Long thought of as far-off science fiction, urban air taxis are coming to a city near you — and they’ll likely be made by Archer.
The Palo Alto-based startup came out of stealth mode last May, and is already taking off in the urban air mobility industry. Archer has partnered with both Los Angeles and Miami to bring its eVTOLs (electric takeoff and landing vehicles) to the cities by 2024, says co-founder Brett Adcock. Those vehicles, already in test flights, are designed to carry four passengers for 60 miles at speeds of up to 150mph. The company has also partnered with United Airlines to manufacture at scale, and even has plans to go public via SPAC with Atlas Crest Investment.
When Archer makes its public debut, it’ll have an equity valuation of $3.8 billion. Its long-term plan? To create a nationwide — and eventually global — network of eVTOLs and landing hubs in an effort to provide sustainable and speedy air travel to combat traffic woes.
Last month, The Business of Business spoke with Adcock about Archer’s early days, what it takes to launch an eVTOL network, and what the future of air transportation will look like.
Note: This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
The Business of Business: Tell me a bit about yourself and why you co-founded Archer.
Brett Adcock: Before founding Archer, I co-founded a company called Vettery, an online recruiting marketplace business. When you take a step back, there's a half a trillion dollar market worldwide for trying to help job seekers in companies find the right talent and find the right opportunities. And that process isn't always the best. Outside of spending time with family, significant loved ones, you spend most of your time at work.
We started that company in 2013, out of the NYU incubator. It was overall a great experience. We helped scale the business close to 300 people. And we had a chance in 2017, the biggest recruiting company in the world, the Adecco group, approached us to acquire the business. And we ultimately sold that business for around $110 million in early 2018. And it was just a great period. During that time, my focus turned to Archer.
I'm really excited about the electrification of transportation. Throughout our lifetime, we'll see every form of transport move to electric, outside of rockets. And there's been tremendous advancements in the last 20 years in power systems. I think generationally, we need to be working on hard problems, even if there are low chances of success, that doesn't mean we shouldn't be working on them. If there are interesting areas that we should be really focused on to help progress, some of these engineering topics just help make the world better.
“We think this is going to be a multi-trillion dollar opportunity. It's unlocking the skies inside of cities and beyond for folks that are stuck on the ground.”
One of these areas that I think is really important is going to be sustainable air mobility. From a really high point, that batteries have gotten good enough now to electrify an aircraft. You can make the aircraft vertically takeoff and land like a helicopter and fly like an airplane using only batteries and electric motors. This step, moving to electric, is really important. It helps create an aircraft that is, compared to helicopters, affordable to operate. High safety and low noise. And it's important as helicopters today are just not the right service for us to move around. It's too expensive, too noisy, not safe. It's like all the opposites in a lot of ways.
The UN says by 2050, 70% of the world will live in cities, and we're stuck on the ground, humans are stuck. And it's hard to move around. We live in skyscrapers and we go to offices that are three-dimensional, and the road infrastructure is two-dimensional. And there's an inability to scale real estate, to scale roads, bridges, and tunnels. A lot of ways are sandwiched inside of cities, or take some 10 years for cities, or local municipalities to build new lanes. They're really filled up with traffic, because there's so much demand. When you get into the air, there's an ability to fly 150 miles an hour point to point with no traffic. We can do it affordably and really safely. We think this is going to be a multi-trillion dollar opportunity. It's unlocking the skies inside of cities and beyond for folks that are stuck on the ground.
What impact will urban air mobility have on transportation?
I think it's got a few profound impacts. One is not only taking people to and from the airport. If you look back at the last 100 years, every time we had a new mode of transportation, like horse and buggy or car, or airplane, we still traveled an hour a day, but we traveled further every day. So when we had the car, we could drive further than we had a horse and buggy. We drove around a lot more. Now that you're able to get around easier, what does that do for folks? Maybe you live in LA, but it's an hour drive from Orange County to LAX? What if you could just fly there in 15 minutes instead of driving for an hour and a half? And what if you cannot live in LA anymore, and you can fly into LA every day for work for 20 minutes instead of commuting?
“We need to be working on hard problems, even if there are low chances of success, that doesn't mean we shouldn't be working on them.”
We think it has a profound impact on our behavior with moving around. We're really excited to hear about some of the long term impact we can make. It'll take some time. We'll be close to 100 employees into this quarter. We're based in California. We announced that we’ll be going public. We announced the $1.1 billion capital raise. And in conjunction with that, we also announced that United Airlines was going to place a $1 billion preorder of aircraft with us. It will start taking deliveries in 2024.
