certified cargo dronesA unicorn in South Burlington: Kyle Clark and BETA Technologies

December 18, 2021by helo-10
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by Joyce Marcel, Vermont Business Magazine The great hockey player Wayne Gretzky famously said, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”

It’s easy to apply that quote to a visionary like the exuberant Kyle Clark — the perfect blend of artist and engineer, a former professional hockey goon as well as a Harvard graduate, and the CEO and driving force behind electric flight pioneer BETA Technologies.

Yes, you heard right. Electric aircraft — possibly the future of the aviation industry — are being developed right now at the Burlington Airport.

With a growing awareness of how much devastation commercial aviation causes the environment by burning fossil fuels added to the mainstreaming of electric cars and trucks, electric airplanes make a lot of sense. And competition in the field of electronic aviation is fierce. From large manufacturers to small companies like BETA, the race is on to produce viable electric aircraft.

Some companies are developing private planes, flying cars or air taxis. Some are working the passenger market. Clark, however, made an early pivot to cargo.

“There’s limitations of electric,” Clark said. “It’s awesome because it’s very, very inexpensive. There’s no fuel in it. It’s super quiet. It has vertical takeoff and landing. You can land anywhere. But the range right now is not as far as the other planes. So on a flight to New York City, an electric helicopter would not make it there and back. So I take the gas-powered one. I’m not proposing electrics for all missions. But with short ranges of about 150 miles, the electric makes tons of sense.”

Half of all global flights are shorter than 500 miles, according to a 2020 story in the news magazine Quartz.

“That’s the sweet spot for electric aircraft,” the story says. “Fewer moving parts, less maintenance, and cheap(er) electricity means costs may fall by more than half to about $150 per hour… For airlines, this makes entirely new routes now covered by car and train possible (and profitable) thanks to lower fuel, maintenance, and labor costs.”

BETA’s eVTOL, or electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicle, combines characteristics of a helicopter, a drone and a fixed-wing airplane. Its future appears unlimited.

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger thinks so.

“I certainly remember my first visit to BETA several years ago,” he told me. “It was truly inspiring. It was a beehive of activity, with engineers working in different teams making different prototypes and models and holding tests. It was amazing and incredibly dynamic. It was really innovative. It’s clear that this is a very exciting and rare thing to be happening in a small community like Burlington. I have found Kyle Clark to be incredibly skillful about communicating what he’s trying to accomplish. It’s awesome that he’s a skilled engineer, a pilot and a professional athlete. The city of Burlington, as the owner of the airport, and I are doing everything we can to be a supportive partner.”

Clark has been obsessed with flight since he was a teenager.

“I rode motorcycles and bikes and did everything that was a combination — on some level — of intellectual thought through the machine plus some physics, some motion,” Clark said.

Then he went up in a plane.

“I went to fly with George Coy, who ran the Highgate Airport up here in Vermont,” Clark said. “He was an aerobatic pilot, a mechanic, and an importer of fighter trainers from Russia and Eastern Europe. The very first time he took me flying, we went up in an aerobatic plane. We got off the runway and he inverted it. He flipped it over the canopy. And I realized that you could fly in three dimensions without constraints. It was an intellectual thing, because you had to understand the machine as an extension of your body. But the freedom of doing that was like taking the motorcycle, which was a lot of fun, or a bicycle, and going into three dimensions unconstrained. It’s just so liberating.”

Now Clark is a certified flight instructor, a licensed commercial airline pilot and a helicopter driver.

Photo: Kyle Clark, CEO of BETA Technologies. Courtesy of BETA Technologies.

“I fly all 25 of our airplanes,” Clark said. “There’s no way that we would end up with something that I wouldn’t fly. There’s not another company in this space where — I can assure you — that the CEO can speak intelligently about accessing urban environments with vertical takeoff and landing aircraft like helicopter or aircraft. And that’s for real.”

Clark has not only designed, built and flown two prototype all-electric airplane models —the first was called Ava, and the second, the current model, is called Alia — but he is also building a 355,000-square-foot aircraft assembly site on 40 acres at the airport, in sight of his offices and hangar.

In the near future, electric planes will roll off assembly lines and into the hands of customers such as Amazon, the US Department of Defense, UPS and United Therapeutics — all of whom have already negotiated contracts.

It’s hard not to get excited about something like BETA Technologies, which is a unicorn company of some magnitude growing out of the enriched entrepreneurial soil of Vermont.

The atmosphere inside the company is as electric as the planes.

The word I heard over and over again was “awesome.” As in “He’s awesome,” or “She’s awesome” or “We’re awesome.”

The building is virtually a construction site as well as a crowded office with more than 350 employees, many of them engineers walking around holding open laptops or standing and staring out of large plate glass windows at the tarmac as engineers ready Alia for a flight the next day.

Another Alia sits gleaming white in its hangar, also well within view, and is surrounded by other, differently-propelled aircraft and helicopters in various stages of repair and disrepair.

Culture is everything at BETA. Outside, eight Teslas were being recharged, lined up like puppies at their mother’s teat. A food truck powered by a professional chef was serving lunch. You’re greeted at the front door by a sign that says, “Please do not enter if you have symptoms of: racism; bigotry; transphobia; covid.”

The bathroom doors are marked, “Whatever: Just Wash Your Hands.” (The hand wash is rosemary and lime organic castle foaming soap handmade in Burlington.)

Katie Clark, Kyle’s wife, is responsible for the culture of the company. She’s often called “The Mother of BETA.”

