Cantos Ventures
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Cantos Ventures

Electrification of Things: By Air

Why we invested in Mako Aerospace

Today, aviation contributes 3–4% of total greenhouse gas emissions, and it’s estimated to increase substantially. Electrification has become the popular choice for decarbonizing modes of transportation. Climate change is undoubtedly a contributor to the urgency, but there are economic benefits to electrification as well. Not only is electricity cheaper than fuel in most instances, but with fewer moving parts, electric engines are significantly cheaper to maintain. These are the two largest cost drivers in aviation. However, it is assumed that battery technology has not developed well enough to be adopted in the aviation industry.

The challenge to building an electric aircraft versus other forms of transportation is primarily due to energy density. Jet fuel contains 14X more usable energy by volume than state-of-the-art lithium-ion batteries. And piling on more batteries is not the answer, especially for an industry heavily concerned with the weight on board an aircraft. According to The Guardian, “to power a 737-size jet with electricity would require a battery the size of the plane itself.” Even though electric flight has been scoffed at in the past, the increasing pressure to reach net-zero by 2050 has caused various airlines to intensify their roadmap on developing renewable options.

Even though incumbents are adopting the renewability mindset, two problems persist:

  1. The popular approaches being taken by legacy airlines aren’t adequate to reach full sustainability and can be dangerous. For instance, Airbus and Boeing plan to develop hydrogen-powered aircraft. Whether hydrogen is used as liquid fuel or to power a turbine, it is still produced from fossil fuels or electricity, so hydrogen can’t cost less than either. It’s also hazardous, so the engineering standards are higher, and operating costs (OpEx) go up, not down. On average, batteries are 3X more efficient than hydrogen — even at its best, it seems unlikely that running hydrogen through a motor is carbon neutral. It’s theorized that contrails are made from hydrogen fuel cells and can be worse than CO2.
  2. Like Tesla versus legacy automakers, traditional airlines may take too long to commercialize renewable systems. (Airbus aims to launch their hydro-powered plane by 2035, while Boeing suggests this is unlikely to do anytime before 2050.) Legacy companies are strongly tied to kerosene infrastructure, making energy transition difficult within the time required.

At Cantos, we had tracked electric aviation startups for years, from eVTOL to electric airframes. It initially seemed like we had missed the flight, but a little more digging revealed that most projects weren’t building their own engines — they were either looking to incumbents or waiting for a dedicated electric engine startup — a company like Mako Aerospace.

Enter Mako

Kieran Duncan was on the hunt for a job in the aviation industry. Eventually, he stumbled across Rolls-Royce digital and pitched software that could reduce fuel burn. After some time there, Kieran concluded that fully decarbonizing flight requires a hardware solution. He interviewed colleagues, but most said electrification was too far off, so he left to continue his research at the University of Strathclyde. While working on his Masters’s in Advanced Aerospace & Mechanical Engineering, he met Pia Saelen.

The two paired up to pitch Airbus on a motor that was 3X efficient due to their unique cooling system. The pitch went well, and they flew out to France to join the team behind Airbus’ E-Fan X program. After building two prototypes, Pia and Kieran decided to take their knowledge back to Scotland and start an electric flight company indexing on engine design — thus, Mako was born.

Mako aims to drive electrification in aviation by building a propulsion system that can enable hybrid and zero-emission flights. The Forerunner is a superconducting engine 4X lighter and more efficient than any other motor in the market — a turn-key solution with the following characteristics:

  • Proprietary coils that maximize the range of a zero-emission aircraft.
  • Features the most efficient system in the world at 99.8% efficiency in the motor.
  • Hermetically sealed to minimize maintenance.
  • Multiple redundant phases for fault tolerance.
  • Proprietary power electronics & control.
  • An integrated cooling system.
  • In-flight monitoring and control for continuous improvement & validation.
Forerunner tech specs

Rather than betting on further advancement in batteries, Forerunner utilizes today’s technology to carry a commercial plane with over 12 seats up to 600 kilometers (e.g. LAX to SFO). As the number of passengers scales up to 19 and beyond — an inflection point is hit that provides substantially more benefits.

Fuel is the single largest driver of OpEx (24%in 2019), producing a global airline fuel bill of $188 billion. With fewer moving parts, Mako can significantly reduce maintenance costs for airlines while saving fuel costs by ~70%.

While other technologies such as Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) will be crucial to reducing the carbon footprint of long-range flights, we believe Mako is well suited to be the impetus for electric flight on short-haul and mid-range commercial routes. We at Cantos were thrilled to lead the company’s $700K pre-seed round alongside our close collaborators Roni Bonjack and Nadav Eylath of at.inc/. (And thank you to our friends at Boost VC for including Mako in their recent demo day!)

We look forward to their demonstration of Forerunner in the Fall of 2022. Follow their journey with us on LinkedIn or Twitter. If this inspires you to be a part of the next bold step in electrification, don’t hesitate to reach out!

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