Archer only surfaced last May. So when exactly was it founded?
So we started working on this about three to four years ago. We have been largely working more in stealth, a clinic behind closed doors. In May, we came out with a public-facing website and a little bit more about what you're doing. And then two weeks ago, we came out a little bit more. But we've been operating more secretly for the last several years. Now we're at a point where we're becoming more public about the plans that we're doing here at Archer. We made the decision relatively early on that it would make the most sense to be a little bit more reserved and quiet about what we're doing as we're making plans for growing and scaling up.
The team that we have here is pretty incredible. My head of engineering was at a company called Wisk. And in my chief engineer working Airbus's eVTOL division, or electric vertical takeoff and landing division, called Vahana, for five years. The team has been working on this for a long time to about 200 years of combined eVTOL experience here at Archer. And what we're doing here is really focused on taking this new technology approach that we have formed and take this business and commercialize it. Get the certification from the FAA, get through manufacturing and bring your great product to market.
You've got all these people with experience from these other places that you're utilizing here. What makes Archer different?
We took the whole team from Airbus Vahana, because they stopped that program. I don't want to speak for the other competitors. I don't know what their plans are. We're really focused on bringing a product to customers to help move folks around, really targeting this 2024 timeline. We think it will be one of the first to market here in the US. We believe it is our place here to help pioneer this space and move stuff forward. From a technology perspective, we've designed a vehicle that we think has some of the highest performance in the world. And we're really focused on some of the key enabling technologies around aircraft design, avionics supply control software, the energy storage system and electric powertrain systems simulation, in manufacturing.
Given the team's experience of about a decade, since 2010, on this, I think we have somewhat of a leading approach, some of these technology initiatives that don't exist in some other groups. That was really important for United when they stepped in and really tried to pick the right partner to make the billion dollar investment. They're also helping us out strategically given the market, which is also really helpful, like pilot training, FAA certification, airport connections, and just go to market plans around cities. This is the only group that not only partnered with us, but it was the only group in the world to have a contract like this. It's pretty validating for Archer. But this is a pretty hard thing to do. I think there will be players that we'll be able to compete against over time.
“Maybe you live in LA, but it's an hour drive to LAX? What if you could just fly there in 15 minutes instead of driving for an hour?”
We're really focused on building like the greatest customer experience we can. But we also just announced a big partnership with Stellantis. And $1.1 billion of cash and an incredible team. We announced yesterday plans to enter Los Angeles in 2024 as one of our first launch cities. So we're continuing to make innovations around manufacturing, autonomy, battery, and fly software that are really important long term.
Speaking of technology, is there a physical prototype? When can we see one flying publicly?
We're flying our prototypes in California every day. We're building our maker aircraft, which is probably what you're seeing all the photos of on our website and what's on my Zoom background. We're unveiling that this year. And we'll be flying it this year. So stay tuned.
We're actually doing final assembly right now in our office, that’s pretty awesome. This is a full scale vehicle. It's a little over 3300 pounds, 40 foot wingspan, 12 electric motors, six independent battery packs. It's got tons of sensors onboard, for GPS, airspeed measurements. It's a beauty. We've designed it really well. It's a big aircraft. We'll also be using it to help advance some of our autonomy work too, in-house, over the remaining years, which will be great, but we're gonna be flying out here in California, every single day starting this year.
Why LA? How did that partnership with the mayor happen? Is the city itself just better suited for eVTOLs?
The criteria that is set to look at cities — we wanted a city with a high density of people. And traffic needs, even the ability to think about helping folks get around. Existing infrastructure is another one that's really important. We've certified our aircraft to be certified into existing helicopter landing pads. So like LA’s got close to 200 helipads, a lot of underutilized airports, and also a lot of ability for rooftops and parking garages and land parcels to retrofit for landing sites. So we've got a lot of that in LA.
Mayor Garcetti announced plans a few months ago to be one of the one of the first in the US to bring our availability to LA. Being one of the biggest metropolitan areas in the US, it was obviously a great first launch city for us to be in where they have tons of traffic needs. Our plan is to be launching into multiple cities. So we'll announce more launch parties this year, and to be in tens of cities this decade. So there'll be a lot more here as we go. We’re trying to pick the best cities that match some of these criteria. The launch into LA is certainly up there in the top five cities we could ever have launched in the US.
Was aircraft always interesting to you? At what point did that get on your radar?