Photo: Katie Clark. Photo: Randolph T. Holhut.

“She makes this place a home — a funky and awesome place to spend a big part of our lives,” said Aaron Grossman, an engineer involved with mechanical integration and flight test support.

Clark himself is hard to miss. Forty-one years old and 6’7” tall, the man at the center of the buzz employs over 340 people and imagines hiring another 800 when the manufacturing plant is ready to go. He envisions Burlington as an aerospace center.

To fund his vision, he has already raised more than $1.4 billion. His success at fundraising — with still only the promise of a commercial product — is remarkable.

“We’ve nailed the air certificate of the Air Force, we’ve got UPS,” he said. “We have a couple of deals that aren’t public yet. We have expanded our charging network. So I’m like super, super happy with our progress since that billion dollar-plus valuation.”

None of the funding has come from venture capital, which might ask for a quick return on investment.

“We were super lucky in moving past the venture capital,” Clark said. “We were making some money consulting for other people. We didn’t have to go and get capital early. I put some money in. Other people put some money in.”

BETA’s investors are in it for the long haul.

“First of all, we do not have investors that are misaligned with the mission of the business,” Clark said. “So we don’t have a board full of people that say, ‘Hey, Kyle, if we get a big enough cash offer, you better pack your stuff. We’re putting in a real CEO and we’re going to sell the business.’ That’s not a discussion that happens here.”

So how might payback come?

“There’s probably six different ways that they could get paid back, but I can’t predict the future,” Clark said. “It could be anything from going public, which right now isn’t in the cards, but may be depending on our capital needs. Fundamentally, we will start producing aircraft at the facility where we just broke ground. This aircraft, as soon as it’s certified, starts coming out of that manufacturing facility in about 40 months.”

Each aircraft has an appreciable margin.

“So the ownership positions of the people who invested in us — say they own 4 percent of the business, and every aircraft yields a million dollars of profit,” Clark said. “They walk away with forty grand for every aircraft we sell. So they get a dividend per share that they own when we’re making profits. Of course, they could sell their shares at a profit. And we can strike deals for licensing or other things that pay out to the investors. Every investor has a different thesis.”

Clark controls the business.

“I think about it like this: we keep our promises and we build a viable, sustainable business,” he said. “Then we will have options to go public, to sell the business, to keep doing what we’re doing and having fun doing it, to grow the business here. We have those options. It’s a great problem to have.”

One of Clark’s most dedicated supporters is Dr Martine Rothblatt, the attorney/entrepreneur who created and built SiriusXM Radio from the ground up. Later she founded the biotechnology company United Therapeutics, which is working on creating new body parts to save lives. She envisions Alia planes delivering life-saving organs for transplant in hospitals all over the world.

“I believe in 10 years there will be hundreds of Alia aircraft flying in the air, and by the end of the 2030s, the most common aircraft anyone will see in the air will be an electric aircraft from BETA Technologies,” Rothblatt said at a technology summit held last month at Hula, the new Burlington business incubator.

Rothblatt gave BETA its first order.

“That gave us some confidence that we could keep putting money in and get paid for the technology developments that we were producing,” Clark said. “And then our first financing round yielded $376 million from the Amazon Climate Fund and Fidelity. They were the two big US, investors. And then there were a number of local folks that put money in.”

Amazon and Fidelity might be looking to garner positive publicity, but Clark said there are bigger reasons that they are investing in BETA.

“I understand that Jeff Bezos has stepped aside as the CEO of Amazon to focus on climate issues,” Clark said. “The Climate Pledge Fund is a mechanism to enable technologies to get them to net zero carbon emissions by 2040. That’s a phenomenal goal. And so if we can be a part of that, I’m all in.”

Fidelity might be more of a cash investor.

“They want to see a financial return on their investment here,” Clark said. “But there are also people from the aerospace sector who have privately invested in us. They have told me, ‘If there’s a return on that money that you create, I want you to point at a green opportunity after yours to reinvest that money, because I’ll be dead by the time it comes back.’ They just want to see the world become a more conscientious place. So there are a lot of different motivations for investing with us. But we were lucky enough to hit a chord with each of these folks.”

Another BETA investor and supporter is Hula founder, developer and owner Russ Scully.

“When we were starting Hula, we created a fund that we were going to use to invest in companies in Vermont,” Scully said. “And as soon as we did that, we were excited to meet Kyle Clark. We understood that he was taking on an enormous challenge, but that he was a guy who was probably capable of pulling it off.”

It was not exactly Clark’s demeanor that excited Scully.

“He was not what I was expecting when you meet the CEO of an emerging tech company,” Scully said. “This was a big, tall guy with a ratty t-shirt and jeans. But as soon as you heard him open his mouth, you realized this is probably one of the smartest people you’ve ever met.”

An investor goes through a due diligence period, Scully pointed out. But it was difficult to do that with someone like Clark.

“Obviously, you cannot take everything that the founder is saying at face value,” Scully said. “You’ve got to do some digging and cross checking. The really difficult thing with Kyle is that everybody was intimidated about their ability to really dive in and do any due diligence with a guy who was already probably one of the smartest people in the world in that space. Most of the people that met Kyle kind of felt the same way — there was no way that they were going to be able to refute the engineering capabilities of what he was trying to do.”

Clark’s complexity intrigues Scully.

