Please introduce yourself and your business.
My name is Nate Poon, and I’m one of the co-founders of Avol. Avol builds autonomous electric blended-wing aircraft to reduce delivery time for urgent medical products like blood, kidneys, and lab samples.
Born and raised in Oakland, CA, USA, I went to school at UC Berkeley and did a BS in Bioengineering and a PhD in mechanical engineering. I’ve built/helped build 2 startups from the ground up, and I am a huge robotics nerd.
I guess my motivation comes from how I think about life impact. I think one way to measure life is as a histogram - on the X-axis, there are all the different types of people I’d like to help - men, women, small business owners, students, etc. On the Y-axis, the magnitude of the impact. My goal in life is to maximise the area under the histographic curve. I find that I’m pretty passionate about (1) mobility and (2) education; these aren’t the only things that maximise the area, but they are things I’m good at.
I’ve had multiple mentors growing up, and many of them advise Avol on its current trajectory to become the world’s largest zero-emissions airline. I started Avol with Dr. Matthew Sargeant, whom I met in NY. He did his PhD in Aerodynamics, and we went to a couple of conferences together and talked specifically about how to design the Avol blended-wing. This novel aircraft combines elements from rocketry and traditional aerodynamics to fly more efficiently and carry more cargo.
Something from my past that would surprise people today is that I used to really be into streetwear - baggy jeans, Jordans, 2XL t-shirts, that type of thing. Not quite my fashion anymore.
What do your operations look like today?
Unlike other aircraft, Avol aircraft are completely 3D printed, enabling significant savings in manufacturing, assembly, and supply chain, as well as an unprecedented level of customization for our customers.
Fundamentally, at Avol, we separate tasks into 3 pillars: customers, technology, and investors - any task we do serves a larger goal that falls under one of these umbrella categories. I handle most of the customer development, manufacturing, and controls engineering; Matthew handles regulation, aerodynamics, and electronics. We hire independent contractors as it makes sense, though our first hire will likely be a drone electronics engineer.
The atmosphere at Avol is intense. There are lots of drone companies, and we will not win by working 40-hour work weeks. We work extremely hard and are laser-focused on helping our customers by listening closely to what they need through phone calls, emails, and Zoom meetings every week, and then building the most advanced, efficient aircraft in the world.
How did you discover the problem you are solving?
I previously built robots and AI used by Tesla, Amazon, DHL, Delta, and other logistics carriers. I first came up with the electric aircraft idea in 2018 while deploying exoskeletons with a large logistics carrier in Brazil.
One of the most critical challenges in aircraft design for logistics is that most aircraft “cube out before they weigh out” - they hit volume capacity before payload weight limit. Solving this isn’t as simple as geometrically increasing aircraft size by a factor of N - aerodynamics doesn’t quite work like that. The result is most aircraft fly at 45% of their total revenue-generating potential, which increases air fees, which makes air transport the #1 most expensive form of transport.
This matters because making international transport accessible is extremely important for building equity and providing more opportunities to people, as well as helping small businesses flourish and participate in global markets. The challenge is that the limited volume of existing drones, especially eVTOLS [electric vertical take-off and landing], and/or the flight infrastructure like runways or catapults required by fixed-wing drones, don’t enable unit economics that make air transport more accessible: we’ve nearly reached the technological limit of conventional tube-and-wing aircraft.
With the Avol blended-wing and aircraft based on it, we will enable flights with up to 60% higher load factors, 10x more operating locations, and 50% lower operating costs. This obviously may take some time to achieve, but we will achieve it.
Walk us through the specific steps you took to get started with your business.
The first thing we did was talk to potential customers, starting with warm introductions from friends who liked our idea and were willing to introduce us to their friends who worked at companies like DHL and FedEx. We would get these people on a call, ask them what challenges drones would help solve and learn more about their vision before even beginning to craft our own.
Before we even built our first prototype, we needed to answer the question: “Will people pay for this?” Despite what people say, the only thing that matters in starting a company is money. Getting that through my head was a tough lesson to learn, but it is 100% true. It was through these initial conversations that we learned (1) who made a purchasing decision and (2) the simplest way for them to make that purchasing decision.
We financed Avol with our own savings, a couple of angel investors from my network in the Bay Area, and nondilutive grants from NYSERDA [New York State Energy Research and Development Authority], Venture for ClimateTech, and the US Department of Energy. SBIRs [Small Business Innovation Research] are awesome too.
The first moment we felt “this is happening” was when we started talking to hospitals about using drones to transport kidneys. There are about 25,000 kidneys transplanted each year in the US, and ⅓ of these are discarded because they spend too long in transit. That’s insane - people are literally dying for kidneys, and the bottleneck is a logistics problem.
And…we are very much still “beginning.” But I think the #1 problem that we had as PhD engineers was not focusing on the technology and focusing on a use case. This is a lot harder to do when you’re a huge robotics/aviation/logistics nerd like us. And then secondary to that is if you’re going to be pitching VCs for investment, you need to make sure that your “use case” is a $1B use case - and that’s your SOM. Your TAM needs to be way higher - or at least, ours needed to be. We addressed both of these issues with hardcore feedback. I am a huge believer in hardcore feedback paired with solving problems on the spot. It shows depth of understanding, and the best people do this intuitively.
