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Ben Marcus & Cyrus Sigari of UP.Partners: The Future Of Air Travel In The Post Pandemic World

Some of the tech will exponentially increase flight safety through intelligent object avoidance, or deconfliction with other aircraft. Other technologies that interest us will help connect rural communities separated by bad infrastructure; or making safety inspections of things like bridges, wind turbines, radio towers safer for people. Still more are about making cities more intelligent; improving connectivity with base stations and traffic controls; network optimization; marketplaces, like multi-modal trip discovery, fleet risk mitigation, and more.

As As part of our series about “The Future Of Air Travel”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ben Marcus and Cyrus Sigari.

The firm’s leaders are Ben Marcus, who also founded AirMap, and Cyrus Sigari, who founded JetAviva and a slew of other companies. They’ve been business partners for almost as long as they’ve known each other, which goes back to when they were 11. Both got their pilots licenses at age 17, then Cyrus went on to become one of the youngest U.S. flight instructors at 18. Both went to the same engineering school, worked for the same companies, founded companies together, and have now started UP.Partners.

Cyrus’ and Ben’s passion for flight quickly transitioned into a lifelong profession. They graduated from Purdue University with degrees in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering. After graduation, Cyrus worked as a propulsion systems engineer and flight test engineer for Eclipse Aviation, where he was credited with leading the team that certified the first new aircraft fire suppression system in more than 50 years. His work at Eclipse earned him several EPA awards.

In late 2019, Ben and Cyrus launched a venture capital investment firm focused towards the enablement and acceleration of this new industry called UP.Partners. UP.Partners accelerates and positively affects the movement of people and goods in all three dimensions by building a virtuous ecosystem. The unique community of sector-expert entrepreneurs, executives, corporates, and co-investors equals unparalleled access, the right decisions, and the best support and synergies between our portfolio companies and their founders.

Thank you for joining us in this interview series. Can you share with our readers how have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

The world needs innovation in how people and things move. This is why helping humanity to go UP has always been our North Star. Moving people and goods in the 3rd dimension will become a part of everyday life for much of humanity over the next 20 years and we believe that key technologies enabling aerial mobility are needed for continued advances in terrestrial mobility. By investing in these technologies and services, we are helping humanity go UP.

Consider this: almost 80 percent of the world’s population has never left the ground. If you live in the developed world, that statistic sounds absurd, but it’s true; the majority of the world’s population has never been flying. But new technologies can address that now. Just like wireless technologies brought communication to regions that don’t have a well-developed wired infrastructure, electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft will be a boon for rural communities lacking advanced road infrastructures, in addition to addressing traffic and pollution problems in cities.

UP is helping innovators accelerate the development of these life-changing technologies so they can get to market sooner and begin making the world a better place for the people benefitting from them.

Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the Aviation and Air Travel industries?

UP.Partners partners with amazing entrepreneurs who are building companies that develop enabling technologies for multi-dimensional mobility. Yes, the UP community includes companies that build electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft (eVTOLs), but we also invest in technologies like machine vision, hydrogen cells for power (which sounds crazy for a flight application but the technology is super solid and the power output is superior to standard batteries); autonomous technologies for inventory management, electric autonomous crop dusting aircraft, mapping technologies, and on and on. These are typically intended for the aerial mobility space, but they often have secondary and tertiary use cases as well.

Some of the tech will exponentially increase flight safety through intelligent object avoidance, or deconfliction with other aircraft. Other technologies that interest us will help connect rural communities separated by bad infrastructure; or making safety inspections of things like bridges, wind turbines, radio towers safer for people. Still more are about making cities more intelligent; improving connectivity with base stations and traffic controls; network optimization; marketplaces, like multi-modal trip discovery, fleet risk mitigation, and more.

Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing these innovations?

Simply: technology which will help humanity go UP.

How do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?

Moving people and goods in the 3rd dimension will become a part of everyday life for much of humanity over the next 20 years. We believe that key technologies enabling aerial mobility are needed for continued advances in terrestrial mobility.

We’re seeing drones being used for a broad array of valuable use cases today — food and medical supply delivery, public safety, infrastructure inspection, agricultural spraying, etc. The vast benefits these technologies bring are not dependent on urban air mobility.

The future of urban air mobility promises to fundamentally change how people get around cities and more rural communities. Along the way, other industries will be transformed, for example freight will start to move on autonomous aircraft, reducing cost and enabling more efficient point-to-point logistics.

Are there exciting new technologies that are coming out in the next few years that will improve the Air Travel experience? We’d love to learn about what you have heard.

Sooner than a few years from now, and not just improve the air travel experience, but add a completely new sector designed for on-demand, short distance travel. Uber Air, for example. You’ll be able to hail an eVTOL from your phone and go from downtown to uptown or do short commutes that would otherwise waste hours in a car. That’s the most obvious promise of this technology, but there are far more use cases being developed.

As you know, the Pandemic changed the world as we know it. For the benefit of our readers, can you help spell out a few examples of how the Pandemic has specifically impacted Air Travel?

As for air travel itself, the pandemic has been a disaster. Commercial airlines don’t anticipate getting back to pre-pandemic business levels until sometime in 2024. However, the pandemic has certainly been a forcing function for the advancement of autonomous technologies, which might have developed more slowly if the pandemic hadn’t hit us.

We’ve already seen companies like Wing and Amazon advance their drone delivery business for consumer goods. Wing itself famously started delivering library books to children in Virginia after the quarantine started, and more people than ever began to order comfort food, coffee and toiletries through the service. It’s convenient, and it’s touchless, which underscores autonomous air delivery’s importance right now.

The increased use of these technologies in everyday life has had the benefit of proving them out — more flights in these circumstances means the technologies that have made them commonplace will soon go into advancing manned eVTOL-type air travel. We’ll have had the benefit of refining the technologies needed to make this a very safe proposition.

Can you share five examples of how the Air Travel experience might change over the next few years to address the new realities brought by the Pandemic? If you can, please give an example for each.

  1. On-demand short distance flights / Uber Air
  2. Touchless delivery of goods; faster, life-saving delivery of medicines/medical necessities, etc. Wing / Zipline
  3. Quicker access to goods and services for rural communities: Lilium
  4. Software that offers flexible navigation — the ability to alter flight plans in real time to take advantage of favorable winds, avoid routing around storms, etc.
  5. Less reliance on fossil fuels for air travel. The bulk of short distance trips will be electrified.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Helping humanity go UP is what we’re about. We’ve already started the movement and recruited some of the world’s most influential people to help with the mission. We’re aligned with Ross Perot Jr., who is an aviator himself, and the Waltons of Bentonville, AR, who each host one of our UP summits every year, which assembles the aerial mobility ecosystem to compare notes, make deals and investments, and bring these exponential technologies to market.

We also publish a newsletter called TransportUP, which chronicles the latest in aerial mobility — it’s like TechCrunch for flying cars. We have our fingers on the pulse of this industry, and the technology is very advanced. If we could get help with anything, it’s with the regulatory sector — public policy tends to move much slower than the advancement of technology. What we need is a way for these two sides to work together better so everyone can take advantage of this amazing technology sooner.

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