“He went to Harvard for mathematics,” Scully said. “Two years later, he took a pause to go play pro hockey. He was a bruiser. There’s two kinds of hockey players. There’s goal scorers and bruisers. The coach would say, ‘Clark, Number 4,’ and Kyle would jump over the board and drop the guy — he’d beat up Number 4. He didn’t have to know why. He just knew his team needed a momentum shift and the only way to make that happen, in the coach’s eyes, was to win a fight. And that was Kyle’s job. He’s one of the most complex people you’ll ever meet. He’s a bruiser on the ice in the AHL, but he’s also the brains behind the future of aviation. Like how do you get both of those people in the same body? How does that happen?”

Because of Clark’s relationship with Rothblatt, Scully knew there was already a winning strategy.

“Kyle had a customer locked in from day one who was committed to funding the development of this aircraft,” Scully said.

When they first met, Clark asked Scully and his Hula investment team to raise between $5 million and $7 million for BETA. Scully took a month to run potential investors past Clark and hear his pitch. In the end, people were so excited by what they heard that they were talking unicorns; Scully raised about $30 million in 30 days.

“People use the expression ‘unicorn’ when you realize you’ve got something really unique, really special,” Scully said. “The timing comes together, or it’s a killer product, or a killer market opportunity. And you have the perfect person to execute all of it. Everyone’s looking for the unicorn, right? And I think these investors were really excited and proud that they found one right here in Burlington. This is an industry that’s brand new. Kyle and his team are literally carving out the nuts and bolts of what the future of aircraft transportation is going to look like.”

Clark is both humble and confident, Scully said.

“He knows what he wants,” Scully said. “He’s analytical. He’ll listen to other points of view. But he’s got so much self-confidence that once he knows what direction he wants to go in, he’s unstoppable.”

More and more people are interested in green businesses, Clark pointed out.

“People want to work in green businesses,” he said. “I want to buy things from green businesses. And if my packages come in that aircraft or an electric truck, I’m more likely to buy. Because I’m not destroying the environment for my kids. That’s how I think as a human, and I think a lot of people think like that.”

BETA’s office building, which is leased from the airport, is fronted on the second floor by a long horseshoe of glass that allows a macro view of the tarmac. Clark has spent $13 million retrofitting the building to meet his specific specifications.

BETA may seem crowded, but the all-on-one-floor layout is deliberate, Clark said.

“The whole idea behind the design of this facility was inspired by a class I took at MIT, which was called Organization of Innovation,” Clark said. “The basic premise was providing collaboration and concentration in the same space at the same time. You do that by creating visual lines of sight between people who are working on adjacencies in the aircraft.”

Putting the research and development team on the same physical level is all about creating “empathy,” Clark said.

“The data science shows us very clearly that you’re more likely to go and talk to somebody if they’re on the same floor as you,” he said. “So the person doing the brakes knows and cares about the landing gear person. If you don’t see each other, or if you’re in different states or in different buildings, you lose that empathy.”

This is important because every engineering challenge is a function of compromises, Clark said.

“You add something over here, you take away something over here, you have so much in your weight budget, so much in your money budget, so much whatever,” he said. “When you have empathy between people, they respect each other to the extent that you find a better optimum.”

To that end, the building is designed to encourage “collisions,” or random meetings of the kind that used to be held around the water cooler, but now are most likely held at the espresso machine. Clark said he routinely reorganizes the office spaces to get the communication between engineers that he needs.

“If motors isn’t talking enough to batteries, well, all 15 of them are now sitting together,” Clark said. “And I move my office routinely, so people will be forced to have conversations, whether they’re formal for work, or semi-formal, or just generating empathy around people and how they interact with the world, what they love to do, how their families interact.”

The space is designed around those grand, horseshoe-shaped windows for a reason.

“Everybody can see the products,” Clark said. “Right now I’m looking at Josh adding oil to an engine and looking at Matt who had to take the whole back of that airplane off to fix one cable and that airplane’s down for a week. The whole fuselage is off the plane. If the engineers see the mechanics having to do all this to the planes, they say ‘Damn, I better engineer a plane that a mechanic can work on.’ “

A next step is giving everybody in the company flight lessons. Clark’s 18-year-old daughter, Willa, got her pilot’s license before her driver’s license.

Photo: The Clark family. Photo: Randolph T. Holhut.

“If you give everybody flight lessons, that starts to generate an understanding,” Clark said. “Ultimately, they’ll design a better airplane.”

Clark is a native Vermonter who is determined to build his company in the state he loves. His father worked for UVM for 50 years; he’s just now retired. His mother is an artist and entrepreneur. He grew up in and around Williston and Essex; he met Katie in middle school. They have four children.

Clark’s career has certainly been varied.

Aside from the time spent in professional hockey, he founded two businesses before BETA. The first, iTHERM, created small electromagnetic power supplies for soldering and heating and for moving molten metal. That company was sold to Dynapower, and Clark remained with that company to do “much more sophisticated inverters, controllers, motor supplies, and all kinds of magnetics. These are all the things that are in our airplane.”

He also built a company called Energy Management Systems, or EMS.

“I plugged those two business together and we sold it to a private equity firm at the end of 2012,” Clark said.

Then he started a bank called DesignBook, which got into trouble with Facebook and was forced to change its name to Venture.com. Ironically, the bank was raising money for startups that weren’t BETA.

But BETA was the topic of his senior thesis at Harvard, and he never stopped pitching it during his business career.

“I figured I’m making this bank to raise money for my company, and I didn’t have any bites,” Clark said. “So at one point in Venture Co’s transition, I said, ‘I need to stop doing this. I just need to get back into hardcore engineering — real engineering.’ So I walked away from Venture Co.”

