with a series of questions about the functions, materials and recyclability of the candidate packaging. Each proposal will then be reviewed according to Walmart’s packaging sustainability goals and, if compatible, will be posted on the site and made available to brands for possible supply contracts.

Reiterating, pragmatically, that they “don’t have time to waste,” the project leaders also made available the company’s Recycling Playbook, based on the two principles of recyclability established by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Namely: 1. Is there, in practice, a system for large-scale recycling of this category of packaging that guarantees at least a 30 percent recycling rate for over 400 million people? 2. Do the packaging components fit into that system?

Walmart’s handbook also contains valuable guidance on materials, such as those that are difficult to recycle and therefore tend to be excluded from sorting: metallic films, multi-layer materials, PVC or PVDC, PETG in rigid plastic packaging, oxo-degradable plastics and colored PET.

“We need to work together to promote innovative solutions on a large scale,” states Walmart. “Companies with reusable, refillable, recyclable and other sustainable packaging solutions should therefore come forward. There are hundreds of brands striving to achieve their own packaging sustainability goals, just like Walmart, and the Circular Connector is one tool available to them in this journey.”

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Episode 317: Conversations About Circularity

Claudia Baldwin

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This week’s run time is 1:03:05.

CONSIDERING CIRCULARITY (8:50)

Featuring a recap of interviews and stories from Circularity 22, held this week in Atlanta.

INTERVIEW: Jon Smieja, vice president of circularity and senior analyst for GreenBiz, reflects on hot topics and themes
STORY/AUDIO HIGHLIGHT: Planet vs. plastic: Three steps to solving the global plastics crisis (Featuring Keiran Smith, co-founder and CEO of Mr. Green Africa, on how to encourage decisions made at the local level.)
STORY/AUDIO HIGHLIGHT: John Warner: How to do the materials economy right (Featuring John Warner, senior vice president and research fellow of Zymergen, on how green chemistry could enable the leap to a regenerative, circular economy … if we educated chemists.)
CHITCHAT: Textile recycling tech startup triumphs in Circularity 22’s Accelerate competition
AUDIO HIGHLIGHT: Suzanne Shelton, founder and CEO, Shelton Group (On the importance of shifting context; and what that disturbing baby wrapped in cellophane image teaches us about marketing circularity.)

FEATURE
More sustainable consumer goods (47:30)

Interview with new CEO Christy Slay of The Sustainability Consortium, about priorities, circularity and engaging nimble innovators.

*Music in this episode: Lee Rosevere: “Not My Problem” and “Let That Sink In”; ItsWatR: “Awakening Instrumental”

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