Boeing’s new HorizonX VC unit, joined by JetBlue Airways, has invested in Zunum Aero, a Kirkland startup developing a short-haul electric-powered aircraft, and in Upskill, which uses augmented reality technology to aid manufacturing work.
Boeing has formed a small venture-capital division called HorizonX to capture some of the innovation and entrepreneurial spirit of tech startups.
Steve Nordlund, who previously headed InSitu — the drone company based in Bingen, Klickitat County, that Boeing acquired in 2008 and made into its small drone division — has been appointed to lead HorizonX, which he said aims to invest “tens of millions of dollars per year” in companies that have interesting technologies.
“We’re trying to look well beyond the horizon,’’ said Nordlund, who identified specific areas of interest as autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence, machine learning and additive manufacturing.
Boeing on Wednesday announced its first two HorizonX investments, one in a Kirkland company called Zunum Aero that is developing small hybrid-electric aircraft.
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The second investment is in Washington, D.C.-based Upskill, a company that combines augmented reality such as Google Glasses and wearable technology to boost productivity for manufacturers, field services and logistics companies.
The amounts Boeing invested weren’t disclosed.
HorizonX will be based at Boeing headquarters in Chicago, with 30 to 40 dedicated staff, Nordlund said.
In making this move to tap into the energy of the tech industry, Boeing is following the lead of rival Airbus and other corporate giants, including Lockheed Martin and GE.
Airbus opened a Silicon Valley center in 2015 — the A3 Innovation Centre — with an initial $150 million commitment. It was headed by a former Google engineer who last year was appointed the European jet maker’s chief technology officer.
Nordlund said Boeing has been working with Upskill for two years on a pilot project at its Mesa, Arizona, manufacturing plant, that helped technicians multitask and collaborate as they assembled 747 wire bundles.
For its investment in Kirkland’s Zunum, HorizonX is joining with a venture-capital unit of airline JetBlue Airways.
Nordlund said that while Upskill’s technology is more mature, Zunum is at a “very early” stage of development. Nevertheless, Zunum Chief Executive Ashish Kumar said in an interview he expects to test fly the first complete plane within two years and to put planes into service in the early 2020s.
The first jet, featuring Tesla-style lithium ion batteries in the wings and a small turbo engine at the tail end, will be certified to a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) standard for planes carrying a maximum of 19 passengers.
Kumar said that small class of plane allows for a fast and relatively inexpensive development program. “Five or six years is the long end,” he said. “And it should not cost more than $200 million.”
For a comparison, he cited the Pilatus general aviation and small business jets built in Switzerland.
Zunum now has fewer than 10 employees, he said. However, the company’s promotional material suggests large ambitions.
It portrays an “industry-changing” revolution: Swarms of small electric airplanes cutting travel times in busy corridors such as L.A. to San Francisco or Boston to New York by as much as 40 percent, and by 80 percent in areas with less traffic, “enabling frequent service to the nation’s network of over 5,000 underutilized regional and general aviation airports.”
A graphic produced by the company shows three different electric aircraft flying over Seattle: a small 10-seat plane; a 50-seat plane; and a 100-seat airliner.
“We have designed a whole fleet of aircraft for the 2020s that follow a progression in terms of complexity and power,” Kumar said. But heacknowledged the commercial case for the larger ones has not been addressed, adding that the 100-seater was included “just for graphical appeal” and there’s no plan yet to actually build it.
Nordlund said Boeing believes “there is a place for electric hybrid propulsion in the future of aviation, though the timing of it is anyone’s guess.”