Soon after that he met Rothblatt; the rest is Vermont history.

 

Early Life

Clark was born in Huntington, just south of Richmond. He has an older brother and a younger sister.

“And my parents were short-term foster parents,” Clark said. “So we had a variety of people we’re kind of close to, and then my cousins lived with us. So we had a fun house. My mother is still very Vermont. If somebody is in need, bring them to your house, give them a place to sleep, give them some food, give them some dough, and send them on their way. She’s had that mentality for her whole life.”

Clark’s father ran the instrumentation facility at UVM for almost 50 years.

“The instrumentation facility is a machine shop that makes things for research,” Clark said. “He also ran the Technical Services Program. When he first got the job, he was fixing typewriters.”

Clark started working in his father’s machine shop while he was still in high school. Already bitten by the flight bug, he used it to build airplane parts.

“I was designing and building airplanes,” Clark said. “And I can say this now — because my father is retired and he’s not going to get fired — I was stealing pieces of aluminum from his machine shop and building airplane pieces.”

Clark absorbed some management theory from his parents.

“I learned lot of leadership things from my dad,” Clark said. “I remember early on, saying to my dad, when he became the boss, ‘Oh, sweet, you’ve got people that can get coffee for you.’ Because that’s what they do on TV, and what do you know when you’re eight or nine years old? He’s like, ‘No, no, Kyle. You’re the boss, your job is to walk behind everybody and pick up all the pieces. Make sure the troops all move in unison.”

His father taught him to first set a clear goal.

“And once you amass a group of people to do that, you get behind them,” Clark said. “Instead of saying, ‘This is how you’re going to do it,’ you get behind them, and you say, ‘I will pick up the pieces because I’ve hired the smartest people. They’re smarter than me in every way. So why would I sit in front of them and adjudicate on the path they’re taking to reach the goal? I hired them because they’re really good electromagnetic engineers, they’re really good circuit board designers. Why would they come to me and ask, ‘Is this a good idea?’”

Every Sunday of his 50-year career, his father would go to work.

“He went to prepare for the week, to make sure everybody had his stuff,” Clark said. “For as long as I can remember, for almost 50 years. And the work ethic that he applied was amazing. And he also only says about eight words a day, so people listen when he talks.”

Clark called his mother “a serial entrepreneur.”

“She had a leather cart on Church Street in Burlington,” he said. “She sold jewelry in Burlington. She painted t-shirts. She taught part-time at the Shelburne school. And she then fell into what she really loved, which was painting scenes on big walls. She painted the synagogue here in Burlington. She’s genuinely an artist, but she’s an entrepreneur trying to figure out how to be an artist and make money. She worked really, really hard. She still works. And she’s 78.”

From his mother Clark learned that just because somebody is doing something differently doesn’t mean they’re doing it wrong. He’s turned that into a creative way to look at diversity.

“Most people want to hire people just like themselves,” he said. “But if you asked people at BETA how they think about solving problems, you wouldn’t find a homogenous workforce. That’s diversity to me. Of course, race, and gender and beliefs and all that kind of stuff comes into it. But fundamentally, we end up with a better business when we have a diverse workforce. And that diversity fundamentally is diversity of experience, which drives thinking. If people had a harder socio-economic upbringing, they have a different empathy for a particular problem that we’re solving. When you apply what my mother says to business, it actually makes a ton of sense.”

Clark went to local schools, including Essex High School.

“It was funny,” he said. “We lived in Williston, but the school didn’t have a football team and my brother played football. So my parents bought a house in Essex, and we kind of pretended to live there. I went to middle school there. And Katie, my wife, she went there. We met in middle school and became really good friends. I went to Essex High School for three years.”

Clark played hockey in high school.

“I had accepted a role at Exeter Academy to play football, hockey and lacrosse,” Clark said. “I showed up, and I got a call from the US hockey team. They said, ‘We need you to come to Erie for a tournament.’ I went out there, and I was the worst hockey player on the ice. There’s no question I should not be on the team. So how am I going to get on the team?”

Violence was needed, he felt.

“This guy came down, clapped everybody’s sticks and made a challenge,” Clark said. “And I jumped over the boards and fought him, and fought him again, then I fought another person. I fought everybody who challenged somebody on our team. And at the end of the tournament, they voted me captain of the team. I still sucked, but they couldn’t send me home. So I called the Exeter coach and said, ‘Hey, I’m not coming back. I’m staying with the US team.’ So then I left Essex, I left Exeter and I went and played for the US Under 18 Team for my last year of high school.”

His hockey never improved.

“But it was a phenomenal experience,” he said. “And I was rated in the NHL draft. I could have gone pretty high. But then I decided to go to Harvard. As soon as you say you’re gonna go to an Ivy League school, it defers your draft year by a year. You show that you have something other than just hockey or pumping gas. You’re not as valuable to them because you’re not as dependent on them. It’s natural economics.”

Clark did a year at Harvard and then was drafted into professional hockey.

“They made a number of offers to get me out of Harvard,” he said. “There’s no fighting in college and there’s fighting in the pros, so I went to the pros. That year I set the record for the most fights per game played in the second-tier minors. Then I got called up. And the following year I made the team in Portland.”

Clark was drafted in Round 6 by the Washington Capitals, #175 overall in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft.