I’m not sure we’ve achieved “success” yet, but I think the most helpful thing for both growth and reducing risk for failure has been our mentors. I attribute most of everything I’ve learned about starting a company to my mentors, Naeem Zafar, Faraz Hoodbhoy, Brian Lee, and Professor Homayoon Kazerooni. I truly stand on the shoulders of giants, and I endeavour to one day make them proud.
How did you acquire your first customers?
Warm intros and continuously trying to simplify my pitch. That doesn’t mean cutting out information necessarily - for me, I need to work on my specific phrasing. My writing can sometimes be extremely verbose (as you can probably tell). Being able to condense what you do, who you help, and why it's better than current solutions is really an art that I can’t say I’ve mastered, but I’ve been mentored by people who do, and I continuously improve.
We separate our outbound sales into 2 tranches - warm intros and cold leads. Cold leads are roughly 100x the number of warm intros, but also allow us to test multiple descriptions of what we do to figure out the clearest way to communicate our value proposition. And to get there…there’s a graveyard of value props we tried that didn’t work.
One thing I would say - lots of startup-y people put the emphasis on trying 1,001 ways to communicate your value, but not enough emphasis on paying attention to the quality of your wording. If you test every phrase that comes to mind, you’ll just annoy your potential customers, which is dumb and doesn’t really help anyone. Treat your potential customers like people you want to be friends with - be authentic and truthful, and take time to make sure you’re crafting the right message in the right way (and not come off as arrogant, which can often be a problem. I've done that accidentally, and it never turns out well.) And make sure you’re actually solving their problem.
What are your three most impressive accomplishments so far?
We’ve done a lot in the 7 months that our company has been alive: expanded to 12 different regions, built 4 aircraft, and have multiple MOUs/LOIs with partners in both healthcare and logistics. We’ll be launching our dedicated courier service in September 2023 and will be expanding across the US. Super proud of the team. We’ve also raised about $753k from some fantastic investors and institutions whom we can’t wait to keep growing with.
How do you measure your social/environmental impact & keep it at the core of your business?
Reduce GHG emissions per mile. Avol aircraft are all zero-emissions for flights < 400 miles. The 400-mile restriction comes from current limitations on battery energy density - most commercial cells are around the 350 Wh/kg mark. This will increase significantly over the next 5 years. We expect that we can probably do about 500 miles of range in about 5 years, which is sufficient range for over 50% of flights globally.
If any, what impact have you had so far?
We’re still early. Not enough Avol aircraft have flown to have a significant impact - yet. Receiving regulatory certification takes a while to meet the required test hours and demonstrate sufficient redundancy to maintain the exceptional safety record of the FAA. But that hasn’t stopped us from figuring out how to start serving customers now, without flying drones.
We're launching a dedicated medical courier service in September that is 1-2 hours faster than existing services. Would be happy to chat with more hospitals or medical labs for whom that may be useful. We're currently launching in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, New York, North Carolina, and other states across the US.
My advice for other founders entering a highly regulated space? Don’t discount it. Regulation is important because it keeps people safe. Work with the FAA, FDA, or other governing body from day 1 to make sure that your product is in compliance. The startup landscape is littered with companies that did not do this and paid the price.
What has been the hardest lesson you had to learn in your journey as a founder?
Money. It sounds superficial, but it’s true. We needed to be laser-focused on getting to revenue ASAP. Revenue and traction solve a lot of problems, and this is a function of market size.
I think it’s in one of Paul Graham's (founder of YC) essays that he says that good markets will force even a mediocre team to perform, while a bad market will cause even the best founders to fail. So, the hardest lesson for us has been to not lose sight of the big picture: revenue. And to do that, we need to continuously talk to as many customers and potential customers as we can to make sure we get the product right.
How did the experience of building a startup change you?
I learned that I could push myself further and harder than I ever thought before. A good example is my previous company, Myntor, which built conversational AI. Everyone said to "get" a software cofounder. Turns out that when your back is against the wall, you can learn to code a web app in like 2 weekends, and most Python courses are overrated.
You can learn almost anything for free on YouTube, Reddit, Stack Overflow, and now, chatGPT. I probably can’t compete with a CS grad, but that’s not the point - building a product that 10,000 students used to get into college was. I think the big thing I learned was that I (and most people) are so much more capable than they give themselves credit for.
Now, when I hear that something is “so hard we should find someone else to do it,” I actually take a deeper look to make sure that either (a) I can’t do it myself or (b) it would take me too long to do. This ties directly into our hiring strategy at Avol.
What are your long-term goals for Avol Aerospace?
Avol’s goal is to be the #1 largest airline in the world by revenue per ton-kilometer (RTK), and the global pioneer in zero-emissions flights. The most significant thing we’d like to accomplish in the next 12 months is to save a life by shipping a kidney with the Avol-25 drone.
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