Flying Cars, Artificial Intelligence and Local Prospects Give Southern California an Edge in Aerospace
By DONNA BALANCIA
Van Espahbodi, the managing partner and co-founder of Starburst Accelerator helps aerospace companies grow.
Espahbodi, a 20-year aerospace strategist with an eye on the future, said Southern California is the most fertile ground for creative companies on the rise. Starburst Accelerator, led by Espahbodi and founder François Chopard, help develop young companies and introduce them into an ever-more demanding market.
He has always loved the aerospace industry. Espahbodi’s studies have been focused on technology transfer and how licensing technologies to partners shape foreign policy overseas. He started his career on Capitol Hill as a Congressional aid and grew to become a respected adviser to NASA, the Department of Defense, the UK and the military.
But Espahbodi’s heart lies is in helping to give young companies their start.
“Starburst is really changing the way innovation happens by matching the the traditional aerospace and defense corporate primes and the supply chain, along with their government customers,” Espahbodi said. “There’s a new and emerging talent pool and non-traditional capital that’s investing and scaling businesses at a speed that’s unprecedented.
“We do that by getting retained to provide a service to most of the industry primes and supply chain and government agencies that incubate and accelerate and scout what we consider to be the most promising,” he said. “Then we invite those companies to participate in what is commonly referred to as the ‘Shark Tank’ for aerospace. So that’s what we do.”
Starburst Accelerator takes companies from seed investment to Series A. Typically these are the companies that have anywhere from five people to 30 people and which are preparing to go through hyper-growth to compete in the market and scale the business. Espahbodi was among aerospace experts at the LAEDC Future Forum last January. Read the aerospace Future Forum recap here.
Espahbodi said the aerospace niche is multi-faceted and growing, and young aerospace companies benefit from the globe-spanning work of the tech industry.
“Thanks to the tycoons of the tech industry from Amazon, Microsoft, Google improving connectivity in remote parts of the world, that requires aerospace technology capabilities,” Espahbodi said. “So you’ve seen a lowering of barriers to entry as new market players emerge and create those capabilities.
“With Silicon Valley exports like Palantir or SpaceX — that have really proven their ability to achieve what they’ve offered to both the aviation and space and defense markets — we’ve now seen an opening of the dam of talent and what we call “non-traditional capital” from outsiders that are looking to participate in this new marketplace,” Espahbodi said.
Companies involved in flying cars is particularly compelling.
A lot of these items are starting to converge into a domain that is now referred to as urban air mobility. The Department of Defense and NASA and the U.S. in particular are driving this initiative, through respective programs, one is called Agility Prime with the D O.D and the Air Force, which is looking at at how these electric vertical take off and landing systems can be piloted or prototyped for Medivac or logistics purposes.
On the civil side, he said, there are applications like emergency use cases. But the U.S. is far from the sole country in the mix. Companies in China and Germany, for instance, are scaling the business.
“The notion of flying cars is nothing new,” Espahbodi said. “What’s been very interesting in the last few years is the entry of big companies like Uber or legacy companies like Bell. So as we continue to push the boundaries of energy and and fuel, whether we’re looking at hybrid or hydrogen type of energy systems or fully electric systems, as we test it out in drones as a market, in small drones, you’re starting to see a convergence around how the regulator behaves. How the public behaves. So don’t think about it in terms of would you get in an aerial vehicle. But would you let your kids get an aerial vehicle?
Looking to future generations in strategizing urban air mobility is important, Espahbodi said.
Espahbodi said some familiar names are leading the way in flying cars.
“I think the most notable company that’s really growing rapidly is the well-known car company Hyundai,” he said. “Hyundai has recruited a team of over 50 people now that started around the U.S. that’s involved in in preparing for this new market on the technology side on the concepts on the regulatory side, and really putting a pretty significant push behind it.
Uber is another company getting involved and even the founder of Google (Nasdaq: GOOGL), Larry Page, has invested in flying car companies. There are almost 70 companies today that are private. But of the big public ones, Bell (NYSE: TXT), Hyundai (OTC: HYMTF), and Embraer (NYSE: ERJ), the Brazilian aircraft company, all want a piece of the pie.
Artificial Intelligence Will Be the Big Game Changer in Efficiency
“Artificial intelligence or, more appropriately termed, ‘machine learning,’ and deep learning elements are a feature that can support operations, or let’s call them ‘repeatable operations,’ ” Espahbodi said. “And so how you measure layers of autonomy can be applied to almost anything, whether it’s cyber, whether it’s communications and sensors and how cell towers work, whether it’s robotics for factory floor-type operations.
AI helps create efficiencies in human-machine interface-type operations. The Department of Defense launched an initiative called the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center or the JAIC for short, as well as many other initiatives by NASA and the FAA, and looking how autonomy can affect productivity and how each human operator can be optimized at what it does.
So I’ve been 20 years in the aerospace industry and looking how technology and the business cases behind them help accelerate their growth into the market.
Where does Starburst Accelerator find talent?
“I think Southern California in particular, has the largest concentration of engineering talent anywhere in the country,” he said. “There’s just such an incredible amount of academia, education and research that goes on in the region.
“Talent comes from a lot of places,” Espahbodi said. “I’ve come to a reasonable conclusion that change is in the power of the entrepreneur and the most promising feature is self awareness. And I think whether you’re coming straight out of school or you’re already in a government position or in a corporate position having the will to survive in very tough environment to pursue that problem is really what it takes to become a talented individual.”