“So that was a hell of a run,” he said. “But my wife was pregnant with my daughter, and I decided it didn’t make sense to continue that lifestyle after two years of playing. So I came back to Vermont and had a kiddo.”

It took Clark three tries to finish his degree at Harvard, but he eventually did.

“The first time I left to play hockey,” he said. “Then I went there for a semester, but then Willa was born. And then I went back and finished. Not only did I get a degree, my senior thesis at Harvard was BETA Air. It was a slightly different type of airplane, with a hybrid drive, and it won the Thesis of the Year award at Harvard. And I pitched that to everybody who would listen between 2003 until 2017, when Martine Rothblatt listened.”

 

Enter Dr Rothblatt

Clark met Rothblatt in the most casual way possible.

“I met some folks down in the Carolinas and they said we’re doing this presentation in Philadelphia to somebody by the name of Martine Rothblatt,” Clark said. “I said, ‘Okay, if it’s about airplanes, I’m in. What do you need me to do?’ They said, ‘Analyze the batteries, the motors, the inverters and the power system of this new electric helicopter.’ That sounded great. So I got up in front of Martine and some other people and started describing how I would go about engineering the system and critiquing what had already been done.”

Somewhat taken aback, Rothblatt asked who he was and why he was there.

“’I’m Kyle from Vermont,’ I said. ‘I love airplanes. This is really neat. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.’ And she said, ‘Are you being paid to be here?’ I said, ‘No.’ She said, ‘I could tell.’ I didn’t know how to take that.”

Rothblatt, who now serves on the BETA board, had an intense personal interest in Clark’s pitch. Years before, her daughter had been diagnosed with pulmonary arterial hypertension, a disease which was considered fatal at the time.

To save her daughter, in 1996 Rothblatt created United Therapeutics, a company with a mission to develop novel, life-extending technologies for patients with lung disease and do organ manufacturing. Since its founding, the company has patented five PAH drugs that have saved thousands of lives. Rothblatt proudly says that her daughter, instead of succumbing to PAH, now works for the company.

Publicly traded, the company is experimenting with pig cloning and genetic modification to create lung transplants the human body doesn’t reject.

Clark and Rothblatt were meant for each other. Rothblatt has set a world speed record with an electric helicopter. In September 2021, she successfully delivered transplantable organs by electric drones at Toronto General Hospital, resulting in the world’s first delivery of transplanted lungs by drone.

One of Rothblatt’s homes is in Lincoln, Vermont. She invited Clark to visit and make a 15-minute pitch.

“So I went all the way up to Lincoln, and she was preoccupied,” Clark said. “She said, ‘I’m just a little frustrated. My helicopter is iced in.’ It couldn’t come out of Middlebury to bring her up to Montreal. And I said, ‘Listen, jump in the truck and we’ll go to Montreal together.’

She’s going, ‘But my wife, my dog…’ And I’m like, ‘That’s okay. Let’s go.’ And I had ripped jeans and a flannel on — because we’re in Vermont. By the time we got to the border, she was saying, ‘You come with me to these meetings.’ And she’s meeting with CEOs and ministers of finance and like all kinds of like important people up there. I’m happy to come. Then we spent hours and hours and hours talking.”

The pair discussed the electric aviation industry as well as the philosophy of building a business around the elements of collaborative culture. Clark explained his father’s idea of leading from behind. He talked about one of his favorite aphorisms: no paper projects ever fail; you have to go and build real things; that’s how you expose issues.

“When we go out to flight test, I don’t go ‘Let’s go have a good flight test,’“ Clark said. “I go, ‘Let’s go expose some issues. That’s my goal.’ I want to expose the issues. I want to shake this tree. I described a lot of this to Martine. And she said, ‘Why don’t you write this down and send it to me?’”

Rothblatt wanted one adjustment.

“I call it a quarter-turn adjustment,” Clark said. “She said, ‘Let’s do it for organs, tissues and blood products. And let’s do it with a larger cabin. Let’s do it all electric, not hybrid electric. And I want you to write down how you would elicit this thinking and create this product.’”

Clark dropped Rothblatt off at her Quebec home and drove back across the Newport border to his home in Underhill.

“I got home around midnight or 2 am,” he said. “And I painted a watercolor and wrote all over it. And I sent it to her. And you know, the next morning at 9 am, after I’d slept for a couple hours, I went out to the garage and was working on a motorcycle when my wife came out with my phone. It had a text from Martine that just said, ‘You’re on.’ That was her response.”

Clark’s response was, “Oh, shit, what did I do?” Then he borrowed an office from a friend and tried to make himself look like an established businessman.

“Martine came by and we worked out a deal to go in to go and build Ava and fly it,” Clark said. “She put $1.5 million into the project. I put money into the project. But basically, we were working for free with a budget of about $3 million bucks. We designed, built and flew the largest electric aircraft in the world. And we flew it 100 times. For comparison, Airbus put about $120 million into their effort, and they ended up flying and then canceling the project.”

BETA Technologies launched in 2017.

“Eight months later we had Ava off the ground,” Clark said. “This little team from Vermont went out and crushed it.”

 

Flying Ava

Ava is a prototype electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft with eight rotors that thrust vector. That means they push air down and then push air forward.

“So they articulate from pointing upward to going forward,” Clark said. “The plane takes off like a helicopter and then flies like an airplane and lands like helicopter. And it’s powered by 100% battery electric.”

When she began with Clark, Rothblatt was also funding other electronic airplane companies.

