The underlying technologies that are fueling the urban air mobility (UAM) sector are still in their infancy in many cases, but they will be the base upon which the future movement of people and goods depend. The ability of UAM providers to safely operate is also dependent on aircraft navigation systems that can track and guide drones and passenger craft.
It is a high-tech race to fund, develop and deploy the technologies that the future will be built upon.
“The future of high-scale drone and electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) operations is dependent on digital infrastructure for unmanned air traffic control systems,” explained Ben Marcus, co-founder and managing partner of UP Partners. “The existing air traffic control system (which monitors 45,000 daily flights) we use today is limited because it requires human beings, and it does a great job, but it is limited.”
UP Partners is an early-stage venture capital firm specializing in investments in autonomy, computer vision, advanced manufacturing, electrification, navigation and connectivity. Marcus told Modern Shipper the firm typically looks for technology companies that are building “all the things you need to create new transportation systems.”
While those investments can be in any area, as evidenced by an April investment as part of LineVision’s $12.5 million Series B financing round, they all take place in companies with founders who are ambitious and “have the ability to execute on a plan,” Marcus said.
LineVision uses sensors to collect real-time data on critical parameters of overhead power lines including line temperature, sag, horizontal motion and anomalies, and transmits that data back to power companies so they can make decisions on line loads.
“We tend to want to invest in companies that have unique and differentiated technologies,” he said. “But that alone is typically not enough to create an important business. The unique and differentiated technology has to have an important customer set that will benefit from it and a valuable way to monetize that technology that will allow that company to thrive as it grows.”
Marcus said UP’s approach, especially when it comes to the UAM sector, is to find companies building the technologies that will power things like aircraft or drones, rather than the final products themselves. Those underlying technologies, he said, can often be applied in other applications, enhancing the potential value of the companies.
Marcus previously co-founded AirMap, an air traffic management platform, so he has experience with emerging technologies in the space.
“We’ve seen the level of interest [in UAM and eVTOLs] absolutely exploding over the last few years. In 2013, virtually no one had heard the term [eVTOL],” he said.
Marcus said there is great potential for UAM, especially eVTOLs in less dense urban settings that will enable shorter commute times.
“We see a much better world because of the new innovations being developed,” he said.
Already, technologies like drones being used around the world to deliver medicines and vaccines are proving their capabilities. In Rwanda, for instance, more than 50% of the country’s blood supplies are now being transported via drones.
“It’s an extremely exciting time for technology and we believe over the course of the next 10 years, these vehicles will alter the way people and goods will move around the world,” Marcus said.
UP Partners is leveraging its technological expertise to help it find the right investments.
“We’re very specialized in this sector, unlike most venture capital firms that tend to be general investors,” Marcus noted. “We have a very deep understanding of what is happening in the space because it is what we do on a daily basis. … We do a lot of preparatory work on developing landscapes of subsectors so we can be prepared. … We have an existing idea of how that [technology] might fit in the competitive landscape, and we spend a lot of time with these founders to understand exactly what they want to do.
“We are looking for founders who have ambitious ideas about building transformative businesses in helping people and goods move about the world in faster and more sustainable ways,” he added.