Sustainability is a really important topic to me. Ever since college, I've been interested in the electrification of transport, and sustainability is a really important topic. I was keeping tabs on some groups out here in California, like Airbus, working on these projects for the last 10 years. It was really inspiring. They push a lot of this technology forward. Three or four years ago, looking at some of these routes, you could clearly see there was a convergence in technology, where they were getting really good. To my surprise, a lot of the regulatory environment was being set up to certify aircrafts. I can say that the FAA, here in the US, is now fully set up and ready to go. I've been growing up touching a lot of hardware, working on different hardware things. I'm a big fan of aerospace and aircraft.
I funded grants in 2018, down in the University of Florida and with the mechanical engineering and aerospace college there, and started a group called the Archer Aviation Lab down there. It actually started off of Archer road. And so that’s what we called the business. I spent the last three or four years down there, learning how to build eVTOLs, like building a VTOL there with my bare hands working on this. I ended up meeting along the journey, Marc Lore, who is one of our first investors here, ultimately the largest. And Marc ended up backing the business relatively early, which is great.
Now you're going to go public? What prompted you to make that decision?
We have a case where we've been working on this for years. Listen, what we're doing here is very capital intensive. It's about battery manufacturing, aircraft manufacturing, even internal R&D, organizational buildout, all those are really important. It is costly, around $700 million to do. That's a big chunk of change. We had a chance here to go raise more than that, like 50%. More than that $1.1 billion in one swoop, instead of being a private company that would have to raise multiple rounds. And if any of those rounds had issues like where we had economic correction, where we were able to access private markets, that's when big, hard industries like this and aerospace go bankrupt, when they run out of funding. Because there's a recession or whatever reason, they just can't secure the next $300 million then go under.
And I think that's an unprecedented ability for us here to have a balance sheet. It gives us all the capital, we need to get the cash flow, break even and beyond without having raised any additional capital. We ended up going public to do that — that wasn't accessible in the private markets. Now it gives us everything we need in order to fund the business through the development manufacturing phases and certification phases to get to market, which is probably one of the top risks for the business.
Where do you see the future of eVTOLs and the future of the company going? In 10 years does every city have a network?
In 2029, I think every major city in the US will be using this. I think we're producing aircraft in the thousands and ramping up quite considerably — I think we are moving into almost the last leg of autonomy for this industry. We're building new real estate to power, high throughput takeoff and landings per hour. They’re going to go through a couple of phases. We're entering this next phase of going to market, and then this phase of mass scaling the business. That's always the manufacturing and autonomy and real estate, all these different levels.
“We're flying our prototypes in California every day. So stay tuned.”
So I think what you'll see this decade is some select cities that have big traffic needs. Throughout the rest of the decade, you'll see this in every major US city, in the world, starting to work towards other cities in Europe and South America, and in the Middle East, and Asia. I think it will be in every major market by the end of 2030. It will be operating a few routes, and scaling those routes over time. We’ll operate in LA and a few select routes and zones, and we’ll start expanding. The good news here is every time you add a new node on the network. So we have like five nodes. If we brought up to six nodes, it opens up five new routes for that one node. It's really nonlinear scaling, in a good way. We're not like a bus stop, or a train stop or tunnel stop has to go through every single stop and a seventh stop. Here, you don't need to do that. With a new route, you can now have access to all those other routes. It's a network and a bit nodal in that way, which gives you exponential route growth over time.
It sounds like you need a lot less infrastructure than you would if you were starting an airline. You're retrofitting buildings and helipads and things like that.
You basically need the flat piece of land, and then permits. The local municipalities will ultimately decide what is permitted and once you get certified by the FAA, you can fly anywhere federally in the US, which is what we're doing now.
We think the FAA is the best place to certify — it's one of the largest markets for aviation in the world. You can always backdoor your way into other jurisdictions later. Airbus, Boeing, you get certified in the US or Europe, and then you do equivalency programs for every other aviation authority in other countries. If you get certified by the FAA, you can be global. It's kind of like the rule of thumb. The FAA is one of the harder places to get certified in the world because the safety standards are so high here.
What advice do you have for other founders or entrepreneurs out there?
We're fraught with engineering challenges across the world. There's a lot of opportunity here, in a lot of areas of the world to be working on harder problems that can make improvements overall, and help increase the odds that we wake up to a world that we're really excited to be in. Look at what Elon has done with Tesla and SpaceX. He rebuilt NASA, SpaceX, it's absolutely incredible. It’s so compelling for folks out there looking to go out and do harder problems and build really great businesses.