“She had big aerospace companies working on this as well, because she had a big vision of creating an organ and tissue delivery system,” Clark said. “She unwound all those projects and gave us a contract for $48 million. And I gave her a high five and we went off and built these aircraft.”

Ava is now hangared in Plattsburgh, NY.

Photo: Clark has not only designed, built and flown two prototype all-electric airplane models — the first was called Ava, and the second, the current model, is called Alia — but he is also building a 355,000-square-foot aircraft assembly site on 40 acres at the airport, in sight of his offices and hangar. Photo: Randolph T. Holhut.

 

Other Customers

BETA’s deal with Rothblatt makes sure that United Therapeutics has an exclusive right to use its aircraft for organ and tissue delivery.

“Right now they’re taking organs that would have been thrown away and repairing them with some really neat technology,” Clark said. “They’re producing them and literally stitching them back together. They’re gluing them. (Pulmonologist) Daniel J Weiss, over here at University of Vermont, developed a super glue to glue organs back together. They’re manufacturing right now. They’re not transplanting into people yet. They’ve done some really neat ones that were grown in pigs, genetically modified, and they just put one into a cadaver two weeks ago and kept it alive. The science is just freaking amazing.”

Other customers have appeared, checks in hand.

In May of 2021, for example, BETA announced that $368 million funding round led by Fidelity and Amazon’s Climate Fund. That brought the total up to $1.4 billion. But that was in May. There’s more in the kitty now.

 

Competition Is Stiff

BETA isn’t the only company looking to lead the electronic flight industry.

“Among the companies working on electric flight are Airbus, Ampaire, MagniX and Eviation,” says a 2020 article in Scientific American. “All are flight-testing aircraft meant for private, corporate or commuter trips and are seeking certification from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration…NASA’s X-57 Maxwell electric plane, under development, replaces conventional wings with shorter ones that feature a set of distributed electric propellers…roughly 170 electric airplane projects are underway.”

Big companies like Boeing and JetBlue are pouring millions of dollars into electric aviation research and development.

Uber jumped into the market early, then sold off its aviation division, Elevate, to the startup Joby Aviation “as the financial prospects for electric vertical take-off and landing remain too far from profitability for Uber’s struggling balance sheet,” reported Quartz.

Now Joby, a Californian venture-backed aerospace company, is also developing an electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft. It intends to operate the aircrafts as an air taxi service. It recently went public on the New York Stock Exchange via a SPAC (Special Purchase Acquisition Company — a shell investment company already registered on the stock exchange and looking for a company to buy) and is valued at $6.6 billion.

Archer Aviation, another electronic aviation company, also in California, also went on the NYSE through a SPAC, and is now valued at $3.8 billion.

There are many others, as well, all trying to create a place for themselves this new industry.

Clark remains unfazed.

“I wouldn’t say there’s a ton of competition,” he said. “There’s only two of us that have achieved airworthiness certificates from the military to a meaningful level. We’re the only one to get an airworthiness certificate for a manned aircraft. We’re the only ones that are really focused on medical cargo and logistics. And therefore our design is way different than everybody else’s.”

Passenger and private jets are far, far, far away from the company’s future, but Clark doesn’t rule them out.

“The right market entry strategy is through medical cargo and logistics,” he said. “Three to four years later, beyond the pilot programs, we will have thousands of aircraft flying and millions of flight hours. Our competitors will just be getting in with their passenger markets or passenger aircraft. And by the time we meet them — say 2026, 2027 or 2028, where do you think people will want to put their family? On the aircraft that’s been flying thousands of missions, doing things like moving packages and moving organs? I would never tell you we’re not doing passenger. But our path to get there, I think, is smarter.”

In a way, Clark is borrowing a strategy from Tesla.

“That’s why the Google and Apple cars failed while Tesla succeeded,” Clark said. “They didn’t just say, ‘We’re going to build an autonomous electric car,’ and go way out there to do it. They said, ‘No, we’re going to first retrofit a Lotus. Then we’re going to build a pretty high performance car without autonomy. Then we’re going to add autonomy in there, and we’re going to lower the cost.’ They didn’t just try to jump to it. We recognize in business there are stepwise goals that have massive commercial returns that we can achieve on our path to getting to ubiquitous aircraft for passenger and cargo. So it makes sense.”

 

The Biggest Pivot

After spending millions of dollars creating Ava and flight-testing it hundreds of times, in a daring move Clark went ahead and benched it.

“My philosophy is just simple enough to be revolutionary,” he said. “If you build something that is the minimum solution to a problem, it costs less, it’s lighter, it’s less to maintain, and it’s more elegant. It’s like the iPhone, with a minimum number of features on it that make it useful. And if one is not helpful, they take it off, right? When we went and built Ava it had eight rotors. It had thrust vectoring. It had a wing and a tail. I thought it was the simplest aircraft possible to do this mission. We built it, we flew it, everybody worked their tails off to make this a successful program.”

So when Clark got a better idea, it was really difficult to stop the project.

“I said, ‘I know everybody’s been working on thrust vectoring, working on articulating rotor heads and gearboxes that work at all angles, and all these hard technical problems, and we did it,” Clark said. “But it was a shitty concept. We’re going to stop. We’re going to go backwards.’”

Clark had the vision to see that Ava was not the purest, simplest solution to the problem of electronic flight.

“All those pain points, the liquid cooling, the thrust vectoring, all those convoluted controls that we put into there, that people spent nights and weekends and working their tail off, we threw it all away,” Clark said. “We said it was a mistake. And we’re going to go after a simpler machine. That was probably, on a global level, the biggest failure in vision.”

