Electric aviation has long been science fiction. Soon, it’ll be science fact.
Writer: Chris Stokel-Walker
Photos: Christopher Hunt
When Anders Forslund was doing his PhD in aerospace product development, he had a Damascene moment. In 2013, studying at MIT as part of a scholarship, he began to see the convergence of several big tech trends. The drone revolution was beginning to take hold, changing the skies above us. And electrification was beginning to become a reality as companies like Tesla started producing useable vehicles.
When Forslund returned to his native Sweden, his mind had been turned. Rather than join a big aerospace company, he instead had two key thoughts in his mind: “Electrification is going to revolutionise aviation, and that’s where I wanted to play,” he says. In 2018, Forslund founded Heart Aviation with partner Klara Andreasson. Their goal? Electrifying short-haul regional aviation, with an early focus on the Nordic countries.
But it was thousands of miles away from Sweden that Heart first found its footing. At Y Combinator’s Demo Day in 2019, Forslund and Andreasson pitched their idea to the world — and in the audience were representatives from Swedish venture capital company EQT Ventures. In their two minutes on-stage, Heart’s co-founders managed to convey the story of why their company was needed, and what they wanted to build.
“I started shaking hands with people and meeting people in the parking lot outside the venue,” says Forslund. Among them was Laura Yao, a partner in EQT Ventures based in San Francisco. Yao was quickly on the phone to EQT head office in Sweden to EQT Ventures partner Ted Persson.
“We understood that this guy has what it takes to be the sort of front person to fundraise on this journey,” says Persson. “Our conclusion then was that if you succeed to build a 19-seater plane, and bring that to market by 2026, that’s huge. That’s massive. That would be the most amazing thing in the world.” EQT Ventures bought a stake in Heart Aerospace. Heart moved its base to a large office at Gothenburg City Airport, still building from scratch. The company is now rewriting the rules of aviation. Those rules are being rewritten fast: at the start of 2021, Heart numbered just eight full-time employees. As the year ended, it had 87.
There have been setbacks and challenges along the way — just as there are in any moonshot ideas. “The difficult thing about building an aircraft is that you can get 99 things, right?” says Forslund. “But if you get one thing wrong, that one cable that’s missing, or that one subsystem, or electrical interference between two components, that can delay your entire process.”
However, for every setback there has been a triumph. Key among them was one day in September 2020, when Heart Aerospace unveiled its electric drive train at a Demo Day. It was a big moment for Forslund, and for the company he had built. The motor, the size of a small jet engine and powering a very large propellor, was a vindication of Forslund’s dream. “It showed that electrification isn’t only for cars, skateboards or scooters,” he says. “It’s something that you can build a plane with.”
It also sparked the minds of many watching, including Mesa Airlines, based in Phoenix, Arizona. Mesa called Heart and asked them to build an electric aircraft for the carrier, which is the largest operator of 19-seat aircraft in history. The ES-19 will seat 19 passengers, have an all-electric range of 400 kilometres at first, with the ability to scale that up as technology develops, and will be ready to fly in 2026. Mesa, in collaboration with its partner United Airlines, ordered 200 of the aircraft, and took an investment stake in Heart.
That stake — alongside EQT Ventures own — has allowed Heart to continue to grow. Today, nearly 100 people are working on bringing all-electric planes to our skies, cutting back on emissions, saving costs and laying the groundwork for scores of new, smaller airports closer to city centres that can support the zero-emissions, low-noise aircraft that will soon come out of Heart’s hangar in Gothenburg.
That could be sooner than we think. A week before Christmas, Heart successfully tested a scale model of the ES-19. For four and a half minutes, the aircraft flew with an average speed of 125km/h. For the company, it was a vindication of their hard work — and their dreams.
It’s all something Forslund can scarcely believe is happening. “When you’re starting a company, you haven’t necessarily internalised to yourself what it is that you’re setting out to do,” he says. “When it starts happening, it’s just this surreal experience.” Not that he’s been able to fully digest what it is he’s doing — nor how his dream of electric planes has made such great leaps to becoming a reality. He compares it to being an elite sportsperson playing in the set piece tournament in your sport. “That’s the feeling, I guess,” he says. “We’re not in the final yet. We’re in the quarter finals or something like that. But every new milestone — is qualifying to the next round.”