Fidelity, Amazon Back E-Plane Startup in $368 Million Funding
(Bloomberg) -- Beta Technologies Inc., a startup planning to make an electric plane that takes off like a helicopter, roped in $368 million of funding from Fidelity Management & Research Co. and Amazon.com Inc.
The funding will take Beta from the test aircraft it flies now through the construction of a factory and the first deliveries to the U.S. Air Force in 2023, said Kyle Clark, founder and chief executive officer. Fidelity offered to fund the entire round, but the amount was increased to add investors, including Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund, which seeks startups that can help the internet retailer reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2040, he said.
“We were way over-subscribed and ended up having a super-strategic and valuable investor set in our first institutional round of funding,” Clark said in an interview. “We were fortunate to have customers early on and have the internal funding to make it this far, which puts us in a wonderful position to maintain a focused path toward commercialization.”
Beta is competing with dozens of startups and large companies, including Boeing Co. and Cessna maker Textron Inc., to produce new aircraft that look like giant toy drones to ferry cargo and eventually people. Beta, like most producers, is designing its aircraft with an on-board pilot and will transition to pilotless aircraft when regulations permit.
Beta, based in South Burlington, Vermont, already has signed up cargo customers, likely one of the first activities to gain regulatory approval before authorities allow the aircraft to carry people.
United Parcel Service Inc. agreed to acquire 10 aircraft to fly packages between sorting hubs, and United Therapeutics Corp. wants to use Beta’s aircraft to transport organs to patients. More importantly, the Air Force has requested 60 aircraft and granted airworthiness approval for Beta’s piloted electric aircraft, a first for its Agility Prime Program.
That allows the Air Force to conduct piloted flight tests and bolsters Beta’s parallel effort to gain Federal Aviation Administration certification. The Air Force has agreed to take 30 of the aircraft in 2023 and another 30 in 2024. Beta will then begin to fulfill civilian orders and cover costs from customer pre-payments, Clark said.
Beta’s aircraft has four electric rotors on top and a propeller in the back. The company says it can travel about 290 miles (467 kilometers) on a charge and can tote as much as 1,400 pounds (635 kilograms) of cargo or six people. Blade Urban Air Mobility, which now flies helicopter shuttles in large cities, agreed to acquire 20 of Beta’s aircraft.
“We were impressed with Beta Technologies’ leadership team and its initial focus on logistics and transport,” Matt Peterson, director of new initiatives and corporate development for Amazon, said in an email. “We are excited to see how they will grow and scale with this investment.”
United Therapeutics was an early supporter after that company’s chairman, Martine Rothblatt, persuaded Clark to form his startup. Rothblatt, who is on the Beta’s board of directors, said the Fidelity-led funding allows the company to remain closely held.
“As a public company you are legally obligated to disclose competitive-edge-type information,” said Rothblatt, a founder of Sirius XM Holdings Inc. and United Therapeutics. “It’s more in the long-term interest of Beta’s success to not go public.”
Beta is signing up aerospace suppliers for “high touch” structures, interiors and avionics that don’t differ much from current aircraft. The company will focus on motors, controls and configuring batteries, Clark said. The startup has also designed charging stations for the aircraft that it plans to roll out.
The downturn in the aerospace industry that compelled many people to stop flying after Covid-19 has worked to Beta’s advantage, Clark said. Many suppliers have excess inventory and are looking for projects to keep their engineers busy, Clark said.
“The aerospace industry is salivating for programs like this right now,” Clark said. “We’ve been just really fortunate in the appetite that they’ve had to partner with us.”
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