Then Clark had to tell Rothblatt that he was throwing away his prototype — and maybe her money.

“When I went to her, I said, ‘Martine, I need your advice. We made a big configuration error. And we’re shifting over to this new configuration,’” Clark said. “And she looked at me and goes, ‘Two things. Keep your promises, and think about the patients.’ The way that I interpret it was that took a lot of balls to go to your customer and say, ‘We made a mistake.’ But I earned a lot of respect from her by doing that. Her goal is to move organs to people in need. Martine said, ‘Okay, I’m behind it.’ And so it was it was a failure, but it gave us the opportunity to start anew with Alia.”

 

Charging Stations

Electric airplanes don’t fly because they have very long extension cords. Their batteries need charging stations, and BETA is on the case.

It has created landing surface/charging stations and planted them all over the US.

“There’s no sense to building electric aircraft unless it can charge at airports and off airports,” Clark said.

He pointed to a charging station sitting on the tarmac.

“That’s a prototype right there,” he said. “There are a bunch of those out in the world. In fact, there are 55 sites already in the US that have some amount of charging systems. That’s including Rutland, Plattsburgh and Rome, NY. There’s one in Manchester, NH, and one down in Connecticut. We put them all the way across Pennsylvania, all the way across Ohio, all the way through Missouri, and all the way down to Arkansas already.”

The plan is to put 480 charging stations across the United States.

“You’ll be able to cover the entire United States without using a drop of fuel, which is what we’re doing for UPS and others,” Clark said.

 

Taking Risks

No electric BETA plane has crashed, although Clark has been flying long enough to have a few emergency landings with fossil fuel-propelled planes under his belt. But this is aviation we’re talking about; risk still exists.

For training purposes, BETA has a state-of-the-art flight simulator that includes a cockpit with flashing lights and dials. It sits in front of a huge screen onto which the airport is projected. It has a virtual reality simulator and many other training devices. It takes training seriously.

“We quantify risk in two big buckets,” Clark said. “There’s risk that is going to end up with something that’s embarrassing or annoying, or we lose time, and a risk that’s going to compromise somebody’s safety. This is a process. This is engineered. We do everything within our means to ensure that that pilot comes back safely after every flight test, whether it’s me or anybody else.”

Why would I be surprised that BETA has never had a mishap in its aircraft, Clark said.

“The amount of engineering and the talent that’s going into the engineering and the flight test?” he said. “We have the best mechanics. We have a phenomenal test team. Our crew resource management within the flight test program is bar none. And a lot of these guys are from the Green Mountain Boys, who have flown tons of sorties and missions in F-35s and F-16s, and F-4s before that. And we have a bunch of folks who came from flight test communities at Edwards Air Force Base and the National Test Pilot School. The expectation is not that we have a mishap. The expectation is that we have a safe flight test campaign.”

 

Doing Business In Vermont

Clark is building his dream company in Vermont because he loves it.

“It’s beautiful here,” he said. “Also, I think that Vermonters have a unique tenacity and perspective on the world that you don’t see elsewhere. You know, when it snows out you see more people coming to work, because they’re like, ‘It’s a challenge! Let’s go to work! Let’s go do this!’ Not all Vermonters, of course, but the Vermonters that we associate with.”

Clark said he has had no problem recruiting people to come to Vermont.

“The funny thing is, you give them an opportunity in Vermont, they want to come to Vermont,” he said. “You love skiing, mountain biking, the lake? You love good people, thoughtful, healthy exercise and stuff like that? Come to Vermont. You say, ‘I can’t find a job.’ We can solve that problem. I think it’s a fallacy for people to say, ‘Well, we can’t recruit people in Vermont.’ Or the other obvious one, ‘My husband can’t find a job.’ Or ‘My wife can’t find a job.’ They can work remote. So we have thousands and thousands of resumes. Our problem is getting through all the resumes. It’s certainly not finding people.”

Easy access to elected officials is a big reason Clark likes doing business in Vermont.

“Frankly, having direct access to the governor, the senators and our congressman is incredibly helpful in a highly regulated environment,” Clark said. “The airport and the state have been phenomenal to us. Like we want to put a charging system in Rutland? The state gives us a high five and says, ‘Go do it!’”

Other states may not be that easy to deal with.

“We go into these other states and you have friction upon bureaucracy upon whatever,” Clark said. “But I said to the airport, we want to build this thing out right here. They unblocked everything. The mayor, the governor, whoever is necessary. There are incentives to go to other states where they’re like, ‘We’re gonna give you a tax credit,’ or ‘We’re gonna give you some cash.’ Whatever. You can’t replace speed and efficiency in the business. I said to the governor and the mayor, ‘I’m not asking for any cash. We’ve gotten a little bit of cash from training grants or whatever. What I’m asking for is a low friction path to create a sustainable business. We just want you to not make it hard.’ We want to be able to do this efficiently. It pays in spades because the people stay motivated, the program stays on track, and customers are happy.”

As an example of cooperation, just a few years ago seven small homes in a development off Kirby Road near the airport were slated for demolition. The airport had bought them for about $2 million with FAA grant money and planned to raze them because they were deemed uninhabitable because of noise pollution.

Clark bought them. Because the housing market in Burlington is so tight, he uses the homes as temporary housing for new employees who are moving to the area to work at BETA.

Asking for exceptions to rules and decisions is par for the course, Clark said.

