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Future of Aerospace Startups Q&A with Starburst Aerospace CEO

By Kelsey Reichmann | December 7, 2020
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Francois Chopard, CEO of Starburst Aerospace, a global aerospace and defense accelerator that connects industry and government with startups, shared his expertise in the industry with Aviation Today. (Starburst Aerospace)

The aerospace industry is not short on innovation, however, turning a small startup into a breakthrough company in an industry this large and diverse is challenging. Francois Chopard, CEO of Starburst Aerospace, a global aerospace and defense accelerator that connects industry and government with startups, shared his expertise in the industry with Aviation Today.

Starburst Aerospace partners with companies like Boeing, General Atomics, and Lockheed Martin to accelerate industry startups like ZeroAvia, a zero-emission hydrogen aircraft powertrain producer, and Skyloom Global, a company creating an optical transfer network. Starburst also provides venture funding and strategy consulting and has accelerated 215 startups and made 783 startups/corporate interactions.

Aviation Today: What startups are you watching right now and what technology areas are they in?

Chopard: We are looking at the whole aerospace industry so, in a very broad sense, including both aviation and space as well as all the enabling technologies. We can split that in a couple of ways, but basically, we're going to look at platforms, which are from the light drones, cargo drones, we are looking at eVTOL [electric vertical take-off and landing], the same cars. We are looking at the disruption of the small regional aircraft that are going to be powered, either by battery or electric vehicles…There’s a very wide range of startups.

Then we are looking at everything that's going to be above the atmosphere. So, from small to big rocket engines, the rocket itself, and all the payloads that are going to go in them which are either satellite communications, subdivision communication, or observation constellation, and then everything related to service in space, whether it's you know refueling the orbiting or just other types of services.

We are looking at the future of life in space. So, what are the startups working on space stations, because we really believe in the fact that there's going to be thousands of people living in space in the near future.

And once we've done that, we looked at all the enabling technologies, and enabling technology, again, is very wide. It can range from batteries, so any type of batteries or any energy storage could be a solar panel for space, could be small nuclear plants that you can bring on boards. So that's related to energy and of course your cells and hydrogen storage. Then we look at all types of sensors, whether it's solar, or LIDAR, or multispectral type of sensors.

We are looking at communication ways and means, which are from the different types of antennas, the phased array one. We are looking at everything that is software related or computation related, including AI/ machine learning. We are looking at quantum computing for cybersecurity. And then we are looking a little bit at manufacturing. So, a new type of processes materials and that's a pretty wide range. Then on a case by case, we're going to look at the air traffic management from an operational standpoint, trajectory optimization.

Aviation Today: How does your company look at a smaller startup and decide, yes, I think that they have the right idea here? What do they have to possess that makes them successful and able to compete in this very tough industry?

Chopard: So, we're going to look at two things and then some side elements, but first we're going to look at the team and where they're coming from, what is their experience, are they just engineers and tech guys, or are they successful entrepreneur in other areas. And so, the team is really key, and then the dedications and motivations. We're going to monitor them for a couple of months before we start investing in them. Just to see just how they behave together, how they handle potential clients or financial people.

Then we look at what is the problem they are solving, and the first question is, is it a big enough problem like disrupting the last mile delivery using drones or bringing back the Concorde and the supersonic travel this type of thing. So, are they addressing a big enough market in the sense that if they are successful, and we are going to be successful in a way that will compensate for all the other losses? And then inside that, we are going to look at, do they have a strong IP or any way they're going to protect their product innovations and idea so they will have a couple of years ahead of the others to make a difference. So, two or three key points that we are looking at.

Then, of course, we go into more technical due diligence we ask our corporate partners some external experts to make sure that it makes sense physical equation, or not, disrupted and other things.

 

Aviation Today: How is COVID-19 affecting these startups? Is there still enough funding or is that an area where people are struggling?

Chopard: Indeed, in these types of times it's always the same thing, that the best startups are getting even better and more funding and the ones that were already weak and supposed to fail are failing sooner and faster.

Once we've said that, if we look at the macroeconomics of our aerospace and defense, aviation has been pretty badly headed. So, first airlines and airports have suffered, and then the OEM and the tier one manufacturers for commercial aviation, but at the same time the space industry has been booming because of the creation of the Space Force, new budgets, NASA has launched new programs, and on the international scene more and more money is going to space. So, space startups, they're still looking at pretty attractive markets growing fast and with nation's wanting to make a difference and looking for the best innovation. Space has been good. Defense has been also pumping out a lot of money. In the U.S., the U.S. Air Force has been putting more and more money into startups into phase one, phase two, and to acquire new technologies.

And so, the startups that were aerospace with a dual-use with defense, have been very successful. The ones that we're more focused on, passengers' experience and travel experience, are struggling more, but everything that is deep tech and aerospace, it's been doing great.

Aviation Today: When you look at the future of the aerospace industry, where are you seeing the biggest opportunities right now with as far as technology, innovation, and startups?

Chopard: The good thing is I see a lot of opportunities geared by two main elements. The first one is, we want to be able to move faster, further at a cheaper price and so we're, especially doing COVID, we use a lot of these online tools but at some point, whether you're a tourist or you're doing business, you need to go places and meet people and that's not going to slow down. The ability to either go to your house, to the airport very quickly, or to the office, or to the other side of the globe is going to remain a key driver for the aviation industry.

Everything that is going to disrupt the way you move from point A to point B, and especially using aerial means, so freeing up some space on the road and giving the road back to the people and using the sky to move around, I think that's going to be key. Whether it's to transport goods with drones or a couple of people using eVTOL or bigger planes, I think it's going to be crucial.

Then of course we want to pollute less so less CO2, which means more green electricity so and that's going to be an issue but, more things around cleaner electricity or hydrogen made out of renewable energies.

The other is that we're going to be able to use more resources in space. Access to space, and thanks to SpaceX and their new starship vehicle, will be much cheaper, which means that there's going to be more people in space, we're going to be mining asteroids, or we going to remove some of the on earth pollution to some stuff in space, and only bring back when what's necessary for our on earth usage. But we could push a lot of manufacturing in low Earth orbit and reduce some of the pollution on Earth by doing so, and having more people living in space. The entire space industry is going to increase dramatically.

 

Aviation Today: What technology developments do you feel are not getting enough attention?

Chopard: I think right now people are still a bit scared of AV industrial investment, so I assume that it's not software related, people are a bit more reluctant, but because of SpaceX and Tesla people are realizing that it's possible to make a strong business case even manufacturing hardware. So, it's changing a little bit, but it's still a struggle for entrepreneurs that want to manufacture big things, and that don't have $100 million like Elon used to have, you know when he started this company.

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