“This is a business that’s accelerating,” Clark said. “The most important thing for us is to reduce the friction if we have a clear and logical argument. And frankly, our thesis around building this facility — and the manufacturing facility — is that we are going to ask for exceptions. We’re putting in $13 million of geothermal wells into the manufacturing plant. It’s going to be a totally sustainable building. We’re spending millions and millions of dollars so it sits in harmony with the landscape. It’s going to have a childcare center to take care of some of the issues around access to a diverse workforce. We’re siting it so that aesthetically, people will walk by this thing and say, ‘This is a beautiful building.’ It’s clean. It’s simple. It’s an essence of Vermont. The trusses are wood. I’m not going to push on people something that’s not beautiful and in harmony with the landscape or with the community. So in asking the governor and the mayor and the airport to let us work without friction, my commitment to them is to do it right. You know why we have all these rules? Because some people don’t do it right.”

Clark has an excellent relationship with Governor Phil Scott, who held his first post-pandemic cabinet meeting at BETA. US Senator Patrick Leahy has also advanced BETA with a program he helped set up called Agility Prime.

“It’s a program in the Air Force,” Clark said. “They’re looking for new and novel technologies they can support in a nontraditional way. They are unblocking the contracting shenanigans that used to be there. So we’ve got a number of contracts with them. It’s up to $50 million so far.”

BETA is building the same aircraft for the Air Force that it is building for UPS.

“The Air Force has a logistics and cargo mission as well,” Clark said. “It has to move water and medicine to troops. It has to move people around training bases. It has to move parts to tanks on the ranges. It’s la logistics aircraft. It does the exact same thing. Now you don’t need a road. You don’t need an airport. A typical drone can carry a shoe box, right? Our aircraft can carry 1,400 pounds.”

Mayor Weinberger is entranced by future possibilities.

“We’ve even started having discussions with BETA about how this will change the architecture of the city in the future,” he said. “I can imagine future Burlington buildings being built such that these airplanes could land on their on the top floor and create a new kind of transportation link downtown. We haven’t acted on that yet, but we’ve had preliminary discussions. And I think that speaks to the kind of transformation this might bring about.”

It is not entirely a coincidence that BETA is evolving in Burlington, Weinberger said.

“It’s consistent with our major focus of trying to electrify everything,” he said. “We want to electrify our ground transportation. Electrify our buildings. So when we move off the burning of fossil fuels, and to100 percent renewably powered electric forms of heating and cooling and transportation, this expands into our strategy in a very dramatic and impactful way. “

Photo: Another Alia sits gleaming white in its hangar, also well within view, and is surrounded by other, differently-propelled aircraft and helicopters in various stages of repair and disrepair. Photo: Randolph T. Holhut.

 

The Future

The most important next step for BETA is to get Federal Aviation Administration certification so it can start manufacturing and selling planes.

“We’ve designed an aircraft that is specific for manufacturing and certification,” Clark said. “It’s designed for manufacturing in the sense that it can be put together economically, it can be serviced and it can be certified. That’s what we’re building in that factory. So the first one rolls off the line there in quarter two of 2023. There is a huge amount of intellectual assets that we’ve been accruing. Element by element, we’re saying, ‘Is the material certified? Is a process of quality control certified?’ All those elements built the product. So our next technical goal is to take what we believe to be an insanely safe and reliable aircraft, tell the FAA why we think that’s the case, show them the test results that prove that thesis, and then earn a certificate for the airplane.”

Everyone working at BETA is focused on that project.

For an example, Clark pointed to a group of white containers on the tarmac that he said contained running engines.

“There are probably six or eight containers that have motors inside them,” Clark said. “They’re fighting each other, just beating each other up in a boxing match. We’re collecting all that data, billions and billions of bytes of data, to show that we have a reliable, safe motor and then ultimately, an airplane.”

When the test data is collected and collated, BETA can take it to the FAA.

“We can say, ‘Look, we took 40 motors and we beat the snot out of them. And here’s the reliability that we achieved,’” Clark said. “And the FAA says, ‘Hey, you did what you said you were going to do. It makes sense.”

Today Clark is in the process of building his dream company; with modifications, it is the one he first outlined in his Harvard thesis. It has the culture, the management style and the product that he has staked his life around. He has no intention of leaving it.

“This is a company I always wanted to create,” he said. “The beautiful thing about starting a company that you finally get to choose all those things you want. I screwed up a lot in my other companies. And I’ll probably make a lot of mistakes here, right? But this takes the thing that I love, which is flying, and the thing I’m good at, which is power electronics. And then I get to overlay this big experiment on a company, which is how do you run a culture where people love to be here, where they have this insatiable desire for technology and sustainability and aviation. And they all are working towards the same goal.”

BETA is an experiment on three levels, Clark said.

“First, is the market going to accept this?” he said. “Will we build an airplane that works technologically? And then this crazy business model that Kyle came up with? And when I say model, I don’t mean where the cash comes in where the cash goes out. I’m talking about who and how you hire people, what cultural ideals you put into their mindset, how you organize a thing and lead from behind the way my dad talked about. Those are all experiments that are going on here. Any one of them could fail. They could be wildly successful as well. But we’re comfortable operating in that uncertainty.”

 

Joyce Marcel is a journalist in southern Vermont. In 2017 she was named the best business magazine profile writer in the country by the Alliance of Area Business Publications. She is married to Randy Holhut, the news editor/acting operations manager of The Commons, a weekly newspaper in Brattleboro.



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